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Saturday, February 05, 2005
I'm a little scattershot in my New Yorker reading, but having just got to it, I want to point out this article on Gershwin by Claudia Roth Pierpoint, which is both very good and very relevant; it's nice to know they were having these sorts of arguments 75 years ago, although I guess I knew that anyway. "How had a popular tunesmith composed our best-known achievements in classical forms? How had a child of Russian-Jewish immigrants come to represent the African-American voice? (Implicit in both: how had he dared?)" Good questions, but here's my question: at what point do these concerns go away? Ultimately, I don't think anyone's too concerned anymore about Gershwin appropriating black musical styles, and if they were, it would seem anachronistic, quaint; if you're going to go that far, why not just skip ahead to Elvis? So I was considering that these questions could not exist in the face of a critical consensus on quality (i.e. if everyone agreed that an artist was great, ultimately this rendered the question of their influences moot) but this was clearly not true--although Gershwin took a critical beating after "Rhapsody in Blue" (at least according to this piece), that particular composition rightly enjoyed something like universal acclaim. And ditto with MIA: people are objecting to her politics--or the politics of her music--not her music itself, which they like.[1] It just seems so weird to me for people older than 15 to apply this kind of structural morality to music-making that I have a hard time taking them seriously when faced with something as good as "Rhapsody in Blue" or Porgy and Bess. But look, here is this beautiful thing, right here, for you. You can do anything you want with it. It exists purely to bring you joy, and it succeeds in doing so. What's the goddamn problem?

Pierpoint points out that this was more or less the eventual reaction of actual musicians. While Cruse's "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual" "called for a boycott of the opera by all black musicians and insisted that it ought to be performed only by whites in blackface," those who apparently should have been offended most, like Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Miles Davis, couldn't stay away even if they wanted to, and that's not even clear. I won't deny that the sort of idioms or tropes used in Porgy and Bess can be troubling to modern sensibilities--I once worked on "Plenty o' Nuttin" and always felt real uncomfortable using the apparently overdone slang[2]--but these are transitory, a product of their time. What stands beyond is the underlying attitude, which is triumphalist, if also realist, way before it's paternalistic. Being somewhat ignorant in these matters, I never realized, as Pierpont points out, that "Gershwin [was] adamant (against Heyward’s advice) on using operatic recitative for the speech of the Negroes and spoken dialogue—flat, gruff, a break in the flood of music—for the intruding whites. The distinction is like that between Shakespearean characters who speak poetry and those limited to prose." This is art, so this is significant. It would be bad to present P&B to someone without a disclaimer that it represents outdated attitudes, but it's also unlikely that anyone in the modern world wouldn't be able to see that instantly; if anything, it's a barrier to enjoyment to be overcome now, like Shakespeare's linguistic anachronisms, not a driver of bad attitudes. Ultimately, the best argument you can make for Porgy & Bess is to play the songs. It's hard to argue with "Summertime." It's very hard to argue with "My Man's Gone Now."

But my favorite passage, in a fantastic piece, is this:

Gershwin was never much of a formal student. He quit high school at fifteen to
become the youngest “piano pounder” in Tin Pan Alley, and the rest of his
education was left to what he called “intensive listening”: in the concert halls
(he favored Russian composers, like himself), at Broadway revues, in the Yiddish
theatres, and, increasingly, in the clubs of Harlem. By 1916, the great black
jazz pianists James P. Johnson and Luckey Roberts were telling Eubie Blake about
“this very talented ofay piano player” who could perform their most difficult
tricks. The point is not that Gershwin was crossing boundaries but that he
didn’t recognize that there were any boundaries to cross.

This is pop. People will try and make you aware of the bounderies, but it is your duty to ignore them, to avoid their false morality. Certainly you need to be aware of it, to have a sort of humility for your source material, but this is true for all your source material, not just the stuff you take from existing forms. As a songwriter, I think you are humble before the fact that you can produce music from something like thin air.

But people want to impose other people's accolades--or the music's own greatness--onto the artist's own outlook. The article indirectly argues that the critical trashing and subsequent commercial failure of Porgy & Bess led to Gershwin's death: his headaches and bad temper were dismissed as the side effects of failure, not a brain tumor, as happened to be the case, and he died at 38, a good 40 years' worth of music unwritten. This is why I yell about this stuff, because it's not just an empty critical debate. Musicians listen to and care about this stuff, even when they shouldn't, even when they know they shouldn't. We all like to bitch about critics, but they do have an effect, over listeners and biz people and musicians. This shit doesn't matter, but it matters. The debates about Gershwin are still going on for a reason--they're unresolvable, and the swing between the two opposing viewpoints actually produce new art with their motions. These are things that should be argued about, but there should always be people pulling against the critical consensus, because that's what opens space in the middle for music to be made.

[1] The fact that MIA isn't Gershwin in at least 5 different way--but is Gershwin in at least 5 more--is a subject for my actual MIA post.
[2] Although I doubt modern instances of white kids trying to speak all in ghetto-talk are going to fare much better in 75 years.