by Aaron Wherry
Wherry is a music critic at The National Post.
Pop Divas, Pantydom and 3-Chord Ditties,
appeared in Arts & Opinion, Vol. 2, No. 4, 2003.
For more on Aaron, check out his blog at:
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ideal: American Idol's John Stevens has become a lightning rod
for charges of racism in pop music. But while it's easy to demonize
him, we remain colour-blind to far more sinister questions.
the 50th anniversary of Brown -- the landmark U.S. Supreme Court
decision that struck down racial segregation in America's schools
-- fast approaching, historians are beginning again to reconsider
the progress and continued struggle of race relations on the continent.
the same time, rock 'n' roll is preparing to celebrate its own
50th anniversary of sorts and its own first steps toward public
integration. Half a century later, it too is quietly (maybe too
quietly) struggling to reconcile the prejudices of both its past
in The Nation, professors Eric Foner and Randall Kennedy
quite rightly observe, in reference to Brown and its sister decision,
Bolling, that "the Supreme Court decisions of May 1954 did
not mark the end of purposeful, state-minded racial segregation
in public schooling; they marked only the beginning of a new phase
R. Sunstein, from the University of Chicago, observes as much
in The New Yorker. "The experience of the past half-century
suggests that the Court cannot produce social reform on its own,"
he writes. The same year the Supreme Court handed down its unanimous
decision, Bill Haley released Rock Around the Clock, while Elvis
Presley found himself in a studio recording That's Alright Mama.
Though these events are celebrated this year as the birth of rock
'n' roll, they are more accurately remembered as the initial moments
of integration in modern pop music -- when white artists brought
the new black music to Middle America.
a century later, rock critics and music fans, like the Brown historians
noted above, can claim great victories but often slow progress
and, in some cases, little progress at all. Just as the Supreme
Court was unable to single-handedly change society, Haley and
Presley were unable to fully quash pop music's prejudices. And
in pop music, especially of late, racism, both real and imagined,
Idol -- that 21st-century institution of American ideals -- has
served as a public lightning rod in this respect. With the dismissal
two weeks ago of an unquestionably talented black female singer
-- while an inferior and whiter-than-white candidate named John
Stevens remained -- there were immediate claims of racial bias.
The outcry was led by a thoroughly disenchanted Elton John, who
deemed the regular mistreatment of three black singers at the
hands of voters to be "incredibly racist."
viewers had only a season ago elected a black champion, Ruben
Studdard, over a pasty beacon of whiteness, Clay Aiken, seemed
to matter little. As did reports that American Idol was actually
more popular among black households than white.
audience was sharply rebuked by the show's host and reminded that
it must vote for "talent" above all other factors. The
following week, Stevens, the Great White Satan, was dismissed.
same week, on MTV's Making the Band 2 (broadcast in Canada on
MuchMusic), one contestant, after a particularly violent spate
of fighting among group members, was being reminded that he should
be conscious of doing anything that might make white people "nervous."
might remember the first edition of MTB for its group of lily-white
young men and their pursuit of Backstreet Boy dreams under the
tutelage of pop music impresario Lou Pearlman.
sequel to that series was handed over to P. Diddy, and he has
taken the show in a hip-hop direction. The result is an entirely
black cast and, unfortunately, the repeated confirmation of every
closet racist's worst fears about hip-hop and black America --
from violence to pregnancy to poverty to run-ins with the law.
the band's road manager counselled his young charge about scaring
the white folk, it was clear that the show's producers are more
than aware of the potentially troubling images they may be presenting.
in the last few weeks, racism has been used as an excuse (in a
Vibe interview, to explain why he had failed where Justin
Timberlake had succeeded, Usher remarked that before Elvis, there
was Chuck Berry and Little Richard) and plucked out of the ether
as another reason to hate Eminem (Newsday music critic
Glen Gamboa alleged that a Three Amigos-esque stunt at the end
of D12's latest single, My Band, was "a borderline racist
bit . . . that will likely rile Hispanics.")
American Idol and Making the Band can divert blame with their
claim on "reality," Usher and Gamboa could, quite readily,
be explained away with the notion that those who seek trouble
will likely find it.
for a more nuanced take on the current state of race and pop music,
we turn to New York music critic Amy Phillips, who several weeks
ago stood before an audience at a pop music conference in Seattle
and asked simply: Are the White Stripes, the most recent rock
'n' roll saviours, inherently racist?
first the question sounds preposterous, and even after reviewing
Phillips' supporting arguments (Jack White's distaste for hip-hop,
the use of questionable cartoon footage at concerts, the band's
possibly ironic use of a black male servant, their often exaggerated
whiteness, etc.), it's difficult to conclude that Jack and Meg
are KKK sympathizers. But to outright dismiss Phillips' paper
would be foolish.
would like to argue that when it comes to the White Stripes, race
is that proverbial elephant in the middle of the room that nobody
wants to acknowledge," she says.
all of the troubling evidence and the indisputable fact that Jack
and Meg come from a city, Detroit, that is dominated by issues
of segregation, "Why are the White Stripes off the hook when
it comes to questions of race?" Phillips asks.
Phillips' greatest fear isn't merely that the White Stripes might
present a racist ideal (in fact, they may very well not), but
that no one is willing to even question the matter in the first
place. And it is an argument strikingly similar to one presented
by professor Jacquelyn D. Hall in another of The Nation's
culprit now, as in the past, is not just overt racism, but public
policies that are ostensibly color-blind, yet deliberately shape
the landscape of race," she writes.
Phillips and Hall make essentially the same point -- that 50 years
after Brown and Bill Haley, racism is not merely an explicit problem,
but an implicit issue that is too rarely questioned. While it
is easy to demonize John Stevens and his loyal following, they
might argue, we ultimtely remain colour-blind to far more sinister