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.