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  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 3, No. 3, 2004

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Robert J. Lewis
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by Aaron Wherry


Aaron Wherry is a music critic at The National Post. His essay, 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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American 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.

With 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.

Ku Klux KlanAt 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 and present.

Writing 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 of struggle."

Cass 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.

Half 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, is everywhere.

American 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."

That 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.

The 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.

The 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."

You 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.

The 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.

As 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.

Elsewhere 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.")

While 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.

So 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?

At 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.

"I 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.

Despite 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.

So 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 essays.

"The 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.

Here 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 questions.

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