Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Audio Black Face II

"Winehouse's infamous image, as anyone who has looked on the Internet lately knows, is less about dignity and more about a march toward Sid Vicious-style self-immolation-- a No Future punk-degeneration dreamgirl chic, with a dash of Funny Girl Babs thrown in for good measure. What makes this act slightly less than amusing is the fact that Winehouse has built her stardom on recycling the looks and sounds-- the  Wurlitzer, hand claps and upright bass-- of Freedom Ride-era pop music to sell her tale of rapidly unfolding decline. It's one thing in our celebreality culture of scandals and bad behavior to garner attention by singing a pop anthem about resisting rehab. It's quite another to set these finely crafted tales from the "gritty" English 'hood to doo-wop hopefulness and buoyant, "Dancing in the Streets" percussive melodies that recall the upbeat tenor of King-era activism. This summer, the dissonance grew deafening when Winehouse was caught on video singing slurs about blacks and Asians--not to mention gays and disabled folk--to the tune of "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" while hanging out in what looked like a crack den. A few weeks later, issuing the requisite public apology, she slurred her way through the lead vocals of the Special AKA's New Wave classic, "Free Nelson Mandela," in the presence of the man himself, on the occasion of his ninetieth birthday celebration in Hyde Park."

While I do agree with Brooks' evaluation for the most part, and have been similarly disappointed in Winehouse's performance and perverse success, especially when you consider Sharon Jones' relatively lower sales, I have to stop and wonder if I am wrong in being so critical. After all, isn't black music essentially about reinvention and improvisation, which is arguably what Winehouse does? And as a post modern artist, shouldn't she be commended for reinterpreting traditional forms of music, adding in her own (albeit twisted) way elements of modern existence - which I am sorry to say includes drug and alcohol abuse along with all the other social taboos that Winehouse freely indulges in? Plus, can we really compare her to the minstrel acts if we know that her music is not merely a performance and is in deed a retelling of her real life as she lives it? Isn't it possible that in being an "outsider" herself (Jewish, female, working class) she has found in black music a form of expression that has traditionally been an outlet for the ostracized? And to take a step further, and bring up a point that has long troubled me, what does it mean to use terms like "black music." I took a class this past spring on the topic and as most of these college courses go, we did not really get to a definitive answer, and maybe that's because there really isn't one. But if I am to stick to my mantra about generalizations, cliches etc then wouldn't the logical conclusion be that it is impossible if not ignorant to compartmentalize music based on racial criteria?

I have been thinking about ownership and identity what with the recent article I read over at Dutty Artz and even though I left that post hanging, I find that I am forced to reconsider this issue again. I am a little bit more skeptical about Moby's method, however, than I am of Winehouse's - this is not to say that I value any one of their musical contributions more, but that I think Winehouse's link to black music seems a little more organic than Moby's.

In his piece, Taliesin writes:
"Somehow Moby has tamed the crude and deep emotions of the Southern negro and created a music with all of the potent signifiers of hip (synth pads!!! safe minorities!!! bass beats!!!) and none of the burden of the lived experience of black folk."
While Taliesin's argument gets incredibly technical (can't front, I had to reread it to get what he was talking about), I generally agree that Moby's rendition of the music is sterilized. However, I tend to be a little bit more lenient on these matters and think that Moby's citation, although not as thorough as it could have been (if you agree with Taliesin's argument), is sufficient in encouraging the conscientious listener to dig deeper and learn more about the original artists and their music. Taliesin sort of acknowledges this as well, as he points out that his argument is more about "superstructural forces of mass marketing" and lays the responsibility more squarely on the audience.

UPDATE: Tami over at Racialicious tackles this issue and further explores the subsequent complications.

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