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, in his 1992 book Flyboy in the Buttermilk, calls for a “popular postructurailism” in black culture, a cultural project “bent on deconstructing the whole of black culture” (198). What he goes on to describe in this chapter is characteristic of the post-soul aesthetic; he calls for black culture, criticism and institutions that will reflect the complexity of black culture. One of these post-soul institutions Tate himself had a hand in founding in 1985 is the Black Rock Coalition (with guitarist Vernon Reid and artist manager Konda Mason). As part of its manifesto, the Black Rock Coaltion (BRC) claims “the right of creative freedom and access to American and International airwaves, audiences, markets, resources and compensations, irrespective of genre.” The BRC is especially critical of the music industry, which it says denies “Black artists the expressive freedom and economic rewards that our Caucasian counterparts enjoy as a matter of course.” The BRC was established as an instution outside the American music industry to promote “marginalized” black rock artists. Maureen Mahon, in her study of the BRC, says that, because they were born between 1954 and 1964, were raised moslty in middle-class homes and attended integrated schools, these artists occupy a liminal space between black nationalism and integrationsim. This unsual cultural position allows them to “negotiate what mihgt have been a deiblitiangly paradoscial pisition by deviloping cultural practices that critique both the dominat discourses of black authenticity and the persitstence of racism in the United States.” Instead of allowing their marginal position to defeat their prodcution, the BRC uses this space “to challenge what they see as the prevailing wisdom of the black and white mainsteamrs” (284). They celebrate their “mutant diversity” (as Tate would call it) and deploy in critiques of the very system that seeks to categorize and thus contain them.
In Tate’s chapter about the post-soul, “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke,” he theorizes the cultural critique implicit in this new black culrtural production based on the post-marxist thought of French theorist Jean Baudrillard and Hal Foster, who uses Baudrillard to etheorize about art. In keeping with the post-soul characteristic, Tate admits that his theory for black culture is based on the work of a “smart, empathetic white man” he could “cannibalize,” a “host culture-bearer;” that is, Foster. It is through these theorists that he spins out his notion of cultural resistance to dominant and dominating modes of cpitialtism. Foster, as Tate describes him, proposes a difeinition of culture as a “network of disciplinary institutions and sign systems to be constantly targeted for adversarial deconstruction” (205). In this arena of culture, the primitivism of the avant-garde does not seek to destroy a monolithich capitalism as previous marxisms have argued; instead, resitance constitutes “critical intervention in the process by which capitalism is reathionalized thorugh mass culture and modernism” (205). It is precicely this kind of resistance that much of today’s underground and independent music takes part in. One band participating in this cultural ciritque is the Brooklyn-based TV On The Radio (TVOTR). While all of the members of the band were born later than the founding members of the BRC and didn’t start recording with Touch and Go Records until three yeaers after Mahon’s article was published, they have much in common with Mahon’s comments as well as Tate’s. The racial make up of the band (four black members and one white) is itself an indicator of theirr post-soul cultural project. TVOTR’s membership in BRC also obviates these connections. TVOTR’s primary mode of resistance is a radical expression of individual identity, which takes place in both their lyrics and the music itself. The identities they express in these settings do not attempt to essentialize blackness, but instead deploy images from a variety of sources toward individual expression. This individual expression eludes the culture industry’s attempts
to fetishize black cultural production and black modes of identity, even down to the individual level. One example of this method is the song “The Wrong Way” from their 2004 album, Desparate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes. The structure of “The Wrong Way” can be interpretted loosely as the story of someone who experiences a dream and, after interpretting that dream in solitude, shares with the community what the dream means. (The speaker could be either male or female; the song is not necessarily “gendered” male. As Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author” has shown, the speaker of a work and its author are not always the same person. Keeping this in mind, I’ll use the pronoun “he” to refer to the speaker in this song because TVOTR’s singer, Adebimpe, is male.) In this case, the speaker dreams he is “in a magic nigger movie / . . . / teachin’ folks the score / about patience, understanding, agape babe / and sweet, sweet amour.” The “magic nigger”--or, more commonly, “magical negro”--film incorporates into its plot an African American with otherwordly wisdom and often supernatural abilities who assits the white protagonist in his quest for redemption. The magical negro character ususally appears mysteriously, offers his advice or help to the white character, then either sacrifices himself or dissappears. Well-known recent examples of this type of film are The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Family Man, and The Green Mile. In “The Wrong Way,” the speaker finds himself in just such a movie, educating white “folks” about both humanistic and romantic love (“agape” and “sweet, sweet amour”). The speaker soon undertands that the eyes of American viewers, both black and white, are on him, because he sees “the bright lights pointed at me / as a metaphor.” He realizes that his participation in black cultural production takes place on a stage or screen (or on the radio); in other words, his decision to create is a public one, and what he does “in the spotlight” of culture
will have repercussions in the society at large. As an African American artist, he has a choice to “stand up and testify / oh, fist up signify / or did I show off my soft shoe / maybe teach ‘em a boogaloo.” Thus he sees his choice between raising his fist in a gesture of black solidarity associated with the Black Power Movement or perfoming some inoffensive entertainment as a kind of Stepin Fetchit. Either way, he will be prostituting himself by falling into one of two racial stereotypes generated by the culture industry; he will be “busy playing the whore.” The speaker goes on to note that making money playing to either of these stereoptypes is detrimental not only to the individual, but to the world. These performers, indistinguishable in their conspicuous consumption, are “indivisible by shame,” an undifferentiated mass of consumers whom the speaker calls “loiterers united.” In addition, they fail to realize that their opulence comes at a great cost to workers; they are “hungry for those diamonds / served on little severed bloody brown hands / oh the bling drips.” In apparent reaction to this kind of cultural prostitution, the speaker feels that a “new negro politician / . . . / is stirring inside me.” Perhaps what he sees as the solution to this downward spiral of consumption is more participation in the political system. But the speaker immediately realizes “no there’s nothing inside me / but an angry heart beat,” so participation in political instututions is not a viable option, either. The speaker falls into a kind of despair and sees nothing but “fear,” “terror,” and “hunger,” reminiscent of the kind of “black nihilsm” that Cornel West and bell hooks warn against. But although the heartbeat is “angry,” it can also be passionate, and maybe even compassionate. It is not nihilistic anger, but it is anger that leads to critique, as a look at the rest of the lyrics will bear out. After considering all of the options his dream offered him, the speaker turns to his muse for inspiration and guidance; she is a “little niña” at a “payphone,” a decidedly modern and urban
muse, but one who listens to his plea. With her “permission,” he asserts his individuality and his right to choose; he is “gonna take liberty.” It is not clear what choice the speaker makes, but it is one based on some kind of artistic expression, one inspired by the “niña” muse, and the choice is to assert individual agency in the face of almost overwhelming racial stereotypes. Considering the unusual and genre-crossing music the band produces, the choice is a complex one, but it is made with full recognition of the racial stereoptyes the cultural industry produces (and reproduces). Given the obvious choice between conventional instutions of black political
leaders and conspicuous affluence of some rappers and athletes, the speaker chooses neither. He encourages the listener, too, to fiind his or her own agency; it is “right there in front of you.” The speaker urges the listener to claim his right to idividual expression and agency, one that is an authentic form of black expression and not dictated by the the demands of the market and the categories the market places on artistic expression. TVOTR’s notion of the individual black artist’s right to freedom of expression resonates with the refusal of the BRC “to tailor their music to fit into the creative straitjackets the industry has designed. We are individuals and will accept no less than full respect for our right to be conceptually independent.” The song ends with a corrective statement: “Hey, desparate youth! / Oh, blood thirsty babes! / Oh your guns are pointed / your guns are pointed the wrong way.” If the speaker wants the listener to take “liberty,” which I interpret as a kind of individual agency, then that liberty flies in the face of an industry which wants to create the illusion of agency through consumption, that the choice is between this or that prevailing stereotype. The speaker instead suggests the we stop arguing between these false choices between two simplisitic, essentializing stereotypes and instead direct our anger toward the systems that created these false choices in the first place, that is, the American fform of free market capitalism, bolstered by a continuing and ever-more
complex racism. Mahon’s description of the BRC once again resonates with the operation of TVOTR’s culutral resitance: “Cognizant of the limitiations racialization places on black American lives, BRC members use their music as a preformed anaylysis and criticque that circumvents media and public conventions of race, inventing new (or at least infrequently recognized) forms of African American identtity in the process” (284). TVOTR circumvents these racial and racist conventions in their lyrics, and, as I will now seek to demonstrate, in their music. The speaker of “The Wrong Way” wants to “take liberty,” in another sense: that he will interpret, change, make his own, improvise; TV On The Radio does this musically. Their music, in keeping with much of the post-soul aesthetic, is indicicative of the cultural production of “mutant diversity,” as Tate names it; this disregard for genre inherently resists attempts by the record industry to compartmentalize and thus market music as a fetishized comodity. In his book-length discussion of Frank Zappa, Ben Watson characterizes Zappa’s music as exhibiting a “utopian disregard for genre;” this is also true of TVOTR’s music. Furthermore, I believe this applies to a lot of “indie” and underground music today, especially as cheaper technology has expidited access to different forms of music from all over the world and throughout history, as well as to the means to create, record, and reproduce music. In its generic slipperiness, TVOTR’s music eludes attempts by the machinery of captialism to capture, encode, stratify, and reterritorialize it into an easily consumable product. It has been described as “indie rock,” “post-do-wop,” “electro rock,” “turntablism;” it is all and some and none of these. Their vocal harmonies and octave doubling recall soul groups of the 1970’s like the Stylistics; their use of noise guitar within the pop form is influenced by earlier indie rock bands like the Pixies; the horns recall both 1960’s soul and free jazz.
But all of these styles are tempered by what has been called a “lo-fi” aesthetic. As cultural theorist Tony Grajeda characterizes it, “lo-fi” recordings are “small-scale efforts made on (relatively) inespensive equipment such as four-track rape machines. Unline state-of-the-art recording tehcniques, low-fidelity equipment produces an altogether rough and ragged sound quality, often failing to mask hum, static, tape hiss, and other noises endemic to the ery process of recording. Not simply a case of technology but also of technique, lo-fi has been used further to descripbe those musical peformances mared by amateurish playing (often on minimal insturmentation), off-key singing, and a certain casualness of delivery” (355). Of course, all of these characteristics could describe early blues recordings. The critical difference, howver, comes when one considers that recording technology has become more and more sophisiticated since the 1960’s, and more so every year, especially as the music industry has grown and consolidated itself. Thus lo-fi recording and performance techniques take on the role of cultural dissent against the proliferation of more and more “slick” recordings of mainstream American music and the expectations of the record industry for recordings to meet a certain “hi-fi” standard. TVOTR’s music (especially Desparate Youth, Blood Thirsty Babes and their most recent album, Return to Cookie Mountain) is not as lo-fi as other music gets, but compared to more mainstream releases, it qualifies. And their performances, while hardly “amatuerish,” are sometimes inexact, so that, while their vocials, for instance, recall the Stylistics, the inexact execution of them also work against the apparatus that packaged and commidified those 1970’s soul records. For Grajeda, lo-fi music lays bare the devices of pop music production, exposing the materiality of music itself against the tendency of mainstream pop music to gloss over it. This process “shores up the bourgeois notion of autnomous art, an art free from social
constraints, ceonomics, politics and history” (368). The lo-fi elemets of TVOTR’s music emphasize this materiality and contribute to the band’s overall cultural dissent. TVOTR also takes liberties with song style in their cover of the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves.” As is typical of the post-soul generation as “cultural mulattoes,” their inlfuences come from both black and white sources. The Pixies, a white indie or “alternative” rock band, were based in Boston in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and enjoyed some small success on college radio and in Europe. Their music was influenced by surf and earlier punk music, and their lyrics are often cryptic. They have been cited as influences on more popular “alternative” bands like Nirvana, Weezer, and Radiohead. Just as punk has been cited as influences on Fishbone and other bands of the NBA, it influenced TVOTR, as evinced in the appearance of guitarist Kyp Malone in the documentary Afro-punk about African American punk fans. The Pixies’ recording of “Mr. Grieves” on their 1989 album Doolittle is typical of their style: dense, angular guitar chords; alterations of loud and soft, fast and slow sections; Black Francis’ howling vocals; and decidely lo-fi production values. TVOTR’s a capella version could be called a “post-do-wop” refashioning of the song. Its layers of vocals provide rhythmic and chordal structure as well as melody and harmony, and its easier tempo and feel recall the swing of do-wop. It is a “prettier” version of the song, but no less lo-fi because it sounds like it was recorded all at once around one micrrophone (although, considering the layers, this is probably not the case). Their version is both a tribute to the Pixies and a showcase for the vocal prowess of the band, and it demonstrates their “mutant” influences--white punk and (mostly) African American do-wop. Showing off their influences as being both black and white sources is just one way TVOTR participates in Tate’s popular postructuralism as a critical prjoect.
In conclusion, let me add that TVOTR’s music contains much that is pleasurable about pop music: catchy refrains, danceable beats, instrumental hooks, and their live shows surge with rock energy. These pleasures contain the potentioal for their resistence to be exposed to a more widespread audience, and, given their recent signing with Interscope records and the use of one of their songs as background music on an episode of the popular network drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” this seems more possible. And not of all of their songs deal explicitly with racial issues; many of them, like lots of pop songs, explore love relationships. But it is these moments of cultural resitance, in both their lyrics and their music, that take can hold in popular culture and offer opportunities for new forms of black cultural production to be expressed, forms that slip out of the oppressive grasp of market capitalism to reach a new kind of black authenticity.
Works Cited “The Black Rock Coalition Manifesto.” Black Rock Coalition. 16 Oct. 2006 <http://www.blackrockcoalition.org/>. Grajeda, Tony. “The Sound of Disaffection.” Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture. Henry Jenkins, Tara McPherson, and Jane Shattuc, eds. Durham: Duke UP, 2002. 357-375. Mahon, Maureen. “Black Like This: Race, Generation, and Rock in the Post-Civil Rights Era.” American Ethnologist 27 (2000): 283-311. Tate, Greg. “Cult-Nats Meet Freaky-Deke.” Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. 198-210. TV On The Radio. “The Wrong Way.” Desperate Youths, Bloodthirsty Babes. Touch & Go, 2004. Compact disc.