Friday, February 20, 2004

Warning -- OutKast/Pazz & Jop/race/tokenism content:

Well, the ILX thread about this subject is dead but Jane Dark has me worrying the frayed end. My own posts there were (a) defensive, (b) sarcastic at some points and rhetorically overstated at others, and (c) written largely in ignorance of ILX ‘manners’ and assumptions. So, here we go again. It’s very hard to write about this without either constructing a position from which I’m a wonderful person and a brilliant thinker, or offering an abject mea culpa; I wish to do neither. I’m going on at length largely because Jane is absolutely correct to say that race is too easily taken off the table. There aren’t many good metaphors or jokes coming up, sorry; pith = off.

Before I even start: I especially welcome email response to the following. I will be happy to use konvolut m to continue the discussion; if you write to me, please note whether this is ok. I probably won’t post aphoristic brickbats, as I’m trying not to throw too many myself; I’d like to go forward in a different manner. Nothing with a question mark is purely rhetorical.

Readers familiar with the thread can skip the following paragraph of background, which is meant to be uncontentious: Under the title “Tokenism a go-go,” Nate Patrin posted a list of critics who voted for OutKast’s The Love Below/Speakerboxxx in the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop poll, but no other hip-hop records. This record was #1 on the poll by a wide margin; their “Hey Ya” was the #1 single. I’m on this list; I voted the album #1, and did not vote for singles. Patrin offered little or no comment on what point he wished this to make, beyond the thread title. As the thread developed, Patrin backed away from the implication that the named critics, most of whom are presumed to be white, are ‘racists,’ or that the kind of tokenism he meant to mark was essentially racial – at one point, he responds that he’s just talking about tokenism toward hip-hop as a musical genre. The age of critics who didn’t vote for much hip-hop and/or black music seems to be an issue as well. Saying why goes beyond the bounds of ‘background.’

The thread is here. It gets derailed, badly, about 3 days in. If you see Frank Kogan’s name, turn back. Jane Dark’s recent comment is here.

I’m not going to discuss the album/singles issue directly. I tried, but it went even worse than the rest.

I absolutely agree with JD that 'naming names' is a non-issue; even if it were an invasion of privacy, which it's not, it would be trumped by the ethical relevance.

I also agree about Nate's bait-and-switch. This played out quite directly, in his responses to me. Dialectic: NP: Y (inc. FB) is an X. FB: I am not X. NP: Made you look! The problem is, it's not clear what X was supposed to be.

(A) racist
(B) tokenist
(C) lazy/sloppy/unthinking/'corny' [Aside: What is the connotation of 'corny' in the ILX groupmind?]

That said, I'm disgusted at the part of my responses that amounted to: "Some of my favorite records involve black people." I was most concerned to answer charge (C), as a matter of personal/petty pride, and slipped into a blameworthy defensiveness about (A) and (B), which are obviously of broader significance. I should add that the relations between (A) and (B) are not transparent -- certainly not where music criticism (as opposed to, say, hiring practices) are concerned -- but I can only take this up anecdotally. (I.e., I'm unwilling to speculate on the motivations of other voters.)

Out of the heat of BBS rhetoric, I am in no way concerned to deny the complicity with institutional racism displayed by my listening patterns. (That's a poor attempt to put something carefully.) What's the future behavioral/critical/cash value of that admission (which, as Jane emphasizes, is what really matters; another reason why my original defensiveness is weak-ass)? What is one supposed to do other than admit complicity, and struggle with it internally? I am not sure yet. But I'm fairly sure that, in my own case, the vote for OutKast is not the best evidence of this complicity; and I'm not at all convinced that it's a pernicious manifestation of much of anything. I don't think some of the 'bad' motivations floated apply (esp. -- it sounds enough like 'white' music or 'black' music I'm more comfortable with for me to feel safe; I think those charges were leveled mostly at writers older than me) The fact that I don't follow hip-hop enough to 'know better' is much more relevant. I'm empathetic here, at least: Given my background, my kneejerk reaction is to find the high placement of White Stripes and The Shins fairly 'corny.'

Even given that, I can only say that my vote reflected actual listening and enthusiasm, rather than a 'need' to stick a hip-hop album on there. Am I more into The Love Below than Speakerboxxx? Yeah. Is the former 'less hip-hop'? Quite probably, on some readings. Is it 'whiter'? There, I'm not sure; beyond "Hey Ya," I responded most to the nods to Prince and jazz (horn arrangements, piano). I'm also fascinated throughout by Andre's approach to singing; it's like he's admitting he's not a 'soul man,' but going for it anyway, sometimes self-parodically. I don't think this makes the album any easier, from any perspective I can think of offhand, but it was part of what kept me chewing . Given the way 2003 went, and felt, for me, it would have been insane to leave this album off. If a few other candidates (Eastside Sinfonetta, Urinals) had made the list, they would have replaced something other than OutKast. Sprawl and ambition counted as well; I favor sparkling miniatures and modest perfection as much as the next guy, probably more, but Double Nickels comes to the island. The #1 vote and points assigned are more troubling; probably a sop to the disc's cultural currency. (The 50 currently circulating meanings of 'populism' are another thing I can't try to untangle here.)

Am I interested in the 'impure'/hybrid aspects of the record? You betcha. A lot of what I voted for reflects this in other ways, not always involving race: E.g. David Sylvian's Blemish, mainly included for the attempts to negotiate between song-form and non-idiomatic improv. This is not merely a retrospective observation; could go on, won't.

This is both overlong and unsatisfying; I'll close with a few shorter points I can't integrate (so to speak):

As I said, I don't know hip-hop well enough to be trusted; certainly not its underground, or how that relates to the mainstream. (Though my last two attempts, recent samplers on Anticon and Chocolate Industries, didn't bear fruit.) Still, I strongly dislike the 'gatekeeper' aspect of much of the ILX thread. There's a remarkably indie-rock-like snobbiness at work, which seems to be in tension with at least some versions of populism: How ahead of the commercial/mass-critical curve are you? Even if you're not a 'rockist,' are you 'corny'? Unless one is taking a literally or metaphorically separatist position, I can't see how this can be a good thing, for the music or its reception, or for larger social aims. This may have as much to do with the level of commitment and knowledge inside a community than race. I can well imagine having feelings analogous to, say, Jeff Chang's a decade or so ago, frustrated at the Phyrric victory of, oh, Pavement being critically lauded when, I don't know, Good Horsey are out there. (No, I don't know if they released records the same year.) But this position has been largely discredited as a meta-critical attitude toward rock; why has it been replicated in hip-hop?

[Deleted paragraph on ageism. Key points]: You will age; you will die. Jessica Hopper uses the word 'old' too much.

Everthing that’s happened confirms my sense that Top 10 lists are crude and misleading. I hold pretty strongly that items of the same 'kind' (here, recordings) can have value for incommensurable reasons; a ranking has a hard time capturing this. They're a useful shorthand; they have sociological value; all conceded. But they're vastly overvalued as a critical form. This is only partly a romantic 'art can't be quantified' view; too many features -- aesthetics, use-value, sentiment, relevance -- are in competition for them to carry the weight they're made to bear. Maybe I'm stating the obvious; it doesn't appear so, at times. Taking Jane again to heart: I'll name names. I disagree with what's at least implicit in the way Robert Christgau and Michaelangelo Matos assess the value and meaningfulness of rankings, and lists in general. I'm sure they have their doubts, but they certainly treat them as more than a necessary evil. I never collected baseball cards, either.

Last thing, then it's your serve: I'm sure it proceeds in other ways elsewhere, but almost all of the immediately relevant discussion has taken the issue of race and pop to reduce to either black/white, hip-hop/rock, or both. I'm not equipped to do more than register this, but -- there's more going on. The single song I've 'heard' the most in the last 2 months is some ranchera piece that my upstairs neighbors play. I don't know the artist, nor if it's old, new, popular, or obscure; only that its bass/tuba line (which is all I can really make out) implies the same chord progression as "if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands...." It's not on now; something distinctly Macarena-like is.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?