Sunday, September 1, 2013

My Brain is Going To Explode

Now, it might just be a case of the hormones, but I just read this article that made my head want to explode.

If you haven't been living under a rock you probably wish you were because news-feeds everywhere have been full of images of Miley Cyrus, tongue hanging out, getting her twerk on at the MTV Video Music Awards. I'm fairly certain that MTV doesn't even show videos any more unless they involve teen moms and Oompa-loompa-like New Jersey-ites, but I guess they still need a reason to pat celebrities on the back. From the very beginning, like back when they had VJs and showed ground breaking music videos, the MTV VMA's have been set up to shock and titillate. This is not the Oscars people. This is a 3 hour party/commercial for celebrity brats and braggarts.

For example, Howard Stern at the 1991 MTV VMAs. The same year my mom stopped letting me watch the show.

So back to Miley Cyrus. She pulled on her flesh tone, latex bra and panty set and twerked her (nonexistent) derriere off and generally made people uncomfortable. This performance and comments she's made recently have led many to speculate, whether rightfully or not, that Miley Cyrus is a racist or at least that these things are indicative of White culture's constant appropriation and watering down of Black culture. Someone with a journalism degree said it, and some other stuff, like this.

On stage as well as in her video she used the tedious trope of having black women as her backing singers, there only to be fondled by her and to admire her wiggling derriere. Cyrus is explicitly imitating crunk music videos and the sort of hip-hop she finds so edgy – she has said, bless her, that she feels she is Lil' Kim inside and she loves "hood music" – and the effect was not of a homage but of a minstrel show, with a young wealthy woman from the south doing a garish imitation of black music and reducing black dancers to background fodder and black women to exaggerated sex objects.

I think there's a valid argument there, not just because of Miley Cyrus, and that it would be something very interesting to study, but that's not why I'm writing. I'm writing because A. people are loosing their minds over this and hoping the first train to "Paint-Everything-With-The-Same-Brush-Ville" and B. I love Janis Joplin.

When I was in my early teens I started listening to music my parents hated and disapproved of - most likely it was a case of my dad not wanting to hear anymore of the crap my 12 year old self thought was "so cool". To combat this my dad started introducing me to music he had liked when he was a kid and actually talking to me about music, music history and about really appreciating music for the many things that it is - history, culture, emotion, expression, art, worship, ravings, fluff, and much, much more. Dad introduced me to Led Zeppelin, The Doors, Eric Clapton, The Yardbirds and their many offspring, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jefferson Airplane, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin.

Janis Joplin struck a real chord with me. I was an awkward 12 year old, with a myriad of self-esteem issues and a butt-ton of hormones. I felt like I got Janis. I loved her early folky stuff sung with only the autoharp as accompaniment and her stuff from the posthumously released, Clive Davis produced album Pearl. I read her autobiographies, I listened to the musicians she claimed to be influenced by and shocked my Grade 8 guidance teacher by telling him I wanted to be blues singer when I grew up. There were probably several very moody years in which I listened not much more than Janis. So I have a deep love for Janis. DEEP LOVE.

This afternoon, while goofing around on the Internet I came across an article that made my head want to explode. Some moron, from a publication I'm not going to post wrote an article entitled "If Miley Cyrus's Twerking Is Racist, Isn't Janis Joplin's Singing Also Racist?" with the sub-heading "Well, in fact, yes. But Janis's talent distracted from her minstrelsy." Ok, to be honest I just read the title and I assumed that the article would find no link at all between the two of them. I mean, really, one is what I would consider an entertainer and the other an artist. However, the author did not see things the way I do (Shocking, I know!). Instead the author argued that, well, I'll let the author's words speak for themselves.

Not that I want to stick up for Cyrus or anything... Bad art is easy to condemn. It's a lot less easy to talk about the unpleasant racial implications of Joplin's work. I know I don't enjoy the racism in Cyrus's performance, because I don't enjoy her performance. But with Joplin? What am I responding to? I'd like to say I'm responding to the passion, or the technique, or the emotion, but all of those are so embedded in the drama of racial appropriation that I don't know how you separate them out. Unless you do what Cyrus does, and, with a clumsiness approaching inspiration, jettison the passion, the technique, and the emotion altogether, until the audience is left gazing at the racism that in other contexts, with just a sugar-coating of competence, they've managed to love.
I'm about to lose my MIND. Seriously?!?!

Janis Joplin was an artist that dabbled in many different types of music, Folk, Country/Western, Blues, Rock and Psychedelia. However, she felt an affinity for Blues, much in the same way that I felt an affinity, admiration and love of her music. This author's logic is flawed. Having an appreciation, affinity and love for a particular type of music isn't appropriation. By that logic any artist that sings a song written by a Black musician or adapts a culturally Black genre of music is a racist. That would make the Rolling Stones who's early influences included Muddy Waters racist for their love of Blues, the Beastie Boys bigots for "appropriating" Hip Hop culture, Paul Simon a candidate for KKK membership for his only having Ladysmith Black Mambazo as "backup singers" on Graceland and Eric Clapton a real prejudiced kind of guy for his Robert Johnson obsession. It's one thing to love, to be influenced by and to feel an affinity for a musical genre from whatever culture and another to make it a joke, parody or minstrel show, if you will, of it.

I can't speak for Miley Cyrus or more likely her handlers. Do I like her "music" or think that she's offering anything even remotely artistic to the world? No. I think she's someone who's grown up in the entertainment industry and has probably very rarely been told no. No matter the tastelessness of her performance whether or not she's appropriating Black culture is really a matter of the heart. When we generalize, no matter how easy it is, we make assumptions, we stereotype people and we do exactly what this author accuses Miley Cyrus and Janis Joplin of.

And that, among other things, makes my head want to explode.

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