by carl wilson

Merritt Postscript: Zip-a-dee-doo-Dad

scottandgale.jpgcon_magneticfields02.jpg
Left, Scott Falk with his sister Gale, in Hawaiian garb.
Right, his son Stephin Merritt, with ukulele.

One last entry to the Stephin Merritt file before I move on. This is something I meant to post ages ago, before this bunfight even happened, but there's more point now: Go check out the site of Merritt's father, Scott Fagan - it's friggin' wild (thanks, Michael Barclay, for pointing the way). Fagan was a folksinger in the '60s folk revival, then a singer-songwriter with enough cachet that Jasper Johns did a painting of one of his records, then wrote an anti-music-industry rock musical in 1970-71 and, he claims, was blacklisted from the biz. He then retreated home to the Virgin Islands, where he had grown up, and has stayed there doing music in a sort of Jimmy Buffet vein ever since. (He and his mom were abandoned by his own musician father; Fagan says he was raised by a succession of "black alcoholic stepdads"). Somewhere along the line, he found the time to have an affair with Merritt's mom, but it ended before Merritt was born in 1966. The two have never met, but I gather that Merritt grew up aware of Fagan while Fagan has only found out about Merritt fairly recently.

The fact that Merritt was actually spawned by a sixties singer-songwriter makes him a ridiculously literal case of what I argued in my "bandonyms" essay last year is the pattern of 1990s solo artists rejecting the heritage of confessional 1960s-70s singer-songwriterism, in part by adopting band names in the place of their own. Merritt's archly ironic voice provides more such distancing. Yet if you listen to some of his birth father's music you'll catch some surprising presentiments of Merritt's own sound. In most of Fagan's music the similarities are smothered by the "islands" vibe, but you can hear it in ballads such as Where My Lover Has Gone. Except that when Merritt does it, it's much more tongue-in-cheek, as I discussed in an earlier post about his Brecht influence, camp, etc.

But Fagan is also intriguing when you're talking about the racial coding of Merritt's music: There's been a lot of jawing about the thoroughgoing "whiteness" of the Magnetic Fields and other Merritt projects. Well, here he has a father (though absent) who was raised in a black environment and does heavily black-influenced music. Fagan's earliest demos, in 1963, were full of Harry Belfafonte-ish numbers such as Maryann or Rum and Coca-Cola, not to mention something called Shame And Scandal (In de Family). He carried that influence through his hippie-songwriter period and then went back to it full-swing, as you can hear on most of the tracks on his website, such as La Beiga Carousel/Tutsie. You can debate the legitimacy/ickiness of Fagan's blue-eyed-Caribbean style as much as you like, and I don't know how much Merritt knew of his father's music, but: If you grew up aware that your father is this sorta white-rasta guy who sings in dialect, not to mention a self-styled musical genius who happened to leave you and your hippie mom to fend for yourselves, perhaps you would feel there's something unappetizing about white songwriters who piggyback on black culture, and become inclined to look mostly elsewhere for inspiration? You might, in fact, come to have kind of a harsh line on crosscultural appropriation (viz. the Merritt: "White blues" is "fundamentally racist" sub-fight), and therefore steer far clear? Just a thought.

There's been some interesting side-conversation about whether white people should be condemned for being attracted to "white culture," if black people should be criticized for listening exclusively to "black music." That's too simple, but maybe leads to a better question: If we are critical of mainstream America for ripping off black culture as its own (see "rock'n'roll"), why can a songwriter also get shit rained down on him for scrupulously avoiding that move? Rip off black culture, and you're a thief; don't, and you're a musical white supremacist. Granted, the Tin Pan Alley, post-disco europop (esp. Abba), new-wave and country performers who are Merritt's main musical wellsprings all drew on African-American music to a degree. Everything mixes; there is no original source. But the Scott Fagan factor might at least suggest what Merritt is trying not to do, and why his motivations may be far from the ones being imputed. Which, once more, is by no means a story about how tastes are just meaningless accidents of chemical pleasure; but does testify to how scrambled the genetic (and ideological) material of any aesthetic might be.

In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Monday, May 15 at 2:00 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)

 

COMMENTS

Stephen Merritt is making the same argument Joseph Lanza made in his book Vanilla Pop. It sounds like posturing to me.

Posted by Wade on May 20, 2006 10:46 AM

 

 

Carl,

Merritt's provocations beg a lot of questions. F'rinstance, *why* is white blues racist? And if he doesn't like white blues, what does he think of the blues played by black people? How and why is it different?

What connection does he have to Brecht and Weill? He heard the records at home. Why is that a "purer" or "more authentic" entree into a genre than hearing blues records from your friends in high school or reading about them in Rolling Stone magazine? I don't think he'd say it's all about skin color, or would he? (How odd that I can't even think about his comment without dipping into the language of "purity" and "authenticity" -- language that he disses!)

He enjoys the role of provocateur, clearly. And he succeeds in provoking people. (Including me! That quip of his about "Zipadeedoodah" being the only successful happy song -- consider my buttons pushed! Red lights blinking! Ding ding ding ding ding ding ding! A score!)

Posted by john on May 15, 2006 8:09 PM

 

 

wow. Perfect demonstration both of why it's stupid to call someone racist for not liking enough black music and the value of probing for the sources of one's 'taste'. Not to mention how crazy and fraught and unique the relation between taste and race can be.

Posted by andrew on May 15, 2006 3:07 AM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson