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Ghetto Voyeurism?

Cross-racial listening and the attribution of sociocultural distance in popular music
L’écoute trans-raciale et l’attribution d’une distance socioculturelle dans les musiques populaires
Mark Duffett
p. 111-125


Cet article affirme que la politique raciale de la musique pourrait être reconsidérée à partir d’un déplacement, des objets musicaux vers les relations sociales. Dans ce contexte, il explore la politique située d’écoutes rapportées. Que peut nous dire une analyse de propos tenus sur l’écoute au moment de la naissance de genres musicaux sur les mutations des rapports raciaux aux États-Unis ? En considérant la composition « Come Out » de Steve Reich, cette recherche expose les limites des arguments existants sur les rapports entre musique et race. Ensuite, elle défend l’idée que l’écoute « innocente » est une fiction ontologique qui a pour but de naturaliser des différences sociales entre des sujets de « races » différentes. L’idée que les musiques populaires naissent avec des sons trouvés sert également d’alibi à la transmission de telles préconceptions. Afin d’historiciser cette réflexion, l’article examine des instances d’écoute décrites par W.C. Handy, Sam Phillips, Malcolm McLaren et Michael Gregory. Là où chacune des conjonctures historiques est très différente, la manière dont ces personns rapportent leur écoute reflète des thèmes communs. Ils indiquent que la différence raciale n’est intéressante musicalement que dès l’instant où elle est liée à une distinction de classe. J’appelle ceci du « ghetto voyeurism », et je suggère qu’il a tacitement aidé à reproduire des hiérarchies sociales.

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To state the problem as clearly as possible, the extreme variability of possible readings means that ‘Come Out’ does not have a single, clearly defined [racial] politics. Nor can we unproblematically tally up a balance sheet of positions – progressive, liberal, conservative – or ethical merits / demerits, since signifiers in the piece mutate and transform kaleidoscopically, merging oppressor and oppressed, self and other, organic and inorganic. (Gopinath 2009: 123)

1What can an analysis of classic accounts of cross-racial listening tell us about the constitution of race relations in US popular music? This article proceeds in three stages. The first considers the limitations of existing arguments by examining discussions about Steve Reich’s composition piece ‘Come Out.’ Here I argue that attention to the musical object, even in its historic context, has limitations because it cannot offer firm empirical ground to decide racial politics. In the second section, I begin to think about examining accounts of listening as an alternative way to assess race relations. In particular, I argue that abstracted, ‘innocent’ listening deflects attention away from the situated nature of social encounters. I then expose a shared assumption that I tentatively call ‘ghetto voyeurism’: the reassertion of social distance in accounts of cross-racial listening through the expression of hierarchical distinctions between classes. To extend this section, I begin to frame ghetto voyeurism within its historical context by considering its relationship to folk sensibilities and idea of found sound. In the third section I examine a small series of accounts that recall genre-founding moments of listening with the aim of assessing their cultural work. I show that although ‘ghetto voyeurism’ itself has been relatively consistent, its implications have been different at different historic junctures. My main argument in this piece, then, is that apprehending music as an alienated object can block our understanding of its role in racial politics. To more fully understand the relationship between music and race, we must transcend both notions of the musical object and the fiction of ‘innocent’ listening.

‘Come Out’ and the Limitations of Music as Object

2At the height of the civil rights era the avant-garde composer Steve Reich created a provocative series of artistic interventions that included ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ (1965), ‘Oh Dem Watermelons’ (1965) and ‘Come Out’ (1966). The latter was a structured around a repeated loop that featured the voice of Daniel Hamm, a black youth who was involved in the 1964 Harlem riot and consequently accused of murder. Truman Nelson - the civil rights activist who gave Reich the original tape of Hamm’s voice - compared the composer’s style to James Brown and asked him to create something for a benefit event to free the Harlem Six. For Reich, cross-racial compositions like ‘Come Out’ were exercises in revealing and intensifying the “natural” meaning of a black subject’s utterances. According to the composer, “By using recorded speech as a source of electronic or tape music, speech-melody and meaning are presented as they naturally occur” (Reich 2002: 19). No music is “natural,” however; ‘Come Out’ was a carefully contrived composition. The artist described the structure of his work in some detail:

‘Come Out’ is composed of a single [tape] loop recorded on both channels. First the loop is in unison with itself. As it begins to go out of phase, a slowly increasing reverberation is heard. This gradually passes into a canon or round for two voices, then four voices, and finally eight. (Reich 2002: 22)

3That structure created a mesmeric effect that arguably drew attention away from Hamm’s words towards an interminable, indeterminate sound pattern that highlighted the very process of its own repetition. ‘Come Out’ does not therefore just make use of the vocal utterance of an African-American man; its echoing musical structure arguably erases his vocal presence though the use of constant delays and repetitive phase shifts. Reich’s idea of “naturally occurring” meaning is thus questionable and his claims have been contested by commentators such as Mitchell (2004: 63). How, then, might we begin to assess the racial politics of the piece?

4So far, popular music research has produced a variety of answers to such questions. The adoption of music styles beyond their once segregated genres has usually been discussed using one of three main types of argument. The first - reflected in common phrases such as ‘stealing the blues’ - is that relations between different races have played out as moments of cultural appropriation. Underlying this is the assumption that music has at some level become de facto racial property – an assumption that is actually a widespread in the literature. For instance, social historians have examined the racial dynamics of popular music as collective cultural product or form of communication (Kelley 1998; Neale 1999). Others have considered race in relation to creativity (George 2008/1988), industrial practice (Schur 2009) or genre conventions (Rose 1994; Quinn 2004). Notions of the ‘trickster’ in some of this work have associated music making with resistance and a refusal to be appropriated (see Perry 2005).

5In its more sophisticated variants, the appropriation argument is associated with the idea that whites unconsciously perceive they lack certain characteristics expressed in styles traditionally associated with black musicians. Timothy Taylor, for instance, described how black music has appealed to white musicians as a “transgressive” form:

Because of the historical oppression of African Americans, most black musics are assumed to be transgressive, and so the aesthetic qualities these musics – such as vocal quality, vocal style, and approaches to time – have taken on anti-hegemonic significations which were seized upon by [white] rock musicians and are maintained in countless ways. (Taylor 2007: 169)

6Sumanth Gopinath (2011) locates Reich’s hypnotic tape loop of Hamm’s voice as a form of “radical” or “avant-garde” minstrelsy. Studying blackface, Eric Lott (1995) has also argued that intercultural performance could be a self-conscious way of constructing whiteness through a process of racial burlesque. Both Lott (1995: 55) and Simon Frith (1998: 131) have tentatively extended this idea to rock’n’roll. While it is a strong argument, especially applied to blackface, ideas of burlesquing require us to infer the intentions of performers as racial subjects. Analysing ‘Come Out’ this way, for example, would mean asking what seemed to be missing from Reich’s conception of whiteness that necessitated his focus on Hamm’s words.

7A second kind of argument could be called ‘integrationist.’ Its key premise is the notion that rather than simply appropriating black sounds, white performers have led the way to racial integration. For example, Sam Phillips explained:

Until rock and roll music came along the grossest of all racial discrimination in America was in music. You had pop music - which was for a certain type of people; you had country and western music, which was supposedly for another class, and you had what we called in those days ‘race’ music. So if you’re talking about segregation there was no better example of it than in music, and I just hope that I played some part in breaking that down in some way. (Sam Phillips in Connolly 1973: online)

If music is not racial property in a strict sense (Tagg 1989), it is also true, however, that genre traditions can mean that audiences have learned to associate particular sounds, styles and genres with specific races. One challenge to this argument is that it seems to view black music as a freely available social resource and therefore ignores its history as a form of racial heritage.

8Both music and race are complex historical and cultural fields. Unilateral arguments about their relationship are therefore rarely amenable to conclusive treatments. Cross-racial music making evokes controversy and cannot be neatly summarized by appropriation or integrationist arguments. The traditional focus on sounds or their contexts of production is highly problematic, a core issue being that each point of reference is inherently polyvalent. Arguments about music are often weak because they do not operate on the terrain of definitive, solid and specific empirical evidence. Empirical data cannot answer whether we should, for example, take Reich and Hamm as individuals, representatives of their respective races, or both. Furthermore, questions of racial property, intercultural burlesque, musical influence or financial exploitation are matters of interpretation, subject to change depending on the perspective taken by the researcher and where he or she draws boundaries around the object. Arguments have therefore depended on the views of their makers and the contemporary racial zeitgeist.

9Different scholars have assessed the racial politics of Reich’s work using criteria based on self-expression, ethics and historical context. The composer’s inherently mutable text, however, cannot tell us whether or not to see him as someone who exploited another’s racial subjectivity and indulged in a form of social ventriloquism. Referencing ‘Come Out’s resolute ambiguity, Reich himself has described it as an aural “Rorschach test” (quoted in Gopinath 2009: 123). Our understanding is shaped by our perspective on Reich’s artistry and authorial intent, Hamm’s agency (or relative lack of it), and, indeed, ‘Come Out’s’ historical context. The composition’s racial politics change significantly depending on how one interprets both its music form (as audible evidence) and the merits of “avant-garde” minstrelsy. Even if we accept that texts do not speak for themselves, any analysis of Reich’s work in its historical context is still open to interpretation. Part of the problem here stems from putting the focus of attention on the music as a kind of object or property, rather than a mediating factor in a web of social relations. Further kinds of analysis are needed to reveal more subtle dimensions of racial politics.

10Recent scholars have radically reconsidered the appropriation and integrationist arguments by pursuing an empirical music history approach. Their work has shown the hybridized roots and dialogic nature of many popular music forms (see, for example, Tosches 2002; Leland 2004; Miller 2010). They have also demonstrated that white agents associated with music recording and distribution projecting their own concerns on to commercial culture by contributing to the segregated marketing of recorded music (Hamilton 2007). Their work reminds us that popular music is a dialogic form that has a racial politics beyond the categories of the record industry.

11According to Jacques Attali (1985), music represents a relationship between people. Christopher Small (1998) has also suggested that music is not a ‘thing’ at all but a social activity, something that people do in various ways together. Like these authors, my own position in this article is to consider music not as an object passed or spread between races, but rather as a focal point in the ongoing renegotiation of race relations. One way to understand the racial politics of ‘Come Out’ is therefore to examine its maker’s accounts of cross-racial listening.

12Whiteness has sometimes been studied as a form of social identity that is organized through its ‘unmarked’ quality. Avant-garde artists like Reich have been accused of taking up positions that erase the markers of their own racial subjectivity and of expressing their whiteness through a preferred association with “nothingness” (see, for example Whitesell 2001). What little they have to say about their practice of listening contributes to this perception because it so rarely highlights their situated or embodied identity. Not only do they refrain from discussing artistic intentions; they also displace their listening as a practice, relocating their personal agency as something that is subsumed under the neutral operation of music technology or determined by sound. Discussing the origins of ‘Come Out’ Reich explained, “… I would do it on one condition, and the condition was that if I found something in all this mass of tape that I wanted to make a piece out of, that he would let me do that” (quoted in Gopinath 2011: 127). Reich’s listening is referenced only indirectly here, as a practice that enables something that might be useful in his own artistic project: the discovery of a fragment of found sound. Though the composer constructs a social relation with Hamm by making Hamm’s voice public, he also uses the alienated medium of the sound carrier (tape) as a way to deflect attention away from their relationship. Any evidence of race relations enacted by his music is therefore displaced into a terrain of technology which cannot reveal very much. As an avant-garde performer, Reich was well aware of that concern. At one point, he actually explored the proposition that “I am a second tape recorder” as part of his composition process (quoted in Zukerman 2002: online).

Beyond Abstract Listening

13Attention to the politics of reported listening can offer a fresh and productive perspective on the question of music and race. In relation to music, listening is extremely important. Music matters as a cultural form because it is heard. Since every act of music making must be preceded with a prior and associated act of listening, music is an activity intimately associated with both production and consumption. Much of the literature on listening has tended to frame it as an abstract - and abstracted - physiological or musicological practice, not part of a situated encounter. Sometimes listening is described as an innate capacity that is organized around a natural, passive act of reception (hearing) which can, nevertheless, be modified, tutored or trained. Following in the wake of Adorno (1938/1991), who discussed what he saw as a generalized mode of ‘regressive’ listening, writers in popular music studies have tended to connect listening with various forms of social critique. Two examples suffice to demonstrate:

Those of us in industrialized settings (at least) have developed, from the omnipresence of music in our daily lives, a mode of listening dissociated from specific generic characteristics of the music… the term ‘ubiquitous listening’ best describes the phenomenon I am discussing. (Kasabian 2002: 137)

Musical violence is about the attempted exercize of power over someone else and the soundscape… as a sound, music can become itself the direct agent of violence. (Johnson and Cloonan 2009: 140)

14While I do not wholly disagree with these points, such perspectives consistently portray listening as a series of human responses or approaches to sound that are open to analysis primarily in relation to either physiology (questions of loudness, arousal, pain), psychoanalysis (selection, pleasure, plenitude, jouissance) or questions of agency on the part of a generalized listener (selection, attention, activity, labour). In such work, generalized ‘modes’ of listening are defined and understood (for example ‘quotation listening,’ ‘background listening,’ ‘acousmatic listening’ or ‘atomized listening’). At worst, this diverse corpus of work is in danger of reductively suggesting that either the usage of playback technology or the musical object itself will determine how we listen. For example, introducing a section on listening in their academic reader, Audio Cultures, Christopher Cox and Daniel Warner (2004: 65) explain, “Radio and sound recording radically changed the act of listening to music, and altered the very nature of music as well.” In their view - which I think is representative of much of this field - listening is generalized (‘the act’) and never located in relation to the actual racial identities of the listener and performer.

15Accounts of listening are always performances of social identity. All accounts of listening to different degrees hide the social relations that are created through music. I want to suggest that the common idea of abstract listening (‘the act’) has itself helped to blind us to the way that reports of listening enact social relations.1 The interracial dynamic of popular music is played out not only through the creation of sounds, but by mediating acts of cross-racial listening. Although listening represents a small section of a field of cultural activity that is much larger and still open to different interpretations, public statements about it provide evidence of racial perceptions. If we agree with Mitchell’s (2004: 63) claim that, “The problem is, content matters and its gradual attenuation in ‘Come Out’ is difficult to interpret,” then shifting focus from Reich’s composition itself to his account of how he heard Hamm’s words may help to assess the perception of race that shaped music. Unfortunately, as we have seen, in the case of ‘Come Out’s such accounts are collapsed by the composer into his discussion of the musical product itself, thus portraying him as a silent listener and editor rather than a speaker. In comparison to Reich’s work, popular music has been associated with racial politics that are sometimes just as unclear. Compare to avant-garde art, its commercial imperative can also further complicate the creative process. However, one difference is that its participants often say considerably more about their listening, and they tend to comment in less cryptic or ambivalent ways.

16Although music has been celebrated as a laboratory for new forms of social unity, it is, as a social encounter - more often than we might like to admit - the residue of existing relations. We can talk about being physically pained by sounds. We can talk about being disgusted by a musician’s ideological stance or questionable claim to authenticity. There are, however, no words to describe the way that accounts of listening contribute to the reproduction of existing social relations. From that perspective, listening is not ‘innocent,’ abstract, general, purely sonic or technically determined. Instead it is socially situated, constitutive of the way that social relations are organized and pursued. The flood of musical sounds is inevitably framed by listener’s predispositions, and in that sense in the act of listening people can project sociocultural interpretations on to what they hear. They can then codify and re-establish specific social relations by framing what they hear. More subtly, when musical experiences are publicly discussed, the widespread perception that listening is an ‘innocent’ activity (either an abstract practice or matter of individual autonomy) itself does cultural work in facilitating an obfuscation of pre-existing cultural identities and social relations. To highlight this, I suggest using the term ‘innocent’ listening. ‘Innocent’ listening is not a mode of listening, but a way of understanding and reporting what is heard which comes with its own set of assumptions. Chief amongst these is that it is acceptable to recount listening as a generalized or abstract practice rather than explicitly thinking about the social identities of all participants.

17In the context of cross-racial encounters, ‘innocent’ listening can be a pretext for ‘ghetto voyeurism.’ By suggesting the latter term, I am not talking about consciously clandestine activity or accidentally overhead sounds, like the sinister car crash accidentally documented by the ambient sound recordist at the start of Brian De Palma’s 1981 film Blow Out. Instead, by I mean the tendency of white listeners to construct their accounts of listening experience in ways that re-inscribe social distance often despite a sense of cross-racial empathy. ‘Ghetto voyeurism’ is not an individual predilection, but a set of larger ideological assumptions expressed in accounts of listening that register race as a pretext for social difference and hierarchy. I am aware that ‘ghetto’ is a slang term often wielded as a weapon against impoverished black communities in the USA. In contrast, I wish to lever the negative resonance of the term and use it figuratively to express discomfort over the way that accounts of listening have often exoticized the abject poverty that has emerged from racial oppression.2 To make an argument about the lack of precision or coverage of the term ‘ghetto’ here misses the point; although ‘ghetto voyeurism’ is a set of assumptions about music and race that was first applied to performers living in rural places - as Jennifer Ryan (2011) has suggested, for example, appreciation for the Delta blues is often characterized by a fetishization of poverty – perceptions of race as an “urban problem” meant that it almost inevitably shifted to focus on music made in poor inner city areas. ‘Ghetto voyeurism’ is not defined through any practice of musical appropriation, cultural tourism, or interest in run down urban locales, however. Rather, what defines it is the tendency to assert cultural difference in reported acts of listening.

18In effect, then, ‘ghetto voyeurism’ reflects the distancing assumptions behind cross-racial listening discussed within the context of a folk sensibility, an accepted notion of found sound, and a discourse of ‘innocent’ listening. In order to understand this, I will therefore briefly analyse folk music as a kind of umbrella concept. This pervasive idea uses the notion of authenticity to valorize sounds and performers that seem to come from beyond the edges of commerce and modernity. The folk formation registers social distance in the expression of listening. Joanne Mancini for example, has discussed how country music in the 1920s valorized a regional culture in the context of “a rapidly integrating consumer economy that linked city to country” (2004: 208). This prompted cross-cultural practices of listening in which modern, urbanized listeners perceived country fiddlers as rural hillbillies. Folk is therefore not simply a changing type of music. Rather, it is an ontological formation premised on a particular paradigm that understands society as divided into different social groups characteristically classifiable on a scale from early to modern culture. The celebrated end of this spectrum includes social groups containing members who are rural, communal, subaltern (have no access to social mobility), and therefore - in folk’s early formulations – supposedly ‘backward’ and ‘primitive.’ Such social status supposedly makes out performers as innately authentic: ‘the real thing.’ A less visible pole is represented their implied opposite: non-folk listeners who are subtly positioned as less authentic, but also more advanced, sophisticated and metropolitan. It could therefore be argued that vernacular music actually becomes folk music because its listeners have indirectly claimed a different social standing from its performers. Folk authenticity thus has an ideological function.

19Folk emerged as part of the modernist project of collecting ‘primitive’ cultures as a way to indirectly define ‘modern’ identity. Associated with this was the notion of the found object: an uncanny artifact - decontextualized and alienated from its origins - that became celebrated in twentieth century art. Found objects are always selected. Margaret Iversen (2004) has noted that a focus on them deflects attention away from both the artist’s inner life and creative practice, though their designation is inevitably guided by both elements. My argument here is that modern society has also developed a notion of the found sound that has, in turn, allowed people to express social difference in an indirect and therefore more accepted way.

20Advocates of folk music have traditionally professed a concern to preserve a disappearing culture and to support social equality. By celebrating a rural and communal past as the epitome of homely authenticity, they critique modernity as something lacking human warmth, yet inevitably register a degree of social distance in such claim. In his book Mystery Train, Greil Marcus (1977: 18) labeled the music of hillbilly act Harmonica Frank as “weird,” yet he never referred to Randy Newman in that way; instead he implicitly defined the weirdness of the ‘Old Weird America’ as a form of social distance between certain performers and himself as listener and representative of modern, northern, white, middle class life. The words that he uses for what he hears are crucial to this process. In this particular example, then, Marcus’s framing of the discussion connects his listening with perceived class difference although both the performer and the listener are from the same race. ‘Ghetto voyeurism’ rests on the use of folk assumptions to structure accounts of cross-racial encounters.

21The blues was, in part, an update of minstrelsy in the context of folk. As Karl Miller (2010: 5) has explained, “The musical colour line emerged as new notions of authenticity developing in folklore studies collided with the one that had long been proffered by minstrelsy.” Miller added, “The blues and country records of the 1920s were but two of the results” (6). In other words, the blues - and therefore its descendent genres – evolved from nineteenth century music influences (such as the minstrel show) reformulated in the context of a folk formation. One of the discursive legacies of this has been a tendency to express racial difference as form of class distinction. Because African-American blues eventually became popular amongst white listeners through a folk sensibility, descriptions from white individuals who listened to it have expressed moments of cross-racial listening as a kind of cross-class fascination. Field recordist John Lomax’s reasoning for recording the folk blues offers classic example. By the time that Lomax recorded Leadbelly in Angola State Penitentiary, Louisiana, in 1933, he was listening for “the Negro who has had the least contact with jazz, the radio, and with the white man” (quoted in Filene, 2000: 51). In the decade between 1920 and 1930 the rate of urban migration doubled amongst the African-American population, ushering in the era of what Alaine Locke (1925) called the ‘New Negro.’ America’s black population was increasingly urbanized and aspiring to middle class status. The contrast that Lomax made between himself and the Leadbelly as a black convict deflected attention from momentous shifts taking place for many African-Americans. In effect, the folk blues paradigm tended to deny blacks symbolic participation in high modernity by focusing attention on the subaltern remainder of their community. Consider Dorothy Scarborough, for instance, who wrote about black folk songs in 1925. According to Marybeth Hamilton (2007a: 52), “The more she read, the more convinced she became. African-Americans’ too-enthusiastic embrace of modernity, in the form of education, factory labour and migration to cities, were [sic] eradicating what one commentator described as the Negro’s ‘highest gift, his spontaneity.’” Such assumptions were out in the open, but the tendency to reassert a hierarchical set of race relations under the guise of ‘innocent’ listening was often less obvious. ‘Ghetto voyeurism’ can thus be viewed as one response to the prospect of racially integrated modernity, white subjects’ extended attempt to assert social difference.

Looking at Listening: Accounts of Genre-founding Moments

22Complicating the idea of folk as rural music is the fact that since the 1940s the sensibility has gradually expanded to inform the ideological foundations of much mainstream music. While it focused at first on music from places such as the Mississippi Delta, the folk sensibility has gradually extended to encompass music that seemed to reflect abject poverty in urban areas. In this section I compare several accounts of listening from the history of popular music that correspond roughly to the birth of the blues, rock’n’roll, hip hop and the Youtube era.3 My aim is not to explore the full complexity of these musical and social realms or consider how different agents arrived their particular musical interests. The analysis is couched as a chain of moments precisely to show the cultural work of their accounts. What unites these recalled moments of listening is the continued adoption of a kind of aural ‘gaze’ that has emphasized social difference in the context of changing technologies and cultures.

23In 1903 the famous composer WC Handy took up directorship of a black band called the Colored Knights of Pythias and worked with them for six years in Clarksdale. Addressing his dispute with Jelly Roll Morton, in his 1941 autobiography Handy credited himself as Father of the Blues. His book recounted an incident that took place in Tutwiler on the Mississippi Delta:

A lean, loose-jointed Negro had commenced plucking a guitar beside me while I slept. As he played, he pressed a knife on the strings of a guitar in a manner popularized by Hawaiian guitarists who use steel bars. The effect was unforgettable. His song, too, struck me instantly.
“Goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.”
The singer repeated the line three times, accompanying himself on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. The tune stayed in my mind. When the singer paused, I leaned over and asked him what the words meant. He rolled his eyes, showing a trace of mild amusement. (Handy 1961: 74)

24From this rather humble beginning, the composer developed a style that was perfected in two of the most popular early examples of the commercial blues: Memphis Blues (1914) and St Louis Blues (1914). With these records, Handy pioneered a “modern, national entertainment industry founded on black jazz and blues talents” (Ward 1998:11). But did he simply stumble upon a purely musical novelty? To address this question it is important to understand the connotations implicit in his description, and the way that those connotations struck a chord when the account of listening was circulated to a white readership. By dint of their respective vocations, the band leader and busker evidently came from different class backgrounds. Handy’s account of meeting the lone guitarist is therefore inevitably both sonic and social. Given that his vignette sketches out a social distinction, its description of listening is primed to do complementary cultural work. Handy’s claim that the Tutwiler blues song was “the weirdest music I ever heard” positions it as something uncanny: a kind of sonic other. A crucial aspect of his stance here is that he performed his social distance by expressing his estrangement and intrigue. He did not equate the musician’s performance directly with economic hardship or emotional pain, but instead with mystery. The sung words were incomprehensible to him. They spoke a language – geographic slang, as it turned out - that Handy could not understand. Reveling in his own lack of comprehension, he greeted the music, then, as found sound. According to historian Bryan Wagner (2009: 29), “Judging from Handy’s tale, it would [therefore] seem that the best folklorist is the accidental folklorist.”

25Handy mythologized the notion of the roving musician in his autobiography. He recalled that his school teacher perceived, “Musicians were idlers, dissipated characters, whiskey drinkers and rounders. They were social pariahs” (Handy 1941/1961: 11). Marybeth Hamilton (2007a, 21) has noted that Handy’s account functions to reduce and essentialize the blues tradition by highlighting the idea of the lone bluesman. Part of the cultural work of the Tutwiler story is to locate the source of the blues in the shape one marginal black male guitar player: a figure sometimes speculatively identified by historians as Charlie Patton or his mentor, the field hand Henry Sloan. This legendary first blues player, however, is not simply anybody. The notion of the itinerant “lean, loose-jointed Negro” can be read as implying poverty and hunger, and/or as expressing oneself by moving to rhythm, and/or finding freedom from stress or sexual repression.4 Such frameworks are guided by the mythic figure of Jim Crow, the archetypal errant slave character who emerged from the minstrel tradition of which Handy was a part. According to Alison Kibler (1999: 115),“Through the image of the libidinous carefree black, the minstrel show provided an outlet for the spectator’s longings for a pre-industrial rural past.” By socially situating his encounter, Handy’s report has become important in maintaining an imagined connection between race, poverty, itinerancy and a mysterious and unknowable past, an era perceived to pre-exist the advent of recorded sound and the complexities of the twentieth century. The Tutwiler train station episode therefore manifests an imagined crossroads between the modern (mass transport, elsewhere) and its supposed other (black, rural, pre-commerical, musical).

26Handy’s account reflects a moment of listening between two black musicians, but it becomes a ‘ghetto voyeurist’ moment primarily because of its later circulation. As Marybeth Hamilton (2007a, 21) notes, Handy’s words have provided a reason for white music enthusiasts to romanticize the folk blues as an expression of itinerant mavericks and lost souls. His vivid story was widely circulated in mainstream rock journalism and re-iterated for white audiences. What was once recalled as a cross-class encounter between two African-American men was thus re-articulated as a cross-racial ‘imagined memory’: a vicarious moment of imagined, but “unforgettable” performance guided by one man’s report of his listening experience (see Duffett 2003 and 2010). The guitar player’s itinerant status has therefore formed a benchmark: a marker from which people from other class background - both blacks (including the fascinated Handy himself) and eventually whites - could measure their social difference. White listeners would later use Handy’s quote to associate blues with a sense of itinerant otherness based on an audible difference (a quality of sonic ‘weirdness’ outside of the normative sonic conventions of modern society) and attribute a social distance within the accommodative framework of the blues genre. Although such listeners never actually heard the lone guitarist - his ‘weird’ music was never recorded - Handy’s report of cross-class listening nevertheless prompted racialized projections that helped to create a very particular interpretation of the archetypal male blues player. White musicians and fans who later became interested in the blues as a specifically African-American folk form could interpret Handy’s account of listening to support their own empathetic but distanced understandings of race. As Bryan Wagner (2009: 29) explained, “Handy used his informant’s rags to authenticate his own blues compositions.”

27Sam Phillips is another central figure in any cross-racial history of popular music. Unable to sing or play an instrument, Phillips made his living first as a DJ on WREC in Memphis, then from 1950 onwards as owner of the Memphis Recording Service. From his base on Union Avenue he formed Sun Records and recorded a series of black singers, before fostering the careers of a young Elvis Presley and stream of rockabilly musicians. Phillips said that he identified with Handy because they had both been born in the same town.5 As a teenaged music enthusiast he then had an introduction to the musical culture of Memphis:

We finally got enough money to go all the way to Dallas, and as we came through Memphis, Beale Street was the first thing I wanted to see… It just blew me away. We got there at 4 o’clock on a Saturday morning. It was pouring down with rain. We were in a little coupe with five of us boys, and the top was down and it was raining. And at 4, 5 o’clock in the morning, the street was full of people, because they’d saved their money for two years to get to spend the weekend in Memphis on Beale Street. Black folks, mainly. (Phillips in Crouch and Crouch 2009: viii)

28Phillips’ account suggests no initial interaction or observer-impact on the musical culture he saw on Beale Street. Though it must have been prominent on the segregated street, his own racial identity is not directly referenced in his account.6 What is interesting about his story is that it not only describes a cross-racial gaze, but also a same-class affinity with the hedonistic attitude of the poor black folk as they enjoyed whatever entertainments the famous street could offer. Being ‘blown away’ by the urgent energy and passion of black people around him - strangers that he knew nothing about – inspired Sam to locate racial difference as an appealing quality of cultural distinction that he spent his early career as a producer trying to capture. Crouch and Crouch report, “It was not just the music that he responded to, but the energy with which black singers and musicians infused it. In black music he encountered an element that touched him in a manner that other musical styles did not” (2009: viii) His listening skills came to the fore in March 1951 when he produced the seminal ‘Rocket 88’, credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats but performed by Ike Turner’s Kings of Rhythm.

29Sam’s self-reported fascination with the folk side of the blues placed him closer to John Lomax than his reputation as a racial assimilator might suggest. After all, he recorded black convicts the Prisonnaires for Sun and was interested in hearing “genuine untutored negro” music made by men “with field mud on their boots and patches on their overalls… battered instruments and unfettered techniques” (quoted in Guralnick 1994: 6). In other words, at Sun Records he was listening for musical sounds that would locate local African-American performers as subjects at various stages of departure from metropolitan modernity. As he claimed during a Radio Times interview in 1973, “I didn’t want anyone trying to sound like Nat King Cole or something they weren’t” (in Connolly 1973: online). In an era of racial segregation, Sam was unusual for his willingness to offer ordinary African-American performers material opportunities and enthusiastic support, yet, as a folk blues fan, he also listened to their voices with the aim of evaluating them as something distinct from middle class society.

30Long after his first visit to Beale, Phillips’ established his reputation as a music enthusiast whose projections of cultural difference (expressed as ‘feel’ or ‘something different’) acted as a pretext for his commercial ventures. What is interesting about focusing on Sam’s accounts of his listening, however, is that when he listened to Elvis his attention switched from a folk style to something less clearly defined:

Now, keep in mind that I heard something in Presley that intrigued the hell outta me… I couldn’t approach anything that I had in mind to do between black Southern music and white Southern music, the thing that I grew up on, and white and black Southern religious music. I was looking for these things and the kinship there. I don’t know exactly how I expected it to take place, I really do not, but it’s just like a scientist in a lab with some test-tubes and a little acid here and whatever else, y’know. (Phillips in Cajiao 1997: 29)

31In the case of both the black artists that he recorded and of Elvis, Sam used his listening skills in a commanding, editorial way, to search for found sounds that he could sell commercially. However, his listening is particular interesting with Elvis because it oscillates between hearing (listening to) the singer and actively listening for something new (in effect envisioning something through his listening). However, while his pre-emptive listening reportedly rated black performers on their folk credentials (their Southern working class departure from a smooth modern style), he assessed his young white singer on an ability to bring white and black vernacular traditions together. In other words, while Sam wanted all his charges to ‘be themselves,’ when recording black artists he began as a ‘ghetto voyeurist’ listener, pushing for a more arcane style of performance, but when he recorded a young artist of his own race he listened for a more updated and racially integrated sound. Indeed, in 1997 Phillips even claimed that rather than using Scotty Moore, he had initially considered pairing Elvis with the black guitarist Floyd Murphy (Burke and Griffin 2006: 12). His aim with Elvis was to represent forward-thinking youth and modernize vernacular traditions by integrating them. This did not mean that he wanted Elvis to be a smooth, metropolitan ballad singer like Dean Martin, but rather that he used him to bring something new and different to country music. When Jim Denny heard Elvis’s first record and decided not to put him on The Grand Ole Opry because it would spoil the radio show’s traditional style, Sam replied, “The world has changed, Jim, we got jet airplanes!” (Phillips in Cajiao 1997: 33) In terms of his listening, Sam is therefore a complex figure: consistent in his desire to capture soul (‘feel’) as an authentic expression of the human spirit, but also positioned as a participant in a ‘ghetto voyeurist’ history of popular music by his pre-emptive practices of listening to black musicians. My aim here is not to dispense a kind of moral judgement on Sam or any other individual, but rather to register the socio-cultural distance established by the folk paradigm within which he and many others worked to serve the marketplace. His particular case shows the way in which a ‘ghetto voyeurist’ ontology can manifest itself even within the context of a profound cross-racial empathy.

32In late 1980, Malcolm McLaren came to New York to put on a live concert with his post-Pistols pop project, Bow Wow Wow. Looking for an opening act, he met up with Michael Holman, a film maker who had previously performed on stage with The Tubes. For a BBC documentary, McLaren recalled:

I was stuck for a really stuck for a responsible, interesting and exciting kind of opening act… A friend of mine introduced me to a guy, who I met on the street somewhere on the street down on Fifth Avenue, who told me about an incredible scene that was happening, not in Manhattan, but out in the suburbs, known as the South Bronx. He said if I liked I could come down on a Saturday night where they were holding a big party and I would see something that couldn’t possibly have ever existed in England…. The party was actually out in the open, in a wasteland surrounded by these huge fired-out condominiums. There in the midst of it was about a thousand kids. I couldn’t believe it. I was very very worried, being the only white guy there, and the cab driver giving me the signal that I should put my dollars in my socks… I got to the decks, where the music was coming from, and shook hands with this huge fat guy, who later became known to me as Afrika Bambaataa. What I witnessed was… the sound coming out was totally inarticulate: a load of rough noises… the sound I realized was coming from how they are messing around with their hands on the decks, moving records backwards and forwards…. The crowd was extremely volatile and it times would jump into pitched battles…7

33In his own version of the same trip to the throw down at the Bronx River Community Centre, Holman brought out some similar themes:

True to the Bronx, it was like an incredible melee of insanity. I mean people were having fights here and fights there, glass bottles were being thrown out of windows. It was chaos. I’d got Malcolm, this lily-white guy, and Roy Johnson from RCA Records, who was hanging out with us. I got them behind the ropes to be with Bambaataa and to experience this whole thing with the scratching, DJing and whatnot. You know, he was petrified looking around at this incredible chaos of urban insanity. I don’t know how you would describe it – young kids just letting steam off and literally having fights and basically it was quite frightening – it really was quite frightening. But I was telling Malcolm, take a look at what the DJ is doing. Malcolm was like, ‘Michael, we have got to get out of here, we have got to get out – this is really dangerous.’ I was saying, ‘Malcolm, there is no way we are going to get out of here in one piece without their escort, so let’s just chill, wait and watch what this guy is doing. Watch what this guy DJ Jazzy Jay is doing.’8

34As a ‘ghetto voyeurist’ moment everything is on the surface here. Both accounts highlight McLaren’s race and both follow a kind of Conradian ‘Heart of Darkness’ narrative in which McLaren ventures across the ‘wrong’ side of a racial, geographic and class divide to explore a musical culture that he perceives as exotic (“totally inarticulate”) and savage (“the crowd was extremely volatile”). The proto-typical hip hop he hears is associated with both folk culture (“rough noises”) and irrationality (“urban insanity”). Central to these accounts is also that McLaren - who stuck out at the time as he was dressed in a pirate suit - was risking his wellbeing to get closer to the source of the music. The sound of the Bronx was not something overheard (as in Handy’s account) or listened for (as in Phillips’) but instead sought out for its sense of difference and otherness.

35New York’s hip hop culture evidently preceded its ‘discovery’ by McLaren. Yet as found sound it became the basis of a whole field of recorded music organized through black creativity and – at least since Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released ‘The Message’ in 1982 – catering in part to a white audience by representing the desperate predicament of an African-American urban underclass.9 Speaking on the same BBC documentary, McLaren continued his description of the newly-publicized hip hop culture by merging stereotypical notions of race and class with his perspective on a collective struggle for self-esteem:

I think hip hop is being in control of your body. That’s the whole art of it: actually understanding that you are much bigger than you are - it’s a demonstration of your prowess. If you haven’t got a dime in your pocket, the one thing you can do on Madison Avenue is spin on your head and show all the white honkies moving out of the Chase Manhattan bank on a lunch time, to say, “Well, hell. Beat that. And if you can’t, here’s my cap: give me a few dollars. ”10

36Statements like this seem loaded with the bluntest stereotypes: black masculinity as a demonstration of physical prowess; the ‘classing’ of black performance as a form of begging to upper class white New Yorkers; joining the white order by controlling the black body. Yet McLaren’s engagement with hip hop was largely welcomed and respected. During his New York trip he screened Holman’s 1981 film “Catch A Beat” as the opening act for Bow Wow Wow at the Ritz, then hired Holman to create a hip hop collective that included DJ Afrika Bambaataa and the Rock Steady Crew. Two years later McLaren released the single ‘Buffalo Girls’ with the World’s Famous Supreme Team, which became part of his Duck Rock LP – a multi-racial album that featured input from a mixture of musicians of different nationalities. According to Timothy Warner (2003: 54), the record drew on at least five different genre traditions: hip hop, square dancing, black South African pop, Latin American sounds and African-American music from the Lucumi cult. Furthermore, “Each track combines two different elements which both clash and resonate culturally” (ibid). Duck Rock there was therefore a creative cross-racial collage of found sounds. When the album faced charges of litigation for musical appropriation, with typical flair McLaren said, “All I can say is that accusations of plagiarism don’t bother me. As far as I’m concerned it’s all I’m useful for” (in Jarrett 1997: 180). All this might seem to position and McLaren as an appropriator of black music, or as Michael Jarrett phrased it, “If I were a black man: a lesson in simulation” (1997: 179; emphasis in orginal). Nevertheless, Duck Rock introduced hip hop to the UK and was later celebrated by the hip hop community as an early creative contribution to the genre. When the album got a reformulated in 1998 as Buffalo Gals Back to Skool, KRS-One, Rakim and De La Soul all volunteered their services. In other words, like Sam Phillips, Malcolm McLaren - despite his status as an archetypal ‘ghetto voyeurist’ listener - also popularized a musical form and allowed its practitioners to find support from a wider marketplace. Indeed, in the earliest days of hip-hop - a genre that used a conception of contemporary African-American music as racial property based on found sound to play upon ‘ghetto voyeurist’ assumptions - Duck Rock shrewdly explored ‘ghetto voyeurism.’

37My final example comes from a recent parodic reworking of a genre that seems most obviously associated with ‘ghetto voyeurist’ listening, gangsta rap. At 3.10am early one Wednesday morning late in July 2010, a black woman called Kelly Dodson from Huntsville, Alabama, awoke to find an intruder and potential rapist in her bed. Her assailant escaped, and when WAFF-48 television news came to interview her family about the incident, Dodson’s brother Antoine performed a warning: “You don't have to confess you did it. We are looking for you. We gonna find you. I'm letting you know now so you can run and tell that, homeboy.”11 Almost immediately a video clip of the footage featuring Antoine Dodson’s rather theatrical warning was uploaded to Youtube and it started to go viral. Delivered with a certain air of camp, Dodson’s admonition formed the centerpiece of a filmed performance that seemed both strangely ambiguous and risibly ineffectual, especially when removed from its original context. The Youtube clip had something for everybody. Homophobes could revel in the comic impotence of a camp man unable to convey the full weight of his anger. Liberals who saw hip hop’s genre convention of hypermasculinity as a form of homophobic repression could laugh at the return of the repressed. Two days after it first appeared online, the Gregory Brothers, who had already gained a reputation for their humorous auto-tuned re-workings of news reports (a phenomenon that became known as ‘unintentional singing’) released a version of Dodson’s tirade called ‘Bed Intruder’.

38By August a Wired magazine reporter called Eliot Van Buskirk had outlined the extent of the social phenomenon that had emerged in the wake of the Youtube song:

Even if you don’t spend a lot of time online, you’ve probably heard ‘Bed Intruder,’ the similar ‘Double Rainbow’ song, or the ‘Auto-Tune the News’ series at some point over the past year. As you may know, the Gregory Brothers created all of them with the help of a large cast of ‘unintentional singers’ including crime victim Antoine Dodson… It’s no exaggeration to claim The Gregory Brothers have invented a completely new art form that is perfectly suited to our meme-crazed times, and - most difficult to replicate - is incredibly well made. Their skills are obvious and their ears perceptive, as evidenced by the way in which they mimic pop music tropes to perfection. And they’re popping up everywhere these days; they even made the soundtrack for the parody Twitter movie trailer. ‘Bed Intruder,’ released two weeks ago, just broke eight million views on YouTube. The extended version reached No. 3 on iTunes’ the R&B chart and No. 25 on its overall chart.12

39Van Buskirk added, “It’s not just a meme, it’s music - perhaps the music of our time. Hundreds of other artists of all stripes - everyone from acoustic folk duos to marching bands - have already covered the song.”13 Evidently, he was right: ‘Bed Intruder’ broke over seven million views in ten days, prompted more than 2000 Youtube responses with performances of the song in different genres including a marching band version. Its single also made the Billboard Hot 100. At the Black Entertainment Television Award ceremony in 2010, a version featuring Dodson rapping with Gregory on keyboards was introduced by a presenter who mugged a news report: “Just in: a crime was committed on the 500 block of Western Drive. We have an eye-witness on the scene now…”

40Michael Gregory explained to Wired that Dodson would get half the revenue from the song as its unintentional lyricist. He located his own cross-class, cross-racial listening purely in musical terms

I really wanted to listen to the contours of [Antoine Dodson's] voice, and the way that he was emoting. I’ve done this enough so that when I heard him talk, I could hear the melody, and that melody kind of changes connotation depending on what key I put it in. Then I do the instrumental track and put it on top… We’re really breaking ‘unintentional singing’ ground, so we’re trying to set precedents by making it so that Antoine, or whoever that artist might be in the future, has a stake not only as an artist but as a co-author of the song.14

Like Steve Reich and Sam Phillips, Gregory was evidently listening for something in what he heard. It is relevant to contrast his words to Reich’s earlier claim to represent Daniel Hamm’s “speech-melody” as it “naturally” occurred. Both Gregory and Reich used their listening to find meaning in black subjects’ voices. In interview, however, Gregory highlighted his agency in finding melody and being able to use it to shape meaning. By listening carefully, Gregory could take Dodson’s linguistic cues (“homeboy”) and turn his already rather performative speech into auto-tuned comedy hip hop. Beyond any issue of Dodson’s complicity in aestheticizing black poverty, what ‘Bed Intruder’ indicates is that the ‘ghetto voyeurist’ aural gaze has become so entrenched that it almost invariably structures public perceptions of African-American culture. Recollected by WC Handy, the Tutwiller blues player’s performance became a cross-class listening experience that epitomized a cross-racial “imagined memory” under the folk aesthetic. In comparison, ‘Bed Intruder’ also had an interesting racial trajectory. Its immediate role as an online inspiration for participatory popular culture online indicated that it was a joke to middle class blacks as well as white American audiences. Dodson explained, “Some people do take it to be a joke. I don't, and neither does my sister and neither does my family. It's funny. We laugh at it all the time and listen to the song over and over. But that doesn't change the fact that this was a serious event.”15 In a sense there was already a kind of ‘ghetto voyeuristic’ sensibility structuring the whole episode: Dodson’s initial interview was evidently self-consciously performed; the Gregory brothers then selected it to be part of their ‘unintentional singing’ canon, justifying their actions under the rubric of financial equality; Youtube viewers drew on their experience of media representations of the ghetto and took the footage of his interview as a hilarious performance. Indeed, by performing his interviewee role for WAFF-48 with such theatrically, Dodson himself had arguably helped to create this phenomenon in the public sphere, though he could not have known how popular it would become. As one commentator explained: “You can't take your eyes off him. He doesn't seem like a victim of a crime, he seems like an improbable star of a show. He waves his finger in the camera's face… He is the most charismatic, just, effervescent, elusive man.”16 ‘Bed Intruder’ marks an era in which found sound comes from the internet (see Miller 2008). In 2012, a similar YouTube clip showed Kimberley ‘Sweet Brown’ Wilkins explaining her escape from an apartment fire to KFOR-4 news in Oklamhoma City. It was transformed into an auto-tuned mix called ‘Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That’ and received over 114 million YouTube hits within two years in both its original and auto-tune versions.17 The issue, then, is not one of racial ownership (which individual as a representative of his respective race owns ‘Bed Intruder’ or ‘Ain’t Nobody Got Time For That’), nor musical influence nor financial exploitation, but rather how diverse agents are levering a shared set of genre expectations to create a new strain of comedy records.

41For a century and more, US popular music culture has constantly negotiated issues of race and identity. Each new genre has eventually come to signify both a particular musical idiom and an associated field of race relations. Drawing on a series of different accounts, my argument in this article has been that genre formation has constantly been characterized by the assumption that music performed by African-Americans is only interesting when it reflects class difference. This unexamined assumption – which in the context of ‘innocent listening’ I have tentatively called ‘ghetto voyeurism’ - structures accounts in a way that promotes the reproduction of social distance. Although attention to it alone cannot adequately represent the whole field of music and race relations, it does provide a unique perspective. The chain of genre-founding moments explored here suggests that popular music is not simply a laboratory for a racially integrated future, but it can instead carry residues and traces from past or ongoing social relations. To put it another way, because accounts of specific moments of cross-racial listening are not simply passive reports of things heard but active formulations of social relations, each new genre has emerged with an updated version of socio-cultural distance built-in. Those who recount listening experiences locate themselves socially, even when they lay claim to ‘innocent’ listening. The conceit of ‘innocent’ listening (listening ‘purely for the music’) therefore is that it can function to maintain socio-cultural distance. Consequently, rather than historicizing reported moments of listening as instances of musical novelty, racial appropriation (as if music was stolen property), or cultural assimilation, instead we might productively begin to consider the social politics of reported listening: how accounts of listening strategically place social identities. We are never human tape recorders because we live and die within the flow of much larger human histories. As racial subjects we have much to say, and inevitably we say it - even when recalling our listening experiences.

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Mark Duffett, « Ghetto Voyeurism? », Volume !, 10 : 1 | 2013, 111-125.

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Mark Duffett

Mark Duffett est Senior Lecturer en media et cultural studies à l’université de Chester. En février 2012, il fut intervenant principal au MARS, une conférence annuelle dédiée aux musiques populaires, tenue à la Sibelius Academy en Finlande. Il est en train d’achever un ouvrage sur Elvis Presley pour Equinox.

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L'auteur & les Éd. Mélanie Seteun

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