by carl wilson

EMP 2: There's No Such Thing as a Zipless Doodah

Race, taste and pleasure: In this corner, an offensive old Uncle Remus image;
and in that corner, Stephin Merritt's childhood hero, Bertolt Brecht.

Is anybody still reading this mother? I'm back for real now. I'm going to have more notes on the Seattle EMP conference later today but first ...

Chatter continues on the EMP-generated Stephin Merritt/Song of the South controversy I mentioned on the weekend, which I meant to point out (as Sasha does) was a continuation of a previous sizzler in blogland (look down toward the end of that post, under "A Debate..."). It's worth noting this followup from Sasha via Douglas Wolk at the time. Now Jessica posts Drew Daniel's letter on the subject, which squares with my recollection of events. Jessica persists in conflating liking Zipadeedoohdah with liking the whole movie, despite Merritt's explicit separation of the two, and then using that liking to indict people of racism, which, I'm sorry, is knee-jerk and wrong. But she also links to Joshua's post on the relationship between tastes and exclusion and social affiliation, which is very near the core of my Celine Dion project.

Without posting too many spoilers for the book, my argument in my EMP paper was that if poptimism means liking what you like and disliking what you dislike without apology to anyone else's standards, that's a better starting point than using an artificial rockist set of virtues, but it's going to run into the problem of where those "gut" tastes come from. I told the story of growing up in a very white but also quite urban southern-Ontario town, and that when I was 11 or 12 I would tell people that musically I liked "everything" - and then say "except disco and country." Looking back now I can see that "disco" meant "all the African-American music on the radio" (I liked jazz; hip-hop mostly hadn't reached Canada yet) and that country did pretty much mean "hick music" to me. That these prejudices were both ethically unacceptable and musically idiotic only became clear to me after I'd left my home town.

Now, was I racist in any other sense of the word? Consciously, quite the opposite. And I wasn't classist in the terms of my setting either: I was very middle-class, but in a high school where social circles were often defined by class, my gang of weirdos was the one where those barriers at least partly broke down, with alienated bookworms and smoking-area badasses making common cause (though there were misunderstandings and hurt feelings that happened that did have a lot to do with class along the way). But I was still sheltered from the much broader differences of a wider world, and actually was racist and classist in ways I didn't yet have personal experience of. I thought my "good" tastes were natural and objective, which they weren't, and that's a problem I'm still working out. I'm using as a case study and vantage point my more recent distaste for Celine Dion - who has a mindfuckingly mixed-up class and ethnic position as a white non-anglo-american semi-R&B; ballad singer. (As I've said, the fact that Merritt's gaffe was about Celine was exemplary, not trivial.) When we call ourselves "open-minded," what are we letting pass in one ear and out the other?

Tastes always involve such stories, is my argument. It's fascinating that this fight has happened about Merritt's taste, because he explicitly said in that panel that he didn't believe that musical taste was related to identity - he was responding to Drew's stories about what his "straight" punk teenage life in Kentucky had to do with being queer. Merritt (who's also gay, of course) said he'd always listened to all kinds of music (hmm, what was his "except"?) and did not see how it accounted for anything. And yet elsewhere in the panel he was talking about how he'd been exposed to Brecht and Weill by his folkie mom growing up, and acknowledged its influence. If there's ever been anyone whose whole public persona, musically and nonmusically, seems like he was taken to Bertolt Brecht operas as a kid, it sure is Stephin Merritt - and that also accounts for how one might value a song such as Zipadeedoodah. (Merritt's (non)-relationship to his hippie-folk-musician absent father is also a compelling subject, everything to do with my paper last year on "bandonyms" and the singer-songwriter, but I'll save that for a later post. For now...)

I often quote Townes Van Zandt, who said there were only two kinds of music, "the blues and Zipadeedoodah." Townes was a (country-)rockist, so he said he liked the blues; Merritt is a Brechtian ironist down to his bones, so he says he prefers Zipadeedoodah while very well knowing its ties to a racist narrative, because he automatically reads it ironically. He also likes disco, while hip-hop, a more blues-lineage music, has never surfaced in all his genre pastiches, to my knowledge. (Totally unconfirmed untrue report of upcoming collaboration with Snoop Dogg notwithstanding.) Not that the blues and hip-hop aren't full of ironic levels, and Merritt appreciates and to some degree uses them, but his whole project is to queer them into other sorts of ironies, ones to which I happen to respond strongly (i.e., there's nothing happenstance about it). Nothing racist about that, except that it takes advantage of a structural societal racism that gives him (us) the privilege of putting his (our) attentions elsewhere. As Angela says in My So-Called Life, "How come he gets to be the one with other things on his mind?" What are the ethics/politics of having other things on your mind? (Put another way: How much responsibility do we bear for the circumstances of our birth?)

Specifically what is assumed in a reflexively ironic relationship to music, and by extension to your subjectivity, and what does it exclude? For one thing it might assume that you have easy access to a legitimized subjectivity, that it is not something you are still working to claim, but something you are free to discard or disavow. And thereby bypass genres and artists and people for whom constructing and claiming a subject position - and escaping an objectified one - is still a priority. This came up in the discussion period regarding catharsis - Merritt had asserted that catharsis in art is "embarrassing." ("Always?" asked Ann Powers. "Yes. No. Yes and no," said Merritt.) Someone in the crowd pointed out that achieving catharsis in soul and gospel, for instance, is quite the opposite - it's something to be celebrated. (Consider Celine's awkward straddling of these two sets of expectations.) Does it matter, does it help, that Merritt foregrounds his whiteness, and his ironic relationship to it, in his music, as opposed to all the white-boy-blues-rockers who try to sidestep it or wish it away...?

Merritt had as many insights about aesthetic issues as anyone else at EMP, and I think nearly everyone's tastes closely examined would betray similar sets of blinders and backstories. Perhaps because he's quite defensive, and less used to being in this sort of setting, what he was unwilling to cop to was more conspicuous. But for a conference about "guilty pleasures," it seemed, with important exceptions, that there was more of a collective will to discuss pleasure than to take a hard look at guilt (and/or shame). Every pleasure has an ethical ambiguity, a responsibility suspended or elided; there's no such thing as pleasure without complication or consequence, what Erica Jong called "a zipless fuck" and Walt Disney called zipadeedoodah. The fact that the only one whose guilt really ended up on trial was Stephin Merritt seems like a very convenient sort of catharsis - the subset known as scapegoating.

PS: Hear pieces from Merritt's new album, Showtunes - highlights from his semi-Chinese-opera collaborations with director Chen Shi-Zheng - here.

PPS: Years ago, pre-69 Love Songs, I was vociferously arguing in print that mainstream pop singers (with conventionally good voices) ought to be picking up Magnetic Fields songs to cover. That sounds a bit naive in retrospect, but it's gradually coming true: First, there was Peter Gabriel's cover of Book of Love for the soundtrack of the Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez vehicle Shall We Dance?, and now upcoming is apparently a take on When My Boy Walks Down the Street by Ashlee Simpson. For extra credit, guess what the reaction's gonna be.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 02 at 3:52 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)



Well, we're not talking about that because we don't disagree about that.

Other thoughts, anyone?

Posted by zoilus on May 3, 2006 8:04 PM



The "R" bomb. Probably should have avoided it. And the copy-editor within winces at a couple too-many "hatefully"s up there.

We're still talking about my alleged over-reaction, though. Which is a neat way of avoiding the purport of my comments; to wit: that since we're talking about how our cultural institutions work to negate the legitimacy of the subjectivities of oppressed peoples, I have presented for discussion two exemplary quotes from people still powerful in some of the relevant institutions. Not exemplary of how either quote-machine feels all the time about everything, but exemplary of how the negation rhetorically looks.

Posted by john on May 3, 2006 2:45 PM



I see what you mean, John. But my point was that calling Merritt a racist is irresponsible and self-serving - calling *more* people racists doesn't help!

Posted by zoilus on May 3, 2006 2:27 PM



My defensiveness aside, I'll try to keep the Spinal Tap amp reserved for my own blog, out of respect for you, dear Zoilus.

Rock and roll is all about stickin' it to the man! (Oops -- sorry.)

Posted by john on May 3, 2006 1:37 PM



I never said that these guys are personally racist, or even that their statements were; wouldn't even have used the term at all except that it came up around Merritt. I brought up the R word because both statements struck me as more offensive than any statement of Merritt's that these discussions have linked to, and I was agreeing with you about scapegoating.

Go back and read the quotes again. Why is this discussion about the alleged excessiveness of my reaction?

Posted by john on May 3, 2006 1:21 PM



That sounds interesting, Eppy - and yes, that's the kind of thing I'd like to have heard about a little more at the conference. I think in the effort to be rigorous and stick close to their data, some EMP participants passed up the opportunity to venture those sorts of bigger questions except very tentatively. (And maybe the selection committee leaned that way in its choices.) Which is intellectually respectable but a bit less provocative and thrilling.

And now maybe to contradict that - John, I'd just rather that we be more temperate about throwing words like "racist" and "hatefully" around. If you're actually serious about challenging these ideas and assumptions, I don't see how turning the amp up to 11, making Greil Marcus sound like he's Jerry Falwell, helps accomplish that.

Posted by zoilus on May 3, 2006 12:22 PM



When I say things like this I am often told I the only one that thinks this way, but my impression is the the whole point of poptimism/popism is to continually interrogate your tastes, not in order to pass moral judgment on them, but in order to make connections with things you might think you dislike and to bring your knee-jerk reactions to light so you can find more things to enjoy. "Oh, you know, I actually really like power ballads, so huh, I might very well like pop-country." "Oh, I guess I really do like pop-punk, maybe I should listen to Ashlee Simpson." Etc.

My proposal for EMP was actually about shame and how it's used as a rhetorical weapon, both in talking about music and in making music, and the implications for that, but it didn't get accepted, so oh well. (I don't know if this is the kind of thing you were looking for.)

Posted by Eppy on May 3, 2006 12:01 PM



Eric and Marcus have real power in the institutional system of legitimizing subjectivities. Both those statements hatefully, destructively work in exactly that way you are describing of deligitimizing the subjectivities of excluded people, and the quotes seemed relevant in the context of your observation that Merritt was being scapegoated. I agree that both have done good work, as has Joshua, and I've publicly said so about all three of them.

Posted by john on May 3, 2006 9:15 AM



John, I'd be wary of ascribing racism to any particular person based on statements about slick black music 20 years ago. I think someone like Marcus had political commitments that implied judging what seemed like accomodationist music, while supporting more militant music like funk or hard soul, the same way he'd pump for the Sex Pistols as against, say, Steely Dan (I dunno what Marcus made of Steely Dan, so if that's too easy an example, then what the hell, substitute my own bete noir, Yes). It's an idea of militancy we've had lots of time to take apart, post-post-Sixties activism and especially post-Cold War (a framework that seems relevant to me). It's also more class-based than racist, in ways black militants probably also would have to reconsider. And Eric's statement likewise: There are more productive ways to critique these ideas than to label them with "isms," when you are talking about people whose intentions patently deserve better - not to mention that they've done other work that merits our respect. Same goes for Joshua, by the way. You could just as easily have said that my line about subjectivities was racist. (I should have said that the problem is to construct a mainstream-publicly recognized subjectivity, not subjectivity as such.) I might sound like a wimp saying it, but in challenging and questioning each other, I don't see any cause to rip chunks out of each other's flesh. What's the motivation there? Save that for the real enemies. If then. (Which is my point to Jessica too.) The perspective can get way too narrow.

But of course it's a pleasure to be able to argue that with you, too.

Posted by zoilus on May 3, 2006 2:56 AM



Carl, your point about scapegoating is astute.

Is this statement racist? “I don't think that there is anyone who can say a good thing about Mariah Carey.”

Eric Weisbard said it in 2001.

Or what about this? “I think Anita Baker is ridiculous. Any time you hear somebody bringing back this kind of genteel, effete black music--the same number the Pointer Sisters pulled in the early '70s when they gave concerts with ‘Black Tie Recommended’ printed on the tickets--it's an incident in class politics that has nothing to do with music.”

Greil Marcus said that in 1986.

I don't believe Eric is personally racist; nor, insofar as Mariah has millions of white fans as well as black fans, is the statement necessarily racist. It is, however, solipsistic to the point of hatefulness to proudly declaim, "As far as I'm concerned, Mariah Carey's millions of fans have no power of speech."

Whether or not Marcus is racist, this statement -- 20 years old now -- is despicable. The implication that it's ridiculous for an individual black person not to sound angry about being poor and/or oppressed is gross. The assertion that Baker's music has nothing to do with music is arrogant, asinine, hateful.

Maybe Marcus has recanted this statement. I hope so.

Both statements support the truth of your point about the legitimation of subjectivity. Eric (whom I've met, briefly) and Marcus (whom I haven't) are very influential in critville, and both gave papers at EMP. (I liked Eric's quite a lot; didn't catch Marcus's.)

I do think, Carl, you overstate the case about the difficulty of oppressed people claiming subject position. Impoverished victims of institutional racism have no trouble forming their own aesthetic judgments and validating their own preferences as distinct from their fellows'. You're dead right, though, about the institutional legitimation of particular fields of subjectivity, and institutional efforts to box oppressed people into object-hood -- which both Weisbard & Marcus's quotes effect to do.

Posted by john on May 3, 2006 2:15 AM



Personally, if I were looking for the racist in the woodpile at the opening night festivities, I would ask why music by black people was such a rarity in the playlist of whoever DJed the opening reception. (And by "rarity," I mean that I heard none at all, but wasn't there for the whole reception and thus can't speak definitively.) But nobody came to listen to the DJ, right?

As for "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," All Music Guide lists 198 recorded performances, among them versions by Louis Armstrong, Darlene Love, Little Richard, the Jackson 5, Dionne Warwick, Patti Austin and Sun Ra. (Yes, Sun Ra.) Assuming they're not all ironic, would Jessica consider those performances proof/endorsement of racism as well? I think we all know the answer to that one.

Posted by J.D. Considine on May 2, 2006 9:11 PM



Joshua's "taste-test" cases are always the critically-approved Nashville & hip hop; Celine is much more interesting, or Mariah. Or smooth jazz. Joshua makes the point well, but this particular formulation of his is always externally-directed, like the Archimidean anthropologist seeking to exempt himself from the description.

The Brechtian angle on Merritt makes sense. His music never grabbed me enough to inspire me to find out anything about him. His comment on Zipadeedoodah (which you quoted the other day) made me think it's funny that Tin Pan Alley's self-proclaimed avatar doesn't really like or understand a huge percentage of the classic ('20s through '50s) tradition. But throwing Brecht in the mix makes his sourness more apprehensible to me.

Your statement that every pleasure evades or elides a responsibility is a strong thesis. I'd ask, whence the responsibility? Ethics are as subjective as "taste," it seems to me. One of my own self-appointed responsibilities is to keep myself in working order; experiencing pleasure is a necessity.

And, as you know I feel, kicking this stuff around with you is always one.

Posted by john on May 2, 2006 6:43 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson