Wednesday, May 10, 2006

From the Fray . . .

Two articles appeared on Slate yesterday, both relating to music. The first involves a dispute between (the brilliant) Stephen Merritt and a critic/musician who finds him to be a racist. The second is more nonsense on the "rockist" label vs. "poptimism"; basically, it's an amusing but empty critique of how we reach musical preferences.

My response was more to the first article than the second, but it used the terms of the second to dissect the first. In any case, the first is the one you really need to read to make any sense of this post; the second is interesting fodder to geeks like me who give a damn.

In any case, my post:

Of Music & Identity

These last two articles on pop music--regarding the Stephen Merritt snafu and the drawbacks of the "rockism" label--both seem to speak to the matter of music as a signifier/source of identity.

It seems to me that if you take the tendency to identify music by its racial characteristics, and the impulse to judge not only the music, but the people who like or dislike said music, in terms race, it's all too easy to continue digging and find further matters of cultural impropriety. To whit: might we reasonably ask whether the desire to see Merritt as a racist is itself indicative of homophobia? From the article:

Merritt is diminutive, gay, and painfully intellectual. His music is witty and tender. He plays the ukulele. He named his Chihuahua after Irving Berlin.

The Irving Berlin reference is telling. Let's look at Berlin himself: a Jewish immigrant known for writing an enduring Christmas classic ("White Christmas"); an admirer of blues and ragtime often accused of racism, and even more often accused of co-opting and diluting black music for white audiences; a man of cryptic sexuality writing love songs in the model that--along with the works of Cole Porter, another wordy ponce with a gift for multiple entendre and half-serious sentimentality--has come to define the "love song" as we've known it ever since. It seems, from where I'm sitting, that we're talking about the "Tin Pan Alley" tradition discussed in the other article. Indeed, even a perfunctory spin of any one of the three discs of 69 Love Songs, Merritt's own immodest masterpiece of irony juxtaposed with sincerity to the cause of creating an epic opera of cruel obsession and botched breakups, reveals a clear debt to that tradition.

This tradition is, of course, fraught with cultural complications, the most obvious being race. Musical theatre, such as we now know it, emerged as Tin Pan Alley pop, vaudeville and operetta collided over the course of the 20th century. But both Tin Pan Alley pop and vaudeville owe clear debts to the minstrel show and medicine show, two popular--and racist--forms that emerged from the previous century. It's hard to deny that the minstrel show had a profound effect on both the aesthetics and marketing of black music--it borrowed black rhythmic traditions in order to mock them; the music that resulted therefrom (ragtime) would be reappropriated by blacks and reimagined to produce the blues and jazz that sprouted up later--but it also began a tradition of white, American popular music that clearly borrowed those principles and turned them into something else.

That this trajectory of music's evolution brought us musical theatre, however, complicates the issue even further. Because as I'm sure we all know, musical theatre has never been embraced by any single group so thoroughly as it has been by the gay community (a generalization, I know . . . but as a theatre practitioner, I can assure you that it is one that is generally bourne out by observation). This already puts "gay" music culture in a bit of a spot, allying itself with a cultural movement that, if its surface is scratched, has such troubling "racist" roots.

If this weren't already tricky enough, we have the consistent antagonism between gay culture and hip-hop culture, the latter of which has been overwhelmingly hostile to the former, for reasons too numerous and complex to get into now (unless someone's just itching for that discussion). This is, in turn, either a sign, symptom or cause of the broader unease between the respective political movements of each minority group, the ongoing (and tiresome) dialectical battle of nurture/nature, etc. Again, the politics and sociology are complicated in ways that have nothing to do with aesthetics.

Back to the music, or at least to the driving theories of music criticism. "Rockism", such as it is, holds "authenticity" to be the paramount musical virtue. But such elitism isn't endemic to rock; hip-hop, at all levels--underground, mainstream, backpack-rap, gangstas, trip-hop--is absolutely obsessed with notions of credibility. There is a semi-prevalent school of thought that suggests that the authenticity of any popular music is measured by its proximity to its black roots. One of the Presidents of the United States of America kvetched on an interview on NPR that the "problem" (he was careful to word his assertion more benignly) with Radiohead was their excessive distance from the blues tradition.

So is Frere Jones's essential critique of Merritt's musical tastes a mutant form of rock-ism (funkism, maybe)? Do those who simply dismiss Merritt's taste as "bad" for liking sentimental love songs fall into the trap of demeaning a good hook in favor of perceived "grit"? Or, if we want to keep riding the identity boat, is Frere Jones a homophobe? Are his musical tastes too straight, too black? Do people who diss Merritt's preferences failing to recognize the rich legacy of an ongoing musical tradition that grows from racism and co-opted aesthetics, but has since blossomed into a fecund and creative aesthetic soil of its own sort?

Quick thoughts: Hip-hop is too varied a form to settle on it as something one either likes or doesn't, though I know people who hate all hip-hop and people who reflexively like most hip-hop. There's nothing wrong with appreciating all kinds of music; nor is there any shame in being a genre fiend. All discernment is snobbery, even if not all snobbery is defensible as being mere discernment. Stephen Merritt probably isn't a racist, but I don't know the man. His music is brilliant, IMO, and I'm no more inclined to stop listening to his music because he MIGHT be a racist than I am to stop listening to Eminem--whom I also quite admire--because he's demonstrably a homophobe.

A personal lament: since musical theatre and rock & roll emerged from the same traditions, why has one evolved/mutated so much more quickly than the other? When does musical theatre get its Sonic Youth, its Mogwai, its Mr. Bungle?


Blogger Stine said...

It's all just so indicative of our society and it's penchant for labelling, judging, and putting things in nice little boxes so we can understand them.

6:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice thoughtful reaction, though I think if your intent was to show that music and identity *aren't* intertwined, you've done quite the opposite - showing that they're endlessly spirallingly tangled.

For instance - just fyi, and maybe I'm reading you wrong to think you have mistaken this - Sasha Frere-Jones isn't black, just a hip-hop-loving white critic.

Carl (who linked your piece at

9:50 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

I didn't mean to imply that Frere Jones was black so much as that he (?) seems to take an afro-centric view of rock & pop music.

As to whether I think they're endlessly, spirallingly entangled, yeah, I guess I'd say they are. But what that says to me is that the question of identity in music, while interesting to dissect as a dialectical exercise, doesn't really amount to much as criticism of the music itself. Furthermore, such dialectics tend to lead to frivolous charges of racism and homophobia.

If I were to get into Merritt's music itself, my post would have been three times as long, because his ouevre is so rich it demands careful scrutiny.

8:57 AM  
Blogger the beige one said...

When does musical theatre get its Sonic Youth, its Mogwai, its Mr. Bungle?

Considering musical theater just got its David Bowie (Hedwig & The Angry Inch)...about another 6 - 10 years...

5:52 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Hey, that's not so long . . .:^)

8:55 AM  
Blogger Stine said...

David Bowie & Hedwig and the Angry Inch?

What? I missed a memo.

1:48 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

I imagine it's just a note that Hedwig owes a clear musical debt to Bowie, T-Rex, Berlin-era Lou Reed, New York Dolls, etc. Hard, hooky glam, IOW.

That said (not to go off on a tangent or anything), I think what I really want to see is not so much a musical that sounds like Sonic Youth, Mogwai or Mr. Bungle the way Hedwig sounds like Bowie, but rather one that is as radical a mutation of the classic musical-theatre sound--a mutation as reliant on a similar blend of populist, academic and subcultural concerns--as the mutations that occurred for rock when Velvet Underground, King Crimson, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Throbbing Gristle, or Sleepytime Gorilla Museum showed up. Even a re-contextualization of pre-rock/pre-musical theatre forms, the bread and butter of Nick Cave's discography, would be interesting. Sondheim comes close, but he's strictly academic; Webber's so achingly populist that after the big splash of Jesus Christ Superstar, he had little left in him but to recycle.

It seems like rock is filled with brilliant, populist madmen who pepper their pop meditations with academic theory, and/or rogue academics who use populist forms as tools of subversion. Even if we concede that musical theatre has some such artists, the overall count seems comparatively anemic (possibly not a fair comparison--there are probably simply a LOT more artists in the pop/rock/hip-hop/electronic-music world than there are in musical theatre).

My word verification: ywhqhh

I think that's Coptic for "Yahweh Quench", a theologically potent sports drink that helps depleted rhetoricians regain knowledge of God.

2:12 PM  
Blogger JJisafool said...

Finally got around to reading the two articles and your post. Excellent. Now am chewing over some connections between all three and the convversations I've been having about the lit world.

6:28 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

Well, JJ, I think we're essentially dealing with deconstruction and identity politics, so it certainly touches upon some of the same ground.

I'm curious as to what insights you may be able to offer.

9:24 AM  
Blogger the beige one said...

I think in order for a medium to undergo subversive changes that medium has to be taken seriously enough by someone with this ability to do so.

By and large, the stage musical isn't taken that seriously by that many people. Sondheim does come close, as does Trask. The stage versions of Hedwig do deviate from the traditional stage musical, in that it has more of a rock show feel than scene-song-scene-song, etc.

Locally, Ballyhoo, Extropia and Delaware are a few juicy musical mutations.

I think the change you're looking for isn't that far off, though, the experimenting is only starting to take place now.

4:53 PM  
Blogger thelyamhound said...

I agree, actually. I think any Player King/Awesome project is a good example.

I actually have some thoughts as to how that mutation could be taken in another direction; it might be worth a discussion, particularly in light of some of each of our back burner projects . . .

5:01 PM  

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