Hey Ann, Chris, and Carl,
I agree with all of you—2013 was a problematic year for music and race, to put it lightly. Obvious examples like Miley Cyrus aside, the instances of casual racism keep piling up as the end of the year draws near: the unfunny “White Christmas” skit that aired on SNL last week; Lily Allen’s controversial video for “Hard Out Here”; Katy Perry’s galling recent performance at the American Music Awards, where she dressed like a geisha, complete with cherry blossoms, paper umbrellas, and other Orientalist cliché trappings. Watching all of this, I felt profoundly embarrassed for everyone involved.
But what bugged me out more than casual racism this year was casual rape-ism—Robin Thicke’s inescapable hit “Blurred Lines,” which I hate with the force of 1,000 suns. Rob Sheffield articulated many of the reasons why I despise this song in his brilliant takedown, but he didn’t take down the ugliest part of it: the lyrics. I’m glad that so many others have. I wish I could read the song as simply sleazy, but rapey lines like “I know you want it” and “I hate these blurred lines,” paired with the loathsome video, were too much to bear. A brilliant parody video, “Defined Lines,” released by law students at the University of Auckland, has reached almost 3.5 million views. Twenty student unions at universities in the U.K. have gone so far as to ban the song from being played at social events; the University of Exeter Students’ Guild, which condemned the song, issued a statement, writing that “the language within the lyrics and the images within the promotional video are utterly degrading to the female subject.” I only wish the song could be banished from our solar system, and perhaps the universe.
But let’s go back to the issue of race. Chris, it’s hard for me to get worked up about Chic not making it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for the eighth time. I’m just so used to it at this point, as a longtime fan of dance music. The “Disco Sucks” mentality still simmers under the surface of American pop culture, so many years later, and for Rock Hall voters, the fact that Nile Rodgers played on a hit song made with French robots is unlikely to change that. On the other side of the equation, my friends who are serious disco connoisseurs argue that Nile’s riff for “Get Lucky” was a Chic B-side at best—that Chic in its prime would eat a song like “Get Lucky” for breakfast. I still like “Get Lucky,” but I agree—it’s no “I Want Your Love” or “Le Freak,” that’s for sure.
Like Carl, I feel motivated to come to 17-year-old Lorde’s defense for “Royals.” As Carl argues, Lorde’s indictment of hip-hop bling comes down just as hard on rock ’n’ roll. I like Lorde; she reminds me of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, a girl with magic powers who dresses like a goth Stevie Nicks and pokes wicked fun at Katy Perry while topping her on the charts. When I first heard “Royals,” I heard the interestingly odd production first, not the words—it reminded me of Brian Eno’s thesis that all of the world’s problems could be solved with oyster sauce or backing vocals. The backing vocals! It has the big Neptunes drums of a chart hit from 10 years ago, but it sounds low-fi, too, like an old Magnetic Fields song. I find myself utterly baffled that it reached such heights in the charts, but I can’t say I mind.
There’s also the interesting fact that Rick Ross remixed “Royals” a few months back—Rick Ross, the king of bling, who named his label Maybach Music in tribute to the luxury German automobile. Raekwon remixed “Royals” recently, too. Ross raps about a fur rug and a silver Rolls-Royce, and Raekwon talks about “next-level Lexuses”; some surmised that it was some kind of meta-level commentary or parody, or it was meant to be ironic, or perhaps, like me, they were paying more attention to the sound than the lyrics. I’m not sure. Raekwon is a thoughtful guy, and in case we’ve forgotten, he starred in Raquel Cepeda’s important documentary Bling: A Planet Rock, investigating the bloody quest for diamonds in Sierra Leone.
Perhaps I sympathize with Lorde because I can see a little bit of myself in her, growing up in small-town suburbs, feeling alienated by mainstream pop culture. I’m South Asian, though, and I grew up not only with the American charts, but with Bollywood and bhangra. When I was Lorde’s age, it was Bollywood bling that I despised—the shiny gold baubles, the silk saris, the syrupy big-money soprano vocals. Instead I wore all black, favoring a grim Joy Division T-shirt. (This was in the early ’90s, keeping me out of step with the times, too.) “We don’t care,” Lorde sings, the universal chorus that teenagers everywhere hurl at their parents.
When you’re young and you’re trying to carve out your identity, you hate on lots of things, because it’s a way of figuring out who you are. And hating on the dominant paradigm—hip-hop and R&B included—is a way of carving out that identity. It’s why, as a teenager, I developed a deep interest in electronic music, because there was the capacity there to build my own rich world, away from lyrics, and away from the hierarchies of rock ’n’ roll and the big-time pop that I couldn’t identify with. Years later, I came to embrace Bollywood music, and I have a feeling that Lorde will eventually come around to all of the music she hates now. She recently made amends with Taylor Swift. Perhaps she’ll never grow to like Katy Perry, but I can’t say I blame her.
Where are we now, where are we now,