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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

My Analysis Weighs a Ton

I'll begin with factual stuff, points of order, etc.

1) Frere-Jones and Hopper object to the use of the word "campaign" to describe what they've written about Merritt. I wrote that they have engaged in a "two-year online campaign of brand Merritt a racist." I relied on a total of 12 posts on both of their blogs going back to May of 2004. Frere-Jones helpfully compiled his own list of Merrittalia (Merrittiana?), which included two posts that had previously escaped my attention. That brings us to 14 posts. I chose to append the words "of sorts" to "campaign" to soften the term up a little bit and indicate that it is, in fact, something slightly different from a campaign, and I think that the phrase "campaign of sorts" accurately represents their efforts, on 14 occasions over two years, to repeatedly imply that Merritt is a racist. They returned to the notion repeatedly. Hopper even brought the debate out of the rhetorical world of the blogosphere when she announced her intention to confront Merritt directly, face-to-face, at the Pop Conference.

What I find curious is why Frere-Jones and Hopper would be uncomfortable with the notion that they have engaged in a campaign (of sorts) against a man they evidently believe to be a racist (Hopper acknowledged to me that that's what she is saying; Frere-Jones prefers to make the charge indirectly). Aren't people supposed to campaign against racists?

2) Frere-Jones says I "ignored" the fact that Hopper retracted her comments about the Pop Conference, as well as a post that he says he qualified his comments on Merritt. I wrote that "later, when confronted with a transcript of the panel, Hopper retracted her comments." So there's that. As for Frere-Jones' "qualifications," the post in question rhetorically assumes the opposite position--that Merritt was simply describing his taste in music--and then presents a quote from Merritt that may or may not be considered racially insensitive. (He once again raises the "coon songs" libel--bad!--but also wants more Top 40 stations--good!) Then Frere-Jones says he's going to a birthday party. No conclusions, no qualifications, no arguments.

3) Hopper objects to being called a journalist. I did not call her a journalist.

4) Frere-Jones writes that "the Times playlist seems kinds of small beer now and would have been better left out of it." That is an artful use of the passive voice. If I may presume to complete his sentence for him: " me, when I used it to accuse Merritt of harboring a 'bias' against women, black musicians, and white musicians who like black musicians."

5) Frere-Jones refers again to Merritt's New York Magazine colloquy with Sufjan Stevens, saying that Merritt "prefers Prince when Beck is channeling him." Here is what Merritt said: "Beck has started appropriating Prince in an interesting way. I wish I could sing like Beck. He's got a gorgeous falsetto and that low, husky voice. It's very sexy and very soothing in a way that I will never be."

OK, that's the pro forma stuff. To the arguments: Frere-Jones, because he can't remember what outrage would drive him to use the nickname "Stephin 'Southern Strategy' Merritt," pulls a quote (search for "Merritt") from the wayback machine in which Merritt self-mockingly anticipated by a decade Hopper's beef against him that his music sounds "white," says "white blues" is "fundamentally racist," and wishes that John Lennon, Keith Richards, and Mick Jagger had never made the music that they did. He also says he's not concerned with rhythm and syncopation, which he identifies as "the main concerns of black music after Duke Ellington."

I should point out that, in all of the above-referenced 14 posts, neither Frere-Jones nor Hopper linked to or otherwise mentioned this interview in their brief against Merritt. When I called Hopper and asked her for places to go to look for signs of Merritt's racism, she didn't mention it.

So what to make of them? Frere-Jones, I think, fairly sums up what they are: Sharp, pointy opinions. No, I am not surprised that they ruffled some feathers. But does the act of ruffling Sasha Frere-Jones feathers constitute racism? Is it racist to not be interested in rhythm and syncopation? Is it racist to acknowledge that your "aesthetic universe" is composed in large part of music made by white people? What if it was in 1995, and then 10 years later you said that you like Run DMC, and that "911 Is a Joke" was the best recording released in 1990? Is it racist to not like it when white musicians appropriate, or musically reference, or adopt the stylings and compositions of, music made by black people? Seriously, I'm asking. Frere-Jones still hasn't answered the question: Is Stephin Merritt a racist?

What he does say is that Merritt "has a problem with black music." Let's assume he's right. (I will set aside for the purposes of this argument my belief that it is not useful to apply the descriptor "black" to a word like "music.") What is Merritt's "problem," exactly? Is it that the music was created by black people? Is that what Frere-Jones means when he calls Merritt a cracker--that Merritt's musical preferences are informed by the race of the people who created the particular musical document that he is praising or dismissing? Or is it possible to have a "problem" with certain types of music that Frere-Jones (and Merritt) want to call "black music" because of aesthetic and stylistic elements often associated with that music?

Let's assume that, when Merritt said he wasn't concerned with rhythm and syncopation, he was speaking as a listener, rather than a musician--that, generally speaking, he doesn't enjoy listening to music that is heavily rhythmic. Is it not possible to feel that way for reasons that have nothing to do with the race of the people who created the music? At some level, the man simply doesn't like music with beats. There are exceptions--Public Enemy, early Run DMC. But generally speaking, when he spends energy, money, and time listening to or thinking about music, he chooses to spend it on music that isn't heavily rhythmic and syncopated. Where is the justification for the leap that Frere-Jones takes from that aesthetic judgment to Stephin "Southern Strategy" rockist cracker Merritt?

Frere-Jones' answer seems to be, "Aw c'mon. The dude was asking for it." Which is a fine answer if he were saying, "Stephin Merritt is an idiot for tossing the most interesting things about music over the past 50 years out the window." But he's not saying that. He's saying, "Stephin Merritt is an idiot for tossing the most interesting things about music over the past 50 years out the window because he has a bias against black people."

And if you say that, you ought to have evidence for it.