10 June 2006

Bearers Of Meaning

Note: apparently this stuff is all very old news in the blogosphere, and will only serve to demonstrate how not a part of said blogosphere I am. What can I say? If I weren't one of Kendra's regular readers, I might never have heard of it at all.

What the hell, you might rightly ask, is a "bearer of meaning?" Well, in the broadest possible sense, I suppose it's any person, place, thing or event which evokes or transmits insight or understanding, and I know, that's already way too intellectual for me to be writing or you to be putting up with.

But if the pop music critic for some uptown fanzine calling itself the New Yorker is to be believed, some prominent "bearers of meaning" in today's world include Beyoncé, OutKast, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. And if you don't agree, and what's more, if you don't accept these particular mass market pop stars as serious musicians and commentators on the zeitgeist, well then, you are probably, like the brilliant singer/songwriter Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, a racist.

How's that again? According to Sasha Frere-Jones, one "meaning" being borne by said pop stars is that they are, "two women, three people of color and one white artist openly in love with black American music." Which makes it your duty not just to be aware of the musical offerings of said bearers, but to embrace and accept them. This goes double, apparently, if you happen to be of the Caucasian persuasion.

Sasha Frere-who?, the many non-New Yorker readers among you may be wondering, and I wonder along with you, although the vaguely counterculturish forename and the double-barreled surname would seem to imply an overindulged scion of the baby boomers who just happened to know somebody who knew somebody who could land young Sasha a slightly higher than entry-level position in the journalistic world. Perhaps its mere class envy that's prompting me to suppose such things, but having read some of the man's ostensibly earnest outpourings, I think it's safe to assume that he didn't get where he is through merit alone.

Granted, this effusive paean to Justin Timberlake, for whom Frere-Jones carries a rather alarming torch, has merit in the old-fashioned punk rock sense of simply saying things that you know will wind people up, and further granted that Frere-Jones was just plain unlucky to canonize Timberlake as the new prince of pop a mere two weeks before the wannabe B-boy signed a $6 million to become the new Ronald McDonald. But hey, if a singing and dancing hamburger salesman is what floats your boat, I'm loving it too. Where I take serious umbrage with Frere-Jones is his misappropriation of the term "black music" to further his own peculiarly racist - yes, I said racist - agenda.

I'm sure Frere-Jones, should he read this, would be outraged at such a characterization, just as I'm sure he regards himself as one of the best friends the black man ever had. He probably thinks he's every bit in love with "black music" as Hamburger Boy supposedly is, but here's where I get off: what in the hell is "black music," if there even is such a thing? And why does some whiter-than-white pop critic think he's qualified to tell us about it?

Turn it around. Is there such a thing as "white music?" Sure, you could say, there's everything from Barry Manilow to the Beatles, from Frank Sinatra to Hank Williams to Mozart and Beethoven, not to mention polka, death metal, bluegrass, waltzes, minuets, emo, folk-rock, etc., ad infinitum. Obviously only a pinhead or a racist would contend that all these forms have much in common apart from the fact that they are primarily created by and listened to white people. As a result, we very rarely hear the term "white music" employed except in a contemptuous way by black racists or a "we must uphold our culture" way by white racists.

So if it's idiotic to lump together hundreds of highly disparate musical genres based solely on the (white) skin color of their creators, how is it any less idiotic (or racist) to lump together all music made by black people as if it were a monolithic entity? Of course this is not what Frere-Jones is doing. When he says "black music," he's not talking about the concert pianist who happens to be African-American, he's talking about a specific variety of hip hop and r&b, the kind that Wonder Bread white boys, especially those of a certain age, cream their jeans over, probably in the hope or expectation that some of that Magic Negro mojo will rub off on them.

Stephin Merritt, who Frere-Jones called a "cracker" and "Stephin 'Southern Strategy' Merritt," correctly pointed out that much of F-J's favorite contemporary pop music is not just garbage, but itself racist"
people, both black and white, behave in more vicious caricatures of African-Americans than they had in the 19th century. It's grotesque. … It probably would have been considered too tasteless for the Christy Minstrels."
And if you doubt that, just try putting yourself in the place of an anthropologist from another planet who had to draw conclusions about African-Americans and their culture based solely on the study of rap and r&b videos. Wouldn't the dominant impression be that black people are sex-crazed, violent and obsessed with conspicuous consumption? Could the Ku Klux Klan do a better job of defaming an entire race of people?

But who needs the Ku Klux Klan when you've got fawning fanboys like Frere-Jones to help pin the stereotype on the minority, and then stand reality on its head by suggesting you're the racist if you don't like the same soul-deadening, moronic music that he does? Okay, maybe I'm being too harsh. No doubt some of the music Frere-Jones champions has merit, and no doubt, similarly, that I could afford to be more open-minded toward contemporary pop music than I am. But to try and make it into a racial issue is demagoguery of the worst sort. Much of my favorite music as a child and teenager was by black artists, in the form of doo wop and Motown. But I didn't listen to it because it was by black artists, any more than I later listened to British Invasion or punk rock bands because they were white. I listened to what I listened to because I thought it was cool, and made me feel good. Even my favorite rap music, which continues after all these years to be NWA, doesn't exactly make me feel good.

Okay, maybe it does, but not in a way that I feel good about. I can laugh all I want about "niggas" and "bitches" and shooting everyone in sight, but is it something that makes me feel good about myself or humankind, black or white? Not really. And when it comes to most of what's on pop radio these days? Sorry, but for every good song, there are ten really horrible ones, and I don't usually listen long enough even to know the race of the people producing it. Anyway, my point isn't whether today's pop music is good or bad; that's largely a matter of taste. What worries me is when self-appointed arbiters of racial consciousness want to create playlists based on skin color.

And if you still don't think there's something fundamentally racist about Frere-Jones' assumptions, riddle me this: has he ever interrogated the listening habits of Jay-Z or 50 Cent or Mary J. Blige to see if they include a sufficient quota of Green Day or the Weakerthans or the Hi-Fives? Somehow I suspect not, and gee, I wonder why.

No comments: