The Null Device

Stephin "Southern Strategy" Merritt

Slate's John Cook looks at the issue of whether disliking hip-hop makes one a racist, and specifically, whether allegations of racism against Stephin Merritt, who has made statements about his dislike of hip-hop, are justified:
[N]o less an influential music critic than The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones has used that word —"cracker"—to describe him. Frere-Jones has also called him "Stephin 'Southern Strategy' Merritt," presumably in reference to Richard Nixon's race-baiting attempt to crush the Democratic Party. These are heady words, part of a two-year online campaign of sorts by Frere-Jones (also a former Slate music critic) and the Chicago Reader music contributor Jessica Hopper to brand Merritt a racist. The charge: He doesn't like hip-hop, and on those occasions when he's publicly discussed his personal music tastes, he has criticized black artists.
The Slate article concludes that the charges are, if you'll excuse the pun, without merit:
If black artists are underrepresented in my CD collection relative to the frequency with which black people are found in the general population, does that make me a racist? To even begin to believe that it does, you have to first maintain that racial preferences somehow logically relate to music preferences; that racists avoid music made by black people, and that people who aren't racist don't pay attention to the race of the artist when evaluating music. Both propositions are ludicrous. Anybody who has been to a frat party knows that people can simultaneously a) entertain racist attitudes and b) enjoy listening to hip-hop music created by black people. (In fact, Merritt's argument is that the latter tends to reinforce the former.)
The closest thing to a coherent argument that can be gleaned from what Frere-Jones and Hopper are saying is that a genuine respect for our common dignity and humanity requires that we enjoy listening to hip-hop, and that we bend our intuitive aesthetic judgments about music to a political will—like eating our vegetables and avoiding dessert. "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah" may be catchy and delightfully mindless, but an understanding of its context requires you to reject its charms. And Beyoncé may be trite and boring, but your subtle racist ideology provokes that reaction, so you must find a way to appreciate her music.
And if you can't? Try harder, cracker.
Of course, it depends whether on one's definition of "racist". If one defines racism as any deviation (outside a margin of sampling error) from the ratios in which racial/ethnic/cultural groups are represented in the cultural marketplace, then disproportionately liking "white" or "black" music would be racist; as would, for example, being more attracted to members of one ethnic group than another. However, such a definition of racism would damn almost the entire human race, and do little towards defining more meaningful definitions. And then there's the question (which Merritt himself raised) of whether some present hip-hop, which presents stereotypical images of black criminality for the consumption of predominantly suburban white teenagers, is problematic. Which suggests that this issue is not entirely cut and dried.

(Note the quotes around "black" and "white" music. The definition is a slippery one. Is expensively produced, extensively market-researched R&B, which would not exist in its present form without major-record-label investment and a huge market not limited to any one ethnic group, authentic "black" music? What if you replace R. Kelly with Justin Timberlake? Is Jennifer Lopez (who once considered herself entitled to use the N-word in lyrics) an honorary black person for the purposes of musical consumption? Is rock'n'roll (which is based on the blues) "white" music. And then there's Elvis Presley, Al Jolson and so on. In some ways, what gets classified as "black" music is that whose sound hasn't yet melted into the lexicon of the mainstream. The Spice Girls' first single, "Wannabe" (which, at the time, sounded closer to Salt'n'Pepa than the white manufactured all-girl pop groups from PWL and their ilk), could be said to sound more "black" than much of Prince's 1980s output (which, today, sounds more "1980s" than anything racially or ethnically specific.) And rock'n'roll, once seen as dangerously swarthy by pillars of (white) communities everywhere, is now the very definition of "whitebread", almost as much so as country music.

And in this discussion thread, Steve Albini weighs in on the issue:

Having had a distaste for hip hop since its earliest days, I have run afoul of this mentality for twenty-odd years. If you are involved in contemporary music, it is presumed that you appreciate hip-hop, or are at least deferential toward it as an arm of black culture.
I have equivalent genre distaste for almost all heavy metal (hip hop's culture-mirror equivalent), pastiche production pop music like Brintey Spears, Beyonce, Avril Lavigne et al, the REM-U2-Radiohead axis of millionaire dabbling, trash auteurs like Outkast, Beck and the Beastie Boys, teenager fake punk, and melismatic divas like Celine Dion. This is less in service of elitism than in making it possible for me to walk directly to the part of the record store where the good records are. I know what kinds of music speak to me the least, so I don't spend my energy combing through them looking for exceptions.
Picking on a tiny Southern queer for his music tastes and calling him a "cracker" is about as stupid as criticism can get.

There are 1 comments on "Stephin "Southern Strategy" Merritt":

Posted by: gjw http://the-fix.org Mon May 15 03:40:33 2006

The idea that hip-hop is automatically "black" is the start of where the whole premise falls down. Hip hop is about as black as jazz, these days, particularly once you look behind the Top 40 filmclips and into the cultural mix of people producing and listening to the music. Are Australians who don't like hip-hop, and hence dislike The Hilltop Hoods and The Herd racist?

I can understand people not liking hip-hop, just as I can understand every musical style having its detractors. However, I constantly get the impression that a lot of people are judging hip-hop soley by the bling-clad "gangsta" overproduced MTV crap. They should really wrap their ears around some Anti-pop Consortium or Saul Williams or Gift of Gab. Calling the Top 40 "hip-hop" is like calling Poison "heavy metal" when you should really be listening to Master of Puppets.

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