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A Rapper Among The Amish

Background image by image of Vanilla Ice by YoTu T and both ar used under a Creative Commons license.

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Through A Reality T.V. Lens, White Urban Rapper Vanilla Ice Finds A Place For Personal Growth And Common Ground In An Amish Community


By Stacy Graber
Modern Times Magazine

Jan. 17, 2014 — The biggest surprise about Ice Goes Amish, a special group of episodes which forms part of DIY Network’s The Vanilla Ice Project, is not that Rob “Vanilla Ice” Van Winkle lives among this pious people of northeastern Ohio, nor is it that he serves as a hilarious, contemporary counterpoint for the serene, plain-spoken group (--he does not). The great reveal is that the viewer actually likes him.

The origin of Ice Goes Amish makes this seem even less likely, as Ice shared with Chris Jacelwicz of the Huffington Post that the idea for the series originated as a joke. True enough, the opening sequence sounds parodic—Queen and Bowie’s famous baseline riff vibrates acoustically, rustic and strange, signifying oddity and displacement. But that is where the caricature ends.

Instead of the expected cultural myopia and disrespect, the show presents a living collage of influences, old and new, and provides earnest reflection on the fluid construct of identity and time-traveling cultures.

Seated on a porch rocker opposite a village elder, dressed soberly, with an acoustic guitar upturned in his lap, Ice looks like a tattooed version of Washington Irving’s protagonist who shares his surname, the lazybones who fell asleep and missed the Revolutionary War. And just as Rip Van Winkle woke to find he was free of tyranny and able to self-create, Ice is reborn as a person whose past matters very little to a people for whom the past matters much. This is a crazy paradox and accounts for much of the show’s interest factor. Technically, Ice does not exist. His short-lived career is erased in a historical-geographic free-fall. Initially he tries to offer people kooky, decontextualized reminders of his past (through sound bites and catch-phrases), but his gestures meet only with polite if perplexed smiles. The result is that he retools himself, demonstrating that Ice Goes Amish is a show about renovation of identity, not housing.

Ice ultimately becomes, as they say in fieldwork, an observer-participant: a person inside and outside of the community. Ice is a guy who “pimps out” an Amish buggy and gazes worshipfully at a level of craftsmanship that defies the capitalist scam of planned obsolescence. He takes a horse cart through a drive-thru for some cheeseburgers and delivers a calf. He curses the crow of the rooster and naturally caresses the Dutch language in seamless delivery of phrases such as “More work and less talk.” And he sits uncharacteristically silent on the ride home at the end of an episode titled “Hillside Farm Gets a Facelift” while an Amish man sings “Ice Ice Baby” a cappella. The transformed song sounds lonesome and ethereal. In fact, everyone who reinterprets Ice’s single does a lovely translation of the original—a truth he seems to acknowledge and incorporate into the text of the show. Woven into a folk sampler, Ice is pluralized.

So Ice becomes a new form of Ice, which is probably why most critics like him, but viewers disagree. Look at the majority of comments posted about the series on Yahoo blogs and you will find haters dominate. They goof on Ice’s lack of talent and see him only through a prism of the past; but, more disturbingly, they critique Amish community members for what they perceive as a kind of hypocrisy. For example, they cite multiple instances of the use of conveniences (tools and methods) that they argue contradict the tradition and ethical commitments of the Amish, though Ice explains group members have received dispensation from their local bishop to conduct business operations in specific ways. There is an important reason why these claims regarding so-called lack of authenticity are problematic.

The anthropologist James Clifford, in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, argues against the error of viewing (any) culture as a one-time pure expression of itself which has come unraveled. This is because culture isn’t univocal or static. Similarly, the Amish cannot be less Amish because non-Amish perceive so-called discontinuities in their dress or mode of production or who they do or don’t allow into their homes or to photograph them. The Amish are diverse in their becoming and they don’t need to represent some kind of fixed code in order for non-Amish people to better locate them or find them real or genuine.

The new Ice is complicated, just as the Amish cannot be understood through an inflexible view of history and culture. To the narrow-minded bloggers who bag on the show and carp that the Ohio Amish aren’t Amish enough: In the series, everyone drifts between position points in the past and present, they trade perspectives, and they never permit an easy answer to the riddle of their relation.

Stacy Graber is an Assistant Professor of English at Youngstown State University. Her areas of interest include popular culture, critical theory and semiotics.
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