The DORF Matrix: Towards a Theory of NPR's Taste in Black Music

Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 12 2009 4:07 PM

The DORF Matrix: Towards a Theory of NPR's Taste in Black Music


In August, National Public Radio's flagship music program

published "

," a rundown of the top 30 songs and albums of the year-to-date as voted by the show's listeners.

The results of the survey suggest that the

All Songs Considered

audience has a fuzzy understanding of the word "all." "The Best Music of 2009 (So Far)" consists almost entirely of indie-rockers: acts like

, Wilco, Grizzly Bear, Neko Case, Andrew Bird, Regina Spektor, and Animal Collective, the Brooklyn art-rock group that took the top spot in both the best songs and best albums tallies. On the Best Songs list, there are no songs that cracked the Top 40 on the


Hot 100 charts, and none by African-American performers. Two black artists, Danger Mouse and Mos Def, made the Best Albums list, at numbers 20 and 23, respectively.

None of this is a surprise, of course. NPR's audience skews white and college-educated; so does Animal Collective's fan-base. In matters of musical taste, everyone has a God-given right to provincialism and conservatism, even those NPR listeners who consider themselves cosmopolitan and liberal. The numbers, of course, tell a different story. The NPR list leans not just white, but male—dudes with beards and guitars. So far in 2009, the No. 1 song on the


charts has been by a


artist—or by groups featuring both


—a total of

. (The exception is the current No. 1 hit, "

," a collaboration between an Anglo-Asian R & B singer, Jay Sean, and an African-American rapper, Lil Wayne.) Who are the progressives again—the public radio crowd or the Top 40 great unwashed?

In the weeks since the publication of the

All Songs Considered

list, I have been puzzling over NPR's musical coverage—in particular, its approach to black music. I wondered: Could NPR's musical taste be as lily-white as the "The Best Music of 2009 (So Far)" list? After scouring

and studying its broadcasts—


, even the

played between segments on NPR's marquee programs—I can report that the answer is no. It's not that NPR doesn't like black music. It merely maintains a strict preference for black music that


NPR's taste in these matters may be best represented by something called the DORF Matrix. DORF is an acronym for Dead Old Retro Foreign. With a few


, the black music heard on NPR falls into one or more DORF Matrix categories:


ead: artists who have shuffled off this mortal coil. There was a significant spike in this category this summer with the

. In general, though, NPR prefers its dead black musicians

. Bonus points are awarded to

, and to



ld: musicians of advanced years.






etro: musicians, young or old, performing in styles two or more decades out of fashion.

; old school rappers who "




oreign: black folks who

. And/or the


NPR's commitment to DORF can be neatly tracked by examining the archives of its "

" feature, which highlights a new song every weekday. To date in 2009, black artists have been chosen for the "Song of the Day" no less than 25 times, and these comprise a nearly unbroken sequence of DORFiness:



(F), and so on. The Malian singer-songwriter

would appear to be a straight (F), but the Traoré "Song of the Day" selection, a version of the Gershwins' "The Man I Love," earns her a bonus (R). Similarly, although

, an obscure rapper from Detroit, is, as of this writing, alive, he slips onto the DORF Matrix as a stealth (D): His "Song of the Day" entry "Heat" features a beat by the late producer J Dilla, to whom the track pays tribute.

Listen closely, and other peculiarities of DORF taste emerge. NPR is fond of rockers like


(F)—black performers with the good sense to embrace a musical style associated with whites. (The 1970s power-trio

qualifies for an improbable [D,O,R] on account of the untimely demise of two of its members.) NPR is fascinated by black musicians with sensational human-interest back stories and physical handicaps, like "Song of the Day" honorees

(F), "a group of paraplegic street musicians who entertain from their base near the ... zoological gardens" in Kinshasa, Congo. It is tempting to expand the DORF formula to "DWORF" to encompass NPR's blanket coverage of

But that subject merits a separate study.

NPR is not the only bastion of DORF, of course. DORF reigns in the pages of the

. DORF tinkles out from the speakers at your local

. There is evidently a clause in the city charter of Northampton, Massachusetts


But now I turn to you,


readers. What are other media outlets where DORF presides? What is the DORFiest record ever made? Who is the ultimate DORF icon? Write to me at

with your suggestions and insights, and I'll report back in a future post. Special props to the reader who provides rules for a DORF drinking game, to be played during

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