Politics & Policy


To the tune of anger.

Singer Gwen Stefani’s refrain, “I ain’t no hollaback girl,” has provided part of the soundtrack for the summer of ‘05. It is not exactly “I dream of Jeannie with the light brown hair/Borne like a vapor on the summer air,” but the song is memorable in a vaporous sort of way. An anxious-sounding six-beat phrase carried by the horns repeats as Stefani raps out a disjointed challenge to a guy who has been talking trash about her:

So that’s right dude, meet me at the bleachers

No principals, no student teachers

So the 35-year-old Stefani is back in high school, conjuring a grrrrl-power fantasy of revenge against…well, it’s not clear who the opponent is, a spurned lover or just someone who dared criticize the limber blonde in the baggy pants.

A What?

The song certainly got a boost from the video, in which a sassy Stefani bounces around in a yellow convertible and a teacher-less high school with her exuberant cheerleading cohort. The visual tone is more “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” than a provocation to violence. Even Stefani’s repeated “This is my sh–” (at least in the muted radio for-air version) is rendered with a coy finger to the lips, as though the missing word is “secret.”

But at the heart of the song is her mysterious declaration, “I ain’t no hollaback girl.” A what? Experts have stepped forward to etymologize. A popular guess is a hollaback girl is one too easily available. When a guy hollers, she hollers back. This explanation, however, doesn’t especially fit the song. Stefani doesn’t come across as a defender of wounded modesty but as a street-smart gal who’s “gonna lead the pack.”

The definition offered by “Word Detective” in New Brunswick, Canada seems much more apt. He says a holla back girl is “a member of a cheerleading squad who repeats–hollers back–words that the squad leader shouts out to them.” Stefani, who ain’t no holla back girl, instead is a taker of initiatives, whether it is joy-riding in a shopping cart through the cereal aisle of the local supermarket or slinking in red leotard among the members of the marching band.

Now I don’t really want to say too much more about this moment in the joyous life of pop culture. But pop-culture moments do mean something. Here we have a song that is a silly mix of sexiness, bravado, and belligerence (culminating in the classic “B–A–N–A–N–A–S / This sh– is bananas.”) I ain’t no hollaback girl seems to mean something like, “I don’t just return insults with words. I step it up.” Aaron Burr to Alexander Hamilton: “I ain’t no hollaback boy. Pistols at dawn.”

It seems mighty unlikely that Stefani intended any political message but she caught something right. Her song is about the performing anger. And this is surely the dominant style of politics–especially Left-of-center politics–in our culture these days. To perform anger isn’t to descend into a sputtering rage or turn icily to getting even. Rather, a good performer shows she knows the postures and catchphrases and plays them to an expectant audience. The anger artist doesn’t face down an opponent so much as smile deliciously at her pack.

Our lead anger artist of the moment, of course, isn’t Gwen Stefani. It’s Cindy Sheehan. But anger art, like any art that plays too directly to a single emotion, quickly becomes pretty tiresome. Stefani at least realizes that you have to have some fun with it if you want people to listen more than once.

Tiresome Campus Hollaback Song

Mrs. Sheehan’s song is, I think, already fading in the charts, and “I ain’t no hollaback girl” is too ripe a metaphor to last much beyond Labor Day. Before it goes the way of all metaphors, let’s give it a cheer. On Sunday the New York Times gave an advanced peak at a forthcoming article in The Georgetown Law Journal that is yet another demonstration that higher education has become host to an extraordinary uniformity of political opinion. In this case, the campaign contributions over 11 years of professors at the top 21 law schools were reviewed. Of those who professors contributed anything, 89 percent at Duke gave to Democrats; 90 percent at Columbia; 91 percent at Harvard; topping out at 94 percent at Stanford.

No big news, of course. The numbers simply confirm what most observers thought was the overwhelming commitment of Leftist law faculties to hire only the like-minded. Elite law schools are, so to speak, collections of hollaback boys and girls. You get hired only if you are really good at hollering back the key ideas of the anti-family, pro-racial preference, the-Constitution-is-whatever-we-make-it cheerleaders.

The Times did quote one of the authors of the study, Northwestern Law Professor John O. McGinnis, worrying a bit that “liberal ideas might well be strengthened and made more effective if liberals had to run a more conservative gauntlet among their own colleagues when developing them.” Well yes, but performative anger doesn’t work that way. Ask Gwen Stefani. What lies behind the large preponderance of support for the Democrats among law professors is immersion in a worldview that depicts America as a deeply unfair society–a society that exploits the weak, uses law as a cover for corporate rapacity, and continues to victimize people on the basis of race, gender, class, and the new favorite, sexual orientation.

People should be angry over these injustices, say the law professors, a good many of whom strive to provide examples of righteous anger. Because of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell policy,” they fight with righteous anger to keep the military from recruiting on campus. Because of disparities in the bar, they fight with righteous anger for racial preference in law-school admissions. (Dozens of top law schools signed on to amicus briefs in the recent Supreme Court case in support of the University of Michigan’s de facto racial quotas.) But above all left-leaning law faculty fight righteously to keep conservatives off the faculty itself. No use spoiling the chorus.

Well, this is a long way from a popular song that is already melting away like a discarded popsicle on the playground. After the song disappears, however, we will still have the romping, good-spirited angry conformity of the Left. Cindy Sheehan, the Duke-Columbia-Harvard-Stanford law faculties, and lots of others will be demanding in their own happy-anger-anthems, “All the girls stomp your feet like this.”

It’s probably not the wisest political tactic. Performative anger may feel empowering to the performer, but it’s tiresome to everyone else. Who after all wants to be a hollaback girl?

Peter Wood, provost of The King’s College in New York City, is author of Diversity: The Invention of A Concept.


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