The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Friday, September 22, 2006

kelefa sanneh, "rockism," etc

I found myself a little irritated at the condescension NEW YORK TIMES critic Kelefa Sanneh expressed toward hardcore music in his review of the film AMERICAN HARDCORE, a documentary about the hardcore scene of the early 1980s. Sanneh is smart, no doubt, and he does identify some key points about hardcore with which I agree: it was more about "community and ideals" that about musical innovation or variety, and that there was an "underlying anxiety about race" in this overwhelmingly white movement. But his glib, and not necessarily defensible, assertion that the black D.C. band Bad Brains "were clearly better than everyone else" seems out of place. Sanneh looks briefly at the racial politics of hardcore, and justifiably finds things problematic but not as clearcut as they could have been (he notes that two notorious songs, "Guilty Of Being White" by Minor Threat and "White Minority" by Black Flag, are more equivocal in their politics than their titles suggest). I'm surprised that Sanneh doesn't bother to address the homophobia of hardcore, which was monolithic and often violent. What really bugged me, though, was that Sanneh suggests that hardcore's relentless pounding of the anti-Reagan drums came from "a hint of envy: tough young white guys paying grudging tribute to a tough old one." No. That's just absolutely untrue, and he could have discovered that had he examined the career of Ian MacKaye, whom he quotes liberally in the article. MacKaye lived, and lives what he talked about and what, I think, hardcore truly pioneered: the DIY aesthetic, the attitude that the local scene is important because there the people who consume and produce and even distribute the music are the same people, and that one should work to make the local scene strong and self-sufficient. (I see this attitude everywhere in local rap scenes, a connection that Sanneh either doesn't see or chooses to ignore.)

Certainly much of Sanneh's attitude comes from his disdain for "rockism," the idea that the best pop music is earnest, authentic, guitar-based songwriting about personal experiences narrated with sincerity: "Rockism means idolizing the authentic old legend (or underground hero) while mocking the latest pop star," Sanneh wrote in October 2004, and there's no doubt that "rockism" not only exists but works to privilege the work of white artists over the genres such as hip-hop or R&B that black artists dominate. Certainly Sanneh, and NEW YORKER critic Sasha Frere-Jones, are doing music criticism a service by critically foregrounding this often-unacknowledged funamental prejudice of critical outlets from ROLLING STONE to old SPIN to the TIMES itself. But their counterpunch has taken some ugly turns, such as Frere-Jones' attack on Stephen Merritt as a "rockist cracker," "Southern Strategy" Merritt when Merritt had no black artists on his "Playlist" for the TIMES. Merritt was also criticized in the CHICAGO READER by Jessica Hopper when he praised "Zip-A-Dee-Do-Dah" (presumably, because the song came from Disney's racist SONG OF THE SOUTH). A good rundown of that controvery is here.


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