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George W. Bush Doesn't Like Black Music

By Caspar Salmon | Music | May 21, 2009 | Comments ()

By Caspar Salmon | Music | May 21, 2009 |


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Stephin Merritt, the lead singer of the quite wonderful Magnetic Fields, caused something of a debate among music critics a few years back, first by writing a list of the 20th Century's greatest recordings that featured only a handful by black artists, and then stating his distaste for hip-hop in an interview for Salon, singling out Outkast as an example of music that stereotypes black people. Sasha Frere-Jones, the critic for the New Yorker, called Merritt a 'rockist cracker' on his blog, and John Cook leapt to Merritt's defense at Slate magazine by asking, "If you don't like rap, are you a racist?", and pondering whether you need 12.5% of black music on your iPod in order to qualify as a non-racist.

I think we can all safely say that the answer to that is no (it may just be that you're a non-violent feminist and gay rights advocate; Oprah, for instance, famously refuses to interview rappers whose lyrics are sexist). But if you don't like rap, or blues, or soul, or funk, or reggae? Or rock? What does that make you? Well, it means that most likely you're not into rhythm or syncopation -- what black music brought with it, when the first blues artists started to change music in the 1930s, was a beat, and not just a little driving beat: it's a beat that sort of breaks itself, that draws attention to itself.

I'm interested in the way that the music you listen to is a reflection of who you are: does this debate carry over to other categories, like age, gender and sexuality? Is there such a thing as female music? I would argue that Joni Mitchell writes very female music (and indeed, at her beginnings, very white music; she later incorporated rhythm and world music to her sound, quite brilliantly). Is there such a thing as homosexual music? I'm not sure about that one: Merritt shares with Rufus Wainwright, Cole Porter and Noel Coward a certain sensibility, a delicacy of tone, and his songs have that irony that is a crucial component of camp. Is there a music of older people? I don't think so.

So anyway: let's start dissecting our music collections. I think I grew up listening to quite white music (The Beatles, Queen, Roberta Flack, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan), and slowly discovered that I also liked more black music: the passion of gospel and soul; the beat of hip-hop; the rhythm of blues. I think about 40% of the music I listen to now is black, but a worrying majority of that black music is from the olden days. In terms of modern music that might be termed black, I have a strong amount of hip-hop (from Public Enemy to Lupe Fiasco), a handful of grime (Dizzee Rascal), hardly any R'n'B, and no dance-hall/reggae etc. My tastes in modern music are very white indeed: a lot of the indie-pop I listen to is completely pale-face, from the Arcade Fire and Andrew Bird to Wainwright and Joanna Newsom (for instance). The predominance of my black music is from the thirties (Robert Johnson) through to the seventies (Stevie Wonder), at which point I start going off it because of my dislike of funk, which started to weave its way in around then.

So: not doing that well on race, Caspar. For shame. On women I'm doing OK -- I think I listen to about 50% female, 50% male artists. I know so many men who hardly listen to women at all, and I don't think this is about sexism so much as sexuality: I think so many songs deal with wanting to do someone, and a lot of men don't want to sing along to something that talks about a man. I could be wrong. It's also to do with voices: I marginally prefer listening to a female voice, but my sister, for instance, far prefers listening to a male voice. I like high notes, and can nearly match Joni Mitchell if I'm singing along. Mitchell I count particularly as very female music, as I said earlier, and so are Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Kate Bush, Loretta Lynn and Fiona Apple. I don't count Blondie as female, in the same way I don't count Love as black. I don't think of Patti Smith as very female, either, but she's not very male. Perhaps I should start enumerating androgynes.

As for homo music: hmm. I think we're looking at about 5% there: and even then, I'm having to count music by gay people and not necessarily gay music. I'm counting Wainwright, Final Fantasy, Chris Garneau, the Organ, k.d. lang, the Hidden Cameras, the Magnetic Fields, Cole Porter, Patrick Wolf. I'm not counting Little Richard. But there's no Cher, Kylie, Madonna or Pet Shop Boys. I think listening to a lot of women is probably quite gay. Interestingly, the gay stuff mostly comes from recent times. I'm not sure what to make of that: are there gay singers I'm unaware of, who were working in the 70s? Why are they only appearing now?

So that's race, gender and sexuality. I think in terms of nationality, I'm almost entirely USA. That accounts for country music, soul, gospel and blues, and most of the indie: I'd say about 85%. Canada is doing quite well, too, and Britain (where I actually live) and France (where I grew up) have only a smattering of stuff, from the Smiths (very white; not very gay) and Jacques Brel to Alasdair Roberts and Camille. Africa is very under-represented indeed, and so are Russia and Asia.

I think overall my music reflects my personality quite well: what it says is that I'm a non-racist white person who nevertheless doesn't know that many black people; that I feel the influence of American culture; that I try and keep up with modern stuff but listen to music predominantly from the olden days; that I'm queer and kind of OK with it. What are the demographics of your music? What does it say about you?

Caspar likes books, music and films, and would never be described as "enigmatic." Read more about him at his blog, Straight Outta Crouch End.


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