The race factor

Robert Christgau discusses what makes American pop exceptional and not.

WHAT'S ALWAYS made America most exceptional of all, to its incalculable benefit and disgrace, is race. Moby Dick turns on two interracial relationships, Ishmael and Queequeg and Ahab and Fedallah, and Huckleberry Finn is all about one. A black-white polarity powered Hollywood's three great early milestones: Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, and Gone With the Wind. And black-and-white has been the story line of American music since minstrelsy, if not before—assuming, that is, you grant white people a share of the agency. After careful consideration, I do. American music was polyglot, and that's big—British folk and English genteel, Irish and Italian and German and last but not least Jewish, plus Spanish and/or Latin and/or Caribbean. It was democratic, too—by the 1850s "music for the millions," designating a melodically and emotionally direct product that had thrived since at least the 1820s, was a catchphrase. And however much this music trafficked in morbid sentimentality, loneliness, and home sweet home, it also radiated an optimism born of "democracy, liberty, opportunity"—which must have been a white optimism, since for black Americans its preconditions didn't exist.

But already we're on shaky ground. For starters, of course, the democracy, liberty, and opportunity of white Americans were underwritten by chattel slavery even as the few blacks who'd managed to manumit themselves, in the teeth of unremitting discrimination, made what they could of them. And obliterating these contradictions is an even bigger one, which is that as far as most admirers are concerned, the optimism of American music isn't about the frontier or prosperity or the permeability of the American class system or any of those honorable partial truths—it's about black people. Maybe "Oh! Susannah" was literally stolen from some plantation, maybe it was a polkafied gloss on William Dempster's "The May Queen," or maybe, as I prefer, it was the impure, multidetermined product of Stephen Foster's conflicted, syncretic imagination. Don't matter, because it was understood, perhaps even by the many blacks who sang it, as an expression of the African-American capacity for the transcendence we call fun. And while this was clearly a racist construction in the 1840s minstrel show, where faux darkies doing the walkaround were inventing American show business, by the 1890s at the latest it was a conscious African-American aesthetic. As Albert Murray describes it: "The sense of well being that always goes with swinging the blues is generated, as anyone familiar with the Negro dance halls knows, not by obscuring or denying the existence of the ugly dimensions of human nature, circumstances, and conduct, but rather through the full, sharp, and inescapable awareness of them."

Murray often cites Constance Rourke's conceit that the American was one-third Yankee, one-third backwoodsman or Indian ("redskin"), and one-third Negro, just as his heir Stanley Crouch often cites Carl Jung's observation "that white Americans walked, talked, and laughed like Negroes, while Africans usually think of Negro Americans as dark-skinned white people." Both are passionate about a proposition Murray goes so far as to italicize: "American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations of those who would have it otherwise, incontestably mulatto." And then, having posited the primacy of the Afro-European, both these crucial African-American critics devote their considerable musical insight and rhetorical force to a jazz they're cautious about extending beyond bebop—that is, a canon with room for very few white people. Some would say that means they're too conservative and/or race-bound to be trusted, and let's not even talk about essentializing. But critics aren't always supposed to be right—they're supposed to make you think. To me Murray's vision of blues and his conception of African-American as omni-American just get richer with the triumph of the rock and roll he looks down on.

As for mulatto culture, well, obviously not all strains of American exceptionalism are coextensive with simplistic notions of "American culture conceived as a unified whole" or a "homogeneous American mind."

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Robert Christgau is a senior editor and chief music critic at the Village Voice. He will present "American Exceptionalism in Pop" as part of the keynote address at 5:30 p.m. on Fri., April 12.

 
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