Dissonant Notes

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Segregation Under a Groove: Pop Music’s Unspoken Colour Lines



Many years ago, a great schism occurred in the history of popular music. As amps got louder and concerts got bigger, new groups responded by creating a heavier kind of music that relied on sheer sonic power as opposed to the lighter sounds of early sixties pop. Rock music broke away from pop and in doing so it embodied something at once more serious, more authentic, and more important than pop. Pop became a critical pariah until a new generation of critics emerged in the eighties who championed pop’s ability to move with the times, as well as its devil-may-care lack of authenticity. As rock music stagnated, unable to transcend its self-imposed limitations, pop experimented gleefully and in doing so was able to continuously reinvent itself. Rock went from being a rebellious cry of freedom to being a reactionary force filled with strict unwritten rules and traditions, which in reality meant that there was little room in rock music for anybody who wasn’t straight, white, and male. Pop music, on the other hand, seemed to provide a safe haven for those whose sex and/or race were a hindrance in terms of acceptance into the culture of rock.

Newer pop music critics shunned the rockist attitudes of older critics by championing non-white, non-male, and non-straight performers and by extension the music they produced. Pointing out the underlying racism of rock music criticism while simultaneously venerating pop for its unbiased, melting-pot philosophy is now a standard weapon in the arsenal of pop fans eager to signify a voracious and open-minded attitude to music listening. Pop fans have been so busy congratulating themselves that they have managed to miss something glaringly obvious to anybody who takes a look: pop has colour lines as immovable as those which made rock an all-white affair but rather than being excluded as they were in rock music, non-white performers are instead subjected to intense personal criticism, as well as suspicion in terms of motivation and talent. In the meantime, criticism of white performers is repeatedly seen as excessive and unproductive, even anti-feminist. Being a white pop songwriter or performer brings numerous accolades, even as black hitmakers are ignored or glossed over, with the general feeling being that black music is not really pop music. Pop is white and until pop fans begin to examine their internalised biases, it’s likely to remain so.

Here is a relatively simple question: who is the most acclaimed pop songwriter of the past 15 years? The answer, for anybody struggling, is Max Martin. Martin has written or co-written dozens of hit songs for numerous artists and he is the go-to hero of the pop music intelligentsia. For proof, type the words “max martin genius” into any search engine (I used Google). You will be inundated with articles, blog posts, and discussion threads with titles such as “Max Martin, the genius behind almost every successful pop song of the last 15/20 years”, “The Genius of Max Martin”, “One Man Has Written Virtually Every Major Pop Song Of The Last 20 Years. And You’ve Probably Never Heard His Name”, “30 Essential Max Martin Songs”, “The 18 Greatest Max Martin Songs of All Time”, etc. You get the picture. Now try typing the words “timbaland genius” into your search engine. Timbaland worked closely with Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, and Justin Timberlake, co-writing many of their songs, as well as writing/co-writing hits for Ginuwine, Jay Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and many more. Notice the difference in the search results. Timbaland is not gushed over in the same way as Max Martin. Not even close. The search barely produces any results. Let’s try one more. Pharrell is a songwriter, performer, and producer whose accomplishments are almost impossible to list, with the number of songs he has co-produced and/or co-written seemingly incalculable. Try typing “pharrell genius”, however, and while the odd article may pop up, Pharrell’s success and talent seem small in comparison to that of Martin. What extra element could Max Martin possess that Timbaland and Pharrell lack? The extra element is Martin’s skin colour.

It’s at this point that defensiveness generally shows up among those in denial, prompting desperate internet searches in the hopes that obscure articles exist that will refute all claims of racism. Even though Pharrell is famous in his own right, and Timbaland has a much higher public profile, the Max Martin articles still outnumber those of Pharrell and Timbaland by quite an amount. The fact that Max Martin’s white skin gives him an advantage is not particularly shocking for those in the music industry, but for pop fans this information seems counter-intuitive. Max Martin is wheeled out by Poptimists and Realpop advocates with alarming regularity in an attempt to show some kind of intellectual approach to pop songwriting. There’s a craft, you see, and Max Martin is an expert craftsman. Yes, Timbaland is an expert beatmaker, but is he a true craftsman? Here is where the rockist tendencies of pop fans start to appear, with Max Martin being praised along similar lines as Phil Spector, an expert craftsman who instinctively knows how to create hit music time and time again. Poptimists turn out to be rockists in shinier clothes, desperate to champion the same tedious elements as rockists, but with a huge dash of self-congratulatory backslapping thrown in as a reward for being open-minded and clever enough to understand the mechanisms of pop. Choosing a white male to exalt is the best way to convince others that something out of the ordinary is involved, even in the world of pop music.

Women and people of colour are rarely afforded the title of genius. Only when white males arrive on the scene is the word genius even considered for any participants. Take the art of cooking. For most, cooking is thought of as women’s work, more of a task than an art. Unless of course we’re talking about a chef, that wild, irascible, temperamental perfectionist who wants things to be done just right. From early French luminaries to modern culinary superstars like Anthony Bourdain or Gordon Ramsay, an inordinate amount of white male chefs seem to posses some unfathomable component that demands the label of genius (in the cooking world Julia Child exists as a Jimi Hendrix-like figure, an anomaly who is brandished to disprove overwhelming evidence). Max Martin is seen as a genius because if a white male is successful then he is a genius. Nevermind that most of his songs are formulaic and uninspired compared to the experimental and diverse music of Timbaland and Pharrell. What matters is that he has succeeded in the marketplace and that he is a white male.

While women suffer in the music world (and everywhere else) due to ever-present misogyny, white women benefit from racism by winning approval from critics who instinctively look for the most sympathetic approach when dealing white skinned performers. A perfect example of this would be how the press reacted when Jay-Z recently launched his streaming service Tidal in a blur of publicity. Within seconds he was mocked, lambasted, and generally seen as a money grabbing millionaire looking out for his rich friends (as opposed to somebody who uses big names to launch his product, which is pretty much industry standard). Jay-Z went on to play a concert which was available exclusively on Tidal, prompting Pitchfork to write an article questioning his true motives. Was it about money or fans? Keep in mind that Jay-Z is a black man in America who rose up from poverty and became a multimillionaire through talent, determination and business savvy. He has consistently highlighted social inequities, and even went so far as to bail out Ferguson and Baltimore protesters who were thrown in jail.

Contrast this with Taylor Swift and her recent open letter to Apple which complained that they were not paying artists for music listened to during free trial periods. Swift was not complaining about her own royalties you understand, she was speaking up on behalf of independent artists. Her actions garnered unabashed praise and Pitchfork even penned an article, which placed her just shy of sainthood, containing the aesthetically beautiful statement “Taylor Swift has never not championed the underdog”. Taylor Swift, lest we forget, is a product of enormous wealth. She was born into the kind of privilege that is unimaginable to most and has a career which has bolstered her riches by millions. The fact that her proclamations are viewed as honest and good, while Jay-Z’s are viewed with suspicion, gives an excellent insight into race relations in America. Swift is innocent and pure, while Jay-Z could be manipulating his fans. Swift is sweet, sincere, and means well, while Jay-Z and Beyoncé are mature, cunning, and self-serving (Taylor Swift supporters also employ rockist terminology when defending her against criticism, referring to her songwriting craft, the fact that she mostly writes her own songs, and insinuating that she earned her success by working her way up). Oh, and when James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem opens a wine bar in New York with the help of his famous friends (who Pitchfork doesn’t want to name, because that’s just not cool), we shouldn’t be concerned. Keep an eye on that black man though, he could be trying to make money.

All of this is not to say that rock fans aren’t still up to their old tricks. Racism spills out everywhere in music but is always denied. For instance, who are the two most controversial artists to play at Glastonbury? Jay-Z and Kanye West. Do you see a connection? Lionel Richie was not greeted with such anger because he has been rendered safe due to age, and also because he can be ironically appreciated. Any attempts to deny racism when it came to the outrage prompted by Kanye’s appearance became laughable as Glastonbury fans struggled to name contemporary black artists who they would have preferred (most opted for older acts such as Prince or Public Enemy). Some Glastonbury attendees even went to the trouble of taking an image from (West’s wife and mother to his child) Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, blowing it up, and turning it into a flag to wave while Kanye West played, complete with the words “Get down girl, get head get down” on it. This sickeningly obsessive hate was approved by thousands of British music fans, apparently convinced that a contrarian black artist who flaunts his success as a symbol of pride somehow represents decadent materialism as opposed to the comfortable, white, bourgeois hippie values which hold sway at Glastonbury. “It has nothing to do with race, mate, Kanye’s just a knob” said many an internet commentator. Are we talking about a knob like Liam Gallagher, whose mouthy arrogance and petulant strut are celebrated on a daily basis by the UK music press, a man so idiotic and childish that even his brother couldn’t stand him any more, leading to the break-up of beloved ‘proper music’ band Oasis? “Nah, Liam’s a top lad”. The hate that spills out against black public figures is overwhelming, yet many continue to act as if race is not an element. Schadenfreude greeted the very public unraveling of Tiger Woods, with the excuse being that by having an affair he had shown himself to be a horrible human being, yet David Letterman received a heartfelt send-off when he retired, despite numerous affairs. Serena Williams is regularly abused online, all because she is a successful black athlete. Nobody seems to question why they enjoy joining the braying mob to taunt a black celebrity.

While rock’s racism is accepted as fact, pop’s racism is barely recognised. To be truly pop you must be white, yet this fact is never actually acknowledged. Ask any Brit what the best pop music has been since the sixties and you’re likely to get an answer along the lines of The Beatles, T-Rex, The Jam, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis, etc. Bowie will on occasion be mentioned, and perhaps Slade. Black artists? Never. As music writer Neil Kulkarni relentlessly points out, British music fans have deified guitar music made by blokes, turning guitar rock into the only true signifier of soul, rebeliousness, and authenticity, while dismissing contemporary music made by non-white artists as being fake and soulless. Only ‘classic’ black artists get to join the club. Even though ‘soul’ as a term emerged from black music in America, and soul music itself featured expert singing and outstanding musicianship, ‘soul’ to many has now come to mean some kind of sloppy, half-arsed approach that finds realness in mistakes and unprofessionalism. Black musicians have always had to be excellent in everything they do in order to be taken seriously. White musicians have the privilege of feeling at home wherever they go and as such can be unconcerned with expectations.

In America, though, pop remains white for different reasons. Here the inherent racism of pop comes out in full force as the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson, is oftentimes not even found in the pop section of music stores. Where would one find Michael Jackson, Bobby Brown, Aaliyah, and Beyoncé if not in the pop section? Most likely R & B, a category that treats black music like a sub-genre instead of the dominant musical force of American music since the beginning of the 20th century. The moment music becomes just a little too black, it ceases to be pop and becomes R & B. Even though Beyoncé began many years ago in a highly accomplished vocal group, and then went on to have a hugely successful solo career, the amount of attention she has received from pop publications is nothing compared to the adulation given to Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, or even Miley Cyrus. Poptimists rush to defend Gaga, Swift, or Cyrus like they are precious children, but in the meantime Beyoncé’s feminist credentials are questioned by all and sundry. Try another internet experiment if you dare. Type “lady gaga genius”, “taylor swift genius”, and “beyonce genius”into a search engine and see what happens. Jesus, type “miley cyrus genius” into a search engine. Notice a pattern here? There are almost zero articles proclaiming Beyoncé a genius despite all of her success, yet Miley Cyrus is already viewed as a savvy marketing prodigy. White performers are always in control, always one step ahead of the press, always credited with intelligence, and if criticised by cultural commentators they are always misunderstood or unfairly maligned. With Beyoncé, her intelligence and astuteness are regarded as a problem, as if her feminism is merely a marketing ploy. Pop’s unconscious (or very conscious) bias towards white male songwriters and white women is there for all to see, with Aaliyah, Kelis, and Rihanna rarely, if ever, discussed by the very same publications that devote multiple page articles to Taylor Swift or Miley Cyrus (go on, type “rihanna genius” into a search engine and see how it compares to the Miley Cyrus results). Whiteness bestows upon a performer intellect, discipline, and guile. Blackness is always suspect, must continue to prove itself time and again, and is almost never worthy of intellectual discussion in pop circles.

It should be obvious to almost everybody that black culture is viewed with distrust or amusement. Song parodies almost always lampoon black culture, be it ‘I’m on a Boat’ or ‘Dick In a Box’. Black people are continuously made fun of, for instance ‘Bed Intruder Song’ or ‘Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That’. When Ricky Gervais wanted to make the David Brent character look like an absolute fool on The Office, he chose a song performed by a black artist. Lest anyone think that Gervais was making fun of Simply Red instead of black vocal mannerisms, may I remind you that non-white characters only exist in The Office to provide cheap laughs in an “Isn’t racism funny?” kind of way (one Asian character is on screen for barely a minute just so Gervais can get a laugh out of racism). Yes, racism is funny for white people. In the greater sense, black culture is seen as corny by a sufficiently large number of white people who seek to digest black music by treating it as an ironic joke and trawling black culture for words to use in polite company in order to provoke laughs. As such black musicians who adhere to different rules are routinely mocked or derided. Festival goers booed Kanye West because he is here and now and he can’t be dismissed, so he must be taken down a peg or two in order to be taught a lesson. Only when black music is ‘classic’, or historically important, or sorrowful, is it deemed safe, otherwise it is dismissed with a snort. Contemporary black artists struggle to be critically appreciated by rock and pop publications because many white people don’t know how to process the content correctly. Laughter and disbelief often greets black artists when they first break through to mainstream culture, and ten years later white artists will be called geniuses for behaving in exactly the same way.

Even though pop supposedly adheres to strict market principles, race is still an overriding factor in terms of critical appreciation. When discussing pop it is a favourite ploy of music writers to assume the pose of people’s champion, insinuating an anti-democratic, snobbish stance from those who would deny the inherent worth of any song which achieves chart success. No less a pop luminary than Bob Stanley of St. Etienne stated in a 2014 interview that he disliked 90% of jazz music, and also did not enjoy the music of boy band Westlife. Yet when following up on Westlife, his actual words were “I can’t imagine I’ll ever be a fan as their stuff is so milky and predictable, but you don’t have 13 UK number ones by accident”. It’s difficult to contemplate how anybody could come to such moronic conclusions but this kind of thinking passes for wisdom in pop circles. Predictably he loves Hall and Oates, whose harmlessly irrelevant and mostly forgettable music has provoked more critical appreciation than the works of almost any black artist you could name. Pop music criticism employs the worst kind of capitalist justification with unconscious white supremacist thinking, with the end result being that Max Martin and Taylor Swift are hailed as geniuses while Timbaland and Rihanna are at best ignored or at worst openly attacked as a sign of everything wrong with modern music. If criticised, fans of Hall and Oates, and even Taylor Swift, will quickly indulge in either rockist justification (they write their own songs, they earned their success) or free-market advocacy (chart success, music sales). The fact that Rihanna has had 13 US number ones (with not one written by Max Martin strangely enough), putting her in the top 5 most successful US recording artists ever, is still not enough to label her a genius or a phenomenon worthy of in-depth critical examination. That honour is reserved for those with white skin.

The worm of racism eats away silently but relentlessly. Just as the people who hated the fact that Kanye was performing at Glastonbury were absolutely convinced that their animosity and mob mentality was born out of genuine dislike, so do pop critics rush to defend the fragility of white femininity with unfailing predictability, all the while treating black women as grown-ups who can take care of themselves, never once questioning why the thought of white innocence and fragility, in contrast to black maturity and toughness, entered their mind in the first place. Rock loves the authenticity of Johnny Cash despite all of his awful albums, his terrible career decisions, and his even worse political views, but dismisses Ray Charles as corny even though his music is essential to the development of rock and roll and soul. Pop loves Hall and Oates but ignores Gamble and Huff, despite the fact that the songwriting team of Gamble and Huff produced dozens of hits for numerous artists (they can’t be appreciated ironically, and they are not white males, so they are forgotten). Pop adores Taylor Swift and really likes Beyoncé but not enough to actually write about her other than album reviews or discussions about whether her performances are too overtly sexual. Pop values Abba over Stevie Wonder because Abba’s whiteness means they can be glorified from a pop perspective, while Stevie Wonder is barely considered due to the fact that he is black. Pop critics need to examine their own backyard instead of turning to rock criticism as the home of all things racist. Black musical success has always come as a result of talent, hard work, and mass popular appeal, yet the pop headlines continue to be grabbed by white artists, be it white women singers or white male songwriters. For the most part it’s white people who continue to see a huge difference between the cultural implications of rock and pop, and who find the differences worth discussing in-depth. To those locked out, a curse on both houses seems more appropriate. Rock functions as the Confederate South, while pop is the North. The South is the obvious bad guy, seeing rebellion in orthodoxy and traditional values, but the pervasiveness of racism shapes the neighbourhoods, schools, and prisons of the North, just in less obvious ways. If you’ve praised Max Martin but overlooked Timbaland, ask yourself why. If you treat Taylor Swift with the utmost seriousness but ignore Rihanna, ask yourself why. The dominance of whiteness is being challenged all over America, and by extension the world. If it can bear to stop congratulating itself, pop music should get around to doing the same.


This essay originally appeared on Collapse Board.

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