Monday, February 14, 2011

[2001, fragment prefacing an essay with the working title "$7000 Please"]

If you could sum up the history of rock in three words, they might be: white on black. Three words that could be shorthand for a number of interconnected syndromes: white folks dependent/parasitic ON black innovation/expression; whites getting off and getting high ON black edge/style/passion, a vicarious and voyeuristic buzz; whiteness superimposed ON blackness and resulting in grey, neither-one-thing-nor-the-other crossover material (blue-eyed soul, lite jazz, etc). There are other crucial prisms through which rock history can be examined, of course--gender, technology, drugs, class, the struggle between margins and mainstream.... But the white-on-black narrative has many claims to being the single most defining aspect of rock, indeed of 20th Century popular music: jitterbugs going jazz-crazy, the teenage Elvis sneaking off to the wrong parts of Memphis, the Rolling Stones's exaggeration of the hypermasculine wordliness of blues singers like Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, the recently revealed fact that an astonishing 70 percent of today's hip hop album sales are to white kids, the fact that today's teenpop explosion is based around whiter-than-white girl-divas and male harmony groups whose vocal melisma and dance moves are all utterly imitative of R&B songs and "urban" music videos.

The conventional wisdom--the VH1/Rolling Stone Encyclopaedia version--is that the white fascination for blackness is a one-way romance, unrequited and unreciprocated. This is not entirely true. The cross-town traffic has occasionally run the other way: Miles Davis grooving on Stockhausen in the early Seventies, and later, bizarrely, admiring pallid Anglo popsters Nik Kershaw and Scritti Politti; George Clinton describing the Beatles as his favorite band; Prince worshipping Joni Mitchell; rappers from Ice T to Chuck D who are heavy metal fans. There are doubtless black people out there who own Huey Lewis & the News and albums, or even records by Shania Twain and Garth Brooks. Mostly, though, when we start using all those words that begin with the prefix "mis-"--words like miscegenation, misunderstanding, misappropriation, misrecognition --we're talking about white infatuation with black expression and black style; about white youth's desire, if not to be "down" with blackness, at least to get a taste of the Other.

The other half of this syndrome is less talked about: what you might call "black flight," a response to white appropriation or white interest that involves the reinvention of "blackness," a continual process of abandoning styles and moving to new terrain. In fact, one way of understanding the racial dimensions of pop history is seeing the eternal return of a kind of win/win situation. Whites respond to black innovation, get it "wrong," and create something new; blacks abandon the co-opted style and create something new, something they hope whites won't understand or feel. This tense racial dynamic might be the single most vital motor of change in pop history, rivalled only by technological shifts.

The "getting it wrong/creative misrecognition" phenomenon---the Rolling Stones being an obvious example---is not the only way that white musicians engage with black music. Just as common is the purist, conservative stance---the white musician who diligently and respectfully applying himself to the task of "getting it right" down to the tiniest detail: blues scholars like Eric Clapton, Paul Butterfield, Stevie Ray Vaughan, blue-eyed soul serenaders like Boz Scaggs and Michael Bolton. Often these purists become curators of a black style that has long since been vacated by your actual genuine black people. You can even get the bizarre phenomenon where white artists are praised by black critics for lovingly preserving an art that its black audience has callously left for dead. e.g. Nelson George paying tribute in his book The Death of Rhythm & Blues to singers like George Michael, Phil Collins and Paul Young, and arguing that these British singers cherish soul more, and even understand its spirit better, than black Americans.

The thing about the purist approach, though, is that the undeviating faithfulness to a particular, past version of "what real black music is" invariably leads its practioners to being outflanked by black pop's mutational and protean onrush. The result is that the purists end up in the ludicrous position of being perplexed by a contemporary black music that isn't "black" enough. Usually code words like "funk" or "swing" or "soul" are used to refer to this lamentable absence, or qualities like "grit" or "warmth."

For instance, a whole generation of British "soul boys" were totally thrown off by Black America's passion for the stiff machine rhythms and cool Teutonic melodies of Kraftwerk, resulting in the "funkless", "soul-less" sound of electro. In the early Eighties a bunch of Blues & Soul writers formed an anti-electro organisation called LADS--League Against Disco Shit. Any rhetoric that positions the musician as restoring some vital intangible that is felt to be departed or depleted usually contains the following implicit subtext; "black people, what went wrong with their ears?" You can see it in the laments for the old skool spirit of hip hop vis-a-vis current thugged-out gangsta rap, or people who disdain contemporary dancehall reggae and mourn the lost spirituality of Seventies roots reggae.

The "faithful" white adherent to a black form often seems to be striving to be the one white guy who gets it right, who truly understands, who comes correct.
To me, this pursuit of authenticity is a futile and foredoomed struggle: self-effacing to the point of self-erasure, it's essentially inauthentic, because you're not allowing your own identity politics to refract the influences. It's similar to Harold Bloom's literary theory of the anxiety of influence, in which the "strong poet" is the one with the most anxiety, because he engages in a titanic agon with the genius precursor, goaded by his terror that nothing new can be done with literature and that he will be unable to find his own voice. The weak poet, by comparison, is simply inundated by the predecessor's vision and carries on in its tradition. Lacking that vital anxiety-of-influence, that Oedipal drive to slay the father and beget oneself, he is comfortable about speaking another's language...

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