too much typing—since 2003


thinking outside the boxxx

In a development that should surprise no one, the Pazz & Jop poll put Outkast's Speakerboxxx/The Love Below as best album of 2003. In a development that, alas, should surprise no one, that result - combined with the fact that many critics who included Outkast in their lists named no other hip-hop/R&B titles - has led to a shitstorm of accusations, innuendo, grumbling, and (relatively rare) thoughtful analysis of why this is. (Most of you probably know that both the Jersey City Journal and Intellectual House o' Pancakes have extensive debates online, with many of the same participants - including myself, whose contributions I'd hope fall under "thoughtful analysis" but which you are free to recategorize...) The ILX site, however, found its debate initiated by some bozo who posted what amounts to a Nixonesque Enemies' List of such critics. I'm not sure what the purpose of this is, but the writer's choice of caption - "Tokenism-a-go-go" - goes a long way toward explaining it.

Here's my view: while it might indeed be the case that some people (critics, and actual people) like Outkast only because they're "supposed" to, or only because they feel they have to "like" at least one "hip-hop" act, it's probably a lot more likely that people like it because, uh, they like it. That is, once the CD - led by massive exposure for "Hey-Ya!" which is, in fact, a brilliant and infectious single - achieved a certain level of public notice, people were more inclined to check it out. I doubt that most people think in terms of genre when they're buying records - so there's no reason for a listener who likes the Outkast song to think, "Hmm, this is 'hip-hop,' so I should buy more hip-hop records." And I doubt even more that the average listener thinks, "This recording's by black artists - I like it, so I'll probably like other recordings by other black artists."

Thing is, we're talking about critics, not regular listeners. And critics, actually, are inclined to think in terms of genres, styles, analysis, etc. - and so it's a bit more reasonable to ask of them: if you like this hip-hop record, why not others? And here we get to the nub of Tris McCall's analysis: "Hey-Ya!" specifically, and Outkast generally, are closer to the sort of musical aesthetics preferred by (his term) "white hipsters" than a lot of other hip-hop records are. (Notice, for example, that "Hey-Ya!" is not a rap record - there's no rapping.) That in itself probably explains part of its popularity among critics who placed no other "hip-hop" recordings in their lists. Still, it's also true that if you're conscious of the contours of your taste (and if you're a critic, this is true by definition - and probably true if you are, consider yourself to be, or would like to be thought of as a "hipster"), and of critical discourse around popular music, you're surely aware of what's cool to like...and it is, undeniably, cool to like (some) hip-hop. So it seems undeniable that, for a certain percentage of those "hipsters" (some of whom are likely to be critics), there's some cool-making going on in their choice of Outkast. I also think that for McCall specifically, it's a lament that more people aren't checking out a whole realm of music that's been immensely rewarding to him. (I disagree, by the way, with a friend who claimed that his reaction was the sort of sour grapes characterizing people who need "pocket bands" no one else has heard of in order to maintain their coolness. Outkast has been popular for years; and hip-hop generally has been huge for at least a decade: if this were a matter of "I'm bummed that I'm no longer the sole cool guy at the party who knows this record," Outkast would be a very poor, even clueless, choice of record.)

But the approach taken by that ILX poster is pointless and reductive: critics, in entering a poll, are not endorsing sociological imperatives or setting themselves up as role models of cultural diversity (at least, I hope they'd avoid being so pretentious). I don't think anyone has an obligation to like any particular style of music, even if you could argue that critics have an obligation to be open-minded toward styles of music, at least except when they realize that they're allergic to a genre's defining traits. But open-mindedness doesn't necessarily lead to acceptance (nor should it, when we're only talking about whether someone likes a song) - so if someone just doesn't like the hip-hop he's heard, that shouldn't be held against him...even when he decides that he does like one particular hip-hop record. Implicit in the ILX guy's post is the notion that you can't like just one hip-hop record, or that doing so is somehow insincere, or even racist.

The other problem here is that top-ten lists are, by definition, limited. For all we know, every one of the critics smeared by Mr. ILX listed ten straight hip-hop albums immediately after the P&J form's cutoff. And why should hip-hopness - or blackness, to get to the real issue here - be the factor pointed at in noticing outliers in poll selections? My own 2003 list, for example, has only one entry that's folk-influenced, only one entry that displays rockabilly influence, only one album that suggests a familiarity with the Grateful Dead: in short, I could probably find something about every album on my list that makes it unique. But if I'd had one hip-hop album, suddenly I'm guilty of "tokenism"? (And is it better or worse that I have no hip-hop albums listed?)

The debate, to me, signifies the sad power racial hangups still have on us (by which I most definitely do not mean that I wish we'd just ignore race), and the extent to which we want to make our tastes bear an excessive burden of signification. Even though, for some people, those tastes are meant in such a way, I think it's overloading them to see such meaning as inherent in most people's preferences.

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