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May 12, 2006


Mike Smolinsky

Merritt seems to think that racial caricature is grotesque in a bad way, whereas you seem to think it's grotesque in a (sort of) good way, is that correct?

By the way, SFJ's response to Merritt is pathetic. Why doesn't he just come out and say that he's pissed off that Merritt used the term "coon songs" without scare quotes?

Brendan Wolfe

I don't mean grotesque in terms of good or bad; rather, I mean it in terms of anything that is exaggerated to the point of absurdity. Much gangsta rap has turned into a kind of grotesque of life in the hood. Hip-hop fashion is a grotesque.

Sherwood Anderson was more judgmental. In "Winesburg, Ohio," he had an entire Book of the Grotesque in which he described the Midwestern townspeople: "The grotesques were not all horrible," he wrote. "Some were amusing, some almost beautiful . . ." They each adopted a truth, but "the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood."

This is hip-hop, too. I think Merritt would agree.

I agree about SFJ's response. I may be full of it on hip hop, but I take it seriously. Anyone who would label people racist based on simply liking it or not liking it—he takes nothing but himself seriously.

Mike Smolinsky

What about the idea that gangsta rap is raw reportage? Do you think it started out that way and his turned grotesque, or was it caricature from the start? And while you're at it, are you a thoroughgoing postmodernist or not? Is there any such thing as "authentic" identity?

Brendan Wolfe

I'm no expert. Not even close. Early rap was anything but raw reportage, though. They were novelty songs ("See More" by Kool Rock Brothers, which was linked to on the Mp3 blog Moistworks recently). Some gangsta rap might have been reportage, but nowadays much of it merely reflects an image of itself—the context of no context.

Again, I may be full of it, but I think that gangsta rap necessarily began as a kind of caricature, in which rappers played out worst-case-scenario visions of themselves. They played into white fears and embraced them. What do you think? Now white kids embrace it, too. You can't be cool without it. Ask Sasha.

I don't know what it makes me, but I have big big big problems with "authentic." Richard at The Existence Machine is on the case there. The idea, batted about in his post, that foreigners can't play rock 'n' roll (because the idiom is not native to them) is similar to the old canard that whites can't play jazz. I don't buy it and have said so here.

LeRoi Jones argued in Blues People that Bix Beiderbecke marked the turning point at which jazz was no longer about black people and their particular experience (in other words, a folk music) but instead all people. But that argument tends to imply that there are still some kinds of music (and therefore art) that certain people have no access to. I just don't believe it.

Mike Smolinsky

Maybe the word "authenticity" has too much baggage to be useful. But I don't see why an art form couldn't be inaccessible to someone or even to a group of people. Sure, a work of art doesn't mean only one thing, and when you put it out there, people will do with it what they will, including making their own meanings out of it. But isn't there a web of meanings and associations, a social embeddedness, that will and should continue to shape what happens to the work of art?


For what it's worth, or FWIW to the kids:

SF/J offers his response.

Mike Smolinsky

That's a much more considered response. "Poisonous skeet" is on the mark, as it were. Like I said, I believe SF/J was reacting to Merritt's deliberately provocative diction, e.g. "coon songs." Jones definitely took the bait, and I'm sure Merritt was happy about it.

The comparison to Morrissey is helpful (if you remember, Morrissey flirted with fascist imagery a few years back, and the lead singer of Cornershop, who is of Indian descent, took the bait by making an issue of Morrissey's sexuality). In that context, Merritt's "strategy" doesn't seem "Southern" so much as a way of staking out an artistic position with forbidden language about race.

Rick Zollo

Kudos to Brendan Wolfe for his attention to Carl Van Vechten's life and work. A cultural re-evaluation is taking place about Van Vechten. His life is perhaps too complicated and too much in disguise to be totally figured out.

While writing a magazine article about Van Vechten's Harlem photographs in 2000, which Brendan edited, I interviewed Carlo's biographer, Bruce Kellner, who has also been the executor of Van Vechten's vast archives (he was one of the foremost collectors in the 20th century). Kellner told me things I'm not at liberty to repeat, but Van Vechten's now publicized homosexuality was more a bisexuality with emphasis on the former in personal taste but definetly involvment in the latter. His two marriages, one of which lasted 50 years, was not, as Kellner implied, pure cover. (Kellner also expressed surprise at the homosexuality, though he may have just been discreet in what he knew).

The thing that must be considered is: many of the most famous personages of the 20th century had complicated sexualities. Van Vechten has been charged of exploiting black Americans. But the social critic George Schuyler, once considered the "Negro H.L. Mencken," expressed a contrary view, and considered Van Vechten the best white friend black Harlem ever had. Van Vechten must be considered in ways like John Hammond is noted in music circles--one of the greatest talent scouts of the last century—and his life and work should be reappraised for the complexities he both hid and revealed.

knight online noah

his life and work should be reappraised for the complexities he both hid and revealed.

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