Wednesday, May 03, 2006

In an otherwise dormant blogscape, a flurry of controversy over some allegedly off-color (boom boom) remarks by Stephen Merritt at this year's EMP Conference in Seattle--you can read about it here and here and it's picked up and developed here and here again (those two with numerous links to other outcroppings of debate).

Well, for what it's worth, Merritt's been consistent in his self-awareness about these cultural biases of his (but equally unembarrassed and unapologetic about them) for a good decade or more now, viz. this profile I did of him for Mojo in 1995 around the first Sixths album, specifically the last paragraph:

These days, Merritt is more of an anti-rockist than ever. "Rock should have consisted of only the Paul McCartney branch, not the Lennon/Jagger/Richards one," he mourns archly. Detesting the very idea of white blues ("it’s fundamentally racist"), he admits that his own aesthetic universe–from Nordic synthipop to redneck C&W–is "so darn white!" "I’m not so concerned with rhythm or syncopation, which are the main concerns of black music after Duke Ellington," he says. "I think my records could be listened to by the Ku Klux Klan!"


Solet's unpack this, translate it into in cult-studs jargon: Being fervently anti-rockist entails, for Merritt, resisting rock’s long-running privileging of/emulation of black music: there's a history of projection towards blackness-as-authentic that's tangled up with white heterosexist "identifications" with/distortions of black masculinity (or at least theatricalized representations thereof, from blues to rap), and this entire apparatus is something that Merritt, as a gay man, has an interest in challenging (hence the disparaging of the raw-and-rasping, swagger-and-snarl Lennon/Jagger/Richards lineage* in favour of the melodious/dulcet-toned/arrangement-oriented/decorative McCartney one). Indeed authenticity itself is something he wants to discredit (from the same Mojo piece: "Music isn’t about pouring out your soul... It’s about making pretty objects you can treasure forever**" and "in 1995, every gesture has quotation marks around it whether we like it or not. It’s strange that a few heterosexuals continue to delude themselves that this is not the case." It just so happens that almost the entirety of black popular music is bound up with these very ideas of authenticity.

But Merritt also (and this is the area--personal taste***--where the tribunal of political correctness' ability to legislate these preferences and aversions gets hazy) simply likes a good tune; his own talents as a melodist of a particular kind banish him from the rhythm-dominated pop mainstream.

My head is starting to ache…

* and **
Cconnections to be made here between Merritt's object-ive approach and two hetero but non-masculinist English artists: Eno's audio-decor, his distrust of ideas of catharsis and torn-from-the-soul expression, and his sense of himself as a rebel-against-rebellion (specifically singling out Keith Richards as his polar opposite); Saint Etienne as practitioners of a form of sonic antiquing, delectating over old French girl-pop singles found in Camden Market etc, plus I recall them listing for me all the music they abhorred and one of the things was funk, especially Parliament-Funkadelic: "too messy". Is it any wonder that England figures as gaytopia in the American non-hetero maginary?

*** then again it's the impersonality of "personal taste", its structural underpinnings, that is the real issue, the nub of dissension here, right?
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