Posted: May 18, 2006 7:59 pm
that's awesome! there's been a behind-the-scenes debate this morning about THIS music critic--and it has been (as completely warranted) UGLY.
One Man's Musical Tastes as Fodder for a Flame War
By DAVID CARR
People argue that the music someone listens to says a lot about who he is, but that discussion rarely concludes in descriptions like "cracker" and "racist."
Last week a two-year-old argument over the preferences of Stephin Merritt, a New York rock musician and songwriter, for music by white artists mushroomed into a tempest in a digital teapot. What in times past would have been a whisper, a cut of the rhetorical butter knife, is now making a noise for anybody who tunes in.
The Web is the great enabler when it comes to turning what once were parlor debates into clamorous viral feuds. This one has all the pretension of academic politics but even lower stakes.
In 2004 Mr. Merritt, writing in The New York Times, chose seven records for a feature called Playlist. None of the records he chose were by black artists, prompting Sasha Frere-Jones, a music critic at The New Yorker, to conclude at the time on his personal blog that Mr. Merritt had a bias against black music, calling him " 'Southern Strategy' Merritt." A series of posts ensued from Mr. Frere-Jones suggesting that a list of the best songs of the past century that Mr. Merritt made while he was a critic at Time Out New York underrepresented black artists.
Mr. Frere-Jones's indictment might have been lost to the electronic mist, but then late last month Mr. Merritt, an indie demigod for his twee, compelling work with the band Magnetic Fields, served on a panel at the Experience Music Project's annual Pop Conference in Seattle and endorsed the catchiness of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah," the famous feel-good tune heard in Disney's "Song of the South," a 1946 film many consider racist. Reacting to his statement that it was "a great song," Jessica Hopper, a contributor to The Chicago Reader, an alternative weekly, criticized Mr. Merritt on her Web site for his "obsession with a racist cartoon." That Mr. Merritt said the movie was terrible was drowned out in kerfuffle. (Ms. Hopper has since retracted that criticism but maintains that Mr. Merritt is a racist judging from his musical and rhetorical choices.)
The renewed argument caught the attention of John Cook, a contributor to the online magazine Slate, who wrote an article last week titled "Is Stephin Merritt a Racist Because He Doesn't Like Hip-Hop?" He said Ms. Hopper had misrepresented Mr. Merritt's comments and argued that Mr. Frere-Jones's attacks on Mr. Merritt were based on "the dangerous and stupid notion that one's taste in music can be interrogated for signs of racist intent the same way a university's admissions process can: If the number of black artists in your iPod falls too far below 12.5 percent of the total, then you are violating someone's civil rights."
Race in pop music has been a point of contention since before Elvis Presley first picked up a guitar, but artists are not usually clobbered for failing to integrate the legacy of black music into their playlists. Bands ranging from the Rolling Stones to the White Stripes have been accused of a kind of reverse minstrelsy, exploiting black sounds to their own ends, but Mr. Merritt is being accused of doing the opposite.
Mr. Merritt, who would not agree to be interviewed, is certainly no fan of modern hip-hop. In an interview in the online magazine Salon in 2004 he said that much of contemporary rap engages in "more vicious caricatures of African-Americans than they had in the 19th century." He singled out OutKast, a critically adored African-American duo.
Mr. Frere-Jones has said Mr. Merritt's disrespect for OutKast specifically and rap in general was intended to provoke. He has apologized, after a fashion, for calling Mr. Merritt a "rockist cracker" but sticks to his core argument.
"Is it possible to look at your own preferences and find something that your consciousness was not letting you in on?" he wrote last week in response to Mr. Cook's article.
Mr. Frere-Jones also pointed out that in citing his white musical sources, Mr. Merritt, interviewed in Mojo magazine 10 years ago, was not above racial provocation: "I think my records could be listened to by the Ku Klux Klan!"
In an interview on Monday, Mr. Frere-Jones emphasized that his personal blog was just that, since it is neither linked to nor edited by The New Yorker, and that the "cracker" crack was just that.
"Calling him that was a dumb thing to do," he said. "It is a little bit of inside baseball, a nerdy music fight. I was just sort of rising to the bait."
"It was probably not the most effective way to attack those issues," Mr. Frere-Jones said. "It does get the idea up in the air and the discussion going. If I have to take some heat for it, so be it. If I had to it to do over again, I would not have been so hot-headed and taken some words out of it, but that is the nature of blogging."
Some bystanders could not help but be amused by all of the dancing on the head of a guitar pick in spite of the serious accusation at the core of the argument.
"It's been a lot of fun to follow," said Mike Doughty, a blogger and a singer-songwriter who formerly led the band Soul Coughing. "Stephin is this depressed, angsty guy who is trying to displace his feelings by saying provocative things. But he has a point. You can't say that just because you don't like the artists who played Lilith Fair, you hate women."
Then there's the fact that Mr. Merritt is openly gay. Trying to defend him against the charges of incipient crackerism, Mr. Cook observed: "Merritt is diminutive, gay and painfully intellectual. His music is witty and tender. He plays the ukulele. He named his Chihuahua after Irving Berlin." Unless the Chihuahua drinks a lot of Bud, the thinking seems to be, Mr. Merritt probably is not a Bubba in the making.
The broader contextual argument seems to be that Mr. Merritt is a "rockist," a term highlighted by Kelefa Sanneh in The New York Times in October 2004. Mr. Sanneh summed up the mind-set in part by saying, "Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star." Mr. Merritt was tagged as a rockist for disparaging the music of OutKast, Beyoncé, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. Yet in the past Mr. Merritt has pleaded guilty to embracing Abba, perhaps the whitest band in the history of pop music, as a not-so-guilty pleasure. That is not clear evidence that Mr. Merritt is a racist or event a rockist, but he clearly needs help with his bubblegum issues.