There’s an article on Slate right now that says some pretty sorry things about the state of culture in this nation.
Stephin Merritt is an unlikely cracker. The creative force behind the Magnetic Fields, Merritt is diminutive, gay, and painfully intellectual. His music is witty and tender. He plays the ukulele. He named his Chihuahua after Irving Berlin. And yet no less an influential music critic than The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones has used that word—”cracker”—to describe him. Frere-Jones has also called him “Stephin ‘Southern Strategy’ Merritt,” presumably in reference to Richard Nixon’s race-baiting attempt to crush the Democratic Party. These are heady words, part of a two-year online campaign of sorts by Frere-Jones and the Chicago Reader music contributor Jessica Hopper to brand Merritt a racist. The charge: He doesn’t like hip-hop, and on those occasions when he’s publicly discussed his personal music tastes, he has criticized black artists.
The article goes on to say that his dislike of Justin Timberlake, among others, is a symptom of his “racism”, since Timberlake likes “black music”.
Frere-Jones and Hopper continue to misquote a keynote speech Merritt delivered at a music conference (While he said he deplored the message of “Song of the South”, he said “Zip-adee-doo-dah” was a ctachy song), and insist that if his CD collection isn’t proportionate to the size of the black population of America, he’s racist.
I think about my own life. I could have moved into a whiter neighborhood, but instead chose an apartment building that’s about 2/3 black. I could have had a place in Cordova that would have been less in rent and perhaps even less in taxes if I chose a spot that Herenton hadn’t annexed yet. I made these choices because I didn’t want to live in an insular white neighborhood.
And as cliche as it sounds, I have very good black friends that I cherish as deeply as my own family. Anything I do politically, I touch bases with Brad Watkins on. Why? I value his input. If I had it my way, Reginald Fentress and Darrick Harris would be on their way to the Shelby County Commission.
But according to Frere-Jones and Hopper… I’m a racist.
I loathe most rap. I find most of it to be intellectually and creatively bankrupt. Every once in a while, a rapper will come along that does something interesting sonically, such as when Digable Planets came out.
But really, there’s a limit to how much “I’m a thug” posturing I can listen to. When I hear a rapper doing endless songs about… what a great rapper he is, I say “Thank you for going so boldly where the Sugarhill Gang went 25 years ago”. It’s a mystery to me how any black woman could listen to rap— I would probably be offended by being characterized as a “ho”.
On September 13, we’ll actually have gone a decade without the last guy that I considered to be a good rapper, Tupac Shakur. When Curtis Jackson started calling himself “50 Cent”, I think he might have been overly optimistic. And I find the Snoop Dogg phenomena truly mystifying— By “pimping hos”, he’s bringing slavery into the 21st century. And this is a good thing?
Does this mean I’m a racist? No. Does it mean I look down on people who like this music? I don’t understand it, but no.
It just means my taste runs in a different direction. My favorite band, Dream Theater, puts more changes in their music than you’ll find in a symphony. And yes, they are white. Perhaps I’m more accustomed to the idea of people not liking my favorite music than Frere-Jones and Hopper are— The only people that listen to Dream Theater are other musicians that are simply stunned that they can do the things they do.
I might meet the “12% of the CD collection must be black” standard, but certainly not the way Frere-Jones and Hopper might want me to. I love 70’s soul music. To hell with 50 Cent, Kanye West, and Beyonce— Give me Isaac Hayes, Al Green, George Clinton and P-Funk, Sly & the Family Stone, and Stevie Wonder (Pre-Paul McCartney duets). I also love blues— Give me BB King, Robert Johnson, and Muddy Waters any day of the week. In that vein, Keb’ Mo’ is easily the most underrated artist of this generation, and he deserves to be a much bigger star than he is.
So my big question is this— Is The New Yorker shortchanging its readers by inflicting upon them a music critic whose world view is as limited as that of Sasha Frere-Jones?