P:O.V. No.12 - Comparing American and European Practices in Other Media

Transatlantic Blues, Music Across the Divide(s)
Cultural appropriation or the communication of essentials?

Henrik Bødker

Comparisons of cultural products are usually undergirded by notions of center and periphery. When an American version of a European film is found lacking, it is arguably because its authentic core of complex human nuances of behavior and expression is thought to have been watered down, thinned out and brutalized by a (much more) commercial mode of production, catering to a (much wider) audience, capable only of digesting something written in capital letters. The European center’s auteur and his artistic endeavors have been torn apart on the periphery´s assembly line and focus group. This move from emotional and artistic content to presumed impact is thus simultaneously a move from one notion of reception to another.

When it comes to comparisons of popular music, the situation is somewhat similar, yet also rather different. Not only is the core of authenticity here often located within the US, but the actual divisions underlying the comparison are more complicated than something that can simply be conceptualized along a Euro-American scale running from notions of romantic/individual artistry to commercial speculation.

While most (if not all) transatlantic cultural issues relating to the US and Europe in one way or another are deeply enmeshed in the trappings of race, this is an especially pointed question when it comes to popular music, and even more so when one focuses upon the blues genre. Although the North-Atlantic as a cultural divide plays into this discussion, the major division underlying comparisons is often one of color, experience, and history. This is mainly so for two reasons: firstly, because the blues almost invariably is identified as a specifically African-American cultural form; and secondly, because music in general (and perhaps blues in particular) is thought to be an emotional form of expression, deeply linked to feelings of communion and/or community. Although cultural comparisons often focus on the actual cultural artifacts, i.e. the productions, the two reasons listed here also direct our attention towards processes of reception. Thus, rather than comparing, for instance, B.B. King and Eric Clapton, the following is an attempt to sketch in rather broad terms the cultural issues arising from non-African-American, i.e. Euro-American or European receptions of blues music.

Seen from this perspective, the first of the two reasons listed above points towards the notion of appropriation and/or projection, while the second points towards notions of communication. Given the complexities and historical specificities of such cross-cultural productions and receptions, it must be pointed out that this (almost classical) hermeneutic opposition is merely applied as a heuristic device, meant to structure the ensuing discussion. Obviously, such a question can only be answered with any precision with regard to specific contexts and usages. Such local explanations will, however, in turn be highly dependent upon how one perceives the nature of the underlying racial, cultural and commercial divides. Hopefully, the following may help in charting some of these.

Basically the projection/appropriation position argues – in the words of Daniel Lieberfeld – that "[b]ecause of blues culture´s commercialization and accompanying loss of social context, the white imagination ignores or romanticizes the poverty, violence and endurance that bred and fed the blues."[1] From this perspective, the "cross-over" from local, specific communities to the (white) mainstream is interpreted wholly in terms of loss and damage.[2] While denying and/or romanticizing the original context, many blues lovers simultaneously adhere to a liberal notion or ideal of color-blindness. What has been rightfully stressed is that the "common" and the "color-blind" often have been and are heavily instilled with an unspoken normative that may be termed "whiteness," i.e. the "unmarked category against which difference is constructed": "whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an organizing principle in social and cultural relations."[3]

Thus, while the ideal of color-blindness can serve as an admirable goal, it is simultaneously – or can be – a denial and/or confusion. "[M]uch is overlooked," says Patricia J. Williams, "in the move to undo that which clearly and unfortunately matters just by labeling it that which ‘makes no difference.’"[4] There is of course a big difference between saying that it ought not to make any difference and saying that it makes no difference. And it is obviously much easier to adhere to the notion of "no difference" if one´s daily social experience does not contradict that. It is, in other words, fairly easy to claim a common humanity and no difference as a white blues-lover living in Europe, while simultaneously adhering to notions of solidarity excluding any complicity in actual racial power relations. "[W]e can all," says Williams, "be lulled rather too easily into a self-congratulatory stance of preached universalism."[5] In other words, "the racial specter" lies underneath, or is the "common-sense opinion that what distinguishes the musically racial from the non-racial is as simple as telling the difference between black and white."[6] The (color-blind) romanticization is consequently connected to what Daniel Lieberfeld calls the "fantasy element" of white attraction to the blues, and which "shows up a desire for limited contact with select decontextualized aspects of African-American culture, rather than with all its complexity and internal diversity," an argument also made by George Lipsitz.[7]

The various strands of the appropriation argument indeed highlight important (ethical) implications of cross-cultural (media) consumption, aspects that often have remained unquestioned in broader cultural settings outside academia. What might be questioned, however, is the underlying normative "mode" of reception in which a cultural product or artifact should be appropriated with "all [the] complexity and internal diversity" of its underlying culture, as Lipsitz argues. Seen from this perspective, there is a correct as well as a range of incorrect readings of the blues: the correct one is a nuanced historical/sociological/contextual (academic) reading (often an ideal of objectivist hermeneutics as well as the pragmatics of communication), while the wrong ones are cultural and contextual uses serving contemporary individual or group needs. The division that Lipsitz falls back on here is in many ways similar to the workings of what has been called the rock ideology (or polemic) and in relation to which – in the words of Keir Keightley – rock fans´ "claim to ‘superior’ musical taste involves making serious judgements about popular music, drawing on an awareness of that music´s social contexts. [And] this awareness is seen as lacking in the fans of other mainstream music."[8] This form of exclusivity is indeed an ethical judgement based upon superior knowledge (and pleasure?).

It is still, of course, understandable that many African-Americans, who have lived very closely with blues music – in both a historical and contemporary sense – should feel that its appropriation by whites is degrading, misleading and a theft of both recognition and money, especially considering that the genealogy of African-American music is – in the words of Kalamu ya Salaam – a "nonverbal language" expressing "our worldly concerns, as well as our spiritual aspirations" outside the standard language dominated by whites. Indeed, if blues and other African-American "’music’ is where our [African-American] soul is," as Salaam continues, and "African-American music... is like a flag nation for black Americans" (as Henry Daniels points out), no wonder that strong proprietary feelings abound.[9] It is uncertain, however, how precisely this usage is affected by the appropriation by the surrounding society. Surely the (mainly recorded) music used by whites is different, and of course partly made precisely for that very market. In other words, how does the appropriation reflect back upon the communities in which the blues have a historical anchoring?

Although the historical and social relations underlying the appropriation argument are fully understandable, one should not forget that the (post-)modern world of globally distributed popular culture, in which cultural artifacts become increasingly deterritorialized, looks and functions very differently from settings in which certain musical styles were organically embedded in bounded communities. In a global setting, actual day-to-day readings of popular culture may be very far from the contextual and sociological readings called for by Lipsitz, for instance. How many can attest to a continuous process where they appropriate Hollywood movies through a thorough knowledge of the historical complexities of the multifarious power relations characterizing that production milieu? Surely not many. For the majority of users of popular culture, there are other things on the agenda. And this leads us to the question of communication.

First, we have to consider the argument (which goes together with the notion of appropriation) that the blues – like other African-American musical genres – were "developed as a language of communication and cultural affirmation among ourselves and specifically for ourselves," but simultaneously embodied an "outward" message of resistance, opposition and negation. The question is thus whether any cross-racial communication is possible beyond such "cultural warfare," and if so, how may we describe it.[10] It might be inserted here that, unless one adheres to a notion of unhindered, one-to-one communication, there will always be a measure of projection and/or contextual reading in any act of communication. Obviously, the stark contrast in living conditions, culture and consciousness between an African-American living in Chicago and a blues-lover in Copenhagen cannot be evened out by a three-minute blues-track. But does that exclude any form of communication? Obviously, in order to answer that in the affirmative, one has to relinquish the ideal of a nuanced sociological reading, and for that matter, the ideal of a reconstruction of the actual individual experience underlying the music. But what is left if we do that?

Looking at music as a language of communication, one could argue – along with Anthony Storr – that what matters in music is the "general state of arousal and its simultaneity" rather than specific emotions.[11] In fact, Storr argues that arousal is not specific to particular emotions. Arousal can thus be both pleasurable and the opposite, and part of the musical "experience is likely to be derived from the projection [of the listener´s] own emotions rather than being solely a direct consequence of the music."[12] Yet evidence shows, says Storr, that the "general emotional tone of a piece of music will probably be similarly perceived by different listeners."[13]

Thus, if we take the various characteristics of African-American music that Salaam outlines – loud (disruptive), raw, bluesy and iconoclastic – as the "tone" of the arousal, one could argue for a non-African-American reception by analogy or homology, in which known emotions are projected unto and/or recognized in the actual musical expression. If music is basically thought of as a "means of sharing emotion through physical arousal," what is shared is, at one level, a range of emotions within the receiving community as well as some basic tone of arousal with the originator or originating context.[14] This does of course not mean any objectivist/essential hermeneutic move in which the suffering and hardships of Robert Johnson, for instance, become available in some phenomenological way. What it means is that the actual "feel" of the music, the very physicality of the music – that which had developed against a more "refined," dominant music – has constituted the very axis of communication. In terms of communication, rhythm is rooted in the body and therefore recognizable, says Storr.[15] And it is indeed ironic that rhythm, which in the words of Salaam, became "one of the major cultural battlegrounds," was the very characteristic that initially paved the way for white appropriation of the blues.

It was thus partly some basic commonality of shared feelings of entrapment, chaos and opposition to convention – a youth-based notion of "marginality" – as embodied in both the listeners and the music (the ways it was ingrained in the musical tone) that allowed the blues to cross boundaries. The two questions with which I started can therefore not be separated, in the sense that it was the very success of the music as communication that allowed its appropriation; these two aspects were thus intricately linked right from the start. The very form and texture of the music, its physical nature, rooted in rhythm, rawness and loudness, secured it a place among white adolescents, who on this level could successfully "recognize" the music and its feel and drive, while simultaneously being largely unaware of its deeper social implications. However, says Keightley, "[t]his sense of difference, of ‘otherness’, allowed youth to imagine affinities with the cultures of disempowered minorities" and "rock processes each [perceived marginality] as a surface sign of distinctive difference, to be grafted onto the mass marginality of youth."[16]

But this does not necessarily make white experiences of black music inauthentic or superficial. Obviously, as Lipsitz argues, the "current commercial value of the crossroads story [in relation to Robert Johnson] depends in no small measure on the ways it erases its cultural origins and suppresses its original social intentions;"[17] but so does almost any ‘commercial value,’ and that underlying many whites’ appropriation of (African-)American ‘authenticity’ is no exception. The various mechanisms that eventually have brought a range of American commodities within the reach of European consumers are premised on a suppression of ‘cultural origins’ and ‘original social intentions’ – anything that reaches so far can hardly retain its original ‘grounding.’

What this means is that the usage of blues by whites – in the US and Europe – in a sense is both appropriation and communication. The very emotions instigated by the music are real and authentic, in the sense that they speak to actual problems and experiences. Against this Lipsitz argues, with regard to the white romanticization of black blues, that white

[a]udiences and critics want to ‘own’ the pleasures and powers of popular music without embracing the commercial and industrial matrices in which they are embedded; they want to imagine that art that they have discovered through commercial culture is somehow better that commercial culture itself, that their investment in the music grants them an immunity from the embarrassing manipulation, pandering, and trivialization of culture intrinsic to a market society.[18]

And there is certainly some truth to such arguments, although one should be careful not to fall back upon romanticized notions of authenticity existing solely outside economic transactions. In continuation of that, one might even accuse such an argument of being rather condescending in its positing of a personal, privileged access to expressions denied others (like the "authentic" traveler versus the manipulated tourist). Lipsitz, secure in his ethically grounded and portrayed "knowledge" of the actual conditions surrounding the appropriation of the blues, thinks himself in a position to degrade those who think themselves immune from commercial manipulation – obviously, in contrast to Lipsitz himself, who knows his immunity, an immunity granted through "knowledge." What appears to be at stake here is sthe cult of authenticity, or the polemic of rock, in the second order. In any case, such attempts to explain a whole range of elaborate processes simply by reference to mono-causal aspects of the market are indeed too shallow. However, I wholly agree with Lipsitz´s wider cultural argument that the "very existence of racism add[ed] to the mystery, distance, and inversions of prestige enacted in the reception of blues music," and that "the consumption of black culture salves the alienation and identity problems of European Americans."

In relation to that it is indeed interesting that, since "the passing of civil rights legislation in the 1960s" and, one might add, since the whole-sale appropriation of black music that took place at the same time, "whiteness dares not speak its name, cannot speak on its own behalf but rather advances through a color-blind language."[19] To what extent the appropriation of black music has played into this process - or vice versa - is certainly a question that requires further study. Has the projection of a dominantly white generational/ cultural divide onto one of race somehow put that fault line under erasure? Has the felt "commonality" of that musical communication/appropriation caused a false belief in actual equality and the non-existence of white privileges? Looking at contemporary communications/appropriations, however, the "difficulty" remains, as Shelley Fisher Fishkin highlights via Roedgier, "of determining the ultimate social consequences of contemporary white youth´s attraction to African-American popular culture."[20]

While Lieberfeld, whom I quoted above, bases his arguments on a reading of the up-market House of Blues in Harvard, and Lipsitz his on the promotion of the crossroads myth of Robert Johnson in Mississippi, there are surely other and less phony ways in which white people can appropriate the blues and other African-American cultural forms. Thus, in order to understand the real processes of appropriation and communication, we must move closer to the actual musical experiences in a variety of settings (and at both ends of the commodity chain). Dismissing it all as a projection of white fantasies is obviously very easy, not very controversial, but certainly not very nuancing or informative, either. Undoubtedly there is a large measure of that taking place; yet, as an inroad into actual experiences, that may not be the most productive starting point.

Fishkin´s argument does seem more apt here: "[g]iven the world-wide popularity among young people of rap, braids, and the blues" she says, "scholars´ insights into these forms of African-American expressive culture may help elucidate the dynamics of international youth culture in the future."[21] Part of this obviously means moving beyond the (theoretical) opposition between pure roots music and wholly white (dominating) audiences. One should indeed be very careful not to lump together all musical performances and experiences.

And here it is worth pointing out, as Fishkin does, that certain white influences on black cultural practices were ignored in the essentialist 1970s and 1980s. "Understandably," she says, "certain categories of people and certain forms of writing were privileged as implicitly more authentic and therefore more worthy of study" and as an example she mentions "blues singers and the blues"; the question is, she goes on to ask, whether such studies and practices "promoted a brand of essentialism."[22] And one could certainly argue that part of the appropriation-argument is somehow premised upon notions of a "pure", authentic blues located in some pre-commercial (almost mythic) landscape, which writes off more detailed studies of contemporary, very different, much more mixed, and commercial expressions.

Part of the process through which black communities have responded to the appropriation by whites, has been to develop new genres out of the various lived contexts music plays into. In that sense it could be argued, as Salaam does, that the blues as an expressive form is dead; it has been wholly appropriated by whites. Yet, as a sensibility, the blues lives on in the genre of rap. The dilemma is, as with most sub-cultures, the need for affirmative and functional expressions that are visible, yet not too easily appropriated; yet as long as black cultural expressions somehow serve a need for many white listeners, the mechanisms of the market will constantly seek to milk various functional expressions springing up in more secluded communities. The added dilemma is, of course, that commercialization here often means appropriation by an almost wholly white corporate system. Perhaps the Internet, as some have suggested, may provide an alternative system of cultural dissemination and cohesion, somehow hovering between community and market?

In any case, a deeper understanding of these processes necessitates a closer look at the actual processes of appropriation, both for the communities "losing" a cultural form and those gaining one. The focus needs to be on what Fishkin (in a different context) calls the "complex blend of appreciation and appropriation of black culture…"[23] Surely the history of Euro-American consumption of American popular music is full of "white niggers," but we need more complex studies, looking at actual usages of music, especially since "musicological reception studies still remain largely limited to presentist constitutions of art and modes of experience based in the narrow subculture of the concert hall."[24] In a complex and global setting where music is becoming increasingly deterritorialized, studies must move beyond such narrow settings while arguments will have to be more nuanced than simple, one-sided assertions of appropriation and commercialization.

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1 Daniel Lieberfeld, "Million-Dollar Juke Joint: Commodifying Blues Culture," African American Review, vol. 29, issue 2 (Summer 1995), p. 220.

2 The title of Reebee Garofalo´s article "Black Popular Music: Crossing over or going under?" basically refers to the projection/communication dichotomy upon which I structure my essay. For more on the "cross-over debate," see Garofalo in Tony Bennet et al. (eds.) Rock and Popular Music: Politics, Policies, Institutions (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 231-248.

3 George Lipsitz, "The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: Racialized Social Democracy and the 'White' Problem in American Studies," American Quarterly, Vol. 47, No. 3 (September 1995), p. 369.

4 Patricia J. Williams, Seeing a Color-Blind Future: The Paradox of Race (New York: The Noonday Press), p. 4.

5 Ibid., p. 5.

6 Ronald Radano & Philip V. Bohlman, "Introduction: Music and Race, Their Past, Their Presence," in Ronald Radano & Philip V. Bohlman (eds.), Music and the Racial Imagination (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 1.

7 Lieberfeld , op.cit., p. 219.

8 Keir Keightley, "Reconsidering rock," in Simon Frith, Will Straw and John Street (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 111.

9 Kalamu ya Salaam, "It didn´t Jes Grew: The Social and Aesthetic Significance of African American Music," African American Review , vol. 29, issue 2 (Summer, 1995), pp. 352-353; Douglas Henry Daniels, "The Significance of Blues for American History," Journal of Negro History, vil. 70, issue 1/2 (Winter-Spring, 1985, p. 14.

10 Salaam, op. cit., p. 354.

11 Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind (London: HarperCollins, 1992), pp. 30-31.

12 Ibid., p. 70.

13 Ibid., p. 30.

14 Ibid., p. 5.

15 Ibid., p. 32

16 Keightley, op.cit., p. 125.

17 George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998), p. 119.

18 Ibid., p. 122.

19 Lipsitz 1995, op.cit., p. 369.

20 Shelley Fisher Fishkin, "Interrogating 'Whiteness,' Complicating 'Blackness': Remapping American Culture," American Quarterly, Vol. 47, Issue 3 (September, 1995), p. 441.

21 Ibid., p. 453.

22 Fishkin, op. cit. p. 448.

23 Ibid., p. 435.

24 Radano and Bohlman, op. cit., p. 3

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