Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima — a terrible denouement to a terrible war. I can safely say that nobody spent the solemn occasion thinking about Kris Kross’ 1993 album Da Bomb (featuring “Alright”).
For those too young to remember the 1990s, “da bomb” was an expression originally used in the African-American community to indicate “greatness” or “excellence” — as evidenced by my high school “Class T-shirt” which read “Pensacola High School Class of 1997 — It’s Da Bomb” under a picture of a round cartoon explosive, complete with wick.
Kris Kross apparently hoped to cash in on the popularity of the expression and threw a mushroom cloud on the album cover to suggest to their rivals and critics, “Our rhymes can vaporize 130,000 human lives in an instant.” No one was less thrilled about this than Sony’s Western music division, who had received the task of selling an album with the lyric, “I drop bombs like Hiroshima” to the Japanese public. Let’s face it: the A-bomb references were wiggity-wiggity-wiggity-whack, but I’m not sure Kris Kross knew a whole lot about the nuclear victims’ eyes popping out of their socks and skin peeling off. Perhaps they would have rethought the usage of the mushroom cloud after a nice trip to Peace City, Hiroshima.
Lately, we’ve been discussing the casual uses of nasty historical symbols — swastikas, blackface — and there’s been an argument that we should fight “allowing atrocities to mark signifiers permanently” (Momus). But even if we open up taboo symbols to light-hearted play, the gravity of the historical circumstances behind these icons will almost definitely drown out any attempts at re-appropriation. Kids on the streets of Harajuku will never be able to redefine the Nazi swastika, unless it strictly remains within the vacuum of historical knowledge that is Takeshita-doori. For those people who know the story, these symbols act as convenient reminders of history’s greatest human tragedies. I understand that groups should avoid permanent victimhood: “look what the Germans did to the Jews, or the Whites to the Blacks, or Japanese to the Chinese, or the Americans to the Japanese, etc.” But certainly we can learn an important lesson from: Look what humans did to other humans.
So, I’m happy that Kris Kross could never rob the mushroom cloud from the serious nature of nuclear holocaust. (Although when I see kids on the street wearing their clothes backwards, I do think fondly of Mack Daddy and Daddy Mack.) I’m not convinced that those totally unaware of a symbol’s perceived-meanings should be able to, or will be able to, lead the way towards a new definition, but I would hope that we still remember the lessons of the past even if someone were able to successfully “liberate” the iconography.