Friday, May 05, 2006

Interrogating Bias

Last October we went to a large, fairly lavish wedding in North Carolina; the reception was over the state line in South Carolina, at a large botanical garden. The music was provided by a live band, and the band members were all black. It perhaps goes without saying that virtually everyone at the affair was white and that most of the guests were from the South. Anyway, the band was decent enough, sorta generically funky, people had a good time, we danced. Late in the evening, the band played "Sweet Home Alabama", eliciting one of the more enthusiastic responses from the audience--people fairly thronged the dancefloor, and by the middle of the song there was a pretty large contingent singing along to the song like it was the national anthem or something (as for the actual national anthem, the less said about an attempt by several drunken guests to start up a good ol' patriotic sing-along on one of the buses heading back to the hotel, the better; we switched buses). I thought this was a bizarre spectacle, a black band playing this song to this crowd, a crowd with money, a crowd responding to it as if to some sort of cultural touchstone. I didn't know quite what to make of it (though I could be heard making some no doubt incredibly clever remarks about it). I'd always felt that "Sweet Home Alabama" was more complex than people gave it credit for, that Lynyrd Skynyrd was not quite the group of racist rednecks that their reputation seemed to paint them as. (Besides, "Southern Man", while kind of awesome, is nonetheless essentialist to the core and not subtle in the least.) Even so, I was aware of the fact that Skynyrd, and southern rock in general, seemed to have been adopted as a point of Southern pride. This performance of this song, though, gave me pause. What did the song mean to them? What does the song signify to the white South at this point?

I bring all of this up because I've been reading about last week's Experience Music Project conference, and I really wish I could have heard, among others, Drew Daniel's paper, "How to Sing Along to 'Sweet Home Alabama'". From the abstract:
I'm interested in unpacking the dynamics of this experience of public re-performance, and witnessing, as a site where popular culture becomes personal, where an ad hoc community springs up through the act of singing along which works to undo, or at least revise, the racial and political valences of a song. What kind of anthem is "Sweet Home Alabama", and what kinds of affect does it make available to its singers, and at whose expense? Who is contained within the "we" invoked by its lyrics, and ratified by its popularity? How does Merry Clayton's presence within the song function? I am interested in using Raymond William's analysis of the vexed relationship between shame, narcissism, and guilt in his text Shame and Necessity as a way of thinking about the connections between race, place and politics within this classic rock chestnut which hinges upon a nagging, open question: "Does your conscience bother you?"
Fascinating. As was Nate Patrin's paper about mid-70s white soul rock, which he posted at his blog, rebel machine. This intersection of questions of authenticity and of race has always interested me to a degree, but I've never really spent much time examining it. I wrote briefly last month about my increased interest (if not yet exactly straight on) in that much-reviled genre, disco. As Nate says:
Every critical suspicion about white R&B [...] was pinned on disco: the aspersion towards white-faced, danceable soul-pop, mockery of the gay version of manhood, dismissals of studio-band gloss and drugged-out excess, and, worst of all, lack of toughness -- most of the songs were about women getting off, and c’mon, that’s just weird. Now despite all the examples [...] of aesthetic integration, the radio, music press and the record industry often worked against it. For every R&B DJ like New York's Frankie Crocker who'd drop Led Zeppelin into his sets or a week in the Top 40 where Eric Clapton would rub elbows with Barry White, pop was still segregated in many ways, and the disco craze underscored it. Instead of finding some way to get radio to share space with this new trend, many station owners decided to switch formats wholesale from rock to disco, a switch that wasn't exactly accommodating for anyone.
I've been thinking more and more about how my tastes were formed by this segregation. I grew up hearing almost exclusively stuff like Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt, John Denver, and Barbra Streisand, all of which I disdained when I, as mentioned before, went for Classic Rock as a sullen teenager in the mid-1980s. "Classic Rock" as a radio format seems to have been created as a reaction to disco (and to some extent punk). The funny thing is how even as a highly limited, basically white rock format, it was more limited than that, eschewing even vast amounts of its own, um, heritage. A lot of these stations would pride themselves on playing "deep cuts" from albums, albums of course being the sine qua non of the rockist perspective. But really they basically (and increasingly) played the same songs over and over again. And left-field stuff was out of the question. Worse, the notion that "rock" was the authentic stuff was reinforced in various sad ways. I recall that, perversely, the stations would start to play certain previously ignored songs when they felt that they could jump up and down and point to them as sources for then-current hits. WYSP in Philadelphia trotted out "Tulsa Time" by Eric Clapton when its sorta sound-alike "Achy Breaky Heart" was a big hit for the eminently dismissable Billy Ray Cyrus; ditto "Under Pressure" when Vanilla Ice had his moment in the sun.

Anyway, I have a post or two in mind in which I plan to discuss further the ways in which I've been trying to interrogate my own taste in music, and perhaps to examine how some biases retain power while others fall more easily. This has come about in part as a result of reading certain music bloggers, as well as my positive response to pop songs from the past couple of years, but also, frankly, an awareness of some cognitive dissonance--things just didn't add up; my biases were increasingly untenable in my own mind.

As for the EMP conference itself, I've been reading Carl Wilson's series of round-ups here: 1, 2, 3, and 4. Most of the links to the EMP and the other papers are swiped from him. In the second of these posts (entertainingly titled "There's No Such Thing as a Zipless Doodah"), after rehearsing and commenting on the controversy about whether or not Stephen Merritt's comments on one of the panels were racist, Carl talks a little about the development of his own musical tastes, growing up white in Canada and looking back and observing that he'd effectively dismissed "all the African American music on the radio", as well as country music ("hick music"). As he puts it, "That these prejudices were both ethically unacceptable and musically idiotic only became clear to me after I'd left my home town." For me, the prejudices weren't identical, but the process was similar, and the shedding of the prejudices, slowly, incrementally, happened even later, since for the most part the people I met merely reinforced them (with some crucial exceptions)--indeed, generally, since I was usually the one most "into music", if I didn't do it myself, it didn't happen. Such is the nature of positive feedback loops. To again quote Carl, "When we call ourselves "open-minded," what are we letting pass in one ear and out the other?"

One of the bloggers who has helped me challenge how I think about music has been Eppy, at his Clap Clap Blog. When I first started reading his blog, he occasionally infuriated me; it seemed to me that he was merely espousing replacing one critically acceptable kind of music with another--"pop" music in place of, say, "indie rock". This bothered me as not much better than the prevailing situation (in indie circles anyway). But he is such a good, thoughtful writer that I kept coming back, and it quickly became clear that of course he is not saying this (although, there is the law of diminishing returns, like when bands produce music that does little else but satisfy its expected audience's limited, insular expectations -- I'm thinking here of the Arcade Fire, one indie band du jour for whom I had a difficult time mustering much excitement) . He said this in a comment to the second of Carl's EMP posts:
When I say things like this I am often told I the only one that thinks this way, but my impression is the the whole point of poptimism/popism is to continually interrogate your tastes, not in order to pass moral judgment on them, but in order to make connections with things you might think you dislike and to bring your knee-jerk reactions to light so you can find more things to enjoy.
I can get with that.

Ok, to wrap up here, it looks like there were, as usual, a bunch of interesting discussions and papers presented at the conference. If Drew Daniel's appears online somewhere, I hope someone will know about it and give me a heads up. In Carl's fourth post on the conference, he provides some choice quotes from the things he heard, leading me back to the EMP site, after which I said 'fuck it' and ordered This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project, their anthology compiling papers from previous years, from the likes of Simon Reynolds, John Darnielle, Joshua Clover, Robert Christgau, Sarah Dougher.... I can't wait to read it.

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