[ | | | 3 interested person(s) ]

This story is being knocked around the blog-o-sphere a bit (here and here) and I do find it interesting. Its most likely overblown, but hell that makes it interesting right?

Well the story goes that John Cook of Slate posted an essay last Tuesday on music critics Sasha Frere-Jones' and Jessica Hopper's claim that music critic (and Magnetic Fields frontman), Stephin Merritt as a racist because he proclaims to not like hip-hop.

From Extrawack! from Slate:

Stephin Merritt is an unlikely cracker. The creative force behind the Magnetic Fields, Merritt is diminutive, gay, and painfully intellectual. His music is witty and tender. He plays the ukulele. He named his Chihuahua after Irving Berlin. And yet no 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.

First thing is first I am no Magnetic Fields expert. I have heard a couple of their records and you are not going to find a fan here. I find most of their songs pretty bland (sure the songwriting might be mind blowing but if I want to hear a poetry audiobook I will). Second this guy sounds like a drag to hang out with, he has a Chihuahua named after Irving Berlin? Sounds like one of those name-dropper-I-am-smarter-than-you types that thinks because he has a collection of 500 rare 1930's folk records in his collection and is bitter as hell is better then you. But again I've never met him so who knows. Lets get back to the claim leveled against him that he is racist because he doesn't like hip hop.

Carl Wilson of Zoilus has a great assessment:
Listening near-exclusively to white artists doesn't mean you hate black people, but it may well indicate a sense of distance from and perhaps a lack of curiosity about black experience.

Just because you don't like hip hop doesn't mean you're racist (hip hop music is not made solely by black people...even though it started with and most of the good stuff is made by the black community). Here is where I find a problem, if this guy came out and said the blanketing statement, "I don't like hip hop." Given that hip hop is a largely black artform I would find that blanketing statement troublesome, yet not racist. If he said "I don't like black music," that would be a whole different thing. As far as I have read he didn't and hasn't.

The claim of racism gets far more blurred when you take his backing of the song "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah," from Disney's 1946 musical Song of the South as a "great song." I find this extremely problematic, while Zoilus was actually there and didn't find it offensive I find the backing of anything related to intolerance as "great" is wrong. Again does that make him a racist? No because he said he didn't agree with the premise of the racist Disney film. Merritt uses his mastery of English vocabulary to do what all critics do best, say a lot without actually getting discernible position.

The Salon article does point out that Merritt did say in 2004 that he liked:
"...the first two years of rap," including the first Run DMC record, but that he finds contemporary hip-hop boring and racist. [In response to hearing a Cee-Lo Green song,] "I think it's shocking that we're not allowed to play coon songs anymore," Merritt said, "but people, both black and white, behave in more vicious caricatures of African-Americans than they had in the 19th century. It's grotesque. It probably would have been considered too tasteless for the Christy Minstrels."

Hmmm...so he only liked the first two years of rap? I think his dismissal of any thing contemporary seems shallow (not racist). He feels there is nothing new or groundbreaking in popular music these days (according to the Salon interview)? Given his reaction to Cee-Lo I am sure he is not rushing out to pick up St. Elsewhere. Sure, much of mainstream popular music is founded on commercialism and marketability which like he said distorts image and grotesquely skews video popular music (but is that really music anyways? its more like advertising not art). This is not a hip hop problem though its a mainstream music industry problem.

I don't think Merritt is racist he just sounds like an uppity prick that believes since he wrote 69 love songs and knows a lot of big vocabulary words and is miserable all the time, it makes him interesting. It doesn't take much to find perversion in mainstream music today and harp on the images presented by the big labels, MTV, and BET. This "controversy" probably wouldn't have amounted to anything without blogs and the indie music scene rage, grouped with what I see as a careless use of branding someone a racist (a term I feel should not be used lightly).

Ripping mainstream hip hop rap is nothing new, Cosby, Chuck D and others have done the same. Jones and Hopper aren't all over them because they are...well...black. Calling somebody a racist for a bunch of interpretable musical taste statements is flawed. Without any discernible statements of intolerance I think calling Merritt a racist is misguided. Not saying he's not, but you can't deduce that he's racist from what I can find. Miserable pretentious prick? Now there you might have something.

3 interested person(s)

nico said... @ 5/13/2006 01:52:00 AM

I wonder what would happen if someone wrote that article the other way around? What if someone published an article suggesting a black critic was racist because he didn't have any heavy metal or country records (genres dominated by, but not exclusively performed by whites)? People would absolutely implode at the accusation.

Lord knows there's racism out there, but this person sounds like they're on a witch hunt.

Flatlander said... @ 5/13/2006 11:36:00 PM

Good post.

I agree with you and Nico. There seem to be a lot of people that have said/done racist things that are more high profile and weild a lot more power than Merrit. I don't understand at all why someone would go after him like this. Weird article.

matt said... @ 5/14/2006 06:38:00 PM

great job K. i've been following the Sasha & Jessica controversy with interest. I don't think it's fair to label Merritt a racist.

But I do think it was fair for Sasha & Jessica to ask some of the questions they did (Jessica had to retract some of her statements and was way to quick to level the racist charge). Plus, Merritt obviously reignited the controversy and invited new scrutiny with his statements at a high profile conference.

But i agree w/ your take K. And i completely agree w/ Zolis' assessment ("Listening near-exclusively to white artists doesn't mean you hate black people, but it may well indicate a sense of distance from and perhaps a lack of curiosity about black experience.")

This lack of interest and corresponding level of deep ignorance (Merritt thinks 1984 & 1985 were the first two years of hip hop !?!) about the history of hip hop and its incredible impact on global culture and the development of "post modern" music (read DJ Spooky) means that people who "hate hip hop" usually mean current, big money, mainstream rap (in addition to older "gangsta rap"). So they focus exclusively on the worst of hip hop culture (homophobia, misogyny, violence, celebration of bling bling), while being unconscious -- or willfully ignorant -- of the long tradition of socially conscious & progressive hip hop.

folks like Merritt are so out-of-touch and ill informed that their attitudes and opinions only matter to the extent that they represent those of a whole lot of other people. Which unfortunately includes some indie rock types.

p.s. good luck finishing the thesis (or congrats if you are done!)

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