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Tuesday, September 09, 2003
It's probably unfair to call Elvis' "In the Ghetto," as Anthony Easton does, "racial tourism for social concern and soultions that are not soultions [sic]." In fairness, he's doing this in the context of a it's-bad-but-I-like-it judgment call, but it's still not strictly accurate. The "racial tourism" bit, for instance--Elvis has certainly spent more time with actual real-life black people than, say, the far more politically respectable Beatles, so tourism it probably ain't, and Elvis came from poverty just as desperate as what he's describing here, even if it was the country rather than the city. Sure, there aren't any substantive solutions in the song, but are there any substantive solutions in "What's Going On" or "War" or any other anti-racist power ballad of the era? So if it isn't tourism for Elvis, just as it isn't tourism for the singers of the other songs, then who is it tourism for? Why, the listeners, of course. But there's the problem: I'm not really convinced that the listeners for "In the Ghetto" are any more culpable than the listeners for "What's Going On" (just to pick a random representative). Ostensibly the latter had a larger black audience, but given Elvis' sales numbers, you're going to have to show me some hard evidence to back that one up--did not a single black person (some living "in the ghetto," even) hear this song and/or respond to it? The point is that if you're arguing about efficacy, telling a group of people about conditions they're already aware of (the idealized black audience) probably isn't as valuable as imparting this information to a new group of people. So by this standard the white audience, the "tourists," are the ones that matter, and all are equally touristy, even if I'm not altogether sure that the white audience for "What's Going On" was more ignorant of social inequalities than the white audience for "In the Ghetto."

It's the same set of issues that plague the old canard of "multicultural literature"--awareness-as-pity, "The Man of Sentiment," turning your individualist experience generalist in order to represent a particular ethnic/racial/social group and in doing so essentially playing to the expectations and prejudices of outsiders, who are the intended recipients of any such missive. Even if, say, Sula or Woman Warrior or something by Sherman Alexie (who's way better if you just read everything he writes as a parody, incidentally) wasn't written in order to exploit stereotypes of a particular group, once it finds a wider audience it's easy to read it that way. It's like the old semiotics fable that any tribal language you can learn cannot, by definition, have been a "secret" language, because those are never told to outsiders. It's the multicultural version of an indie-rock sellout. The text loses its mystical quality of "authenticity" in the retelling. So by one standard, no group can ever really know anything about another group, because any successful communication will inevitably be couched in terms of the receiving group, and the teller himself will be tainted by this knowledge of how to speak the language of the receiving group, so no communication is really possible. On the other hand, Japan closes itself to outsiders for centuries and stagnates, only becoming a fully realized nation once it takes on the painful task of adjusting to the outside world, with much internal resistance. So you see this with the argument that certain forms of hip-hop (both the wildly mainstream and a certain branch of the underground) is illegitimate because too many white people listen to it and it's simply confirming their prejudices, either of a hard, alien "ghetto" life or the "magical mystical nigger" who has a special knowledge/coolness/etc. And despite my natural impulse to reject this simple-minded condemnation, I gotta say that I would be pretty eager to support this argument when made against a lot of the more mainstream multiculturalist lit, which seems simply designed to inspire pity in guilty liberals and middle-class white women watching Oprah, which is a whole other set of issues right there. (In brief, though, I think I hold writing to be a more "pure" genre than music, but I won't attempt to justify that, it's simply my kneejerk response.) So it's a difficult issue. We're not supposed to regard "In the Ghetto" as authentic because it's sung by a white man who rose up from poverty and has a weakness for cheesy arrangements, but we are supposed to regard "What's Going On" as authentic despite the fact that it's well-loved by white people with no experience of racial suffering?

But let's get back to that Beatles comparison. Like I say, the Beatles are regarded as far more sophisticated artists than Elvis, especially in terms of their political views. But the closest thing the Beatles ever wrote to an anti-racist song is "Blackbird," and while that may have more of a gauze of authenticity (ooh finger picking!), I don't think you could really consider it a more specific or political or even accurate song than "In the Ghetto," because while it has some nice images, it's not really saying anything. Which is fine--don't get me wrong, it's a good song--but the fact is, the Beatles were less political artists and more social critics. And if the worst excesses of the former would be a bunch of teenage hardcore kids doing amelodic songs in which they scream about globalization, the worst excesses of the latter could be something like a criticism of the color schemes of fast food franchises and their deadening effect on the human spirit. So while I'm pretty firm in my opposition to a lot of the expressions of "political music," I think the only reason social criticism doesn't take more heat is because it doesn't really take any chances; at worst, you can call it vapid, but not really offensive or strident. And I don't really think this makes it better.

Thus the argument could be made that the reason "In the Ghetto" sounds so bad to us today is because it truly was a political pop song, one that only had relevance in the time it was placed. So just as we wouldn't criticize elements of JFK's political platform as being irrelevant to us today or ignorant of current social conditions, maybe we shouldn't be so quick to judge something for which we weren't, after all, the intended audience.

At any rate, criticizing country music for writing songs that pity black people is sort of weird, since a lot of what country does already is pity white people. The pity is not a special treatment they're getting; it's just an effort, arguably, to make the issue relevant to the audience at hand.