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Sunday, October 05, 2008

Theatricality trumps authenticity

I'm just undone about this article on a first-year teacher's experience in New Orleans through the lens of Lil Wayne from The Oxford American (link from Sasha Frere-Jones' blog):
3. My picture should be in the dictionary
next to the definition of definition

Lil Wayne slurs, hollers, sings, sighs, bellows, whines, croons, wheezes, coughs, stutters, shouts. He reminds me, in different moments, of two dozen other rappers. In a genre that often demands keeping it real via being repetitive, Lil Wayne is a chameleon, rapping in different octaves, paces, and inflections. Sometimes he sounds like a bluesman, sometimes he sounds like a Muppet baby.

Lil Wayne does his share of gangsta posturing, but half the time he starts chuckling before he gets through a line. He’s a ham. He is heavy on pretense, and thank God. Like Dylan, theatricality trumps authenticity.

And yet—even as he tries on a new style for every other song, it is always unmistakably him. I think of Elvis’s famous boast, “I don’t sound like nobody.” I imagine Wayne would flip it: “Don’t nobody sound like me.”

and then:
8. Pain, since I’ve lost you—I’m lost too

Our students are afraid of rain. A heavy morning shower can cut attendance in half. I once had a student write an essay about her experience in the Superdome. She wrote, without explanation, that she lost her memory when she lost her grandmother in the storm. I was supposed to correct the grammar, so that she would be prepared for state testing in the spring.

Compare that essay, particularly the Lil Wayne "definition of definition" and inversion of Elvis to Daphne A. Brooks's recent essay about Amy Winehouse, "Tainted Love," from the Nation:
Last March, New Yorker pop critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote that Winehouse's "inflections and phonemes don't add up to any known style." Her "mush-mouthed" phrasings on tracks such as "You Know I'm No Good" are, he wrote, her "real innovation," a "Winehouse signature" that stresses linguistic distortion and sounds heavy on the wine. This, to some, is the sonic allure of Amy Winehouse: her absolutely inscrutable delivery seemingly sets her apart from the legions of white artists who've hopped on the Don Cornelius soul train to find their niche.

Let's be real. These "mush-mouthed" phrasings are anything but new. Winehouse is drawing on a known style that's a hundred years old, rooted in a tradition of female minstrelsy. Think of the oft-overlooked blues recording pioneer Mamie Smith, the artist who, with songwriter Perry Bradford, laid down the first-ever blues recording by an African-American vocalist, "Crazy Blues," in 1920. Mamie Smith is hardly an iconic figure like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Her rep as "a vaudeville chanteuse" rather than a juke-joint vet all but guarantees her exclusion from the traditional blues canon. But it's this background that enabled Smith to draw on a range of styles crafted in part from watching and listening to white female performers like Sophie Tucker and, eventually, Mae West--white women who, as theater scholar Jayna Brown has written, often learned to "perform blackness" from the women who worked for them. It goes to show that there were plenty of women, black and white, who benefited from the minstrel craze.

So Frere-Jones is right on one count: Winehouse is indeed creating a pastiche of sounds. But this pastiche is a homage to old-school musical traditions, gone but not forgotten. Her rich combination of split vocal stylings recalls Mamie Smith's sly and oscillating phrasings--moving from Northeastern vaudeville intonations in one note to early Southern blues in the next. She's as much a modern-day Billie Holiday as a contemporary Sophie Tucker, the self-proclaimed "Last of the Red Hot Mamas" and an original Jewish "coon-shouter" who borrowed liberally from the singing style of blues pioneer Alberta Hunter and others. Smith and Tucker were women of the theater who dressed elegantly, fronted brass bands and performed lavish numbers. Though a century removed from Winehouse, these women clearly set a precedent for her high drama on and off the stage.

I'm never sure where the "who did it first?" question is supposed to lead, except to another claim about an earlier example. The everybody/nobody sounds like Lil Wayne section of the first essay takes up that generic convention of music-writing and then turns it into something smart about how co-optation, imitation, and ownership (particularly given the murkiness of copyright on mixtapes) are ideas that you can play with, not rigid boundaries.

The historical examples in Brooks's essay put the confusing racial politics of her co-optation of neo-soul into perspective. At the same time, though, the "let's be real" frame of the second paragraph I just quoted puts her in the strange position of claim that someone's theatricality is more authentic than someone else's. Or is that just a rhetorical flourish and the Sophie Tucker argument does let us see something new in the long history of bickering about the relationship between these two terms, particularly how race gets bound up in it? (For example, just in the Lil Wayne essay, you could have a pretty good discussion about Dylan and race, how that played out in I'm Not There, and even the "Elvis was a hero to most" line from Public Enemy...)

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Blogger Lady Z on Sun Oct 05, 02:51:00 PM:
Hi Alice! (This is Gena, Megan H's thesis advisor, who sat in the backseat playing with her iPhone as Megan drove us through Alabama after SEASECS last year.) I really enjoy your blog, and I'm delighted to see your take on David Ramsay's piece. He's a good friend of my fiance's -- in fact, Derek takes pride in being the one who put David's piece online for the Oxford American. If you're interested in seeing a short film Derek made about David's experience in the Recovery school district, email me at zugenia [at] gmail. It's not cleared for widespread circulation, but we share it with friends.