Xgau Sez: July, 2021

Generalizations too vast to swear by, instrumentals worth hearing, the algorithm vs. the people, and Frank Zappa vs. George Clinton.

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Re: “Combating the Sound of Whiteness.” In reading the piece I came to wonder if you’ve read Heartaches by the Number (Cantwell and Friskics-Warren, 2003). Specifically how they choose to define a “country song”? — Clifford J. Ocheltree, New Orleans

I was certainly aware that I was generalizing swiftly and broadly in that piece, and if I owned Heartaches by the Number I would have checked it out, as I did David Cantwell’s excellent Merle Haggard: The Running Kind. I was also aware that there were revised editions of Bill C. Malone’s Country Music, U.S.A. to which Geoff Mann referred in his essay; I’d read the 1968 version shortly after it came out and have never seen either of the newer ones. But since I wasn’t claiming to do anything but review those two essays and had plenty to say about them, with deadline approaching I went with what I had. My generalizations are obviously too vast to swear by, but as more-than-plausible argument starters I stand by them.

The irrepressible Alfred Soto recently posted his favourite 20 instrumentals in rock. Seems like he had a lot of fun doing it. How about yours? — Christian Iszchak, Norfolk, England

Without committing to play till the ninth inning, I did what I could to check out most of Soto’s picks and was surprised at how few of them worked for me. To choose the biggest disappointments because my tastes clearly run more r&b-let’s-call-it than Soto’s, neither Sly’s “Sex Machine” nor JB’s “Time Is Running Out Fast” made me say anything like “How the fuck did I forget that”? The Neil Young, the Bowie, even the Sugar just didn’t reach deep enough. But “Tel-Star,” “Frankenstein,” and not quite as undeniably the Stooges’ “L.A. Blues” certainly qualify, as of course does Funkadelic’s indelible “Maggot Brain,” which Carola and I recall first grokking while we were parking our car in an Akron driveway in 1978 and staying in our seats till it was over, enthralled. Almost as crucial is the Meters’ “Cissy Strut.” I’d never registered Yo La Tengo’s “Spec Bebop” and loved it. I’d replace Eno’s “Becalmed” with his “Sky Saw.” Pink Floyd’s “One of These Days” would probably place. Rush’s “YYZ,” which it’s quite possible I’d never heard in my life, also might. But I think Soto was wrong to leave out all “jazz”—Miles Davis’s 27-minute “Right Off,” which leads Jack Johnson, is extraordinary and indelibly rock-derived, and not just because it builds off bassist Michael Henderson’s “Honky Tonk” riff. Which brings us to the ‘50s, which Soto ignores altogether. As I’ve written more than once, it was the hour I spent as a 14-year-old playing side one of my Bill Doggett 45 “Honky Tonk” on repeat that transformed me into the person who became a rock critic. Side two was the hit, one of the best-selling instrumentals of all time, but I always insist that both sides form one composition, still one of my favorite tracks ever. One of Soto’s commenters mentions that he also omitted Link Wray’s equally influential “Rumble,” where you can hear noise guitar being born. And from the ‘50s I’d add New Orleans sax man Lee Allen’s “Walking with Mr. Lee”—and also, just to be contrary, Count Basie’s 1956 hit version of “April in Paris,” another 45 I bought, which Billboard calculated peaked at number 28 but was bigger in NYC I guess.

I’ve been listening to a lot of early Funkadelic lately (Westbound years) and though I’m not a fan (for the most part) of Frank Zappa and the Mothers, I keep hearing similarities, mainly in the eclecticism and lack of vocal identity (not to mention scatological/pornographic fixations). While I can accept that these ideas perhaps have more validity coming from a Black band than a White band (context matters), I am not entirely comfortable with that acceptance. Yes, I agree Zappa doesn’t like people or sex (same as Stanley Kubrick) and George Clinton and Co. are more accepting of personal foibles (or at least have more fun with it). Does therein lie the distinction? — Theodore Raiken, Metuchen, New Jersey

The short answer is of course that’s the distinction, although the lack of vocal identity is a meaningful parallel it’s sharp to point out on your way to homing in on the formal similarities between the two bands and brands. That said, except for Zappa himself if you like the way he plays guitar, which many do more than me and not without reason, there are no musicians as personable as Bootsy Collins or Eddie Hazel or Bernie Worrell in the Mothers however formally skillful the players Zappa gathered around him. Nor were the Mothers anthemic the way P-Funk was—that wasn’t how Zappa rolled, which as far as I’m concerned is one more manifestation of his stingy spirit. To me, 1972’s (very early) America Eats Its Young, Clinton’s most Zappaesque album, is also easily his worst. Usually there’s tremendous generosity to his music, which kept on developing after his Westbound tour was over. And that sort of, well, let’s call it spirituality, is one thing I respond to in musicians. The Beatles sure had it. John Prine. In their way both Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn. Damn right Peter Stampfel. But probably more Black artists: Coltrane, Rollins, and Coleman in jazz, Aretha and Otis Redding especially in soul, in hip-hop the Roots and Kendrick Lamar for starters. And hey: Louis Armstrong! Not that I don’t also identify with righteous anger and sardonic wit. Which Clinton also had.

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Terrific review of Michaelangelo Matos’s book on 1984 that explains the pros and cons of that era. Your ending, referring to his use of Live Aid as a coda, was intriguing: “To me what happened there was less neat and closed off.” Can you elaborate? — Chris, New Zealand

That quote in toto, after an organizer foolishly claimed that “the sixties had finally come true”: “‘The new era Live Aid portended, though, had more to do with its many visible corporate sponsorships than any world saving, per se. It sealed pop stardom as another facet of modern celebrity—turned it, officially, into a kind of landed gentry.’ To me what happened there was less neat and closed off.” Certainly the landed-gentry phase of pop stardom, a nice metaphor, was inevitable without Live Aid, and plenty else wasn’t portended there. Most important, Run-D.M.C. gave barely a hint of hip-hop’s gigantic future, its starting point which for argument’s sake I’ll say was the Tupac-Biggie assassinations followed by Jay-Z’s late ’98 breakthrough “Hard Knock Life” and in 1999 Eminem, still more than a decade off . But in addition Matos’s premonitory bows to SST, the Replacements, and the pop success of R.E.M. in particular don’t in any way anticipate the way Nirvana’s never-duplicated commercial success established alt-rock for a time as a mythic artistic hotbed.

When I pull up Mukdad Rothenberg Lanko on Spotify, the suggested “Fans also like” recommends McCarthy Trenching, Peter Stampfel, and other artists nothing like MRL. This can only be the algorithm responding to your February 2021 CG—not about stylistic similarities. How does it feel to be so powerful? — Rick Meyer, Decatur, Illinois

I’m reasonably assured this is not the algorithm per se. It’s just people liking and playing the same records because they learned about those records from me. It certainly makes me happy when my fans enjoy some of the more obscure artists I favor, and I know that long-distance friendships have occasionally begun that way. But “power”?? That’s not power. Power—of a sort, anyway—might be other critics latching onto the same artists and their readers streaming them too, up into the thousands of plays. How about tens of thousands? That would be cool.

Why are you such a crotchety, beat up looking goof with a web site from 1997? Can’t afford anyone to modernize it? Your taste in music sucks cock! Maybe you do too!  Fucker! — James Carter, Atlanta

Not Jimmy, I assume. Or the saxophone whiz. Oh well. Even so you can say whatever you want about me as long as you keep putting in the hours with Stacey Abrams. Non-Georgians need you more than ever. Go Warnock

The Big Lookback: Biz Markie

In 1991, Biz sampled Gilbert O'Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)" and changed hip-hop — though not in ways anyone intended

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Let’s not get too sentimental here. The prematurely deceased Biz Markie certainly deserves a Big Lookback. But in part because he’s surrounded by so many fondly remembered innovators in an endlessly fruitful genre many still considered a fad when he came up, his fondly remembered place in hip-hop history isn’t especially august. His idea of flow was to mumble, his hits peaked pre-Hammer, and four of his five studio albums were here and gone by 1993. Respect as well as love to him—hip-hop has never generated enough laughs, and like so many comedians Marcel Hall was smarter than he let on. I doubt I’d played 1993’s cheekily titled All Samples Cleared since 1994, but I can still hear why the year’s Dean’s List ranked it between Van Morrison’s Too Long in Exile (which I bet I’d now like less now if I wasn’t boycotting that anti-Semitic pandemic denier) and KRS-One’s Return of the Boom-Bap (which from its stentorian “We will be here forever” cold open to the “beast” rhyme that bedecks “Sound of the Police” packs more relevance nowadays). With “I’m a Ugly Nigga (So What)” and “Family Tree” leading the way, there’s nothing else like All Samples Cleared except maybe another Biz Markie album. But as I anticipate in the deep dive I took into the lawsuit that scuttled Biz’s 1991 I Need a Haircut album and dubbed “Adventures in Information Capitalism,” jollity was not to be his chief legacy. Instead, via no fault of his own and misprisions aplenty by a Detroit auto exec, a judge who didn’t know what “r&b” was, and the guys who failed to take care of Biz’s business at Marley Marl’s Cold Chillin’ label, that album changed rap history for the worse.

Right, Cold Chillin’ should have tried to clear the sample. But Gilbert O’Sullivan’s lawsuit was a disgrace nonetheless. The piece of O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” Biz recontextualized on the track he called simply “Alone Again” wasn’t that lucky stroke of genius’s indelible refrain but a shy four-note snatch of piano that served as the almost indistinguishably modest hook of a song about not getting laid on a snowy night with your sneakers shot. Biz’s metier was aural slapstick, but “Alone Again” was subtle and in its shy way heart-tugging. And though Judge Thomas Duffy condemned it to perdition under both U.S. and Mosaic law, you can now find it in seconds on YouTube along with the rest of the withdrawn I Need a Haircut album, which Cold Chillin’ apparently released sans “Alone Again” after its deal with Warner went thataway, although I’ll leave it to nuttier people than me to find one of those. And as usual with YouTube music of dubious copyright status, no one has taken the trouble to reconsign it to oblivion.

Nonetheless, the wonderful hip-hop trick of appropriating hooks from the rest of pop was essentially criminalized by Duffy’s ruling, which had the distinction of inventing yet another way for white people to stick it to black people. Artists who are rich enough still sample, and so do artists so poor nobody bothers to sue them. But post-“Alone Again,” petty tune theft fell into disuse. You could say that in the end this was good for the nascent art of beatmaking, and I could say in return that that complex craft would have evolved anyway and then wonder whether after how many years is it of trap it might not be fun if some young adept who’s smarter than either of us started recontextualizing unforgettable half-forgotten tunelets again? It was in that hope that I researched and wrote “Adventures in Information Capitalism” almost three decades ago.


In a way, this is a tale of two weirdos.

Raymond Edward O’Sullivan was born too late. Like many 19-year-old U.K. art-schoolers in 1967, he wanted to be a pop star. For him, however, pop was more music hall and Tin Pan Alley than the Beatles and the Brill Building. Lotsa luck, twerp. But after several flop singles he won the hard heart of Tom Jones/Engelbert Humperdinck svengali Gordon Mills, who rechristened his charge Gilbert and dressed him up in knickers, a newsboy cap, and a white sweater with a big G on it. And in 1972 this ridiculous character came up with “Alone Again (Naturally),” a pop classic that began with a reedy-voiced swain left at the church on his would-be wedding day and ended with the swain’s mother mourning his father and then dying herself, leaving the swain you-know-what (naturally). The melody was unforgettable, the arrangement tartly schmaltzy, and Gilbert O’Sullivan massive for well over a minute. Though he scored several follow-ups, notably a love song to his niece, his U.S. hits petered out within two years and his U.K. career wound down too soon—so soon that he sued Mills, eventually winning control of his catalogue and two million pounds in back royalties. O’Sullivan, who still writes a song a day no matter what, now records for U.K. Chrysalis. He has an eccentric, tuneful, sentimental retrospective out on Rhino.

Marcel Hall was born in Harlem around when O’Sullivan started to scuffle. A clown whose press kit boasts of the Ex-Lax cake he baked his Strong Island vice-principal, he loved music as much as he loved nonsense, dubbing himself Biz Markie and DJing at the Roxy and the Fun House before hooking up with Marley Marl in 1985. Though he went national with the told-you-so “Vapors” in 1988 and pop with the forlorn “Just a Friend” in 1990, his hallmark is “Pickin’ Boogers,” a grossout written by his homeboy Big Daddy Kane. Biz is a beloved but anomalous figure in rap. Bumbling, spaced-out, not hard, not sexy, not cool, his albums have been patchy with great moments. But I Need a Haircut, released August 26 by the Warner Bros. subsidiary Cold Chillin’, is (or was) something more: star-crossed. Even before MTV, BET, and Video Jukebox--discomfited by such imagery as “When I am constipated or have diarrhea/I always come up with a funky fresh idea”—rejected the porcelain-and-tissue goof designed to promote the glorious “T.S.R. (Toilet Stool Rap),” Biz was in trouble. When he’d scrawled the lines, “A lot of my hits are written on the john/I hope my legendary style of rap lives on,” he didn’t know he’d soon have Gilbert O’Sullivan out to stop him.

In late July, a lawyer representing Biz wrote Terry O’Sullivan, an automotive design executive in Detroit who handles his brother’s affairs in the U.S., seeking to clear Biz’s use of a sample from “Alone Again (Naturally).” Although Terry O’Sullivan was neither prompt nor encouraging, Cold Chillin’ released I Need a Haircut on the assumption he was playing hard to get. “My brother was absolutely furious,” Terry recalls. No stranger to litigation, Gilbert sued. In late November the judge, a known hardass named Kevin Thomas Duffy, issued a temporary injunction barring further sales of the album, which had barely creased Billboard’s pop chart anyway. And on December 16 Duffy not only made the order permanent, effectively putting the album out of circulation forever, but referred the case to the U.S. Attorney for criminal prosecution. His opinion began by quoting a duly cited text in the public domain, Exodus 20:15: “Thou shalt not steal.”

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While there’s no need to go along with O’Sullivan’s counsel Jody Pope, who claims to have established that sampling “is a euphemism in the music industry for what anyone else would call pickpocketing,” Duffy’s decision is more momentous than rap attorneys like to admit—no way is it a healthy precedent that the first such case to reach final judgment cries theft. Sampling advocate Ken Anderson, who holds that many samples qualify as fair use, reads the opinion to say that Biz made the mistake of acknowledging that his sample required clearance, thus removing the crucial question of whether it in fact constituted an infringement. Anderson, whose practice is to state that he’s seeking a clearance solely to avoid the cost and aggravation of any possible later claim, says he’s “afraid the case may encourage publishers to make claims which don’t have a sound basis in copyright law, because they’ll believe that any form of sampling is now per se a copyright infringement when there was no decision at all as to whether there was such an infringement.” As Biz’s new counsel Stu Levy puts it: “The case everyone is waiting for is when do you have to ask for permission. When you represent a publisher you say, ‘You can't just take it.’ But when you represent an artist you say, ‘By the time I get through tracking it and dubbing it and changing it . . .’ That issue has never been addressed. Everybody’s dying to know, but everybody’s afraid of what the answer will be. So they settle.”

Because they’re afraid, rap bizzers have long since rationalized sampling. Back in the day, artists appropriated recorded beats, licks, and hooks like they had a right. But a few claims ended that. For Jive legal chief Paul Katz, the turning point came in 1986 with a “very small,” “totally meaningless” D.J. Jazzy Jeff sample that he’s forbidden to identify. Now an in-house attorney analyzes samples for their importance to the song while the artist is still recording, then obtains permissions from whoever controls publishing and mechanical rights (usually two different parties). Many labels routinely assign such work to specialists like husband-and-wife team Larry Stanley and Hope Carr in New York (De La Soul, P.M. Dawn) or Madeleine Smith in L.A. (N.W.A, Latin Alliance)—because they don’t cost as much as outside attorneys (Smith charges $40 an hour, Carr $50, attorney Stanley only $80, with fees sometimes divided when several artists are cleared at once), because they’ve developed relationships with major copyright holders (the lawyer who cleared I Need a Haircut had never done such work before), and because they have more to negotiate with (give me this one and we’ll use something of yours next time). Needless to say, settlements vary enormously. Rappers are generous with their own music, and the unknowns Stanley calls “baby groups” often pay comparatively low rates. But speaking very roughly, publishers usually get from 15 to 50 per cent of the song while master rights cost a few thousand dollars against a royalty of one or two cents a record.

As a longtime sampling fan, I felt that most of the bizzers who talked Biz’s biz with me were good guys—comrades who cared about the artists and the art. But it’s clear that even before the Duffy decision, the quid pro quo surrounding sampling had a chilling effect on rap’s fundamental musical technique. Though one suspects—more lawyers than rappers or bizzers deny it—that most rap drum tracks still build off other people’s percussion, the recontextualizing juxtaposition of identifiable samples, in theory one of tape technology’s most exciting artistic uses, failed to develop. Instead, samples surface as simple musical beds (“Super Freak” becomes “U Can’t Touch This”) or hooks (“ABC” becomes “O.P.P.”). And though Hammer may swear it was pride that spurred him to create the music on his new album instead of appropriating it, Luther Campbell sings a different tune: “A lot of people are getting away from samples now; it’s too expensive.” Because some artists—Prince, Zapp, War—charge a lot for a little, and others—Led Zeppelin, Steve Miller, the Beatles—just say no, clearance specialists aren’t shy about advising artists to seek musical alternatives. Hope Carr reports that creative ferment is often the happy result. But when P.M. Dawn hook “The Beautiful” with a woodsprite trilling “How does it feel to be one of the beautiful?” instead of a snatch of the Beatles’ “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” the meaning of the song, not to mention “the quest to become colorless” that is its theme, changes radically.

And at least the Beatles are a known factor—what worries the specialists is musical loners who’ve never encountered sampling, much less decided they might benefit from the income and recognition it affords. Maybe a loose cannon whose catalogue is his life, like Gilbert O’Sullivan, who initially assumed that Biz Markie was an unknown amateur, and who testified quite credibly that “Alone Again (Naturally)” remained a lucrative copyright whose respectable reputation he was at pains to protect. Terry O’Sullivan, who regularly (though not automatically) licenses his brother’s songs as background in commercials and such, was struck by a Billboard story referring to Biz as a “humorous” rapper. A “serious” artist like Andy Williams was one thing, Terry told me, but “‘Alone Again (Naturally)’ and the word humorous don’t belong together.”

Even though such a position clearly means to quash parody (“You can’t paint a mustache on my Mona Lisa,” Stanley calls it), it’s hard not to feel considerable sympathy. What’s tragic is that Biz”s “Alone Again” isn’t a parody—it’s a sad homage from one musical loner to another. Biz appropriated not the song’s melody—and to be perfectly clear, that means not the part you and everyone else remember—but its dissonant piano intro, which in the original is instantly submerged in the strings to which it lends such crucial savor. It’s the perfect musical bed for a sentimental oddball, as Biz most certainly knew. Of course, that’s assuming he’s an artist. If you agree with Judge Duffy—who reportedly asked for O’Sullivan’s autograph and is so unfamiliar with black music he asked one witness, “What is r&b?”—that Biz’s “only aim was to sell thousands upon thousands of records,” then all the rapper was doing was “stealing,” and subsequently fencing, Gilbert O’Sullivan’s property.

Whether the alacrity with which outsiders charge criminality has anything to do with rap’s image in the hegemonic mind is of course a matter of opinion. (Judges are paid to have opinions, but then again, so am I, and I know what mine is.) Yet note that though “borrowed” riffs are de rigueur in rock and roll—how many (mostly white) guitarists have inserted a piece of “Johnny B. Goode” or “Dust My Broom” (or “I Wanna Be Your Dog”) into their own songs?—rappers are expected to clear such usages, according to Madeleine Smith, even when the notes are reproduced by a living musician rather than taken off a record. Everybody agrees that Biz and/or Cold Chillin’ messed up bigtime by not obtaining clearance up front. But that’s a statement about power, not ethics. That the rules are generally accepted doesn’t mean they’re universally respected, much less that they deserve to be.

Figuring I’d been talking to too many lawyers, I secured a few minutes on the phone with an artist, the ever-forthcoming KRS-One. KRS-One clears his samples. As a matter of both business and morality, he told me, “If you know you took it you gotta pay for it.” But he didn’t think sampling was all that new—only the technology. “In the early rock and roll era”—which from his perspective encompasses the ‘50s and the Stones—“they didn’t have computers, otherwise they would have done the same thing. So instead they sampled the human being itself.” Keith Richards, meet Chuck Berry. Maybe you think he’s oversimplifying, as I do, but you know what he’s talking about, don’t you? He’s oversimplifying when he says “America is based on stealing,” too. But he ain’t just jiving. Here’s hoping that somewhere down the line Ken Anderson makes the fair use defense stick. And here’s hoping that eventually the “owners” of the Beatles’ music—one of whom is, of all people, Michael Jackson, who outbid Paul McCartney some years back—agrees to make P.M. Dawn’s vision of harmony just a tiny bit realer.

The Big Lookback: The Rolling Stones

In the 43 years since "Some Girls," "Dirty Work" is the best album the Stones came up with. No, fuck you.

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This month’s Big Lookback features a 1986 Village Voice essay from back before I turned in my Underwood for a computer, and thus was data-entried rather than imported from my hard drive. Dirty Work, the Rolling Stones album that inspired it, was released March 24, 1986, and though my review appeared in the Voice dated April 15, that issue would have come out April 9 with my copy due April 2 or so. So I was writing before I could have known that crits were gonna slag an elpee that gave me a jolt of pleasure I still remember and pretty much continue to feel. The following January I ranked it sixth on the Dean’s List, just ahead of Paul Simon’s Graceland and Sonny Sharrock’s Guitar. I’d now put it in between.

Having never bought Dirty Work on CD, I only reaccessed it when an Xgau Sez interlocutor inspired me to revive what to me reads like a damn good piece whether you share my enthusiasm for the album or not. It’s funny and brash, inspired by an underrated album’s who-gives-a-fuck demeanor. It doesn’t make enough of the three songs that grab hold of a scrap of vernacular and beat us about the head and shoulders with it: the opening “Hit to the Body” and on side two “Winning Ugly” and “Had It With You.” But what still renders the review disreputable is its praise for the big boom of producer Steve Lillywhite’s “gated drums,” a term I only learned decades later, with the echo power of the technique in long-established total disrepute. Lillywhite also produced Marshall Crenshaw’s superb 1983 Field Day, which I’d reduce now from A plus to A and which due in part to its stab at a big “commercial” sound can fairly be said to have begun a gifted rock and roller’s long journey to indie purdah. But though in neither case, especially Crenshaw’s, were the gated drums necessary, they’re nowhere near as ruinous as is tediously claimed.

I love Charlie Watts so much that on the whole I prefer him clean and sharp, simultaneously subtle and propulsive. But the gated drums do suit the broad strokes this album favors. And having barely gotten through 1983’s supposedly complex, actually muddled Undercover, you bet I think Dirty Work tops not just that one but 1981’s Tattoo You, which rightly inspired Greil Marcus’s “We’re going to do the same thing we’ve always done. And then we’re going to do it again. Forever.” Also 1980’s Emotional Rescue, which peters out quicker than the side-openers make you hope. Even with 1978’s legitimately classic Some Girls the contest is closer than you might expect—the cheap “Far Away Eyes” still makes me chuckle, but the title song has aged even worse than seemed likely at the time. So say that in what is now the 43 years since Some Girls, I think Dirty Work is the best album the Stones came up with. Fuck you if you can’t take a joke.


Winning Ugly

I never thought I’d get off on a new Stones album this much again.

After almost two decades on top, they seemed too convoluted to come out with such direct, hard-driving music, but it’s folly to underestimate their survivorship, so I’m not surprised that they did. The sure thing was that they couldn’t make me care about it—that no adjustment in the music or persona could jolt what they said or how they said it past my sensorium and into my soul. And I was wrong. Dirty Work is a bracing and even challenging record. It innovates without kowtowing to multiplatinum fashion or half-assed pretension. It’s honest and makes you like it. It’s only Rolling Stones, yet it breaks down their stifling insularity, as individuals and as an entity. Since the last time the Stones released a surprising record—Some Girls, eight years ago now, a third of their famous career out the window—the Stones have turned into exceptionally disgusting rock professionals. That doesn’t mean it’s been possible to dismiss them or their music—what’s made them so disgusting is that you couldn’t. Who gives a fuck if that smarmy has-been Mike Love seeds the PMRC or Ritchie Blackmore feeds his runs into an emulator? Who gives a fuck if Ozzy Osbourne gets fat on raw chicken or David Crosby gets fat on raw coke or Pete Townshend invents the rock novel? All these guys are pathetic clowns no matter how much money they make, pathetic clowns even if you have to respect them in a way, as I do Townshend and Osbourne. There’s nothing pathetic about the Stones. That’s what’s made them worth hating in the ‘80s.

I mean, People and Rolling Stone don’t go to Ron for comic relief or Keith for cautionary parables or Mick for thoughtful regrets—they go to them because they’re almost as classy as Ahmet Ertegun. And though the music has been mostly dreck if not literal outtakes, there’ve been top-10 singles with every new studio release, deft and heretical and even nasty videos, and just to be contrary, one Good Stones Album. Some Girls it wasn’t, but Tattoo You was better if not braver than Black and Blue and more attentively crafted than anything they’d recorded since their tenure as a vital force ended unexpectedly with Exile on Main Street in 1972. You were free not to like it much anyway, but you had to do backflips to explain why, eventually landing on one old saw or another, “commitment” or “inspiration” or something equally crucial and unempirical. You knew damn well that whatever you called it had gone thataway. And yet there were Ron and Keith and especially Mick (leave Bill and Charlie out of this), pulling that world’s-greatest routine like there was no tomorrow.

Five years later, with only Undercover to show for it, the same saws are sure to bombard Dirty Work, in many ways a disgusting development indeed. First, it’s the group’s debut for CBS, which bought their myth even bigger than it did Paul McCartney’s, squandering corporate resources that younger bands deserved. Then recall their special-achievement Grammy, accepted with hardly a smirk by a bunch of cynics who’d been blackballed back when they really were the world’s greatest, followed by the rubber-lipped stereotyping of Ralph Bakshi’s “Harlem Shuffle” video. There’s the public disaffection of the band’s fearless leader, who wouldn’t start work on the album because he was promoting his last solo effort and won’t tour behind it because he’s starting work on the next one. Finally, there’s coproducer Steve Lillywhite, who whilst proclaiming back-to-basics turned Dirty Work into the cleanest-sounding Stones album ever.

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In the end it’s the production that will make or break this album critically, where it’s sure to put off purists, skeptics, and snipers, and commercially, where it’s almost sure to pull in trendies, children, and curiosity-seekers. Not that it isn’t plenty basic, don’t get me wrong. Based on riffs worked up by Ron and Keith before Jagger sullied his consciousness with them, the arrangements are the simplest on any Stones album since Some Girls if not Aftermath. There are no horns, the backup singers know their place, and Jagger doesn’t bother with the melismatic affectations that have turned so much of his ‘80s product in on itself. What’s more, Lillywhite claims that all the songs, including many keeper vocals, were recorded live in the studio. But I wouldn’t expect the pear-shaped guitar breaks that finish off both lead cuts of Mick Taylor, much less Ron or Keith (Jimmy Page gets a credit). The up-front drums—some supplied, I hear, by computerized Charlie, with the inevitable loss of subliminal unpredictability—are pure Lillywhite. And so is the overall sound of the thing. As a matter of technical principle, Lillywhite goes for a mix that’s as spacious as the arena-rock simulations of the ‘70s yet doesn’t murk up details, and he gets it every time. Anybody who thought “Miss You” was a sellout is going to puke all over this one.

Me, I’m a Marshall Crenshaw fan who thinks Field Day is the man’s strongest album, and I like the way Lillywhite and the Stones collide. Just as his drum mix underscored Field Day’s depth, his clinical spaciousness recasts Jagger’s fascination with distance, which of late has made Mick sound more lost than anything else (and without even knowing it, poor old guy). But where Lillywhite unbalanced Crenshaw's commercial appeal, the Stones have the mythic clout to take him on. This record is going to fuck the heads of the young chime addicts who think U2 and Big Country are guitar bands. It’s clean and even modish, but until the side-closers it’s utterly unpretty, and its momentum is pitiless. Jagger bullies up into a steady bellow that has all the power of Plant or Hagar and none of the histrionics. Catch me in a perverse mood and I’ll even defend the video—better they should offend by meaning to than by breathing.

Anyway, “Harlem Shuffle” is hardly the first good song betrayed by its promo, and now please turn the album over—the second side is the prize. I give you “Winning Ugly,” “Back to Zero,” and “Dirty Work,” their meanest political statements in 15 years, and not for want of trying. These songs aren’t about geopolitical contradictions. They’re about oppressing and being oppressed. Jagger always plays dirty, always robs the other guy, and it’s beginning to get to him; he misuses the jerks, greaseballs, fuckers and dumbasses who clean up after him and that doesn’t make him feel so good either; and for all his class he’s another nuclear subject who’s got no say over whether he rots or pops even though he’d much prefer the former. For once his lyrics aren’t intricately ironic. They’re impulsive and confused, almost jottings, two-faced by habit rather than design, the straightest reports he can offer from the top he’s so lonely at. They’re powerful because they’re about power, a topic unpretty enough to fit right in. And together with the hard advice of “Hold Back”—“Don’t matter if you ain’t so good-looking/If you ain’t sharp as a blade/Don’t be afraid/Don’t hold back/Life is passing you by”—they’re winning hints of a moral center somewhere in the vicinity of the singer’s perpetual disillusionment. They contextualize the ironic persona-play of “Fight” and the unreconstructed send-off of “Had It with You” and the found sexism of “Too Rude” and the slum-hopping groove of “Harlem Shuffle.” They set up the dog-tired compassion of “Sleep Tonight,” which Keith turns into the Stones’ most poignant ballad since “Angie.” They assure that Dirty Work is a Very Good Stones Album.

All that’s missing, in fact, is one identiriff classic, a “Jumping Jack Flash” or “Tumbling Dice” or “Start Me Up” that could define a summer and shove the tough stuff—“Winning Ugly” and “Dirty Work” are two of the most unpleasant songs anybody’s going to write about the ‘80s—down America’s throat. Identiriffs are Keith’s department, and thus I’m not inclined to trumpet this artistic comeback as his vindication. Sure it’s his recidivist guitar that makes Dirty Work hot, but if you’ll pardon my saw, it’s Jagger’s offhand input that makes it matter. We should be thankful the old reprobate didn’t lavish much personal attention on it, that he just plugged into his Stones mode and spewed what he had to spew. Let him express himself elsewhere. The individual Rolling Stones can have their own disgusting lives and careers—I don’t care. What I want is the Rolling Stones as an entity, an idea—that’s mine and yours as much as theirs. And it’s the Rolling Stones as an idea that Dirty Work vindicates.

Combating the Sound of Whiteness

Amanda Petrusich, "Mickey Guyton Takes On the Overwhelming Whiteness of Country Music" (2021, 15 pp.); Geoff Mann, "Why Does Country Music Sound White?: Race and the Voice of Nostalgia" (2008, 28 pp.)

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In the June 14 New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich published a profile of Black, Texas-raised country singer Mickey Guyton, whose pointed and unprecedentedly race-conscious “Black Like Me” had become a breakout phenomenon during the Black Lives Matter protests of a year before. Sung thoughtfully over a spare, piano-based orchestral arrangement, such lyrics as “Daddy worked night and day/For an old house and a used car, hmm/Just to live that good life, hmm/It shouldn’t be twice as hard” added economic dimension to “If you think we live in the land of the free/You should try to be black like me,” expanding music’s racial consciousness from the hood to the oppressed lower-middle class. But that wasn’t the main reason that I tweeted the piece before I’d even finished reading. It was to let my cohort know that Petrusich had unearthed a 2008 journal article by Canadian scholar Geoff Mann—a geography professor who describes his current focus as “the politics and political economy of capitalism”—on what Petrusich calls “the resentful whiteness baked into the genre a Black artist like Guyton nonetheless wants to be part of.”

Having now read both essays twice, I say begin with Petrusich. Not only does she write more fluently and know the contemporary music world where Guyton is making her brave and newsworthy advances, she gets blunter, sharper, and more timely material out of Mann interviewing him for her Guyton profile than he could manage himself in a jam-packed but also circumspect piece of scholarship completed not just pre-Trump but pre-Obama. For instance: “In the South, especially, from Brown v. Board of Education on, the whole kit and kaboodle of American history seemed to be a story of increasingly besieged ‘average’ white folks and their families.” And then, a little later: “It pretty quickly became a situation in which the music didn’t describe how white people felt, but instead described how whiteness felt. And in that sense, it is, or at least often is, a big cultural-reproduction machine, not only narrating the ongoing siege of simple, innocent white folks—this is why nostalgia is so absolutely essential to the genre—but also performing a resistance to this siege in the experience of a supposedly simple, unrepentant white normal that is basically a big ‘fuck you’ to anyone who celebrates the forces behind that siege.”

Although the politics Mann laid out so candidly to Petrusich in his interview are more muted in his article, they’re unquestionably there. It’s not Mann’s mission to make the obvious point that country music assumes a harmonically “standardized, more or less ‘square’ song structure with generally perfect rhythmic consistency,” as most country partisans would concede with a few pet exceptions. What clinches the thesis of “Why Does Country Music Sound White?” is that these songs are delivered in “an accent that has been declared a non-accent,” a way of music-making colored and grounded by a “diphthongization” in which one vowel or instrumental sustain glides toward another vowel or sound, adumbrating the “twang” as opposed to drawl that Mann argues serves as a racial signifier that marks all country singing and playing.

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Country music needs that signifier, Mann goes on, to shore up an origin myth in which it was “born of the hardships and everyday struggles of the poor southern ‘hillbilly’ culture that subsisted in the shadow of the plantation mode, and which, against the very dictates of history, survived into the present in a modified, but still more or less pure, stream of ostensibly ‘authentic’ white culture.” Nor does country music merely reflect this culture, as its partisans still argue it did back in its 1920s youth, never mind Jimmie Rodgers’s stint as a blackface minstrel or onetime minstrel interlocutor Bill Monroe interpolating jazz usages into the avowedly superwhite as well as avowedly traditional “mountain” style he invented and dubbed bluegrass. It produces it. And thus the music becomes a crucial and indeed generative locus of the white resentment that along with country radio itself has in this fraught era spread to suburbias all across this great land of ours.

So as the Deep South-branded yet trap-beat-appropriating and rapper-featuring Florida Georgia Line put it: “May we all grow up in a red white and blue little town/The kind of place you can’t wait to leave and nobody does/Cause you miss it too much.” Or how about supposedly disgraced, actually thriving red-letter redneck Morgan Wallen’s “Long live this way of life/Long live the Wal-Mart parking lot/Turned into the midnight party spot/Long live hard work when it pays off/And living it up on your days off”? But “Why Does Country Music Sound White?” argues that these snatches of verbiage, redolent though they may be, are illustrative rather than constitutive, because country music produces whiteness aurally and hence preverbally and there’s nothing any lyricist can do about it. Although clearly influenced as well by his respect for the martyred communist-humanist Gramsci, Mann’s worldview and his musical thesis were formulated in the late heyday of cultural studies’ post-structuralist hegemony, as he signals by citing Big A’s Adorno, Althusser, and Attali early on. So his thesis takes on a fatalistic, all-is-lost finality. For Mann, anomalies like the great Black country singer Charley Pride—a magnificently endowed vocalist who dwarfs such lesser exceptions-to-the-rule as jolly pop crossover Darius Rucker and the breathtakingly bland Kane Brown—or racially enlightened lyrics like Merle Haggard’s Black-white marriage tale “Irma Jackson” or Tom T. Hall’s just barely allegorical “The Man Who Hated Freckles” or Tony Joe White’s neighborly “Willie and Laura Mae Jones” or Garth Brooks’s generalized “We Shall Be Free” are powerless against the twang and all it signifies, embodies, and makes happen.

In 2021 there’s no trace of music in Mann’s impressive dossier of contributions to such journals as London Review of BooksForeign PolicyBoston Review, and Dissent. But I couldn’t help noticing when he told Petrusich that he was hoping for “a future in which country music challenges some of its own mythologies,” citing Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, and Maren Morris where I’d name Isbell, Angeleena Presley, Margo Price, and the stalwart if fading Brad Paisley, whose politically charged and unfailingly woman-friendly lyrics on 2009’s perfectly turned American Saturday Night, 2017’s brave if awkward Love and War, and several lesser albums are unequaled in mainstream country. Not that he’s as conscious as onetime Drive-By Trucker Isbell, though I’d say he’s every bit as humane, but that isn’t really the point. Because unless I’m missing something, it isn’t Isbell’s transcendence of the twang that attracts Mann. It’s lyrics like “I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes/Wishing I’d never been one of the guys/Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke.” Repeat: it’s lyrics. Without question mainstream country’s naturalization of whiteness as Mann lays it out has fed an ominous political and cultural bifurcation rooted in a racism that was weakened but not eradicated by the Civil War or the civil rights movement either. But neat and also frightening as it may be to believe that this bifurcation is powered by sound not sense, I’m not ready to believe that words are altogether powerless against it.

Mickey Guyton’s debut album, Remember My Name, won’t be released till September, which seems kind of late given the fuss Nashville has been making over its new Grammy-nominated cynosure, including co-hosting the CMAs with New Zealand-born Nashville fixture Keith Urban. The album will include “Black Like Me”—which earlier this year rose to number four on Billboard’s Country Digital Song Sales chart as well as 27 Adult Contemporary—and according to Petrusich “is loaded with sounds and images that feel traditionally country—pedal steel, Guyton’s Texas drawl, recollections of church pews and dance floors and Friday-night football.” But after bearing down on her six-track 2020 Bridges EP, which also includes “Black Like Me,” I wonder just how country it will sound. Bridges has grown on me since I wrote an admiring brief about it last December. I’m especially taken with the unrelentingly witty and perky gals-out-drinking song “Rosé” (although note that Guyton told Petrusich she and her lawyer husband, who have an infant son, have quit drinking). But in fact I enjoy every track: the she’s-a-heartbreaker “Salt,” the God-beseeching “Heaven Down Here,” the humanity-beseeching “Bridges,” and especially the disabused teach-your-daughters “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” But to me it sounds just about devoid of, well, twang.

To a lesser extent this is also true of the more formulaic but far from dislikable songs of the solo Darius Rucker, who sold plenty of “‘cause they don’t look like me” T-shirts back when Hootie and the Blowfish were selling umpteen million copies of Cracked Rear View in 1996 and was quick and forthright in his support of Black Lives Matter in 2020. But as I listen to Bridges yet again it sounds to me as if the main reason Guyton is country is that she wants to be. A drawl that’s gentle not pronounced, a timbre that’s soft not textured, and a high end that’s jubilant not piercing add up to a conversational voice more musical than talky and a church voice more songful than powerful. Could all of this, properly framed and/or nuanced in ways I’ve missed or can’t foresee, add up to a new and idiosyncratic “country” voice? A reconstituted or reimagined traditional one? Or is Guyton’s modest adult contemporary success, which goes back to 2015, a more accurate harbinger of how she’ll end up?

From here there’s no way to know, and to be honest I have my doubts that the deeply reactionary and geographically disparate country radio audience will take much of a shine to new material by that good-looking “Black Like Me” gal. But that’s all the more reason to root for her. Every setback for white supremacism, however tiny and symbolic, is a another step toward the humanity in general we wish we could be part of.

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