Friday, June 8, 2007

My iPod told me I'm racist.

It didn't tell me that in so many wordsor even in words, periodbut I know. I can feel it.

See, I've been going through old e-mails recently, and one e-mail I found in my work account's in-box contained the body of a New York Times article from May 18, 2006. The article mentioned one of my employer's freelance music critics, Jessica Hopper, who had accused musician Stephin Merritt of Magnetic Fields of being a racist based on his music preferences. Apparently a New Yorker music critic agreed with her:

In 2004 Mr. Merritt, writing in The New York Times, chose seven records for a feature called Playlist. None of the records he chose were by black artists, prompting Sasha Frere-Jones, a music critic at The New Yorker, to conclude at the time on his personal blog that Mr. Merritt had a bias against black music, calling him "'Southern Strategy' Merritt." A series of posts ensued from Mr. Frere-Jones suggesting that a list of the best songs of the past century that Mr. Merritt made while he was a critic at Time Out New York underrepresented black artists.

Accusations of racism based on musical taste are pretty ludicrous. We all like what we like. As a white male, I tend to identify strongly with other white males, and when it comes to music, I often identify strongly with white males who sing about girls and love and sunshine. That's not a hate crime. Besides, if a black artist were to list seven records for that Playlist feature and none of the records were by white artists, would anyone cry foul, particularly black music critics? I doubt it.

(Here's something I've always liked about the Isley Brothers: just as white musicians "stole" rock 'n' roll from black musicians and made it popular in the '50s, the Isleys, in the early to mid-'70s, covered plenty of songs by white musicians—
Seals & Crofts's "Summer Breeze," Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me," Carole King's "It's Too Late," James Taylor's "Fire and Rain," and Stephen Stills's "Love the One You're With," to name a few—effectively hijacking folk-pop and soft rock and adding some soul to it.)

But the article goes on to mention that in 1996 Merritt was interviewed for Mojo magazine and, when asked about his white musical influences, responded, "I think my records could be listened to by the Ku Klux Klan!" Fan those flames, Merritt! (Sarcasm doesn't always go over well in print.) The article also says:

Mr. Merritt, who would not agree to be interviewed, is certainly no fan of modern hip-hop. In an interview in the online magazine Salon in 2004 he said that much of contemporary rap engages in "more vicious caricatures of African-Americans than they had in the 19th century." He singled out OutKast, a critically adored African-American duo.

Of all the rap acts he could've named, Merritt picked OutKast? Maybe he was just sick of hearing about them by 2004, because after Speakerboxxx/The Love Below came out in the fall of '03, white people (including Hopper and Frere-Jones, perhaps) had their heads firmly planted up the collective ass of the Atlanta group. In fact, if we're going to draw racial lines here, OutKast does belong to a subcategory of rap that I've heard one white person refer to as "rap that white people like." Other artists in this category include De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, Jurassic 5, Digable Planets, Public Enemy, Kanye West, and maybe Common at this point. Hey, guess what? I like all of those artists too! (Well, some of them anyway.)

The artists I mentioned generally talk less about their bank accounts than other rappers do, although they're not against bragging for bragging's sake, e.g. West and OutKast's Big Boi. You could infer that white people prefer rappers who don't focus on money because whites, on average, are better off financially than blacks in America, and therefore it's not a compelling subject, but that's a little too easy.

A year or so ago I passed by a black woman at Walgreens who was singing along softly to James Taylor's "Shower the People," which was playing over the PA. Did I yell "Race traitor!" in her face? Did I ask her if an old Isley Brothers album introduced her to Taylor? No. Once again, we like what we like, to each his own, etc.

But let's get to the main event (especially since all of this was debated over a year ago by far better writers than myself)—let's use the Onion AV Club's "Random Rules" guidelines to see just how supremely, but randomly, white I am as a music listener. I set my iPod to "shuffle," and here are the first five songs that came up:

1. "Open My Eyes" by Cory Sipper
2. "Superman [Prelude and Main Title March]" by John Williams
3. "Notice" by Gomez
4. "Just for Tonight" by Vanessa Williams
5. "Unguarded Minute" by Daryl Hall & John Oates

Hmm ... I'm very white, not Barry White, after all. Cory Sipper is a female artist, but she's also melanin deficient. And Nietzsche's philosophy of an übermensch, or "superman," was twisted around by Hitler and used as Nazi propaganda, so now I'm looking pretty Aryan all of a sudden. Despite their misleading name, Gomez is a British group full of white guys. Hall & Oates play "blue-eyed soul," but they once said they consider that term racist, because to them soul is color-blind. Take that, Mr. Frere-Jones and Ms. Hopper! Vanessa Williams, thank you for popping up. Williams, as you may know, is a black woman with blue eyes, which further shoots the theory of blue-eyed soul out of the water. (Speaking of water, "Just for Tonight" is a 1991 ballad that isn't much thicker than water, but I still like it.)

Alright, let's try this one more time so I can prove to music critics everywhere that I do indeed have hip-hop and '70s soul on my iPod next to all those white-male-sung love songs:

1. "For Lovers Only" by Maxwell
2. "Monster Hospital" by Metric
3. "Oh Delilah" by the Rudds
4. "I Was Wrong" by Danny Wilson
5. "Blue Moon" by the Marcels

Dammit! We started off all high and mighty with Maxwell, whose new album has been rumored to be "in the final stages" for almost two years now, but then Metric showed up (female and Canadian), followed by the Rudds (a pop-rock group from Boston that includes ex-Papas Fritas frontman Tony Goddess ... who's white) and Danny Wilson (Scottish and therefore white). But the Marcels were black, weren't they? Actually, according to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame Foundation, three members were black and two were white, at least for the recording of "Blue Moon."

One of my favorite groups of all time is Sly and the Family Stone, which contained blacks and whites, males and females, all working together to make incredible music that blended elements of pop, rock, and soul. Mr. Merritt, why don't you just tell people you like the Family Stone? That'll get people off your back. But don't make any cracks about Charlize Theron being the hottest African-American you've ever seen—although that's technically accurate, it won't win you any points.

Let's try this one more time, just to see what comes up:

1. "Doctor My Eyes" by Jackson Browne
2. "Skyway [Live]" by Paul Westerberg
3. "Airbag" by Radiohead
4. "Don't Let It Get You Down" by Spoon
5. "Lady Face [Live]" by Todd Rundgren

Ouch. White white white. But Westerberg and Rundgren are two of my favorite white males who've sung about girls and love and sometimes sunshine, and as I get older I look to music for comfort more often than not. I'm still thrilled to stumble across music that has the power to move or thrill me in ways I didn't expect (like Wheat or Murs and 9th Wonder), but high school ended a long time ago, so I no longer feel the need to impress anyone with my taste in music. And neither should Stephin Merritt, nor should he have to defend his taste. (Might wanna lay off the KKK references from now on, though.) For that matter, neither should the black lady singing along to a James Taylor ballad in Walgreens. Shower the people you love with love, and shower them with girls and sunshine and a few hey yas as well while you're at it. Dance to the music, because in the end it only wants to take you higher.


  1. Interesting subject. I guess I would define a musical racist as anyone having public issues with other people's musical taste (for whatever reason.)

    If a newspaper like The New York Times systematically underrepresented black music in their reviews, it would be an obvious case of musical racism. So the editor may be a musical racist, but as I understand it, these accusations are aimed solely at Mr. Merritt's writings based on his personal taste, and that's just silly.

    The random iPod-thing is a great idea. I think I'll write an entry on my own blog based on a random selection from my mp3-collection (why does that make me think "Russian Roulette", I wonder?)

  2. "Some Folks Is Even Whiter Than Me" --Todd Rundgren

    I completely lost respect for Jessica Hopper when it turned out that she had misrepresented and got flat-out wrong much of what Merritt actually said, and when called on it she acknowledged it but didn't back off an inch from her inflammatory position, which clearly preceded -- as did Frere-Jones's -- the controversy they manufactured. Self-righteousness knows no shame.

  3. Frere-Jones is perhaps the worst critic working today. His _New Yorker_ blatherings are full of half-chewed hipster cliches and in-your-face-dude! controversialism. Screw the idjit.

  4. Hmm,

    Unsung by Helmet
    Phantom Limb by the Shins
    Parallel or Together? by Ted Leo + Pharmacists
    The Bad Thing by the Arctic Monkeys
    Roll the Credits by Peter Bjorn & John

    Man, I'm white.

    But wait, what's this?

    Ain't Sayin' Nothin' New by the Roots
    Lola Stars and Stripes by the Stills
    Golden Skans by the Klaxons
    Iron Maiden by Ghotface Killah
    The Shankill Buthers by the Decemberists ...

    Hmmm. Still white.

  5. is charlize being propped up in a hospital bed?

  6. Yes, she is. She was running a fever; it's an unfortunate side effect of being so naturally HOT. (Original? No. But factually accurate, so it doesn't have to be funny.)