too much typing—since 2003


the 21st century breathing down his neck

Here's a thoughtful, complex response to Morrissey's latest insertion of his foot into his mouth. While I don't think Morrissey is a thoroughgoing racist, his comments are naive at best, and they reflect a curiously static notion of cultural identity (and, as Momus and several commentors point out, a rather ironic one, given Morrissey's most recent places of residence). England is, in fact, the bastard depository of any number of streams of European and, lately, non-European blood: it's the second-last place on earth anyone should be babbling about any sort of static culture. (Guess where the last is.) Momus's confessions that, essentially, he understands how Morrissey might feel - but from the outside looking in at cultures he admires - is useful also for undercutting the strand of idealism and false identification that lurks underneath the most mainstream notions of "multiculturalism": too often, the "multi" in the phrase is reified into a static notion of cuisines, costumes, and musics, without recognizing that it's just as "authentic" for a South African musician to respond to and incorporate hip-hop into his music as it is to incorporate older, native musical traditions (which, often, are nearly museum pieces at the local level - which makes them, ironically, far more alien-seeming than the hip-hop the musician hears every day).

This whole discussion bears some relation to the Frere-Jones foofaraw about race in music - in that I think one thing he does is focus on certain surface-level signifiers of cultural influence while ignoring deeper structures. For example: it's almost impossible to find any sort of rock or pop recording from the last fifty years whose rhythmic basis does not bear a deep influence from African-derived rhythmic models. Both at the level of the ubiquitous accented offbeat and, far more subtly, the swung or uneven subdivisions of the beat below the pulse level (either the quarter- or eighth-note), African influence is apparent even in places where most listeners would not expect it...such as in the drumming on a Toby Keith record, say.

Of course, if neither the listeners nor the musicians recognize the influence as being African-derived without thinking about it, is it still legible as a cultural influence? Or has it been totally assimilated into another culture? Or, is it more accurate to say that the whole question rests upon static notions of what's in and what's out of a culture: as if there's a "European" tradition forever and ever, upon which an "African" tradition forever and ever can work its influence, leading either to a new hybrid (and presumed dynamic) cultural work-in-progress or to a new, hypostasized static culture?

Ultimately - to return to our large-quiffed friend - any imagination of a one-time, static culture is just that: imagination. The tendency is for whatever prevalent model-just-gone to lose its placement in time and become, in the imagination, what had always been. (For example: the Leave it to Beaver-style nuclear family...which, in its particular formation, was actually relatively new at the time of that show's broadcast, replacing more extended family formations both among urban and rural Americans.)

1 comment:

James said...

"The tendency is for whatever prevalent model-just-gone to lose its placement in time and become, in the imagination, what had always been."

Yep - I think in particular of bluegrass. It has a reputation (now) of being "traditional" music passed through generations (and at this point, I suppose, it is). But it was invented after World War II, still not that long ago and certainly modern, and by one band - Bill Monroe and his band, specifically after he hired Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. At the time, the impact of the band was atomic inside the country scene - to that point, the banjo was not taken seriously as an instrument (in the country scene, it was exclusively played by musical comedian types). Scruggs' technical prowess changed the instrument forever. You can't trace, say, rock and roll to one originator, but with bluegrass you can.

Now, though, bluegrass is just one more tradition.