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RE: [fearnwhiskey] Clip: Stephen Merritt's burden

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  • Wilson, Carl
    My main reaction to your remarks, Dr. Carl: This really really seems to me an argument about the racial politics and profile of the indie-rock world. Even
    Message 1 of 16 , May 19, 2006
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      My main reaction to your remarks, Dr. Carl: This really really seems to
      me an argument about the racial politics and profile of the indie-rock
      world. Even though I don't think of Merritt as a rock musician, his
      audience is one part NPR listeners, one part Arcade Fire fans and a few
      droplets of more avant-garde aficionados. And a lot of music critics.

      So to use him as an example is by definition to discuss the dynamics
      within this quite small (but influential) slice of the population as
      opposed to the "general public" (if there is such a thing), which has
      never heard of him and by and large listens to a helluva lot of music
      made by black people. The Magnetic Fields audience, however, *does*
      include a lot of people who are snobs about the music Merritt is a snob
      about, most of them without any of the kind of artistically based
      justification you've proposed for him. I think this is what Sasha's
      argument is really about - using Merritt as a "celebrity" test case,
      which is kind of unfair because it's like he's getting the punishment of
      celebrity without many of the benefits, but anyway: Sasha has had this
      complaint about indie rock for years and used Merritt
      (opportunistically, I'd have to say) as a stand-in to ground his
      generalizations. I don't think that was the right move. But I'm not sure
      he's wholly wrong about the generalizations.

      Dr. CZ wrote:
      > If poptimism is championing the re-integration of music, fine,
      although putting that in opposition to a rockist sensibility is
      questionable given the embrace of R&B and hip-hop by very popular rock
      bands for as long as my college-age students have been alive.

      Yeah. But then there's the continuing mockery of R&B and hip-hop in
      "ironic" covers by the very hippest and supposedly most intelligent
      segment of college-type bands throughout that same period. Which is
      maybe something that should be addressed. Again, what effects do these
      attitudes have on that small world rather than on the larger one - which
      may not matter to most people, unless you're a part of that world (which
      I am). Or may matter to the larger world because this audience is
      disproportionately people (young white elites) who go on to make culture
      or the chattering classes or be involved in politics or business, etc.
      and therefore have a sway beyond their numbers.

      But of course many indie kids listen to hip-hop and pop too, more and
      more all the time, and this argument maybe happening just at the point
      where it's becoming less important to have it. Maybe that's why we're
      now able to have it?

      >Kirsty MacColl certainly changed her musical direction over the course
      of her life, but I would be hard pressed to find even a slight influence
      of hip-hop. Or any reason to lament that absence. If Merritt wants to
      listen to Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah instead of Luther Vandross, should that make
      any difference to us as listeners?

      I feel like by continually taking this back to Merritt's music - as
      opposed to his writing and public statements - you're distorting the
      argument. I haven't seen anyone saying that Merritt must funk up his
      music. They have tended to use the music supplementarily as a way of
      showing the consistency of the "white obsessions" or whatever else they
      are claiming based on selective and out-of-context uses of his
      statements.

      I certainly don't want Merritt to make his music blacker. The more
      serious argument is, if there's a whole genre of music - indie rock,
      including for instance alt-country - in which people draw on all kinds
      of influences but very very rarely on African-American music of the past
      25 years, is that worthy of discussion and critique? That seems a lot
      more reasonable. Or would have a few years ago. But as I've said, I
      think it's decreasingly true.

      By the way, wouldn't you say there's a hip-hop influence in "Walking
      Down Madison"? (not that this alters your point)

      >Do the 50,000 Magnetic Fields fans put his songs next to Kelis's or
      Carl Cox's on their mix-tapes? Maybe not all do, but I strongly suspect
      Magnetic Fields's listeners have more eclectic music collections than a
      poptimist/rockist divide could define.

      I don't want to speculate because I think the answer could go either way
      - I suspect I'd see more Kelis than I expected and you might see less.

      >Is the concern about poptimism a concern about the perspective of indie
      rock fans or critics more than the masses?

      See above. Basically "yes." It's also a concern about boomer "classic
      rock" fans and critics' attitudes to pop - Greil Marcus has come up for
      instance - but frankly I don't think the influence of those people is
      dropping off really, really rapidly - partly because of the shift in
      critical consensus that the poptimism debate is part cause and part
      symptom. But those people probably are not going to change no matter
      what. That's not true of the indie crowd and makes it more worth talking
      about.

      >Because the masses sure seem like they prefer music with strong
      African-American influences. (Well beyond the masses'
      preferences to live in desegregated communities, which is a subject
      worth more discussion than we give it in public these days.)

      Yeah - the use of music as a form of tourism in a reality that few are
      willing to live out socially is a serious question. On the one hand you
      can critique it. On the other hand you could see it as a utopian impulse
      that could be built upon.

      >I am more interested in advancing a discussion of what relations exist
      between art and racism, specifically how art matters to the propagation
      of racial inequalities.... We like to think art is transformative (cue a
      wish that Neil Young's new album spurs voter registration drives) rather
      than reflective, but that is rare at best. To what degree do the hopes
      and intents of the artist matter in the effects of the art on society?

      I'm with you on the interest. But precisely because of the unlikelihood
      of culture accomplishing mass change rather than reflecting it, I'm more
      interested in discussing it on an individual level: Rather than how
      culture should change in relationship to racism, I want to ask how an
      awareness of endemic racism (and its existence therefore in my own
      unconscious) might motivate me to change my relationship with culture.
      Arguing about Stephin Merritt probably won't change either Stephin
      Merritt (and maybe it shouldn't) or the degree of cultural segregation
      broadly going on - but it might have an effect on the cultural attitudes
      and assumptions of the people *taking part in the conversation.*

      The interesting thing about a lot of the reaction to this debate - look
      at things like the comments box to the Slate article - is how angry and
      offended and dismissive it is - not so much of the slur against Merritt
      (which would be worth being angry about) but against *the very idea of
      having a discussion about the social implications and meanings of
      taste.* That intensely defensive reaction is telling, and I think it is
      worth continuing to try to wear those defenses down. But hopefully by
      less libelous means.

      carl w.
    • Wilson, Carl
      oops: When I said frankly I don t think the influence of those people [boomer classic-rock fans/critics] is dropping off really, really rapidly ..., I meant
      Message 2 of 16 , May 19, 2006
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        oops: When I said "frankly I don't think the influence of those people
        [boomer classic-rock fans/critics] is dropping off really, really
        rapidly ...," I meant "I DO think the influence of those people is
        dropping off..."

        And I would add "classic punk" fans/critics to that same group, since
        they tend to have similar anti-pop prejudices as Rolling Stones fans,
        sadly. (Unlike the early punk scene that crosspollinated so much with
        disco, reggae, etc.)

        carl w
      • Jason Gross
        Interesting discussion here. Bravo to Carl and Carl. A few points I d throw out there. - SM s main critics about his so-called racism, Hopper and
        Message 3 of 16 , May 19, 2006
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          Interesting discussion here. Bravo to Carl and Carl. A few points
          I'd throw out there.

          - SM's main critics about his so-called racism, Hopper and
          Frere-Jones, are white. What's the significance of
          that? Admittedly, SM's stuff is aimed at a mostly/all white audience
          so that's where a discussion like this would register but it still
          makes you wonder why JH and SFJ feel the need to fly off the handle
          and then offer half-assed apologies after the fact.

          - This kind of reactionary B.S. (and not just from the right) is one
          of the reasons that why we can't have discussions about race in this
          country. I'd be interested to hear what Carl W thinks of how this
          works in Canada.

          - John Cook's Slate article nailed JH and SFJ appropriately
          <http://www.slate.com/id/2141421/?nav=fo>, wondering "what percent of
          black music do we need on our I-Pods so we're not considered racist?"

          - Something that should be obvious: Magnetic Fields aren't
          Skrewdriver (a blatantly racist band) for god's sake! Did SM cover
          (Guns N' Roses') "One In A Million"?

          - What about other minorities? Why are people like JH and SFJ so
          hyper-sensitive about this while we have a just-as-important debate
          in the states that involves millions of Latinos who are here? The
          sad fact of the matter is that there's different levels of racism in
          the States. As another example, is there any doubt that anti-Black
          sentiments aren't as widely condemned as anti-gay sentiments even
          though they're both equally reprehensible?

          - FNW is a white list, Sasha? Sounds kind of racist to me. Would he
          have the guts to say the same thing in print about say Loretta Lynn
          or Tom T. Hall? Conversely, would he have the chutzpah to say that a
          rap list is too black? The answer to those questions is no, of course.

          >Woodrow Wilson's praise of the KKK was included in the cinematic love letter
          >to white supremacy that was The Birth of a Nation

          Highly disputed that the quote actually came from WW. Critics like
          Roger Ebert also like BOAN but that doesn't necessarily make them
          racist. It's historically important, like it or not, as DJ Spooky
          could tell you.

          Best,
          Jason



          Perfect Sound Forever- online music magazine since 1993- now new and
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          <http://www.perfectsoundforever.com>
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        • Carl Z.
          ... I see that. As I hope was clear from my long post, I question the initial complaint. In a marketplace where hip-hop and R&B have quite happily dominated
          Message 4 of 16 , May 22, 2006
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            On 5/19/06, Wilson, Carl <cwilson@...> wrote:
            >
            > Sasha has had this
            > complaint about indie rock for years and used Merritt
            > (opportunistically, I'd have to say) as a stand-in to ground his
            > generalizations. I don't think that was the right move. But I'm not sure
            > he's wholly wrong about the generalizations.
            >

            I see that. As I hope was clear from my long post, I question the initial
            complaint. In a marketplace where hip-hop and R&B have quite happily
            dominated popular music (both in sales and in influence on pop, country,
            rock, and jazz releases) do the particular influences of "indie rock"
            matter? (My observation of the indie-rock kids in Pittsburgh indicates that
            hip-hop is enthusiastically embraced by the old-sweater & Vans-wearing
            crowd...but perhaps this is not true everywhere?)

            Yeah. But then there's the continuing mockery of R&B and hip-hop in
            > "ironic" covers by the very hippest and supposedly most intelligent
            > segment of college-type bands throughout that same period. Which is
            > maybe something that should be addressed.
            >

            Are you thinking of the Gourds' "Gin and Juice" or something else? This may
            be a blind spot for me as I am honestly not cognizant of a spate of these
            covers. I remember OutKast's "Hey Ya" getting lots of covers, but they
            didn't sound ironic or winking to me, just enthusiastic.

            Again, what effects do these
            > attitudes have on that small world rather than on the larger one - which
            > may not matter to most people, unless you're a part of that world (which
            > I am). Or may matter to the larger world because this audience is
            > disproportionately people (young white elites) who go on to make culture
            > or the chattering classes or be involved in politics or business, etc.
            > and therefore have a sway beyond their numbers.
            >
            > But of course many indie kids listen to hip-hop and pop too, more and
            > more all the time, and this argument maybe happening just at the point
            > where it's becoming less important to have it. Maybe that's why we're
            > now able to have it?
            >

            Maybe, though I do not think the love for hip-hop is anything new...and also
            that the "small world" of indie rock is not -- as a community of listeners
            -- something that's been homogenous for at least the last 15 years. Or to
            put it another way, the kids who ran out and got anything released by
            Matador in the 1990s seemed to have much broader music collections than the
            kids who ran out to get every SST release in the 1980s. (Not just R&B or
            hip-hop -- unironic love of ABBA, for example, seemed greater to me ten
            years ago than twenty. Country music as well.)

            >Kirsty MacColl certainly changed her musical direction over the course
            > of her life, but I would be hard pressed to find even a slight influence
            > of hip-hop. Or any reason to lament that absence. If Merritt wants to
            > listen to Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah instead of Luther Vandross, should that make
            > any difference to us as listeners?
            >
            > I feel like by continually taking this back to Merritt's music - as
            > opposed to his writing and public statements - you're distorting the
            > argument. I haven't seen anyone saying that Merritt must funk up his
            > music. They have tended to use the music supplementarily as a way of
            > showing the consistency of the "white obsessions" or whatever else they
            > are claiming based on selective and out-of-context uses of his
            > statements.
            >

            In my attempts to make sense of the rockist critique (admittedly based on
            the Times article), it is hard to see the logic of the argument as it
            relates to Merritt without bringing it back to Merritt's music.

            I certainly don't want Merritt to make his music blacker. The more
            > serious argument is, if there's a whole genre of music - indie rock,
            > including for instance alt-country - in which people draw on all kinds
            > of influences but very very rarely on African-American music of the past
            > 25 years, is that worthy of discussion and critique? That seems a lot
            > more reasonable. Or would have a few years ago. But as I've said, I
            > think it's decreasingly true.
            >
            > By the way, wouldn't you say there's a hip-hop influence in "Walking
            > Down Madison"? (not that this alters your point)
            >

            Sure, I can see that, though honestly it doesn't come to mind when I hear
            the song. A critique of alt-country as white seems like better grist than
            critiquing indie-rock, honestly (and one that No Depression has addressed
            from time to time, especially in relation to covering blues musicians...but
            we are getting away from the "last 25 years" argument a bit there).

            >
            > >Because the masses sure seem like they prefer music with strong
            > African-American influences. (Well beyond the masses'
            > preferences to live in desegregated communities, which is a subject
            > worth more discussion than we give it in public these days.)
            >
            > Yeah - the use of music as a form of tourism in a reality that few are
            > willing to live out socially is a serious question. On the one hand you
            > can critique it. On the other hand you could see it as a utopian impulse
            > that could be built upon.
            >

            This issue alone is worthy of a book's investigation, related to white
            Americans' consumption of not just music, but sports and film. Spike Lee's
            asides in Do the Right Thing about white racists loving Michael Jordan come
            to mind (so does his Bamboozled), but more could and should be said...

            >I am more interested in advancing a discussion of what relations exist
            > between art and racism, specifically how art matters to the propagation
            > of racial inequalities.... We like to think art is transformative (cue a
            >
            > wish that Neil Young's new album spurs voter registration drives) rather
            > than reflective, but that is rare at best. To what degree do the hopes
            > and intents of the artist matter in the effects of the art on society?
            >
            > I'm with you on the interest. But precisely because of the unlikelihood
            > of culture accomplishing mass change rather than reflecting it, I'm more
            > interested in discussing it on an individual level: Rather than how
            > culture should change in relationship to racism, I want to ask how an
            > awareness of endemic racism (and its existence therefore in my own
            > unconscious) might motivate me to change my relationship with culture.
            > Arguing about Stephin Merritt probably won't change either Stephin
            > Merritt (and maybe it shouldn't) or the degree of cultural segregation
            > broadly going on - but it might have an effect on the cultural attitudes
            > and assumptions of the people *taking part in the conversation.*
            >

            Who has this been so far? Is Carr's article reflective of who's been
            talking?

            The interesting thing about a lot of the reaction to this debate - look
            > at things like the comments box to the Slate article - is how angry and
            > offended and dismissive it is - not so much of the slur against Merritt
            > (which would be worth being angry about) but against *the very idea of
            > having a discussion about the social implications and meanings of
            > taste.* That intensely defensive reaction is telling, and I think it is
            > worth continuing to try to wear those defenses down. But hopefully by
            > less libelous means.
            >

            Indeed. One of the reasons why I've engaged in this discussion is because
            Americans really need to discuss racism more honestly. My problem with the
            Merritt debate as I understand it is that it appears to miss the greater
            issue of systematic inequalities for the question of "is this guy a
            racist?" *That* kind of argument is not far from Michelle Malkin's work,
            which obscures rather than reveals the truth (though to be clear, I am not
            accusing Frere-Jones of advocating internment camps based on ethnicity,
            unlike what Malkin does at the extremes of her argument). I do think
            Frere-Jones is onto something historically by identifying the last 25-30
            years of African-American music as something particularly significant to
            discuss in American culture. I am less sure that indie-rock as presently
            constituted works in this discussion. (I would love to see a like-minded
            article by him in No Depression, though.)

            Carl Z.


            [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
          • Carl Z.
            ... I am trying to imagine what that would sound like. One question I have about Axl s song -- do you (all readers here, not just Jason) sense that G n R got
            Message 5 of 16 , May 22, 2006
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              On 5/19/06, Jason Gross <perfectlist@...> wrote:
              >
              >
              > - Something that should be obvious: Magnetic Fields aren't
              > Skrewdriver (a blatantly racist band) for god's sake! Did SM cover
              > (Guns N' Roses') "One In A Million"?
              >

              I am trying to imagine what that would sound like. One question I have
              about Axl's song -- do you (all readers here, not just Jason) sense that
              G'n'R got millions of listeners to become more sympathetic to racist and
              homophobic bigotry, or that the people who loved that song were receptive
              because they already had those tendencies? Again, was art reflective of
              something ugly? I tend to think that way, and hope showing the popularity
              of such work leads to discussions of the underlying problems rather than
              simply criticizing Axl for being a jackass (which he is, but if we're
              considering listener response, I have never seen anyone nearly as offended
              by his work as I did when my Pop Music History professor at USCS induced
              several African-American students to walk out of the lecture hall when -- as
              an example of ragtime -- he played Randy Newman's "Rednecks" without any
              explanation).


              >Woodrow Wilson's praise of the KKK was included in the cinematic love
              > letter
              > >to white supremacy that was The Birth of a Nation
              >
              > Highly disputed that the quote actually came from WW. Critics like
              > Roger Ebert also like BOAN but that doesn't necessarily make them
              > racist. It's historically important, like it or not, as DJ Spooky
              > could tell you.
              >

              Yes, but. Wilson certainly did not disown the panel in BOAN with his
              purported quote, not during the remaining years of his presidency all of
              which had that film as the most popular in the nation. He could have
              disowned it, but did not. (A cynical observer of history would question why
              he would. His voting coalition did not -- and I am understating the case --
              object to white supremacy.) And while BOAN is historically important for
              being the first long-form film (and highest-grossing film for almost twenty
              years), it is also historically important for its effect on the NAACP.
              During its first decade in existence, the NAACP had two major nationwide
              campaigns. One was to shame the government into investigating lynchings.
              The other was to mount protests nationwide against BOAN.

              You can certainly watch BOAN without being a racist (much like you can
              listen to G'n'R, David Allan Coe, or Professor Griff). But my point with
              Wilson and the film is that he was involved in a blatantly racist statement
              and did not refute it. His policies certainly reflected that -- the Wilson
              years were terrible ones for American race relations. Now that Bush listens
              to Escovedo, he's suggesting moblizing the National Guard to repel brown
              people at the border. What these guys watch or listen to does not affect
              the systematic inequality they propagate.

              (Not to limit the discussion to presidents. I hope my part of this
              discussion makes clear that I implicate homeowners in all-white suburbs who
              listen to Luther Vandross and Snoop Dogg yet fear black neighbors just as
              much as I implicate Bush. Perhaps Frere-Jones is trying to get indie-rock
              listeners to question their tastes and habits; I maintain that the tastes in
              art are at best reflective, at worst irrelevant to what people are doing
              vis-a-vis our fellow Americans. Money and fear are terribly powerful
              motivators.)

              Carl Z.


              [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
            • Wilson, Carl
              ... have the guts to say the same thing in print about say Loretta Lynn or Tom T. Hall? Conversely, would he have the chutzpah to say that a rap list is too
              Message 6 of 16 , May 23, 2006
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                Jason wrote:
                >- FNW is a white list, Sasha? Sounds kind of racist to me. Would he
                have the guts to say the same thing in print about say Loretta Lynn or
                Tom T. Hall? Conversely, would he have the chutzpah to say that a rap
                list is too black? The answer to those questions is no, of course.

                Um, that was actually me, Jason, and I wasn't saying this list is "too
                white." I was just observing that most of the music it concerns itself
                with tends to be "white." I can't even find the context now, so I don't
                recall what the point of bringing it up was. But I don't think the
                impression should be left that Sasha Frere-Jones ever insulted this list
                (or even indicated any awareness of its existence).

                carl w.
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