Friday, May 19, 2006

Color and the Kids

Is it a display of cowardice or maturity to wait until all of the evidence is in to contemplate the meaning of a hot button pseudoscandal? I don't know. Probably cowardice. But I am a big fan of cowardice! So I have waited until now to write about the latest fracas in blogville: allegations by a number of rock writers that Magnetic Fields frontman Stephen Merritt is a racist.

For those who are unfamiliar with this story, or with the world in which it has erupted, here is my understanding of the sitch. Stephen Merritt is a beloved singer/songwriter who has been making melancholy, witty, lyric-driven music for many years under a number of guises: The Magnetic Fields, Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, etc. His music (which I have enjoyed for many years, and which also, along with shared admiration for the great Bethesda, Maryland motorik rockers Trans Am, provided the fodder for the first conversation between me and my beloved Femme Feral) draws on influences as varied as early 80s New Wave and synth-pop, Tin Pan Alley songcraft, and lo-fi college-rock confessionalism.

Strike one: a well-known rock writer, (a white fellow who went to the same fancy private high school as the Beastie Boys), and who has long written about black music for major publications suggested a while back that Merritt's fondness for "white" music and indifference to black music (demonstrated by a top 10 list or some such thing that he had written for a magazine) was prima facie evidence of a racist mindset.

Strike two: apparently, Merritt was on a panel at some sort of music conference and was heard to say that he had liked and/or continued to like the song "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" from the Disney musical Song of the South. As he noted immediately after revealing this factoid, Song of the South is a very racist piece of work, and "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" is modeled after the blackface "coon" song so popular in the early part of the century (and through much of the 19th century).

That's it. Two strikes. If I understand baseball correctly, one needs four strikes to be, as Heidi Klum says, "out." So... once all the dust settled, everyone agreed that there was only a very skimpy record on which to base claims of racism. The folks who needed to apologize have done so, and this should be the end of the story, yes?

Well, in one sense, sure. But in another, this story, like a few others that have circulated recently reveals something about anxiety vis-a-vis the racial politics of "indie" rock or whatever we want to call it. For example, a few months ago it was reported that members of the affluent Brooklyn indie music community, which seems to be a fairly caucasian scene, had been attendees at "Kill Whitey" parties. These are parties populated almost entirely by white people, at which hard-core hip hop music is played and the crowd burlesques urban "black" dancing styles in a hypersexual manner.

What these two stories have in common is that, on close analysis, they both require a pretty sophisticated hermeneutics to reach a coherent interpretation. It is not like anybody behaved badly towards a member of a racial minority group, used a racist slur, or made any offensive sweeping generalizations. Why such a fuss over two anecdotes that, if anything, seem to demonstrate so weakly that racism is a problem in indie rock culture?

Over many discussions, FF and I have pondered this mystery. We came to the conclusion that race is the hidden "repressed" of indie rock, a generic marker that often functions as code for "white rock music not released by major labels (but occasionally released on major labels, and more occassionally made by non-whites, but very seldom made by black people)" which then returns in strange, distorted forms such as Stephen Merritt racism-baiting and post-ironic, Williamsburg-style blackface mimesis.

Here is a short take on this hypothesis, taking the form of a structuralist analysis. Well, I should probably qualify that. In a nod to my favorite academic dis of all time, courtesy of Slavoj Zizek, I would call this approach "spaghetti structuralism" (Zizek aimed this term of derision at famed Italian semiotician and novelist Umberto Eco, whose work Zizek finds shoddy and simplistic... and which he compared to the low-budget "spaghetti Westerns" of Sergio Leone). But here I will try to rehabilitate "spaghetti structuralism" as a kind of folk knowledge, a term that describes the shorthand network of binary oppositions that many people draw upon when thinking about music and culture. The key here is that we are not pointing to "essential" characterstics, but to entirely "contingent" cultural stereotypes that are nonetheless highly meaningful to many people. In popular usage, "black" and "white" musical characteristics provide an excellent example of the reach of "spaghetti structuralism." In fact, we really can't make sense of popular music history without confronting the iron cage of vermicelli pasta.

Recall the episode of the Simpsons when Homer is watching a black comedian on late-night TV dipping into the hackneyed bag of vulgar race compare-and-contrast: mocking the relaxed swagger of black people versus the uptight posture of white people... Homer laughs and exclaims: "It's true! We're so lame!" Or the King of the Hill episode wherein Bobby becomes adept at this genre of comedic racial A/B-ing, and is then instructed by Chris Rock to find a more authentic mode of joke-telling... which leads Bobby to an unfortunate experiment with white-supremacist humor.

What do these examples tell us? Well, they remind us of the "hip/lame" distinction which provides the first split in popular understanding of race and music. If the forerunners of the rock counterculture were the Beats, then we need only look to Kerouac's racist celebration of black anti-authoritarianism, or Norman Mailer's odious but influential essay "The White Negro" to see how deep this foundational assumption runs.

I will not be the first person to suggest that the deliberate avoidance of syncopation in much of the canon of indie rock music contributes to its "white" quality. Nor would I be staking a very original claim by pointing to the "white" valences of affectless or self-consciously arch vocal tendencies favored by many indie rock singers. For those of us who grew up on classic rock, and made the transition to "indie" music after an apprenticeship in 1970s AOR, the links between "black" and "white" and "good" or "bad" are easy to recall. Playing "white" was slang for insufficient motivation, feeling, or expressive capacity in musicians. We understood that there was a reason that Led Zeppelin and the Stones ripped off delta blues records and the performance practices of R&B musicians when they wanted to access fantasies of exotic sexual power in their music, and if we thought about it later (especially in light of the new vogue in indie for British Isles folk music) we also put it together that these groups used white-coded UK folk music when they wished to tap into pastoral fantasies of a white past.

It is my guess that a lot of the musicians who created the first few waves of indie rock grew up in similar milieus, and that the creative decisions that went into the formation of the indie rock aesthetic included critical reflection on these "black"/"white" oppositions. I will further speculate that the decision to explore "unfunky" music-making was, in many cases, a way to avoid the uncomfortable aspects of racial mimesis that were so crucial to rock in its first decades. Thus, I think it is fair to say that, at once, the birth of American indie rock was both a moment of self-conscious reflection on the politics of race in pop music, and the crucible of a certain influential strain of "white" aesthetics. For whatever reason, as the genre came to be concretized this racial aspect came to be submerged and eventually hidden behind other aesthetic and thematic concerns, so that by now it is a fairly controversial move to even talk about race and indie rock...

Which leads me to my hesitant conclusion. I don't think Stephen Merritt is a racist. I don't think all or even most indie rock is racist, although I have met racists who make and listen to indie rock, and more who make the tacit assumption that "white" is not a racial construction, but just a synonym for "normal." But, in certain limited and contingent ways, I think that it is fair to say that Stephen Merritt, Superchunk, Unrest, Palace, etc. make music that "sounds white." I am not sure if this is a problem or not... but it certainly seems like something worth talking about. In fact, I think more frank and honest discussion of this topic might reduce the likelihood of further weird outbreaks of race anxiety in the form of libeling popular performers or attending tasteless rituals of racial simulation. Which, we can all agree, would be better.


mzn said...
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mzn said...

I don't know that spaghetti westerns were generally lower-budget than westerns shot in the U.S. (they were co-produced by Hollywood studios), but they were international hybrids made by Italians mimicking an American idiom in an exaggerated, exessive mode of homage. Perhaps SZ means that Eco appropriates structuralism, amps it up, and sends it back to where it came from. But the spaghetti analogy doesn't work for me because structuralism was French, not American, and because Eco got in on the action pretty early on whereas Leone came to the western after it had already been a dominant cultural form for more than fifty years. Also, it doesn't work as a dis because spaghetti westerns are fantastic, some of the best westerns, period. I think what Ziz really means is that Eco is Italian and that Italians eat spaghetti and that this is somehow amusing.

Sorry if this comes off sounding cranky. I liked this post a lot. The idea that a person either is or isn't a racist is so shallow and simplistic, just as is the idea that music is either white or black. And also, I like Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah but I have never seen Song of the South.

the sad billionaire said...

Good points, MZN! I too very much like spaghetti westerns, and agree that the analogy isn't perfect, but still find the term "spaghetti structuralism" fun to say. The time gap between John Ford and Leone's Westerns is, though, roughly similar to that between Saussure/ Levi-Strauss/early Lacan and Eco's mature work in structuralism.

I will have to dig up the reference to remember the exact nature of the joke and Zizek's distaste for Eco... if I recall correctly, SJ didn't like the central idea of the "Name of the Rose"-- that the essence of medieval anti-enlightenment lay in the prohibition of comedy and laughter. Hmm-- that's a weird bone to pick, come to think of it. Of all the races in which I do not have a proverbial dog, this would be a prominent one. To wit: who cares?

porkmuffin said...

This was a very interesting essay. It brings to mind a gathering of musicians in which a fake, shitty, and laughable "white blues" band took on the name Blues Hat. Why was "Blues Hat" so funny? It's easy to unpack the language--putting on the "hat" of blues music is about as ridic as me, an untrained and aruguably terrible guitarist whose major influence is a guy who calls himself "The Edge" trying to play chamber music. It just doesn't work, the training isn't there. In the case of Blues Hat the training is implied to be blackness, which of course is no kind of training at all, especially for white people. So are the members of Blues Hat racists? Only insofar as they embrace the American indie rock attitude that it's "cool" to make music that springs from your own cultural roots. The implication is that what's "uncool" about Blues Hat is that they are trying to be something they are so obviously not. But my own opinion is that it's also cool to steal ideas from other musics and cultures, just as every music, and every culture has done since the beginning of music culture. Hell, I don't know what I'm trying to say. I guess I'm saying that I don't think SM is a racist, and that the vast majority of younger people are "over it" when it comes to race. They still knowingly and unknowingly contribute to paridigms that support racist attitudes, but in general, from the youth culture I have been exposed to, the white kids wanna be Jay-Z, the black kids wanna be Brittney Spears, the hispanic kids wanna be Morrissey, the asian kids wanna be 50 Cent, etc., etc..

porkmuffin said...

I must point out that in the above comment I only meant that "the kids" are "over it" when it comes to race and music culture/identity. Obviously race issues are a hulking monster in the world at large, for "the kids" and the old folks.

zp said...

anything, including the indie music scene, so obviously based on, dependent on and comfortable with exclusivity, insularity and privilege at least shares structural similarities with the way racism exists in the US now. that one might be excluded from participation in indie rock is not so painful, though, as the exclusion from, say, a decent education.

but it may be that racism and indie-ism are not analogies, but tend to overlap in places rather than run in non-intersecting parallel lines.

the sad billionaire said...

Excellent points, everybody. Thanks for the insightful commentary. "Blues Hat" presents the interesting case of (irreverent) mockery of bad white (reverent)emulation of black music... as a kid, my friends and I used to enjoy mocking the hilariously inaccurate urban slang of our white schoolmates, which of course was a very racially problematic form of leisure...

zp-- great point about the shared politics of inclusion/exclusion that indie and racism have in common.

Textaisle said...

I think, as per your point about rejecting AOR, punk history is useful here too, British punk at least.

What I mean is that the first wave of British punks were ga-ga for the reggae that came out at the same time in the UK. It was something they listened to a lot, but for the most part, they didn't just up and try to mimick reggae.

The exception that proves the rule might be the Clash. And, of course, they just, incidentally happen to be the band in that scene that most closely followed the model of white apropriation of black music and the most commercially successful of the lot too.

I guess my point is that there have long been multiple strategies for engaging other racial/musical politics within white fringe rock. Plenty of dirty hands among fairly well-respected white bands.

Liked this post a lot. Made me feel better about something that's been bothering me about pop criticism for a while, namely the flatfooted racial hermeneutics.

A Thin Expatriate said...

Enjoyed the post. I'm persuaded by you that indie rock seeks to diavow the history of white exploitation of black music. Even though this leads to a problem of failing to recognize racial (and one could add class) divisions, the very wish to ignore them does have something positive about it.

Nevertheless, it seems to me the problem with a lot of indie rockers, most of whom are upper middle class and white, is that they believe that by expressing disaffection with mainstream values of American society, it somehow gives them a class and racial position outside of the American system, rather than simply making them disaffected white middle class indie rock musicians and/or fans. In a racist and class society, you can't really disavow your ascribed racial and/or class identity, even if you want to. It's a dangerous type of identity that's created, because it is able to capitalize on racial and class privilege without acknowledging it. On the other hand, it's not like there's a perfect position that one could take, and indie rock's solution to these problems is surely a better one than most musicians have found.

Ultimately, more discussion of these issues is the best way forward.