Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Hey so this is a break from my typical "dream journal" blog entries, but basically Flavorpill hollered at Das Racist to write a response to Sasha Frere-Jones' recent essay "Wrapping Up" about the death of hip-hop and I felt I should also post this old email I sent a while back (when it was actually relevant) about SFJ's (apparently infamous) essay "A Paler Shade of White" so that I could link to it from the Flavorpill article for reference.

So here it is, basically unedited:

...while i think frere-jones does pick up on an interesting point in describing his experience in his band that miscegenation/appropriation (i feel both terms are acceptable and can be used in value neutral ways) "felt" more "odd" and even "seemed insulting" in the territory ofthe "intimate gesture" of singing, he doesn't develop it very much, and misses and opportunity to segue into how lyrics factor into this. he doesn't, in my opinion, give enough credence to the way a lyric informs its performance and the way a performance informs its lyric is and the resulting feedback loop in which a lot of disbelief can be suspended and a lot of complex contradictions can coexist in a way that makes some sort of emotional sense, for example when he typifies stephen malkmus' lyrics as "allusive and oblique" in (apparently from the context of the article) an attempt to illustrate their tendency towardswhite tropes, or when he describes wilco's lyrics as "embarassingly poetry laid" to the same end. "allusive," "oblique," and " embarassingly poetry laid" lyricism are hardly qualities that one could argue to be "whiter" than they are black. in fact, i think most of the dichotomies he constructs in the article are far from compelling and in fact, often pretty shaky.

also, while i can take no issue to a statement to effect of prince and mick jagger being two examples of "fus[ing] disparate" racial or racialized frontman/vocal styles (and i appreciate that he uses a term like "fuse" versus the more oft-used and less accurate word as "transcend," which i think oversimplifies things) and while i can more or less concede to naming a couple of black (or at least, historically recognized as of african origin) musical tropes to be "swing" or "some empty space," i think typifications such as "full-throated vocals," "ecstatic singing," "intense, voicelike guitar tones" or even "palpable bass frequencies" are too vague/non-specific to hold much water. i think a number of his descriptions of white tropes are pretty here-nor-there: "mumble and moan," "hid[ing] their voices under noise," and "raucous sing-alongs" don't strike me as more specifically whitethan black, yet he uses them to describe white music in contrast to black music.

and while i don't object to, for academic/journalist/philosophical reasons the investigationof geographic and social/cultural origins of specific musical tropes, i'm perplexed by how he doesn't seem to want to attempt any sort of argument with them, perhaps because he is afraid of "being accused of reductionism, essentialism, or worse." he seems to want to say that he laments that "soul, blues, reggae... funk" and other "attributes of African-American popular music" are "missing" from the "DNA" of arcade fire and "dozens of other accomplished [and "less entertaining"] rock bands" and in fact says as much in my opinion, but then sort of easily backs out of any confrontation by saying (rightfully) that there's "no point in faulting Arcade Fire for what it doesn't do." if there is no point in doing that, then what exactly is the argument of the essay? if the aim of the essay is to provide a set of novel observations and talking points (in that classic, New Yorker editorial style) about "the racial pedigree of American pop music," then why bother framing it as a reviewof an arcade fire concert? or if the framing was for the sake of injecting himself in the article to remind us of the subjective nature of these types of things or for the sake oftrying to emotionally locate the origins of his essays' questions, then why didn't he delve more into *why* he "really wanted to hear" the elements of black music in arcade fire in the first place, or *why* the musicians who inspired his own music were mostly black (or else "white bands heavily indebted to black music"), or further explore *why* singing is more feels intimate (and thus more dangerous) than playing an instrument (hint: language).

frere-jones seems to have a willingness to consider race on one hand but then avoids acknowledging his own personal/subjective/emotional involvement with ideas of race on the other hand. not that it is particularly easy to talk about race, but i think that the article pretends a sort of boldness (from the preference of the sexually charged term "miscegenation" over the term "appropriation" to referring to the rise of critical theory as an age of "political correctness" in which musicians felt "as though [their] parents had come home and turned on the lights," to even saying flat-out that most other critics don't attempt what he's doing for risk of being called racist) when, in fact, the article is pretty timid.

i also just kind of find him sort of silly (don't know any other way to put it really). like when he talks about how "Elvis Presley stole the world away from Pat Boone and moved popular music from the head to the hips." ...i think the language is theatrical to the point ofsloppiness. i would hardly call pat boone cerebral for one, and to pose elvis and pat boone as a dichotomy rather than two different points along the lighter side of a gradient ofappropriation is to me a bit easy.

or when he suggests (and of course uses the get-out-of-jail-free qualifier---that i admittedly use as well---of "you could argue") that snoop and dre are the most important pop musicians since bob dylan and the beatles, it just plays into the very mythology he seems to be trying to debunk in some ways. i mean i think i know what he's getting at when he says that and maybe it's just the nature of having to speak in the language of the new yorker's readership but i feel like even frere-jones himself obviously sees how bob dylan's "importance" is impossible without the historical precedent of robert johnson and woody guthrie, or how the beatles' "importance" is impossible without the historical precedent ofpretty much every motown artist, or how snoop and dre's "importance" is impossible without the historical precedent of slick rick and parliament/funkadelic to name just two ofthe more obvious direct influences. he seems to gauge the term "importance" by using commercial success as the sole equilibrium of his so-called objectivity. and while music history is inextricable from the history of capitalism, that doesn't mean that it's particularly useful to consider the chronic to be more "important" than say bizarre ride 2 tha pharcyde or redman's whut?

or how he describes eminem as a "protégé of Dr. Dre's who spent part of his youth in Detroit [where] he had to be better than the local black competition simply in order to be accepted—a fascinating inversion of the racism that many blacks have encountered in the workplace." i think statements like these are illustrative of frere-jones' general unwillingness to complicate his own argument with the burden of actual history. black discrimination against a white rapper is in my opinion not comparable to the long history ofeconomic disparity between blacks and whites in the u.s. labor force, and especially so when considering rap's significance as a historically black music whose artists spoke ofthe black condition and often tended to be rebellious and hostile to the dominant (white) ideology. speaking of which, he characterizes sampling as of the hip hop camp, and therefore black, but later talks places panda bear (a heavily sample-based artist) in the white camp because of his "[Brian] Wilson"-esque "beatific multi-tracked harmonies" that "evoke the sound of glee clubs and church choirs" (which, by the way, are also present in the four fifths black band tv on the radio, and, i might add, there are black church choirs too). basically this dude is all over the place but kind of nowhere at the same time...

one of the few things in the article i can get behind is the statement: "Pop music is no longer made of just a few musical traditions; it's a profusion of strands, most of which don't intersect, except, perhaps, when listeners click "shuffle" on their iPods," but where he goes with that thought doesn't really make sense to me: "Thirty years ago, [Devendra] Banhart might have attempted to imitate R. Kelly's perverse and feather-light soul. Now he's just a fan." what? i won't even dignify that with a deconstruction.

he goes on to say, "The uneasy, and sometimes inappropriate, borrowings and imitations that set rock and roll in motion gave popular music a heat and an intensity that can't be duplicated today, and the loss isn't just musical; it's also about risk." which, on top ofbeing nearly as incomprehensible as the banhart/r. kelly quote, just strikes me as sentimental and nostalgic.

and maybe this is just a generational thing, where we have less reverence
for concepts of aesthetic hierarchies than the folks before us? maybe because we look back on a history of pop music that comes to us via the internet in no particular chronology? i don't know... but i do know that frere-jones' writing feels old to me. particularly his ideas about race.


Marlonious said...

I think you could find this dude's blog interesting

Despot said...

so far I just read the first paragraph. ima prank call you and be like. is your sentence running? well you better go catch it!

Sean Dart said...

This is excellent. Spot on, thought provoking, and fucking sharp deconstruction of an article with a ton of holes. Thanks for sharing.

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