I've read quite a few critiques and commentaries of Sasha Frere-Jones's blogfamous article about the lack of intermixing of black and white music, but I haven't seen yet anyone disputing the central premise. Well, I do. I'd very much rather listen to the two extremes presented in Frere-Jones's discourse than the supposed mixture between them. I like alt. country and The Arcade Fire, just as I like very pure, very narrow hip-hop in the southern minimalist vein. Whereas I find the slightly overworked artfunkmetal of Frere-Jones's band kinda boring. In the same way, I much prefer both Frank Sinatra and Louis Jordan to Pat Boone.
There are a myriad of different ways music moves across cultural borders. Traditional ways, like borrowing musical elements and trying to copy the music of others. More contemporary ways, like sampling, remixing and versioning. They're all for part of processes and work within a cultural context - people trying to create as cool music as possible for themselves and their community. Borrowing based on what they themselves value.
Explicitly setting out to combine two styles of music is different. In many ways, it's considerably more modernist in approach. Whole styles, without their inherent cultural baggage, are reduced to a set of readily-identifiable attributes and supposed attitudes. Then they're combined, within the context of a modern, culturally cosmopolitan pop production. The underlying value is one of universalism - all music is one music and it's perfectly possible to combine them all temporarily without any mumbo-jumbo "process".
The problems with that kind of approach are pretty much the problems of modernism in general. The "cosmopolitan society" where such combinations can take place is very much a Eurocentric, middle-class western one. One modernist paradox, I guess, is that this universalism is itself very culturally specific - you very rarely see any attempts at specifically "crossover" music from anywhere other than the white west.
Even more pressing is the issue of power. Who decides what cultural content gets put in the crossover music? By what criteria do they do it? Who benefits from the results? There are some fairly harsh criticism one can make along these lines. Timothy D Taylor or countercultural mass-pseudonym "Hakim Bey" in the "synergy" quote near the bottom of this page has some fairly strong ones - it's inevitably the stronger (i.e. white) party that benefits and directs. However, by suggesting truly cross-cultural collaborations as the solution they're missing out on what's perhaps equally pertinent a question: Who is it for?
I think that's perhaps the cusp of this argument.
I can't imagine Frere-Jones's band Ui ever doing anything whose main audience is going to be in the black community. Nor can I see Johnny Clegg selling significant numbers in Soweto, or Zap Mama doing significant sales in the Democratic Republic of Congo. If the aim truly is to create "equal" music that reaches a middle ground, why doesn't the audience reflect this at all? The answer is that the music, like most music, is created for its own community, no matter how many "exotic" elements are brought in. Claiming anything else is disingenuous.
Society in the sixties when white kids brought out "black" music was one where the consumers were mostly white. Black music for white people. It was all mediated, becoming completely "white" music in the sense that it reflected only what the white customers wanted.
It's time for "artistic" modernist middle-class whites to acknowledge that the music that they make is directed to themselves. Then perhaps any pretense that what they're doing is anything other than white music is swept away. If they indeed love black music (and we're still allowed to, I hope) then there's plenty of real black music, made for a black community, for them to consume. And they do! For the first time since the late fifties, the main music consumed is similar across the black and white communities. And this time it's not white music, it's black music.
That, surely, is more wonderful for a lover of black music than any mixed music ever can be.
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