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Salem’s “Black” Magic; or That Razor Works Better When It’s Sharp – Sincerely, Occam

January 27, 2011

About a month back, while reading through the Village Voice’s 20 Worst Songs of 2010 (which you should totally check out — the very thorough dismantling of Train in the #1 spot is a blast), I came across Trapdoor by Salem in the #6 spot.

Now, it’s no secret that I’m a fan of SALEM but my issue with their takedown of this track has nothing to do with their particular critique but with whom they had chosen to link to, Brandon Soderberg over at his blog, No Trivia.

Soderberg’s issue with Salem has to do with Jack Donoghue’s use of pitch-shifting and ebonics (l guess that term will have to do) to make himself “sound black.” More specifically, he feels that Donoghue makes himself sound “black” so that he can get away with misogyny that he would be unable to if he sounded “white.”

“The slowed down vocals do not only have the effect of bringing the vocalist’s voice down to stoned crawl, they make the white performer sound black. This, coupled with lyrics that are content-wise, what my grandmother thinks rap’s about (murder, rape, misogyny, repeat) and the problematic, conscious “hip-hop” pronunciations underneath that vocal effect, makes Salem’s music pretty egregious. This is a group of white kids who’ve screwed their vocals down to “sound black,” and then use that screwing-down of vocals to say things they wouldn’t–and couldn’t–say otherwise. Employing the word “minstrelsy” is controversy-baiting, but it also isn’t that far off.”

Touched on (and dismissed) is Salem’s love for the pitched-down “screwed” sound of Houston rap. (See below.) According to Soderberg, this doesn’t excuse Salem’s “minstrel show” as Donoghue also willfully mispronounces words (“skreets”) when not indulging in full-blown misogyny.

There’s offensiveness on either side of this issue but a lot of it takes some serious digging and extrapolation. Soderberg is additionally perturbed that Donoghue (or John Holland in the NY Times interview) doesn’t just come out and say that he’s  trying to emulate black rappers or even engage in a discussion as to how some people might find this emulation troublesome.

First of all, some context. Check out this video of Salem “performing” at the Fader Fort*:

This “version” of Salem live seems to have its shit together a bit more (although still dangerously low on energy):

Combine that top video with this interview with the NY Times:

“Anyway, the group remains sanguine about its stage future. “I think there’s a lot you can do with having, like, I don’t know, smoke and fog and things,” Mr. Holland said confidently.”

(*Sidebar: As atrocious as the Fader clip is, I think I’d still be tempted to shell out to see them live. No matter which band hits the stage, the spacey trainwreck or the strobelit nightmare, I still think you get your money’s worth.)

Take a good long look in Donoghue’s eyes. If you’re wondering why no one owns up to the arguably troublesome subtext of “sounding black,” those windows to the soul with the “vacant” sign hanging in them would seem to indicate a full disconnect from their immediate surroundings, much less deeper philosophical issues.

Attempting to drag the band into any discussion of underlying themes is like finding a dead zone with your cellphone: you half expect a dialog box to pop up stating “Connection failed.” I don’t see his recalcitrance as intentional but rather as inadvertent. Donoghue seems incapable of subtext and engaging in a discussion about Salem’s “minstrel show” aspects is giving him entirely too much credit.

More disturbing is the fact that when you state that someone is trying to “sound black” simply to get away with bog-standard misogyny, you are also stating that misogyny is ok as long as you’re actually black. This implicit statement is at least as offensive as the original issue.

Now, if it’s misogyny that Soderberg has an issue with, he’s got 90% of rap and 60% of rock to tangle with. If it rubs him the wrong way that Donoghue mangles English without the authenticity of being, you know, black, we’re right back at square one, stating that it’s ok to talk street (or “skreet,” I suppose) as long as you’re the right race.

Ask yourself this: how many white people have you heard spouting off some version of “fo shizzle”? (Too many, I’m sure.) Did each of these mini-minstrel shows get a full blast of your outrage? Or was is just one of those things millions of (white) people do without recrimination thanks to the assumed irony? Is it ok as long as we’re all in on the joke?

I’m not here to defend Salem’s subject matter in this particular track and whether any of us like it or not, it tends to fall into that grey-ish “artistic persona” area where it gets really tough to attach the misogyny to the person saying it, especially when Salem’s members don’t really give a shit what you think. I also tend to give controversial subject matter in artistic endeavors lots of elbow room and have no desire to censor somebody’s work simply because it offends me. I also have no desire to kick out 800 words on how X offended me with their Y. Too much is open to interpretation and if I don’t like it, I don’t have to listen to/read/watch it again.

I’m willing to concede Soderberg’s point that the co-opting of black music that gave birth to rock and roll is not relevant to this discussion. Occasional vocalist and on-stage smoker Heather Marlatt flies this flag briefly in an interview with XLR8R when asked about Salem’s borrowed (via pitch shift) blackness.

“I feel like that’s something a white person would say,” says Marlatt. “In a way to criticize what we’re doing. It’s like, to anyone that thinks that in this era—I don’t know what to tell them. It’s not like we’re Elvis Presley. God. What, are we robbing the music from a different race? Give me a break.”

It’s not a very skillful deflection but then again, the collective members of Salem aren’t really known for their erudite conversation. But her defense doesn’t work. Of course, it doesn’t really need to. This isn’t an attempt to sell black music to white people by attaching a white face to it. This is (supposedly) a co-opting of black music to excuse its transgressive content, a charge that is pretty much going to remain in the eye of the offended beholder.

Problem is: I’m not buyin’ it. I don’t think Donoghue’s pitched-down gangster shit is anything more than a poor attempt to emulate his influences. I don’t think it’s any more racist than the white hip hop fanatic down the block that refers to everyone as “nigga.” It’s an ill-advised affectation that will probably result in his ass getting beaten someday but I don’t think he’s handing out the term with the same intentions as some Klan member or a former Seinfeld star.

As for feeling Salem couldn’t get away with misogynistic fantasies because they’re white? Isn’t this the sort of discussion we should have been having over a decade ago when Eminem first hit the radio? As for “minstrelsy” accusations, I don’t see anything about this that is intended to lampoon or demean the black race.

What Soderberg’s post does read like is a bit of character assassination. This would be fine if that’s how it was presented. (See again VV’s obliteration of Train.) But Soderberg turns his dislike of a band into accusations of racism, which is a bit disingenuous.

If you don’t like Salem there’s plenty to bitch about. Uninspired, repetitive music? Ok, I can see that. Terrible rapping. Agreed. Terrible subject matter. Yeah, but that’s rap for you. Bullshit genre? This too shall pass.

With all those targets available, why does Soderberg feel the need to drag his highly subjective racism claim into the mix and hang his criticism off that framework? It just seems like a long way to go to basically state “I H8 SALEM.” (Even worse, there’s a whole lot of backpedaling on the racism/minstrelsy claims in the comment threads.)

It’s like critiquing Norman Rockwell. While decrying his lack of imagination and overuse of cliche, you grab this painting:

and veer off into speculation on Rockwell’s latent pedophilia. Soderberg is irritated that the members of Salem dodge the racism question in the XLR8R interview, stating something vague about the history of white theft in rock and roll. I guarantee if someone cornered Rockwell about his naked child butt pictures, he probably wouldn’t spend much time entertaining your pedophilia queries. (Although, this might have a lot to do with him having been dead since 1978.)

Soderberg makes it very clear in the comment thread how subjective this attack is when he says, “THIS offends ME.” He should have left it at that. With no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that Donoghue is a racist (intentionally or otherwise), this kind of outrage is a pretty tough sell.

One final question: if Donoghue is truly trying to imitate a black person, what exactly is the harm in that? His pitch-shifted rap doesn’t seem to be demeaning or dismissive. He doesn’t come across as someone who’s interested in playing up a stereotype. If anything, it’s an homage to his Houston-scene influences. Just because it’s badly done and lacking in subtlety does not immediately turn it into a post-death rock Amos and Andy.

As Soderberg states more than once, this is his subjective take. But if that’s all it is, why spend so much time defending that stance? It offends you. So be it. But the other commenters aren’t necessarily wrong, they’re just not finding anything offensive in what’s going on. Obviously the longer the discussion goes on the less likely it is that anyone will change their mind.

But maybe, just maybe, this is exactly what it seems. A white boy doing screwed-vocal rap because he digs screwed-vocal rap. Nothing more. Nothing less.

-CLT

5 comments

  1. After reading a lot of the Voice’s pieces, I guess I wouldn’t. They hold themselves to a higher standard or something.

    Considering Soderberg runs a hip-hop blog, I suppose every so often he’s got to trot out his bonafides.


  2. I am glad to be a visitant of this stark site ! , thankyou for this rare information! .


    • Thanks, spambot! We’re proud to be both the starkest and the rarest site on the internet.


  3. In all seriousness, if my meshuggah neighbor (Mr. Little) was singing while rhythmically administering a blow job (to the concierge?), it would sound something like Tent. I still liked it. A lot.


    • Is that the face cutter? No offense to anyone involved, but he probably listens to Salem. This does nothing to raise or lower my estimation of the band. After all, I listen to them but he seems more like the target demographic. (If Mr. Little is the face cutter. If he’s just blowing the help, then he’s probably a Chromeo fan.)



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