clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, December 22, 2003
Tom has graciously responded to my response to his "Hey Ya" review. It's all good. Let me use this opportunity, though, to respond to a few of the things brought up in the response and the comments thread.

Specifically: "whiteness." Now, I've actually addressed this before--I think that it's glaringly obvious that Andre's concern with The Love Below image-wise (so i.e. the album art and videos and so forth) was, at least in part, to play with whiteness as a trope or image or artistic technique, and to in some ways reimagine the history of pop music. You could worry, given the pre-release rhetoric Andre was putting out, that he had gone all serious-artist Prince on us, but of course, this turned out not to be the case. In making an argument about the debasedness of modern music by making music that was much better, he made a reactionary statement in a profoundly liberal way. Kind of like punk, he doesn't so much seek to recreate an old style as forge a new style by willfully ignoring or selectively interpreting decades of artistic history.

With the video, I think Tom nails it in comments:

The video is clever cos it's imagining - as I see it - Outkast as Ed Sullivan Show world-changers in a universe where black people got on those kind of 60s pop shows and where black families were watching them. Not knowing the details of Ed Sullivan this may have been the case anyway but I don't get the impression it was. It enhances the integration aspects of the song - which I do 'get', thanks Matthew, that's one of the reasons I like it - and predicts its own crossover too. I was just trying to speculate on what makes the song different and the nerdy thing is my best stab at explaining it.

Mwanji is right, too, in saying that the song and video are not being wholly white. This is true, but it's better for being true. Andre's not doing a reverse minstrel act, he's doing a reinterpretation, and it's amazingly effective. He's retelling the history of pop music with blacks as the dominant culture, which is what's white about it. Sure, the specific forms scream "white" but it's the setting and the audience and the implied economic positions--for instance, in a white-dominated late 50's/early 60's, a really hot drummer, black or not, could never perform shirtless on a TV program, but it's reasonable to assume that in a black-dominated culture, he could have, and all the performers are clearly allowed to be differentiated as individuals instead of being grouped in identical suits--that make it an alternative history. It goes beyond its most logical predecessor, Nirvana's "In Bloom" video, by not merely pointing out the ha-ha irony of placing today's libidinal, debauched music in the context of the straight-laced variety programs (a key sign here, given their clashes with Elvis/Morrison/Jagger et al over suggestive behavior), but by taking on the variety shows on their own terms, showing what was and could have been good about them.

In other words, Andre is retelling history with transparent falsehoods, and in doing so, allows us to reclaim it. Transparent falsehoods here being better than the half-truths one sometimes sees in revisionist history because they immediately stave off any criticism of their falsehood and ideological bent by acknowledging it and playing with it, and better than murky full truths by being a better and more understandable story. (By "better," of course, I don't mean more noble but more effective. And if you don't think there's something of an agenda here, well, I wonder what hip-hop you've been listening to.) Telling a plausible untruth that happily admits its artificiality gives us another narrative to choose from, another history to believe in when we're making the new, and in that it's remarkable. What's presented is a past where blacks participated openly in the mainstream, and one of the useful services that provides is to take black music out of the position of being always oppositional--which, let's be honest, is the actual position it finds itself in today, even if it continues to pretend otherwise. If the position of a MC or a R&B or soul singer is always that of being oppressed, either by the culture or by society or love, then it's hard to make music that encompasses the promise of change. Andre's vision--which is not trailblazing so much as being a perfect encapsulation of the tenor of the times--stands out because when most musicians, black or white, engage in the practice of criticism, 99% of the time it takes the form of mere objection or complaint: my life sucks, oppression sucks, the government is unjust, men suck, women suck, and so forth. Partially, I'll happily acknowledge, this is because complaint sounds so goddamn good in pop music: a rocker screaming about something or other is often really enjoyable to listen to, and, honestly, most of us spend a decent portion of our lives pissed off anyway, so we can certainly relate. But what's done far less often, and even less often well, is to express the possible good. "You could be free," for instance, is one of the best and one of the most common but, at this point, one of the least convincing. Andre's works in large part because so much of it is being conveyed wordlessly. The music just makes you want to fucking move, to do something, to dance around and sing and get out there and, I dunno, plant a tree or something. And the video imagines something in a way that is, as I say, not actually true, but possibly true. The vision is wonderful because it is so inclusive: everyone is in on this, everyone could dance, everyone could watch this show and feel some kinship with it.

Andre is here performing one of my favorite artistic/critical tricks: he is taking a joke literally, and what he's getting out of it is magnificent. The joke in question is the one about whiteness meaning power. Of course, it doesn't, any more than cookie = power; the fact that white people have most of the power in the world is simply an accident of history. But I don't think we speak about it that way. We speak of it like this: to be white is to have power, we must end white power, the image of power is an old white man in a business suit. But we speak of it in these terms because to not do so would be both silly and dishonest. Sure, it's an illogical thing, but it's still a true thing, and while there are certainly non-whites with power, that doesn't matter so much for rhetorical purposes. The concentration of money and power in the hands of one particular race, and moreover, one particular country, is monumentally unjust. For most people's purposes, whiteness does equal power--but it's true in the sense that a joke is true. It's honest, but it's not right.

But what Andre does is take it to sort of a logical extreme. What if whiteness' association with power really is this sort of purely accidental thing? It can't just be the skin, since there are many impotent and poor whites. What is it, then? Ah, well: the trappings. The signs and signals. The--maybe--culture. And if these things are the source of the power, then the power is very easily transferred. Hip-hoppers' bling-bling aesthetic, which reclaims Bentleys and Escalades as emblems of specifically black affluence, don't go far enough: Andre wants to go back and reclaim the history first, take all the symbols that morphed into our modern culture and make them (gulp) multicultural. More accurately, he doesn't want to colonize or imitate high-class culture: he wants to colonize the white middle class, which, of course, blacks have been doing for a while both in reality and in the culture (think the Cosby Show). But Andre takes that joke (middle-class blacks as just like the rest of us) and the joke about whiteness as a sort of secret magical incantation, a ring of power if you will, and rewinds it about 40 years, reclaiming the very image on which today's white middle-class bases its cultural memory and standards.

And ultimately, of course, whiteness becomes an incidental issue to class, as we all knew it would. No one claims that, the characters in, say, Bad Boys are "acting white" because they're acting rich. Same with your standard-issue bling-bling. (There's also the criminal element to it in the Mafia allusions, and criminals have always existed safely outside the mainstream, no matter the race.) But because Andre acts middle-class, it's white. And to me, that's pretty damn interesting.

(Yes, before you suggest it, I am getting Bloom's _Anxiety of Influence_ for xmas. And aren't you proud of me for not using the word "reinscribe" once? I hate that word.)

UPDATE: At Mwanji's request, here is my post about Big Boi's "The Rooster." Incidentally, the top post on his blog right now is a link to a great article about session musicians, and his commentary is real nice.