Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Friday, April 22, 2011
Happy Easter weekend!
Seriously, what more do you want?
Oh, right. You want them to also do it Smurf-style, Super Mario-esque, Santariffically, AND Snow White and Sevenish.
This is the the gift that keeps on giving, because they also teach you how to do the dance.
Did I mention, Kanye worked with these guys four years later?
Saturday, April 02, 2011
Nerd soul: the use of oxymoron in the face of racial anxiety
A little earlier this year, the New York Times opened up a can of worms when it asked the question "Can a Nerd Have Soul?"
A question arises from this: what constitutes a nerd? As OW points out in his critique of the article and ColorLines piggybacks on this, nerd is lazily and not rigorously applied in the article as a strategy for pussyfooting around the author--and audiences--anxieties around race. How has nerdiness been coded as white, educated, and acquisitive as signifiers of privilege at the same time that they might also represent fringe or alternative?
Of course this causes us to extend the question beyond the usage of nerd in this case, but also what do we deem a worthy signifier of soul? And are soul and authenticity proxies for one another in the representational political landscape?
The recent exchange of opinions on Nerd Soul's viability is a perfect opportunity for us to such discuss questions. There has been tons of scholarly work on the subject, which I won't cite here, but suffice to say, the concern with authenticity is one that only has so much mileage. Especially in parsing the meanings in pop-culture, mass consumption, manufacture, fabricated identities, impersonation, selling certain elements of self while guarding one's private self with a vengeance, authenticity can often seem nearly irrelevant.
However, when addressing the problem of artifice in something like soul, things are more complicated. Why? Precisely because soul often rests on the idea of a wellspring of authenticity. While the genre is most certainly open to plenty of contestation that I could not even begin to address properly in a blog entry, you could shortly say that in abstract terms, Soul is partly about genuine emotion through a particular aesthetic. On the other hand when you fuse soul, R & B and pop, that premium on authenticity is called into question. And in fact, drawing the boundaries of genre is thereby a kind of circumscription of a certain brand of authenticity. Overriding considerations of commercial and critical success include the ability for an audience to buy into a certain identity, the marketability and believability(or suspension thereof) of that.
When looking at the recent debate on nerd soul, perhaps it is the very oxymoronic aspects of a representation, its idiosyncratic elements, that fuel fascination and consumption.
In the same vein there has been a similar haranguing of the oxymoronic juxtapositional quandary on The Awl about the rise of what's being called Hipster R & B. Of course this article doesn't address soul directly, but where soul stops and R & B begins is so fuzzy, I think a discussion of both is apt. As deeply intertwined genres there is the same evident anxiety about racialization of genre and how to code white participation in these musical forms--and smarter commentators note the converse lack of discussion around participation of POC in genres that are coded as white.
But rather than be mired in deep anxiety, a lovely little HiLo Brow post, reveling in Janelle Monae goodness among others, offers a different method for addressing these anxieties. Though the anxiety addressed is more of a temporal concern rather than a racial one in this piece, I think the sentiment is transferable:
Rebooting means employing imagination and spirit to appropriate and tweak preexisting cultural forms and productions and styles for yourself, without middlebrow nostalgia or nobrow irony. It means a dangerous wayfaring betwixt past and present, a simultaneous expression of the modes of the sublime highbrow, who knows too much about the past, and is paralyzed, and the pedestrian lobrow, who knows too little about the past, and is doomed to repeat it.
Rebooting means tippin’ on the tightrope.Of course amidst this anxiety one cannot forget the power to cross or blur boundaries--whether via impersonation (see Eric Lott's Love and Theft for a key work on racial impersonation and blackface minstrelsy), appropriation, remixing, authentic adaptation, or whatever else you want to call it--is more often in the hands of white folks. Identity politics 101, really. Of course, that power exercised, doesn't crowd out other artistic expression in a zero sum way. But what hits the mainstream is certainly contentious space. That is why this discussion is still happening. It's not without consequences. That is why the lengthy quotation above talks about the creative process of rebooting as "dangerous". It isn't just an individual's musical offering, especially when it challenges the axes or genre and identity that criss cross cultural production.
Nerds, Geeks, and Pain
Soul (along with the R &B in Awl piece mentioned above) is, as commentators rightly point out, partially rooted in some historic sociopolitical maneuverings around race and cultural production. As such, soul has an association with suffering and segregation. If white nerds are not equated with suffering, than this aspect of their ability to "pull off" soul music is more like amusing irony. Very hipster indeed. Where nerd ends and hipster begins, I am not too sure either. In many cases the hipster acrobatics of irony is merely an evolution of nerd agency in the arena of cool.
A nerd is both center and periphery in its most classic representations; possessing uncanny liminal quirkiness but able to reclaim power through this just as much as it has been made marginal.
Geek chic and its rise (nerd boyfriend is an excellent example of this streak in the zeitgeist along with its attendant retro perspective) is also part of what may be at hand if "the geeks shall inherit the earth" in music too. While a debate of geek versus nerd is perhaps elided here, to use them interchangeably in this case already demonstrates the way that they have somewhat become conflated, though a distinction and discussion of it would take up too much space.
Still, the double pain/power of nerd is rarely the province of POC's. There are exceptions, but nerd racialization is field of contestation, inasmuch as its about enriching representational politics. Indeed, a recent article in the Onion calling for more black nerds, while meant to be satire, rings oddly true. While not mutually exclusive, the term Nerd Soul (and Hipster R &B too--see here for a brill critique of its corollary the Blipster) depends on the coding of these things as oxymoronic.
Anyway, point being that representational richness should happen across the spectrum and that nerdiness coding as white means that while nerds of color are viewed as novelties even beyond their tokenization as people of color period (and this happens in mainstream media in some really sloppy ways too) meant to be laughed at as either the reinforcement of the model (minority) nerd or the cognitive dissonance of a black/latino nerd.
And its scary to think that in this Village Voice article, eerily similarly titled to the Blipster article linked above, implies a rise of the black nerd, previously absent, without historical antecedent. The laziness of applying nerd to blackness as code for intelligence or aspiration to white norms, or even class ascension further demonstrates the blurriness of nerd and geek as pejorative or compliment, outsider or mainstream.
The label bandied about in the article, "Afrodemic" is particularly an attempt (though mostly failed as this article was my first and only encounter with the word that hardly went mainstream) in making the black intellectual seem like some new fangled product of post-civil rights that can be separated from the rest of the academy as a up and coming cadre. Does this hearken back to or ignore the Harlem renaissance or negritude for example? Or the nonalign movement? Or any other cultural or social capital accumulated by an enclave of POC's? When did Black Nerds throughout history ever really become nerds? Aren't most of the examples the article gives just smart accomplished people who happened to be black? Particularities of nerdiness aside from intelligence are almost entirely absent. For a further exploration of nerds of color TV tropes offers some great lists of this stuff with variants like Bollywood Nerd, Nerdy and Asian, and Blerd aka Black nerd.
At any rate, soul, and its attendant allusions, and nerd, with its own mixed bag of associations, means that soul and nerd, or R & B and hipster, in the same breath draws upon these things in an interesting way. Such juxtapositions and the discussions that stem from them interrogates what each means in exciting ways, just as much as they stir people's anxieties about genre and race. As usual, the tensions on the boundaries, the turmoil of contradiction is both potentially destructive and transformative. Dissonance can lead to sweeter harmony?