THE GET DOWN vs. STRANGER THINGS
Who Will Be Crowned King of the Remix?
Stranger Things is so hot right now. You can tell because the Clickbait List Factor is so high.
I found ten lists related to Stranger Things on Buzzfeed without really looking too hard, including “25 Times Barb From Stranger Things Was All Of Us” and “27 Pictures Of The Stranger Things Cast Hanging Out And Being The Best Of Friends IRL.”
My favorite is “23 Totally Rad Films You Should Watch If You LovedStranger Things” because it’s essentially a list of all the films Stranger Things was riffing on.
After watching The Get Down I was expecting to see some clickbait of the same kind. After all, they’re similar shows: Period pieces featuring a charming cast of kids. Both of them lean heavily into remix culture (albeit in different ways). And they’re both on Netflix, which has a high batting average when it comes to generating buzz.
I found one list related to The Get Down at Buzzfeed. Here it is. It’s in Spanish.
This is a shame, because The Get Down is far superior to Stranger Things, on just about every level. They’re both a little uneven, but whereas Stranger Things is a diverting piece of entertainment, perfect for the dog days of summer when there’s not much else on television, The Get Down feels important. It has something to say that runs deeper than “friendship is magic” and “weird shit is cool.”
It takes a monumental moment in New York’s history — the Bronx burning and hip-hop rising from the ashes, a borough grasping its cultural identity after being put out to pasture by City Hall — and filters it through Baz Luhrmann’s overexposed sense of reality. Which, somehow, turned out to be the perfect lens.
I grew up on the threshold between these two stories: Staten Island in the 1980s wasn’t the South Bronx, but I lived up the street from a neighborhood that was incredibly dangerous. I remember the quieting comfort of the suburbs, and that there used to be something like five stores on Victory Boulevard featuring Wu-Tang branding.
Even if you didn’t like hip-hop, most people seemed to respect and recognize that the Wu-Tang belonged to us. Something distinctly for Staten Island, another borough constantly shafted by mayors who didn’t feel like they were getting enough votes or donor dollars to be worth their time.
Considering that, The Get Down resonates with me far more, even though the reverse seems to be true in a broader cultural sense. The difference in reception speaks to two factors, I think: Our love/hate relationship with remix culture, and race.
Let’s start by talking about the less inflammatory of the two.
People say they want original properties. They bemoan the fact that movie theaters and television screens are crowded with remakes and sequels and rebootquels and stuff based on existing IPs. Along comes Stranger Things to buck that trend, right?
But can you really call Stranger Things original?
The show is like someone took the 80s output of Stephen King and Steven Spielberg and dumped them into a blender and filmed what came out. Turn it into a drinking game: Take a shot every time you catch a reference to something else. You’ll be dead by the end of the first episode.
Ultimately, it just feels like a bunch of kids took all their favorite things, swapped them around a bit, and presented it as a brand new thing.
Which is pretty much what The Get Down is all about. But instead of shuffling influences, the kids are creating a new genre of music.
The mythology of The Get Down name checks the big three pioneers of hip-hop: Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, and DJ Kool Herc — though it focuses on Flash, turning him into a kung-fu sensei for fictional aspiring DJ Shaolin Fantastic.
This is their shared DNA: The Get Down is about the birth of a technique, whereas Stranger Things is the technique in practice.
Hip-hop has, for years, been criticized by lame people for a couple of reasons, a big one being that rap isn’t art because the musicians don’t make their own music. Because Elvis Presley and Diana Ross and Frank Sinatra and Marvin Gaye and Whitney Houston arranged their own music and wrote their own lyrics, right?
(Spoiler alert: They didn’t.)
Worse are the people who say that it’s — and I swear I’ve heard it described this way by several people over my short life — as “raping poetry.”
Which brings us to race.
Let’s start with the easy argument, that a cast of minorities (and Lee Tergesen) is less conducive to acceptance by mainstream culture than a cast that features only one black kid.
But we live in the midst of the cultural phenomenon that is Hamilton, a show that merges hip-hop and Broadway. The Get Down is about the birth of hip-hop; Hamilton is about the versatility of the genre as a storytelling format.
Hamilton is a legitimate masterpiece. And it features a cast of minority characters (and a white dude playing King George). There’s even some crossover between it and The Get Down — Daveed Diggs, who originated the roles of Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson in Hamilton, plays the aged-up main character in brief interludes, performing for a stadium audience.
(Though, oddly enough, Diggs is dubbed by Nas, which, if you’re going to have someone rap for you, Nas is a pretty good choice, though Diggs is a massively talented rapper, but I guess his voice registers too high, or it’s too distinctive… tangent.)
So, Hamilton is great, but I wonder how many people like it because it’s like having a black friend — proof they’re “hip” and “diverse.” They got their fill and don’t need any more. Can there be only one celebration of hip-hop in pop culture?
Which might be an unfair comparison. Hamilton is big like most things don’t get big. Stranger Things has got nothing on Hamilton. But at a time when hip-hop is being celebrated in a very white, bougie setting, you’d think there’d be room at the table for a little more love.
Maybe it’s that The Get Down is too rough around the edges. It’s too New York, luxuriating in the graffiti, lingering on the destruction, reminding people too much the cities they fled for the bland, comfortable suburbs of Stranger Things.
The remixing in Stranger Things is about bringing you back to your childhood. It’s about taking something that’s familiar, and presenting it in a way that’s slightly different but still familiar. The childhoods of The Get Down are scary and violent and bleak, something to overcome rather than be comforted by. Hip-hop wasn’t born of nostalgia. It wasn’t born out of the uneasiness of being an adult. It was born out of anger, and frustration, and neglect, but also hope, and community, and the desire to fill a void.
Ultimately, The Get Down might just be too contemporary to provide the level of escapism that most people are looking for in entertainment. The Bronx may have Starbucks, but it’s still one of the poorest communities in the nation. There’s still a whole lot of racial injustice in New York City.
In the first episode the main character, Ezekiel Figaro, recites a poem he wrote about the death of his parents, which reads, in part:
Momma’s death went unreported not a whiff or word or hint
They don’t care about us niggers is how my pops explained it
But I didn’t know I was a nigger till my dad proclaimed it
Six months later my pops is dead too
Drug-related shots fired his skin turned cold blue
On the news that night the President’s wife got a new hair-do
The news guy said “I like it how about you?”
No word about my pops in the Post or on CBS, why was that you ask?
Take a fucking guess
The show is set in the 1970s and that could have been written today (well, I mean, it was… but you get the point). Just last a black woman was killed by a stray bullet on a playground in Harlem, but far more attention has been paid to the attractive white woman who was raped and murdered while jogging in Queens several weeks ago.
That’s real-life scary stuff. Stranger Things is only make-believe scary, with its weird flower-faced monster and enigmatic Matthew Modine.
To put it more simpler than that: Adversity in The Get Down and adversity in Stranger Things are two VERY different kinds of adversity.
The Get Down is worthy of your time. It celebrates a genre of music that is unfairly maligned by people who probably haven’t given it a chance, it features a cast of minority characters, mostly younger kids, all of whom are spectacular in their roles, and it’s a snapshot of history that finds beauty and humanity in a period of real devastation.
Stranger Things is cute. The Get Down is something special.
And, geez, you want references? Stranger Things doesn’t feature a single moment as hot as The Get Down Brothers strolling onto stage to the Star Wars theme, before cutting into a track so good I downloaded the soundtrack so I could listen to it a dozen times in a row.