Wednesday, November 19th, 2003

WHOSE BEST MUSIC WRITING?

WHOSE BEST MUSIC WRITING?

While we’re on the topic of music journalism and canon-making, may I rant for a second? Ah fuck it, it’s my blog I’ll rant if I like.

I’ve been going back through Da Capo’s so-called Best Music Writing of Year 200x. (I believe I bought the first one back in 2000, and have either borrowed the rest from the library or bought them used. That’s my little form of protest. No royalties for the monkeys. I don’t pay for brand new Charles Murray or Dinesh D’Souza books either.)

It’s not hard to notice what’s going on.

All the book editors have been guest edited by old white males. (Only Jonathan Lethem has been under 40.) Most of the pieces selected have been written by white males. Many of the pieces have been about dead or nearly dead or pretty somnabulent white males.

(Full disclosure: my piece on go-go for Vibe didn’t make the cut for the 2002 edition. Who cares. I don’t need no stinking badges. As some white guy once said, gimme truth!)

If you read the Da Capo series to find out what the best music journalism is about and who the best music journalists are, you would have to believe that rock is still dominant, that rap is still a marginal genre, and that women and folks of color just don’t make the highest tier of best music journalists. In other words, you’d be still sucking in the 70s. If Ward Connerly were a rock critic, his best-of anthologies might look like this.

In fact, I’d wager unscientifically that most of the pieces in these books on the subject of hip-hop are not by hip-hop journalists or even hip-hop generation journalists, and are not from hip-hop magazines. Hell I could be wrong. But I doubt it. Undeniably many of the articles on hip-hop are by old white males.

Look, I don’t think old white males can’t write about hip-hop. I’m not that petty-nationalist. But if by excluding all but less than a handful of selections from hip-hop journalism in four years you are telling me only old white males can write well about hip-hop? Let’s talk.

Take this piece by Nik Cohn in the 2002 edition.

Nik Cohn is best known as the guy who fabricated the story about the Italian disco stallion in Brooklyn and saw it turned into Saturday Night Fever, for which he earned a nice payday. Proving that if you are a white male journalist and you make up a story, you may be more likely to end up in Hollywood (see also Steve Glass) than back at ya mama’s crib (see Jayson Blair).

And that if you keep at it long enough you even get celebrated as a Respected Music Journalist. Proving that music journalism is an oxymoron by itself. It’s never about facts, it’s about myths.

But back to the story–which is advertised on the back cover blurb in these words: “Nik Cohn infiltrates the New Orleans rap scene”…not you kid I, as Yoda would say. Let’s leave aside for a moment the discussion of “infiltration” and age and race and rap and audience, shall we? That could take a while. And get to the story.

Nik Cohn is prone to writing lines like, “Soljas lived and died by the G-Code”, and sections like, “They seemed like nice girls, well behaved. They talked about their nails, and boys, and Destiny’s Child, and boys. Then Choppa came on the stage, and the girls flew into the gym. ‘If you like your pussy ate, say Aaaahh,’ Choppa said. And all the nice girls went, ‘Aaaahh.’”

This from a guy whose bio reads, “Nik Cohn was born in London in 1946…”

Nik Cohn also writes sentences like this: “Calliope niggas made the St. Thomas look like church.”

Now stylistically, the lack of attribution and all that can be seen as artful. You know, the omniscient narrator blah blah blah. In this case, omniscient narration can also be seen as total bullshit.

This is not a debate about whether or not Nik Cohn has the right to write what he wants. The question is about his authority and the use of the voice. Nik Cohn substituting his own voice for the voice of his interview subject–if his subject did indeed say that and Nik Cohn did not invent his subject–is the perfect way of describing what’s wrong with the white man’s burden approach to these anthologies.

I mean, “Calliope niggas”, please. Tell me Nik Cohn is omnisciently walking around the Calliope projects with that sentence dropping out of his month, let alone the St. Thomas projects. This is a guy whose bio ends, “He now lives in Shelter Island, New York.”

Who is he writing for? The Granta audience. And now you, too, consumer of “the year’s best writing on rock, pop, jazz, country & more”. (You didn’t miss it, hip-hop is in the “& more” section.)

As badly and as often as I bemoan the state of hip-hop journalism, it’s nice to get a slap upside the head like this once in a while.

Hip-hop journalism is nowhere near as bad as the state of music journalism, which apparently is still stuck in the same old racist, rockist canon-making. Geezus, it feels like the late 80s and we’re fighting to have women and people of color included in the curriculum all over again.

Shall I dig my old picket signs out of the garage? Call up Jesse Jackson? Chant “Hey hey ho ho greying white rock critics have got to go”?

So to all the old white guys at Da Capo and to you future old white guy guest editors–read David Tompkins, Kris Ex, Harry Allen, Sylvia Chan, Jessica Hopper, Jon Caramanica, Tony Green, Elliott Wilson, Hua Hsu, Gabe Alvarez, Cristina Veran, Rob Kenner, Joseph Patel, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tonya Pendleton, Sacha Jenkins-shit you want more? There’s plenty more. Read about broken beat, dub, reggae, mbalax, salsa, Tejano, Latin rock, afrobeat, kiho’alu, qawwali. Your readers do. Your heroes do. Hell, you’re behind the curve.

You could also invest next year in Raquel Cepeda’s anthology collecting some of the best hip-hop journalism of the last two or so decades called And It Don’t Stop (not from your press, I note). A beginning corrective which may unleash some Columbus-style discoveries in your offices but then again probably not.

Get it? No?

Let me put it like this: If Lester Fucking Bangs was still alive, he’d probably be mentoring a young girl of color from New Orleans who grew up with Juvie, Jubilee, marches, merengue, magnums, samba, second line, the Sex Pistols, and the housing authority police. She wouldn’t need to make anything up.

And if you didn’t hear her, it would be all your loss.

posted by @ 11:48 pm | 0 Comments



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