Tony Soprano’s America: The Criminal Side of the American Dream
David R. Simon thinks Tony Soprano’s “greatest fear is the all-American tragedy: the fear of intimacy.” When I read this I wondered if we were thinking of the same Tony Soprano. You know, the one who hugs (and, okay, also profanely berates) his teenage son, tries hard to understand and connect with his college-age daughter. He kisses his friends and co-workers on the cheek, even if that appears to be standard business practice in his profession. And you may quibble with the definition of intimacy implied here, but he doesn’t have a problem establishing intimate relations with women: a Mercedes sales representative, an art dealer, a pouty Russian émigré and her plucky, one-legged friend, Icelandic Air flight attendants, and heaven knows how many dancers, escorts, and others of that sort. Tony may have a problem truly revealing his deepest inner self, but I don’t think that’s his biggest fear and I don’t think that’s the all-American tragedy.
For those of you who’ve been in the biosphere for the last couple of years, The Sopranos is the highly-acclaimed and extremely popular HBO series about a fictional crime family in northern New Jersey, and Tony’s the pater familias in both senses of the word. In addition to creating a rabid fan culture and increasing subscriptions to HBO, The Sopranos has become an irresistible target of interpretation and analysis. From the group of “shrinks” on Salon.com who weigh in on Tony’s therapist Dr. Melfi, to prosecutors and criminologists, academics and commentators, no one can leave this television program alone. I certainly understand the impulse to analyze–my own engagement with the show is as much intellectual as anything else, but in too many cases academic interpretation of popular culture can get ugly and embarrassing. This is unfortunately the case with Tony Soprano’s America, in which David R. Simon, a white-collar crime scholar who probably has valuable things to say, reduces Tony and the rest of the characters on the show to flat caricatures and uses them as an excuse to lecture us on all manifestations of our moral turpitude.
Here’s a little story about popular culture and those pitfalls of scholarly analysis. Some years ago when I was in graduate school I helped a professor secure permissions to quote copyrighted song lyrics in his book. After talking to many people who were very difficult to locate, were surprised that anyone remembered the songs they wrote, and delighted to give permission, I expected that getting permission to quote two lines from the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” would be pretty straightforward: Call the music publisher’s corporate office, be prepared to pay the standard per-word fee. Not so. As it happens, it doesn’t matter how many lines you want to quote or how much money you’re willing to pay for the privilege, you can’t do it. Why? Because “Mr. Klein says ‘no'” is what a woman named Iris (pronounced something like Oy-Russ) told me. Knowing that Mr. Klein is Albert Klein, the infamously possessive holder of the Stones’s publishing rights, I was sure that was the final word but I still wanted to know why. The reason? Because the “Stones don’t want their work analyzed,” Iris reported. Though I didn’t understand his reasoning then, I have since come to appreciate its wisdom. (If you’re unconvinced please see academic books about Madonna’s and Tonya Harding’s places in popular culture, for example, or the shelves of tweedy takes on baseball and vicariously sweaty odes to boxing). If David Chase, creator of the HBO series The Sopranos, had Mr. Klein’s power to prevent scholars from mucking with his work, he may have wanted to start with David R. Simon’s Tony Soprano’s America: The Criminal Side of the American Dream.
One of many new books spun-off from the television phenomenon, Simon’s can’t really be accused of over-analyzing popular culture for the simple reason that the book contains so little of what could be called ‘analysis’ in the first place. With assistance from freelance editor and ghostwriter Tamar Love, he enlists the Sopranos, primarily Tony, in his project to lecture us about our declining morals and overall bad behavior. Employing the time-honored rhetorical trope of the jeremiad, Simon unloads the entire sociological arsenal at his readers: sweeping historical assertions, statistics, bullet points, and puffed-up technical terms like “sociological imagination” and “anti-social social character.” That the book is a jeremiad, a screed decrying the current fallen state of society compared to an earlier (imagined) purer moment, is clear from the table of contents and the introductory first chapter. Titles to the book’s nine chapters link poor hapless Tony to a roster of our most popular bogeymen: declining moral standards, failure of the American Dream, narco-terrorism, global economy, collapse of the family, and widespread anxiety and alienation. But wait–there’s more: the final chapter promises “Solutions to the Crises of Tony Soprano’s America: The Real Meaning of Tony Soprano.” Let’s pause to consider the assumptions the reader must share in order to find this claim credible. We’d have to believe that a) our society is in the midst of not just one but many crises, b) solutions to crises can be articulated in approximately 25 pages, c) Tony Soprano is somehow the architect or archetype of current society, and d) a television show (or any text, for that matter) has a real meaning. Presumably by the time we get to the concluding chapter we’ll know what Simon means by “Tony Soprano’s America,” what the relationship is between America and Tony, and between the television show and its viewers. Proving the Rolling Stones’ Mr. Klein’s instinct correct, here’s Simon’s attempt to explain the sociological significance of The Sopranos: “The Sopranos represents our Jungian dark side, the accumulating clog in our collective septic tanks that will ultimately stink up our lives both personally and as a civilization unless we confront it head on.” Oh, that explains it.
Mr. Klein’s caveat notwithstanding, there’s a lot that can be said about both The Sopranos and the phenomenon of its popularity, but with very few exceptions, Simon doesn’t offer much. Instead he uses the show and its characters as a taxonomic device for cataloging our societal ills. Thus in the chapter called “Tony and the World: The Global Economy, Organized Crime Syndicates, and Narco-Terrorism” we get the assertion that “Tony’s world stretches far beyond not only New Jersey but also the shores of the United States,” followed by an orderly subordination of subheadings devoting a paragraph or two to major geopolitical hotspots. The European Union gets a half page, The Asian Bloc a single paragraph. Under the heading: The Second World, Guatemala gets a full page of its own, while Chile and El Salvador make do with a short paragraph each. If you find this reductive, wait until the chapter in which the hierarchies of crime are explained in terms of “the Crimeogenic Department Store.” Street gangs occupy the first floor, organized crime the second, white- collar crime on the third, and so on. Do we really need the visual aid of the escalator-riding criminal making his way to the tea room at the top floor of Crime World in order to grasp the concept? And where’s Tony and the rest of the cast of The Sopranos in all this discussion? He only reappears in the chapter’s concluding section when Simon intones “Tony Soprano and his organized-crime family represent the tip of a transnational crime iceberg. The convergence of organized crime, drug trafficking, and terrorism demands a new paradigm in strategic thinking.” I don’t doubt that new ways of thinking are necessary, but what does that have to do with my favorite television show?
If I seem a little defensive about this ham-fisted appropriation of The Sopranos as text, it’s because I am; I’m a big fan. I grew up mostly in north Jersey and belonged to an Italian American Catholic church where men in pale suits and dark shirts slipped out of the back pews right after communion and stood on the steps smoking and talking with their Cadillacs gleaming and idling in the lot. I knew kids in school who lived in huge houses with fountains in the front yard and whose fathers and uncles were in the waste management business. Carmela Soprano is a dead-ringer for many of the mothers who came in their own pastel Cadillacs to pick us up at the skating rink or the movies. I don’t watch The Sopranos because I want to learn more about the connections between organized crime and narco-terrorism. Nor do I tune in for a moral fable from which I should learn that crime doesn’t pay and it’s bad to take drugs and to have sex with psychotic sales people. I watch it because it’s great story-telling.
Simon claims that “Tony Soprano presents a piece of our Jungian dark side broken through into the light” and urges us to take “a look at what he presents metaphorically about us, American culture, and the world in which we find ourselves as we begin the third millennium.” I don’t necessarily disagree with this, though Simon’s own metaphorical imagination seems to be limited to icebergs, septic tanks, and department stores. But it’s pointless to engage in sociological analysis of The Sopranos without an appreciation of its playful, ironic, dramatic, and darkly comic portrayal of American life and its full exploration of the possibilities of the serial genre. I’d like to see a book that engages these themes, but Simon’s Tony Soprano’s America isn’t it. Nor, unfortunately, does it succeed in illuminating our cultural difficulties beyond the level of Sociology 101. Forget the book; turn on your television.
Elisabeth H. Piedmont-Marton is a writer who lives in Austin and an assistant professor of English at Southwestern University.