Sunday, October 31st, 2004

Whatever Happened To The Avant-Garde, Part II: Beyond Rockism vs. Pop-ism

So I’m sure this is the one everyone’s gonna be talking about this week. It’s long overdue, and you couldn’t have wished for anyone else except this dude to have come through to clarify the situation.

Even better, here’s Eric Weisbard’s unbelievably timed review of Elijah Wald’s brilliant book on Robert Johnson and Ned Sublette’s book on Cuba-as-the-mother-of-all-pop-rhythm that suggest deep alternatives to both rockist writing and traditional scholarly approaches to pop. Read the review then run out and get the books.

But the point of this short rant–I can go on, but I don’t have time right now–is to suggest that the rockism vs. pop-ism debate is mad played out. As even my man suggests in his closing lines, “We deserve some new prejudices, too”–no doubt so that he can elegantly skewer them as well, but anyway.

Here’s my mini-statement of purpose. If there’s a hiphopcentric approach to all this, it certainly ought to oppose rockism, but also establish some standards, prejudices, whatever you want to call them–aesthetics. It ought to run the gauntlet between the critical theory line that most pop is bad (the rockists’ debt to Adorno) and the cult-stud line that most pop is good (the antidj-rockists’ debt to the Brits). It ought to make a virtues of both showing-and-proving in front of a community and leading that community somewhere else. Audience affirmation should lead forward not backward.

My own criticism has been moving in two not-yet-contradictory directions. One is towards the global–a stab against what I once called musical unilateralism in some stupid essay long ago (for the record, this year’s model brought tears to many of our eyes, I’m not kidding). Let’s admit, for instance, that the worldviews of rockists and popists often seem utterly ridiculous from other shores. Proof? Start with the brilliant DJ Nuts.

The other is toward a return of the avant-garde. Remember that? Before the post-isms and the bloggerati levelled everything?

I don’t mean only unlistenable stuff you have to study in class. Jazz at Minton’s was avant-garde. Sly Stone and Funkadelic was avant-garde. Hip-hop when it came downtown and went global was avant-garde. They shared a comfort in knowing the ledge.

I’m down for pop that wants to be avant-garde (or like this or this or this) and avant-garde that wants to be pop (or like this or this or this or this).

Rockists are correct to celebrate rebellion and Big Statements, Pop-ists are correct to celebrate pleasure and mass appeal. Pop avantists or Avant-popists, whatever, a new avant-gardism, should want an aesthetics of progressiveness, of standing outside (whether one wants in or not), of risk, of of desiring and creating a better world.

Alright yall, gotta run, mad issues to deal with today…let the convo begin…

And yo, go vote. Your enemies already did.

posted by @ 10:30 am | 22 Comments

22 Responses to “Whatever Happened To The Avant-Garde, Part II: Beyond Rockism vs. Pop-ism”

  1. ronnie brown says:

    not to be intentionally curmudgeonly, but Kelefa Sanneh’s “The Rap Against Rockism” article struck me as being an exercise in stating the obvious. He asks the question: “Could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world?”…well DUH!!!…white men arrogantly presuming to be the gatekeepers of culture…reserving for themselves the exclusive right to document, critque and canonize…SHOCKING!

    If we’re not careful, we who call ourselves writers, cultural critics, etc. can very easily slip into a “paralysis of analysis” where for the sake of making a deadline we end up asking questions we already have answers for…to ask why we aren’t acting on what we already know is the $64,000 question. We are drowning in a sea of euphemisms…”crossover”, “rockism”, “mainstream”, “pop”, “urban”, “suburbs” are the code words of white supremacy…they set the boundries of our thought and our action…We ought to be askin’ why these artifical limitations continue to be tolerated and discussed ad infinitum…

  2. Anonymous says:

    I think the “rockist” thing is much more easily and accureately distilled into one category: people who aren’t satisfied with music unto itself. Clearly there is an element of white people. I would refrain from using the term “white culture”, mind you. But Ronnie is reading into the issue a little much. Just because someone is white and pushes white music at the expense of non-white music, does not make that person a white supremacist. It just makes them ignorant. Now if they actively plotting against non-white artists… that would be another story. But I’m sorry to say that no private magazine “owes” you fairness and impartiality. After all, music is based on opinion and culture. This isn’t politics… this is music. Should we have “reeducation classes” for white rock critics?

    Also, and this must be pointed out… there has been no new major genre of music since hip hop and techno took root in the early 1980s. The media segregation of the past has greatly diminished. Music fans have more diverse tastes than ever. Rock music (aka guitar-based music) still seems to have a disproportionate number of advocates in the magazine business… oh well. Could it not be said that those magazines exist because there is a market for them? Maybe white dudes are a bunch of dorks and they read a lot of magazines. Would you suggest we replace Rolling Stone with another Vibe, simply on the basis that Vibe has more people of color and thus is more representative of the music market as a whole?

    As for global vs. avant, I think that is actually a productive and insightful discussion, primarily because it is about expanding our notions of music culture, instead of bogging down in labelisms.

    Global. All I gotta say is Latin America. Latin America actually seems as much open to techno as rap music. Although it seems rap will inevitably find big success everywhere.

    My main question about Latin America is if Spanish poses barriers to rapping that English does not. I’ve always had a suspicion that America and Jamaica are the homes of rap music because English lends itself to rap. But I’m sure many would argue that Spanish is just as well suited. The question, then, might be one of accent. I guess this is another debate.

    As for the avant garde, I actually believe there will be no more significant avant garde scenes. Where has the music not gone? What is left to explore? Much like literature and movies, and all pop culture… if you can imagine it… someone has probably done it. I’m not saying every style has been popularized or commercialized. But there are major precedents for most every possible style of music. I would say rapping over jungle and garage was really the last major avant garde. Of course, with Dizzee and Mike Skinner, it is really no longer an avant garde.

    Anyway, good to see some provocative ideas.

  3. ronnie brown says:

    Public opinion and popular culture are not produced in a vacuum…they are a reflection, a commentary of the political realities of the day…to wit, white supremacy, which has been the cornerstone of American life since the Founding Fathers…your claim that music is somehow not subject to its influence and simply the benign expression of the “ignorant”…well, all i can say is, denial is a disease, baby!…And before i forget, what is “white music” and where did it come from?…i mean you realize Black musicians laid the foundation of what is commonly called Rock and Roll, no?

  4. Anonymous says:

    oh yeah, whoops, I forgot to identify myself. that was eric who wrote that.

    Ronnie… is Los Angeles currently based on White Supremacy. And if so, how?


  5. ronnie brown says:

    Don’t take this the wrong way…but your question sounds like it’s coming from a very young man…how old are you?

    btw, white supremacy is a GLOBAL phenomenon, with a history of about 500 years or so…

  6. Anonymous says:

    Whatever man. I give you numerous examples and ask you specific questions. And you respond by asking my age. You could have at least asked me if I grew up in a rich, white supremacist neighborhood.

    I’m 29.

  7. ronnie brown says:

    i ask your age because i shouldn’t have to school a 29 year-old white man on the the legacy of racism in contemporary America and Los Angeles in particular…Are you being intentionally provocative with your line of questioning?

  8. exo says:

    eric – you’re sharing some great insight . . . even if you are a 29 year-old privileged son of rich beverly hills racists who wants to run away to jamaica with his mexican housekeeper, or whatever’s going on between the lines here.

    ronnie – “white supremacy” is not a code word for “i don’t have to back up my argument.” at best it’s a victim’s identity. if you’re gonna play the victim, at least add something to the discourse by assuming the role of one that can articulate a position.

    zen – you’ve classified things past the point where they made no sense just to bring everything back up as a fresh idea: global vs. avant-garde? brilliant.

    now, are you going to be gravitating toward global-pop, global-avant-garde, global-as-avant-garde or the old global-as-cliche? and what happens when the global-as-new-pop movement is fully realized? what then? does regionalism become the new avant-garde? this is very possible by urinalysis — i mean, your analysis.

    me, i like what i like. i don’t really care where, when or who it came from. you know, i bump it if it bumps, rock it if rocks, and swing with it if it swings. . . which is probably why i was the only one in blogsville that didn’t need “mosh” to realize that i was feeling “just lose it.”

    that i allow myself more “guilty pleasures” than most simply means that i allow myself more pleasure than most. this is a good thing. freedom is on the march.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Thanks exo. Sometimes I think people mistake myinalysis for urinalysis… or just plain piss.

    Yes, I am being intentionally provocative. I am not afraid to throw some good old 6 year old questions in the mix. The people’s rhetoric has been known to sit on the shelf and get more dusty than digital.

    Ronnie… I agree… you SHOULDn’t have to school me on racism or white supremacy. And their shouldn’t be any racism or white supremacy. Should, should, should. That is the un-magic word, known worldwide as the antidote of hope. But let me tell you even evil effiges have been known to be lazy and full of lethargy. The Wizard of Oz got nothing on me. See me in the control room with Lee Scratch Perry.

  10. ronnie brown says:

    exo – if i put my fist in your face and you went to the police station to file charges against me, you would be identified in the police report as the VICTIM!…so whatever gave you the idea that invoking the term “victimhood” somehow invalidates the reality of white supremacy?…please! I don’t have to “back up” any arguement regarding racism’s lingering influence; it speaks loud and clear to this day.

    eric – be provocative, but don’t try to sermonize on a game you ain’t been put up on. If you’re a lil’ fuzzy on the dynamics of white supremacy/racism and how it shapes private opinion and popular culture, just say so!…I’ll try to fill in the blanks as best i can. If you’re the average 29 year-old white dude, i’m positive that you yourself haven’t fully grasped the legacy of your own white-skin privilege. As you stated, there shouldn’t be any racism or white supremacy…but there was…and is!…facing it squarely and soberly is not the end of hope; but the beginning…

  11. Anonymous says:

    Ronnie… how straightforward do I need to be? I asked you…

    “Is Los Angeles currently based on White Supremacy. And if so, how?”

    This was actually neither provocation, nor an ignorant question. I asked this because people often mean different things by the term “White Supremacy”. Your answer to this question would help me understand what YOU mean by White Supremacy. Then we can actually have a productive discussion, instead of assuming — on both sides — what the other person means.

    And, no, I am not new to issues of race. And before you go holding my white privelege against me, maybe you should actually take the time to find out who I am first, asshole.


  12. ronnie brown says:

    so now i gotta be an asshole…there’s no need for me to hold your white privilege against you; you’ve already put your foot in ya mouth…guess your tolerance for “dialogue” is a little weak…

  13. ronnie brown says:

    Los Angeles is no different than any other city in America…it had “restrictive covenants” preventing Blacks from home ownership from most locations in the city until the early 1960’s…its reputation for police brutality has been an ongoing issue since the 1930’s…the root cause for two of the worst riots in American history: the 1967 Watts Riot and the 1992 L.A. Rebellion…Central Avenue in the 1940’s was the west coast base for some of the greatest names in Jazz: Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, the young Miles Davis…they couldn’t SLEEP in the hotels they played in…couldn’t get cabs to bring them to the club because of the racist climate…

    You claim to need to know MY definition of white supremacy?…there’s only one kind!…what world are you livin’ in, man?…what history books you been readin’?…you want chapter and verse?…ask ya momma and daddy what they thought of Black people when they were coming up…ask your older kinfolk, you might be suprised!…i don’t know what “understanding” you’re tryin’ to glean from these postings, cause you come off kinda shaky.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I called you an asshole because you called me a “typical white guy”. I took offense at that, because it was intended to “put me in my place”. I might call you an asshole, but I certainly don’t blame it on your skin color.

    As for my family, what relevance does this have to my question? Neither of my parents are racists. My dad’s brother lives on-and-off in Japan and married a Japanese woman. Both of my cousins, with whom I am very close, are mixed. The future of my family is European, Japanese, Jewish, etc. I currently live with three Black people and my neighborhood is mostly Latino and Black. I hope you can see… it’s not exactly the portrait of a racist. I have always been surrounded by people of different races and ethnicities.

    Well, at least you finally answered my question. I was looking for something a little more current, but I’ll take what I can get. I certainly don’t deny the significance of police brutality and segregation. One of my apartment mates got picked up a few weeks ago for riding his bike on the sidewalk, and was patted down as if he might be carrying a weapon. He is black. I agree that racial profiling and de facto segregation are still major issues in Los Angeles.

    And now I will speak my peace and be out. Your focus on White Supremacy is as much a hindrance to you as it is empowering. I feel you are playing by the rules established by the very racists and white supremacists you wish to fight. I believe the only way to overcome racism is to undermine the basis of racism — that race exists. I believe we must rise above the concept of race. In much the same way that your race has been used against you — you have used my race against me. This is how racism perpetuates itself and permutates. This is the sickness of racism.

  15. Anonymous says:

    One other thing. On the subject of the term “White Supremacy”… some people use the term “institutional racism” to describe the persistence of racial divides and policies which disprportionately effect people of color. I think the term “institutional racism” is much more accurate in describing the dynamics of a city like Los Angeles. I associate the term White Supremacy with individuals who believe White people are threatened by people of color, and actively pursue an agenda of demonizing and crippling those communities.

    I don’t believe most of the people in power are thinking “I gotta keep people of color in poverty”. I think most people in power are just trying to keep their power, plain and simple, and make more money. And, unfortunately, because of the legacy of racism — aka “institutional racism” — simply maintaining their power involves maintaining the current disparities and pushing a pro-business agenda that disproportionately hurts poor people, who of course happen to be primarily people of color.

  16. ronnie brown says:

    Eric – I may not know you personally, but i can certainly make a reasonable judgement based on what you post..The fact that you asked for CURRENT examples of white supremacy at work only reveal your total lack of historical perspective; a perspective that would give you a clearer understanding of the wickedness of racism…your flippant definition of “institutional racism” as a means to keep a group of rich men in power at the expense of poor colored folk is an insult…you desecrate the memory of millions of Black folk who were enslaved, maimed, lynched and branded as outcasts in America for generations…all in the service of white supremacy…meaning that white citizens of this nation used every political, economic and judicial resource available in the attempt to force African-Americans into a permanent position of servitude.

    and this is where your 29 years on earth fails you…the social climate that gives you the freedom include people of color in your family circle (which, by no means gives you any special insight concerning racism) was a freedom that was gained through blood, death and much humiliation at the hands of your fellow countrymen.

    Your utopian wishful thinking regarding race trivializes the horror of racist oppression and brings needless confusion to discussions that are trying to ask and answer the hard questions that may lead to finding a real and lasting solution to man’s most basic human division…At this point, you’d be better off doin’ a lil’ bit more listening, a lil’ more learning…and if pointing out the limitations of your “race analysis” makes me an asshole in your eyes, then an asshole i will gladly be…out!

  17. Anonymous says:

    Where in my comments do I contradict any of the things you are saying about the history of African-Americans? Show me one line I have written where I say any of those things aren’t true. I haven’t… because all of those things you say about the history of Black people in America are true. Maybe you should also do some listening and stop assuming that a) i am totally ignorant and b) that i am denying facts or c) that i am belittling the struggle.

    I 100% agree that America has only recently begun to emerge from 400 years brutality and oppression against Black people. I don’t deny any of the things you are saying.

    Here’s the deal. You might be surprised to find that we agree on the facts. And I know a lot more about this subject than you are willing to give credit. Where we differ is our analysis and our use of abstract terms.

    Let us look at an example. If a person at a bank denies a loan to a Black man, it might be called racism, white supremacy, institutional racism, or even classism. But we can surely agree that the man was denied a loan, and it was probably because of his skin color. Here we can agree that the man was Black and that he was denied a loan, where a white person or a person with more money would have gotten the loan.

    Is my point clear now? Again, I am not denying the facts. I am not a revisionist. But my focus is on moving forward, and not getting bogged down in the past.

    My thinking is not utopian. I neither strive for a perfect world, nor expect it (the definition of utopianism). If anything I am a pragmatist and maybe a “rationalist” as Jeff called me the other day. My example of how to view race is simply based on the FACT that racism is based on an false belief that race exists. Race was invented in order to oppress people.

    The paradigm I espouse is one in which people first free themselves of their own race-based psychology. This was the process Malcolm X went through. This is where you attempt to get rid of the self-hate, guilt, delusions, and resentments against those of other races.

    The reason why I brought up my family was not to prove anything, but simply to let you know that your assumptions about me are not necessarily true. YOU were the one who really made this personl and brought my family into this. YOU were the one who accused me of being a “typical white guy” (read: ignorant and racist). Sorry, I felt like defending myself against your desire to portray me as someone I am not.

    And, by the way, man’s most basic division is actually gender, not race.

    Oh yeah… one last thing…. If your goal is to eliminate white supremacy, you might want to work on your interpersonal skills with white people. Try letting go of some of those resentments and learn to love your fellow human beings a little more. I might call you names and all, but I wouldn’t stick around unless I thought some good would come out of this.

  18. Anonymous says:

    And no I won’t stop posting until you be nice to me.



  19. ronnie brown says:

    i’m gonna clarify a few of your misrepresentations before i dead this topic…

    i recommended that you get the perspective of older folk, namely your mother and father or older relatives in order to gain a greater understanding of the racial climate in their day.

    If you re-read my posts you’ll find that i said the following: “IF you are the average 29 year-old white dude, i’m positive that you haven’t fully grasped the legacy of YOUR OWN WHITE SKIN PRIVILEGE.”…meaning, your whiteness confers upon you a laundry list of social, psychological and emotional benefits, most of which you’re not even aware of…that hardly sounds like i was calling you out as “ignorant and racist”…but your defensiveness is the typical response of white folk when the subject of race is on the table…

    I never claimed that you tried to contradict or contest the reality of America’s racist history…WHAT I DID SAY was that your analysis of that history was shallow, trite and flippant to the point of disrespect; that the paradigm you offer is not PRAGMATIC but POLLYANNAISH!

    Lastly, i’m gonna give you a thumbnail definition of white supremacy/institutional racism: It is an arrogant act of collective self-deification by white society coupled with corrospondings acts of deprivation, exclusion and vilification against Black people in particular and people of color in general.

    to put it bluntly, white people think they’re better and they have the political, economic and military muscle to impose their bias and to CREATE and MAINTAIN inequality among the rest of us.

    faced with such a major obstacle, this is what you have to offer: “racism is based on a false belief that race exists”, “work on your interpersonal relationships with white people”, “attempt to get rid of the self hate, guilt, delusions and resentments against those of other races”…

    man, please!

    moving on…

  20. Anonymous says:

    “Trite, flippant… and pollyannish”

    I’ll give you flippant, maybe. But not trite or pollyanish.

    With regard to past racial dynamics. I agree with you 100% on the past. How many times can I say this? But you must understand that even some of us evil, white European immigrants never bought into this notion of racial superiority. But even if my family history was full of racists and white supremacists… that doesn’t diminism my words. If anything, I believe it would give even more weight to my words. For better or worse, I have much less exposure to racism than most white people.

    Most of the racism I have witnessed or experienced was with Latinos in the town where I grew up, Riverside. I can vividly remember kids at my school giving me bad looks cuz I was white. If I looked at some of these kids for more than two seconds… they would say things like “Watchyooo lookin at, huh?” If I looked at their girls, they would threaten to hurt me. Ironically, that was on my side of town — a predominantly white neighborhood. When I went to elementary school on the East Side of town (the non-white side) it was actually all love, although junior high might have been a little more hectic. There you have it… that was my race-related experience growing up in the somewhat segregated city of Riverside, California. And, yes, of course… I had lots of non-white friends (just so people whouldn’t think I was a racist 😉 😉 😉 (read: flippant)

    I agree that white people often get defensive in these sorts of conversations. A lot of white people have major guilt and will often be afraid to contradict what a person of color has to say about racism. For this reason, I believe it is even more important that I speak my mind around people of color. I have something unique to offer because I am a white person who cares, that isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

    I believe the dynamics of conversations between people of different ethnicities is as important as the content of those discussions. When people show basic respect for each other’s individuality… the other person usually responds in kind. If one listens and learns about that person… something has been accomplished. I don’t feel I have been given that respect, but that is the chance I take in a conversation like this, where I reveal intimate details about myself. If you don’t want to deal with me as an indvidual, I can’t force you. If you want to be a representative, rather than an individual… that is your choice.

    I would never have read endless books and talked with endless people about the struggle and the diaspora if I didn’t care deeply and have the most profound respect for the history and the culture. I believe the Black struggle is our only significant moral compass in this country. And I am a moral person.

    I feel the greatest threat to moving forward is the fact that many of us cannot let go of the rhetoric and paradigms of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, NOI, Panthers, etc. Although I do feel Malcolm’s personal journey — as with Nathan McCall — reflect upon my belief that we should focus on individual empowerment and enlightenment. In many ways, this was also the view of W.E.B. Dubois.

    If you have the answers… if you have a better, more pragmatic approach than I have — that no man is free until all people are free; that no man is free until he first frees himself — then please… tell me where in Los Angeles I should go… tell me what book it is I have missed… tell me who is making a difference in our communities right here in Los Angeles… tell me who our new leaders are…

    Because right now I don’t see any leadership at all. I see a bunch of non-individuals with no leader. And I think this largely explains the crisis.

  21. ronnie brown says:

    ok, since you asked…

    Race Traitor website:

    back issues $5

    do a google search on author Susan Straight who grew up in Riverside.

    shoot me an e-mail ( and i will forward two essays by Donna Lamb, a white female reparations activist from NYC.

    lastly, a friendly tip…it would be best for you not to consider it necessary to CONTRADICT what other Black folk have to say about racism; nor insist that we move beyond the input Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, The Nation or the Black Panthers…if you don’t see how downright paternalistic that is…well,…

  22. Anonymous says:

    First of all, WOW thanks… Tamara Nopper has got some very provocative, paradigm-shattering words for all the white activists out there. She definitely addresses a lot of my points. Big up.

    Tamara’s essay on “The White Anti-Racist Is an Oxymoron” is brutal. Though I must say, she seems to affirm what I have been saying about moving beyond race…

    “So what does this mean for the future of white anti-racists? This might mean to first, figure out ways in which whiteness needs to die as a social structure and as an identity in which you organize your anti-racist work.”

    I totally 100% agree. And, if I’m not mistaken, this is what I have been advocating.

    But yeah, definitely thanks for pointing that out.

    I’ve definitely heard of Susan Straight. If I’m not mistaken, she lived near my elementary school, Longfellow. My parents were telling me about her awhile back. Riverside is a very interesting place.

    I apologize if my tone comes off as paternalistic. I might be preachy, but I don’t think I am being arrogant, just “free”. A lot of people find my views extreme, naive, or utopianistic, as you yourself have mentioned. I can certainly understand why people see my views that way. And I surely agree that I am self-important. But that won’t stop me from engaging people, seeking answers, and being open about my views. Besides, I have nothing better to do.

    My views on race-consciousness are directed at all people — whites, blacks, etc. And they are based on my own experience of de-programming myself. I suffer the same disease. I wouldn’t preach it, if I didn’t live it. I am not forcing anything upon anyone. I am simply sharing my views. And I certainly respect your right to disagree with me.

    I’ll send you that email and stop harassing you now.


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