Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Quiz: How Racist is Your iPod?

John Cook has a piece on Slate grappling with the fact that Sasha Frere-Jones and Jessica Hopper, two music critics, have lobbed charges of racism at Stephin Merritt, the fey leader of The Magnetic Fields.

Why the charges? Merritt had the audacity to be the millionth person (or so) to wonder if much of today's rap music isn't, er, racist. From the Slate piece:
"I think it's shocking that we're not allowed to play coon songs anymore," Merritt said, "but 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." In the same interview, he made the moral error of not liking OutKast, whose single "Hey Ya!" was at the time serving as America's background music: "I'm desperately sick of hearing it."

Around the same time, in a New York magazine interview, Merritt again dared to publicly express his boredom with OutKast and furthermore said of Justin Timberlake: "I'm not really exposed to him except as a photographic image. He gives good photo shoot." Of Beyoncé and Britney Spears: "[Spears] would be absolutely meaningless if we didn't see pictures of her. Beyoncé is not famous for her songs, she's famous for that outfit. Which is not necessarily a bad thing."

A reasonable person would understand two things from these comments: 1) that Merritt believes contemporary popular music, whether it's produced by white people (Timberlake and Spears), or black people (Beyoncé), to be more concerned with selling an image than recording and performing songs; and 2) that, like much of America, he had heard as much OutKast as he cared to.
I'm not sure why Hopper is flattered with inclusion in the debate since, based on one of the links provided in the piece (which seems not to work anymore; very interesting), her lack of clarity in expression seems matched only by her inability to spell. (I really wish I could link to what was originally there, but it seems to have disappeared. It was a doozy about "whiteness.")

Frere-Jones is in a band that Cook calls "quite good," and based on the sound files to which we're directed, I’d say that description is just a generous way of making up for the rest of the piece’s assault. Based on a quick listen, the band sounds to me like a bad Lenny Kravitz cover act, which means, yes, worse than Lenny Kravitz.

The entire feud, if you can call it that, seems very silly to me. As Cook writes: "...the whole of their sustained attack against Merritt is founded on the dangerous and stupid notion that one's taste in music can be interrogated for signs of racist intent the same way a university's admissions process can: If the number of black artists in your iPod falls too far below 12.5 percent of the total, then you are violating someone's civil rights."

Still, I'm worried. New York is the type of place where this Slate piece might lead to judgmental strangers hijacking one's iPod at a party to search for signs of latent racism (despite the fact that both you and these strangers are probably at a party where 49 of the 50 guests are white and 27 out of the 50 have almost identical bedhead). So, to preempt any suspicion about me, here's a partial and random rundown of those on my iPod who can attest to my belief in racial harmony: Aretha Franklin, Ben Harper, Billie Holiday, De La Soul, Dexter Gordon, Donny Hathaway, Ella Fitzgerald, Kanye West, Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Maxwell, Miles Davis, Ohmega Watts, Otis Redding, Prince, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Sarah Vaughan, and Stevie Wonder. Oh, and: The Magnetic Fields.



Anonymous Dread said...

That is what is wrong with you John - everything is black and white - where is the Tejano music on your precious iPod? Anything Hindi? How about a little love for J-pop and our Asian brothers and sisters out there. You have about as much racial harmony as UPN's Girlfriends.

Open your eyes man - its a great big world out there and you are missing it.

BTW - Outkast's Aquemini is the f'ing bomb!

11:57 PM  
Blogger cb said...

Sasha Frere-Jones always seems so reasonable in the pages of The New Yorker. His blog, however, brings the word "tool" to mind. But I came here to tell you that Jessica Hopper was an independent music publicist for quite a few years before she began writing. Or "writing".

12:24 AM  

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