Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Google Throws A Minstrel Show

In honor of B.B. King's 94th birthday, Google has re-animated the King of the Blues as the witless and unwitting star of a jaunty, gaudy minstrel show.  Jaunty and gaudy were and are essential parts of minstrelsy, of course, and so is authenticity.  And this is authentically and awe-inspiringly awful.

Go have a look, while it lasts.  The soundtrack is King's undying cover of "The Thrill Is Gone," the gorgeous one with perfect orchestral strings, the one that served to cross him over at long last to a white audience, an audience that mostly understood him as a guitar hero, rather than as among the very finest of singers of his time.  But as that song is minced to meet Google's needs, the animated King of the Blues is force-fit into those needs too, while fitting other needs that are far older and perhaps even stronger than the marketing urges of a 21st Century corporate leviathan.

The King sings, if only in the background, but he is absurdly voiceless in Google's cartoon, and his hands wave at the guitar just the way they wave in the air,  It is the timeless gesture of the blackface minstrel, spanking a banjo, slapping a tambourine, waving jaunty hands high over a face frozen in a grin.  Go watch it.  Go see.

This gaudy, jaunty, colorful cartoon!  So lively! So crude! So relentlessly happy! Rendered in the fauxlk-art primitivism that has become synonymous with patronization of black Americans at least since the arrival of the House of Blues chain of restaurants with nightclubs attached, this perky homage coincides sometimes with details of B.B. King's actual biography, while the blues king resembles B.B. King not the least.  But this thing's far greater concern, perhaps not realized by its creators, is the ferocious need of blackface minstrelsy to show itself, to show off, to show its face, and to own those who won't own up.

Thus, all in delightful faux-primitive cartoon colors, we are offered:  Plantation Shack; Bib Overalls; Country Church; Highway 49 Road Sign; grinning Street Singer (money flies to his feet!);Welcome To Memphis; WDIA & Beale Street; Bus bearing King's name; Map of the Southeast; blue-tinted Black Man with Guitar (minstrel hands waving in front of him); Lucille; Recording Studio; Vinyl Records swirl; grinning Fans, black and white, clutching records; Blues King's hand waves high in the air as he boards a Plane for Africa, grinning; his colorful Tuxedo changes colorfully as he plays Paris! Rome! Tokyo!; Blues King's Suit acquires minstrelsy's stripes as he opens Blues Club; B.B. King Boulevard; Now Leaving Memphis; Highway 61; Welcome To Indianola, Mississippi; B.B.King Museum & Delta Interpretive Center; white-haired, white-lipped King of Blues grins, waves his cartoon hands across his cartoon Guitar.

Go have a look at it, while it lasts.  It may well last, in its way, forever.  And then, perhaps, go have a listen — but elsewhere, please — to the version of "The Thrill Is Gone" that this minstrel show tries to harness, tries to share-crop, tries to borrow and return as damaged goods.  Go listen, or don't.  It doesn't matter whether you do or don't.  It will last forever too.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Merle Haggard, 1988, from SPIN

     Is Merle Haggard what country music is about in 1988?   Maybe not.  Randy Travis is having more hits, Dwight Yoakam is more visible, Hank Williams, Jr., Is louder — much louder — while k.d. lang is odder.
     But Randy Travis' third record wasn't nearly as strong as his first two, and while his singing style becomes more his own all the time, it still belongs to Merle.  And after suiting himself inside the Buck Owens sound, Dwight Yoakam did the honorable thing and dragged Buck out of retirement, introducing him to a younger audience that knew him only as that grinning specimen who used to host "Hee Haw," not as the creator of the hottest string of hit singles in country music of the '60s.  Hank Williams, Jr., is the most popular performer in country today, and in '88 he retired the trophy for Dumb.  If the South woulda only won the war — which war?  The war! — the lower half of the U.S. would be free to be as racist and jingoistic and dopey as Junior himself.  In one of the few moments of modesty in all of Junior's career, he declared himself president of his Arkansas of the minds rather than Most Confederate Emperor or Supreme Exhausted Ayatollah.  It was a hit.
     At least it wasn't bland.  Blandness, the common denominator of country musc for years, seems to have slipped off the charts and into history. (Sappiness and corniness, thank God, will be with us always.)  The newer the stars are, the more traditional they seem, leaving those who'd been trying to cross over by staying in the middle of the road looking ludicrous.
     And as Ricky Van Shelton and k.d. lang and the Judds and K.T. Oslin redefine country by renewing its long-hidden strengths, Merle Haggard goes, as ever, his own way.  His music has always been based on tradition, on all the jazz, blues and Western swing roots buried beneath country's surfaces, and he's only changed it to suit his own whims, not those of the marketplace.  Chill Factor, his current record, is a melancholy, craggy thing, a rare tone to hear in any kind of popular music, and it crackles like campfire embrers alongside an icy mountain.  Merle Haggard is country music in 1988, as tradition is rekindled in 100 fresh ways, and in the end, Merle Haggard is nothing but himself.

(This was one of those year-end wrap-up packages, with the staff of SPIN gathering their wits to declare what had defined 1988 — even though it was probably only mid-September.  I wrote one of the other prominent essays, on the sky-rocketing Guns 'N' Roses.  Later, standing around the Park Plaza Hotel at MacArthur Park, Axl told me "That was the craziest thing I ever read about us — I could never have written that."  Which I took as a compliment, I guess.)

Monday, July 1, 2019

Aphorism No. 82: One of a Series; Collect the Whole Set!

The default of reporting is doubt.
Its corollary is wonder.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Aphorism No. 83; One of a Series; Collect the Whole Set

All reporting is "investigative reporting," or else it's publicity.