Friday, January 20, 2017

"Great: MORE Liberal Guilt!" The Rock 'n' Roll Edition

Having been lovingly raised among the pious and sincere, I was well-versed with the reasons a kid should be cautious -- if not downright frightened and ashamed -- of enjoying Rock 'n' Roll music. There was the unabashed endorsement of completely unfettered bacchanalian indulgence. We all knew where that impulse came from (it wasn't Jesus), but lest there be any ambiguity remaining we also had performers who traded in occult references and devilish artwork. Shameful stuff, all the way around.

There's no arguing with "cool," however.
Today, as we approach the rock show in our twilight years with creaking joints and ringing ears, we have yet another cause for shame -- cultural appropriation.

Alex Shephard notes that, with the recent death of Prince, the pantheon of rock survivors is uniformly pasty in colour. Jack Hamilton wrote a book devoted to the matter -- Just Around Midnight: Rock & Roll & The Racial Imagination (Harvard Press), excerpt here. Colin Vandenberg reviews it, and wonders, "Who are we, who have stolen and suppressed so much, to warn artists of colour against claiming any art as inalienably theirs?"

Really, Colin? Why be so circumspect? I say be strident, dammit! Tell those coloured folk -- tell your own porcelain-skinned progeny, while you're at it -- exactly what varieties of music they may rightfully claim as their own, to the exclusion of all others. In my experience, the end result is pure gold.

Clean, innocent fun!
If I scroll through the music on my Infernal Device (13,900 songs -- or 41 days of music, and building) the group of performers is a multi-hued bunch. But, sure, the majority are "white." Perhaps it behooves me to rend my garments over this fact, but, to borrow from the preeminent moral philosopher of my time, "The ears want what they want."

If one can somehow overlook the unpardonable sin of cultural appropriation, the cross-pollination of musical modalities becomes a truly curious business to contemplate. There are blues performers of Asian descent who have a Stevie-Ray mastery of the form -- yet the thought of any of them "making it big" is laughable. Similarly, one could argue American R&B seems primed to discover and exploit the shiny delights of K-Pop -- but just how likely is that?

Some outliers I'm personally fond of: American Hardcore, a variety of punk music that could not be whiter, was pretty much kicked off by a black group -- Bad Brains -- who were universally acknowledged in the scene as the standard that everyone fell short of. Not much love for them from their own community, mind you. Prior to them was a band called Death -- same story, pretty much.

My adolescence ran from the end of the '70s to the late '80s. When I finally slouched into adulthood I identified the two brightest stars in the Rock 'n' Roll firmament -- the two performers who most obviously elevated the genre into "Art" (pronounced, "Awhhh-at") -- as Frank Zappa and George Clinton. Currently I'd say Clinton's influence has the longer tail, and not just because he's still alive. Make of that what you will.

Anyway, let's bring it back to Jack Hamilton: he notes the Stones have "done a solid" with their most recent album by acknowledging and re-introducing their (black, American) forebears to a predominantly white audience. Here I have to agree -- the first thing I did after my initial spin of Blue & Lonesome was head to our Cultural Gatekeepers and spend a few nickels on the original recordings. Currently the number of plays between the originals and the white band who covered them are neck-and-neck. Hard to say who will eventually gain the upper hand, but it could well be the paler group.

What can I say? I like the fuzz and clatter.

Endnote: RIP, William Onyeabor - musical genius,
recluse, West African industrialist, servant of Christ.


Yahmdallah Bjorknickerfod said...

My daughter is in college at the moment, so I've got a first-hand view of what passes for a "liberal arts education" these days. Since all the dead white guys were shown the proverbial door, and now the white guys who don't have the decency to be gay are considered hardened criminals responsible for all the ills of the world, all that remains is minor modern authors whose qualifications have to do with their placement on the scale of goodness according to the Identity Politics movement. In short, Shakespeare need not apply. (And, in effect, "liberal education" as it was once defined, probably no longer exists.)

Everything is reduced to race (which is often conflated with national identity origins), sexual preference, and gender. (Which includes the bugaboo you mention: cultural appropriation.) That's why some on the left, particularly squeaky wheel journalists, missed the larger narrative of the last American election. While the guy who won did say some sexist things and some inappropriate things about Mexican citizens (which weren't racist, as "Mexican" is not a race), those weren't the primary or central problems with what he said. The old saying that if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail, applies here. Yes, bigotry based on the characteristics of your person is wrong and we should not accept it, but there are many more things that matter as well, such as what you do and what you say (about everything, not just the holy trinity of Identity Politics).

So, I wrote all that to write this: if some choose to fixate on the skin color of musicians when that fact has no relevance (because sometimes it does), and state things like, "Geez, only the white guys are still around," what are we really supposed to do with that statement? Feel bad? Refute it with lists of rock/pop stars who aren't white who are still around (Lionel Richie, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, for starters)?

Or, can we be reasonable and logical, and say, "Oh Honey (yes, that's a HIMYM reference), what does that have to do with anything?"

I'll choose the latter, though I'm sure I'll get some SnowFlakeSplaining for my efforts.

Whisky Prajer said...

When I started writing, I wanted this to be funny -- "Awright! Rock 'n' Roll is transgressive again!" But the further I explored this business of "identity politics" the tireder I got. I rallied enough to get these words down, but only just.

Clicked over to this piece on my daily links, btw. Nice to see someone "non-white" take the piss out of this ridiculous and pathetic high-n-mighty "liberal" posturing.