by carl wilson


Bizarrely, Slate magazine has seen fit to weigh in on the EMP-conference-inspired "Is Stephin Merritt a racist?" (not-really-a-)debate. (See previous Zoilus coverage.) I'm afraid Sasha and Jessica have earned the drubbing they take there, but the writer, John Cook, goes too far: First, it's not true that no one can have any idea what Merritt's other tastes in music are; he was a critic for Time Out for several years, and has frequently commented on music in other venues, and, more importantly, since he is an artist who works in pastiche, his musical interests are quite thoroughly and complexly documented in his music (the Magnetic Fields, the Gothic Archies, etc.). That they tend to the paler side of the pop and non-pop traditions is fairly obvious. The question is what to make of that. Cook claims that suggesting "one's taste in music can be interrogated for signs of racist intent" is "dangerous and stupid." He's right, but the crux there is the word "intent" - unless your tastes in music run to white-power bands, of course very few people intend to express racism via their listening choices. But Cook's implication is that tastes cannot be "interrogated" at all, whereas in fact the patterns in our tastes (and, as I argued at EMP, distastes) have a lot to say about our identities. We instinctively know this. That's why people ask each other what kind of music they like when they're, say, on a first date. "I can't stand that pretentious jazz shit" or "I hate that cheesy teen-pop pap" are statements of self-definition as much as they are statements about the music. 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. Likewise, for some listeners, gangsta rap very well might be a way - as Merritt has suggested and Cook stops short of agreeing with - of indulging racial(ist) fantasies of black masculinity, engaging in a fatal-attraction tango of admiration and repulsion. For other listeners, it may not be that at all. The narratives of taste are rich but very slippery; any attempt to boil them down to a moral indictment (in SFJ and Jessica's case) is bound to be as foolish as trying (as Cook does) to wish them away.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, May 09 at 5:10 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (12)



I did enjoy reading Jody's piece.

However I couldnt help but feeling like you rock critics are chasing your own tails on this rockism/poptimisim stuff.

The stones put out a good couple of tracks and so did britney. Jody makes it sound like liking one of these automatically casts you in a camp. A good critic likes what they like and writes well about it explaining their opnion to others and wining converts. The way Jody defines these broad catagories he is just talking about poor rock criticism.

Now as for how jody reacted to your paper. (The whole question as to whether celine is worth serious consideration for her music because of her massive success). Should Thomas Kinkade and Jack Vettriano be taken seriously as painters? Andrew Lloyed webber as a composer? Zamfir as a proponent of world music? Rod McKuen for his poetry?

Well maybe. But if so I rather have the option of finding a critic who likes Celine (or Andrew) because they think she is good and can write a very nice piece telling me why.

Besides why did everyone in the conference take Mr Merrit so seriously. I would put him pretty low on the list of people who are generational thinkers/spokespeople. He always appeared to me as someone who had only a mild interest in pop/rock as his medium and would be happier writing musicals being cole porter (i.e. being FAB). Besides he is such a HUGE poptimist ;-)


Posted by guy Tanentzapf on May 11, 2006 1:18 PM



Yep, that's what he said. I discussed that part at length down here:

Posted by zoilus on May 10, 2006 11:50 PM



IIRC, wasn't Merritt adamant during the keynote address (which I skipped out of half-way through) that music tastes cannot, DO NOT shape personal identity? Does no-one remember this, or am I misremembering it?

Posted by Michael Daddino on May 10, 2006 9:05 PM



Nice to hear Pierre's name uttered in this context again. Completely apropos and, yes, an update would be somewhat in order. Bordieu should be required reading period...alas not read enough on this side of the Atlantic, especially when it comes to the culture industries. Do critics read? Hmmmm, that's a curious presumption...zoilus perhaps the exception, not the rule...

Posted by Phil on May 10, 2006 5:00 PM



good points about updating bourdieu, though i still think a lot of his underlying argument holds. let's face it: the class system is pretty entrenched the world over. obviously, we need closer readings when it comes to contemporary "taste-clusters," and there's quite a complex of factors involved. not sure any work comes to mind at the moment, though - academic or journalistic.

at any rate, i'm enheartened to hear that _distinction_ is at least on people's radar. sometimes all this talk about taste as something existing outside socio-cultural context makes me wonder...

Posted by w&w; on May 10, 2006 3:39 PM



yes, it should be, Wayne, and Bourdieu was certainly the theorist-to-cite this year at EMP. (Two mentions on my panel alone, counting one from me.) But there was also something of a general feeling that Bourdieu's models might be dated and not capture the spectrum of taste-clusters in today's more media-saturated (and arguably more class-mobile, or at least just mobile) societies. I'd be *very* interested to hear about people who've worked on that. There are some cultural-studies folks on that tip, obviously, but I'm trying to get a big reading list together.

Top of that list is also Simon Frith's Performing Rites. (I think Frith can claim the title of most-EMP-cited music writer this year, though I didn't keep score.)

Posted by zoilus on May 10, 2006 3:28 PM



isn't bourdieu's distinction required reading for anyone concerned with issues of taste, music critics included? shouldn't it be?

Posted by w&w; on May 10, 2006 2:59 PM



The ideas that feed a musical life are important, Phil. At least they are to the composer. I agree that as a listener, I have the right to listen strictly emotionally. Generally though, I think emotional listening will always lead to intellectual questioning if something jars our moral compass. In the case of Stephin Merrit, I haven't heard a lot. But, what I have heard is so far from confrontational or aggressive that I wonder why this question ever even came up.

Posted by Half on May 10, 2006 2:54 PM



Personally, I don't care if Merritt is a racist, just like I don't care that Professor Griff was once associated with Public Enemy, or that Snoop Dogg is quite likely guilty of some heinous crimes, or, for that matter, Richard Wagner was a miserable SOB who would have loved Hitler's March across Europe and his treatment of Jews...well, maybe I do care about the last one...but anyway...unless Stephin Merritt plans to run for public office, who cares what he grounds his musical tastes in, whether they be racist, or otherwise. Making music isn't mutually exclusive with being a great human being. There's lots of fantastic music made by bad people with stupid ideas...that doesn't make the music any less good, or their opinions any less wrong. These kinds of issues always end up getting more traction in the U.S. Good ole middle class white American guilt feeds this like gasoline does fire.

Posted by Phil on May 10, 2006 12:40 PM



I totally agree, Petey - I don't think you can use taste to level serious shit like that at anybody. But I think you can say something more general along the lines of, "If you find that your musical taste corresponds to your own culture or position or identity pretty exclusively, it's probably cause for some reflection and horizon-stretching." Or even better (and simpler): "Everybody's taste is suspect and it's valuable to question what your own implies."

Accusations based on other people's taste (with rare extreme exceptions) seem awfully likely to say more about the accuser, who believes they're the kind of person that can deduce strangers' sins from the hymns they sing.

I haven't been able to stay out of this "controversy" (I use quotes because almost nobody seems to be on the accusers' side) because the topic area is fascinating to me and central to what I'm currently working on. But I do feel increasingly queasy about perpetuating a discussion based on a slander, and about the fact that if you type the words "stephin merritt" and "racist" into Google, this site is the second one to come up.

For the record, to recap a point I partly made last week, I have no idea what Merritt's prejudices are or aren't, but have a strong suspicion based on his own music that the "whiteness" of his tastes might have more to do with where you can find heavily ironized and/or highly-susceptible-to-ironization (read "naive and thus easy to fuck with") representations of, in particular, gender roles and heteronormativity (not to mention authorship, cliche, etc.) and that hasn't tended in the past 60 years to be the mainstream of African-American popular music (outside of disco), for a lot of good reasons. To flip that around into a straight (follow my air quotes?) accusation of racism seems like a move you could in turn accuse of, well, submerging some underexamined biases.

In short: Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. And everybody lives in glass houses.

Posted by zoilus on May 10, 2006 4:59 AM



Mostly I agree, but the phrase "may well indicate a sense of distance from and perhaps a lack of curiosity about black experience" is too saddled with qualifiers to mean anything. Racism is commonplace, contemptible, and should be condemned, but possible "indications" are far from enough to levy an accusation or even an insinuation of racism. Call him a racist or give him the benefit of the doubt; eveything in between is just creepy thought-crime guessing games.

Posted by Petey Wheatstraw on May 10, 2006 12:24 AM



Very well said, Carl.

Posted by Jody on May 9, 2006 6:49 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson