Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Eric Clapton's Evil Speech

There's no mention of Eric Clapton on this blog. That makes sense--Clapton is not an especially relevant figure, and any honest assessment of his recent work must note how terrible it is (my dad occasionally buys Clapton releases, and this is certainly my impression). With a few exceptions, I don't care for his music, which I find boring and devoid of meaningful emotional content. Basically, I dislike Eric Clapton because I dislike Eric Clapton's music.

Recently, however, I came across a Clapton quote that almost defies words, and a very good reason to dislike Eric Clapton as a human being. It's from a 1976 concert in Birmingham, Enlgand:
Do we have any foreigners in the audience tonight? If so, please put up your hands. Wogs I mean, I'm looking at you. Where are you? I'm sorry but some fucking wog...Arab grabbed my wife's bum, you know? Surely got to be said, yeah this is what all the fucking foreigners and wogs over here are like, just disgusting, that's just the truth, yeah. So where are you? Well wherever you all are, I think you should all just leave. Not just leave the hall, leave our country. You fucking (indecipherable). I don't want you here, in the room or in my country. Listen to me, man! I think we should vote for Enoch Powell. Enoch's our man. I think Enoch's right, I think we should send them all back. Stop Britain from becoming a black colony. Get the foreigners out. Get the wogs out. Get the coons out. Keep Britain white. I used to be into dope, now I'm into racism. It's much heavier, man. Fucking wogs, man. Fucking Saudis taking over London. Bastard wogs. Britain is becoming overcrowded and Enoch will stop it and send them all back. The black wogs and coons and Arabs and fucking Jamaicans and fucking [indecipherable] don't belong here, we don't want them here. This is England, this is a white country, we don't want any black wogs and coons living here. We need to make clear to them they are not welcome. England is for white people, man. We are a white country. I don't want fucking wogs living next to me with their standards. This is Great Britain, a white country, what is happening to us, for fuck's sake? We need to vote for Enoch Powell, he's a great man, speaking truth. Vote for Enoch, he's our man, he's on our side, he'll look after us. I want all of you here to vote for Enoch, support him, he's on our side. Enoch for Prime Minister! Throw the wogs out! Keep Britain white! [source]
It's an unusually clear statement of principles. You might note that an anti-immigration position doesn't necessarily imply racism, but that's an irrelevant argument here, given the torrent of racial slurs and white supremacist rhetoric.

Enoch Powell, incidentally, was a right-wing British politician, most famous for his "Rivers Of Blood" speech, which decried immigration to the UK in the harshest possible terms. In the speech, Powell, an M.P., quoted a constituent as saying "In this country in 15 or 20 years' time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man." Powell's assessment of that man was that he was "a decent, ordinary fellow-Englishman." The Times, not a liberal paper, called it "an evil speech."

Clapton came out of his would-be stump speech for Powell looking terrible, but he has remained unrepentant about his words. Later in 1976 he gave an interview to Sounds magazine, in which he says:
I thought it was quite funny actually. I don't know much about politics. I don't even know if it would be good or bad for him to get in. I don't even know who the Prime Minister is now. I just don't know what came over me that night. It must have been something that happened in the day but it came out in this garbled thing... I thought the whole thing was like Monty Python. There's this rock group playing on-stage and the singer starts talking about politics. It's so stupid. Those people who paid their money sittin' listening to this madman dribbling on and the band meanwhile getting fidgety thinking 'oh dear'.
There's nothing funny about incitements to racial violence. Clapton's attitude--that the incident was a big joke, what does he know he's just a rock star?--is deeply irresponsible, and it's a small miracle that no one was injured in Birmingham that night. It's a lame excuse anyway, since nothing in the Clapton persona suggests Pythonesque wit. Still, the Sounds interview gives Clapton a free pass. Barbara Charone barely mentions Clapton's comments, and does not quote or give any real indication of the content of his remarks. She attributes the comments to honesty on Clapton's part. Her selective take on Clapton's words is as follows:
Unlike other artistes of his stature, Clapton can't be bothered to disguise true feelings or adopt phony attitudes.
So one night in Birmingham someone said something that triggered off an unexpected part of Clapton's rowdier personality. Maybe it was the drink. Maybe it was just a bad day. But it was so human and typically Eric. How many times have you gotten a bit drunk and spouted out great truths and philosphies only to later blush the next morning?
Charone's excuses are logic-challenged--maybe he's just too honest! Sure, Eric just got drunk and said crazy, racist shit--but who doesn't! Let's laugh about it! Later in the article, Charone, jokingly and to Clapton's face, pins responsibility for his words on "the Arabs," probably a reference to the beginning of his diatribe. Clapton takes her bait, and criticizes Arabs for spending their riches poorly: "they're sinking a lot of money into England and we'll probably regain if we're clever enough. Then they'll have to go back and discover more oil." (No evidence of a rapier wit there).

Clapton and his apologists attribute his animus toward Arabs to a member of the Saudi royal famly taking a pass at his wife. Though Clapton was no stranger to adultery, one can understand his offense at a royal harassing his wife. Yet Clapton's actions blame all Arabs for the behavior of only one, as if his actions came from an inborn predisposition. That is essentialism. It's also present in his rant about "disgusting" foreigners, in which he names only dark-skinned immigrant groups. Clapton mentions one incident of a foreign-born person acting crudely, and extrapolates to the point where he can believe that "this is what all the fucking foreigners and wogs over here are like."

Imagine for a moment: what if a young Prince Charles had made eyes at, say, Jimi Hendrix's wife? Would Hendrix then be justified in vocally hating all white people? Would he be justified in advocating that all Britons be barred from entering Washington State? Would we stop short of calling his comments racist, since he collaborated with many white musicians?

The comparison is imperfect, but I think it illustrates the point: those things are unimaginable--Hendrix would have been labeled a Black Panther and his career as a crossover artist would have been toast. But let's pretend Jimi Hendrix did do those things, and then spouted a hateful, nativist jeremiad, and ask a question more to my point: would the music press then explain away and ignore his hateful outburst?

Because that's what has happened with Clapton.* On the one hand, there are the apologists. One of them is Harry Shapiro, who in 1997 published a book about Eric Clapton, Lost In The Blues. His book discusses the controversy, but charitably refers to Clapton's hate speech as a faux pas. Shapiro prints a story, told by Clapton, in which he was approached by a Rastafarian two years after his Birmingham rant, and asked if he hates blacks. Clapton told him no. The guitarist is then quoted as saying "what started it, was the upsurge in London of Arab money-spending." Shapiro adds, "there was a story that one particular Arab had made a grab for Patti, not guaranteed to endear them to Eric at all."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Critical Beatdown: Round Eleven

Ghostface Killah, "Together Baby"

NS: The soul sample that accounts for the title of this song shows up haphazardly, sometimes mid-verse, and is otherwise unrelated to the Supreme Clientele-hearkening free-associative carnage contained within. Ghost has seemed less slapdash than this before, but not in the past few years. 4/5

AM: The jarring transition from the soulful chorus to the sub-RZA minor key verses--produced by someone called Yakub--is terrible, and Ghost, who just a few years ago attacked his beats so hard he sounded breathless, just seems bored. 2.5/5

PJ Harvey, "Written On The Forehead"

NS: Overlaying Church harmonies and vast, Enya-esque synthmospheres with reggae beats isn't something I'd normally associate with Ms. Harvey--particularly not as the first single to an album ostensibly called Let England Shake. The song works, of course, as I think all PJ Harvey songs basically do, but there's still a lot of concentrated weirdness to unpack. 4/5

AM: The most ethereal thing Harvey's ever recorded, and by some margin, "Written On The Forehead" sounds less like a song than a collection of noises drifting in from outside. In less than four minutes the song achieves a quiet rapture, and the effect is the sort of thing many artists spend a career chasing. 4.5/5

David Lynch, "Good Day Today"
NS: Speaking of weirdness..."Good Day Today" bears the stamp of Lynch's previous collaborations with Angelo Badalamenti, but this is obviously far housier than anything you'd ever hear on Twin Peaks. Lynch's lyrics are deceptively simple and childish, as we'd expect, spicing up the otherwise generic but still-rousing technobeat. 3.5/5

AM: For his first single, the director has transposed his oddities to the world of music. Over a throbbing synthesyzers and a drum machine, Lynch wrestles with the themes that appear in his work ("So tired of fire"), his vocals heavily processed. His delivery is arrhythmic--a proper R&B singer could have a hit with this--but the chorus is arresting in its simplicity. 4/5

Daft Punk, "End Of The Line"
NS: I have understandable expectations for Tron: Legacy (Jeff Bridges is in it, which is cool, and the dialogue couldn't be nearly as bad as the 1982 original, right?), but I have been really excited to see how Daft Punk's score underscores the onscreen video game action. "End Of Line" is about exactly what I imagined, but that doesn't make it any less exciting. Compared to the rest of the movie, anyway. 3.5/5

AM: Is a song that builds to something considerably less exciting than what it promises a success? Not in the case of "End Of The Line," which has the Detroit techno nods but not the radiant pop-funk workouts that color the group's best work. 1.5/5

Destroyer, "Chinatown"
NS: Not sure this sounds like any Chinatown I've ever been to--I can't remember the last time a Destroyer song has gone down this smoothly (and my lord, those saxophones shouldn't be as effective as they are). If I had to compare this to anything, it would be the melodic yet dance-y spaciness of The The's Soul Mining. In other words, I have to give this a perfect grade. There's literally nothing wrong with it. 5/5

AM: Huddling amidst the gauzy atmospherics, Bejar has rarely sounded more desperate as a singer. But as a songwriter he's flexing muscles I didn't even know he had--the female vocals and back-alley saxophone are both new to the insular world of Destroyer. This is Bejar at his best: inscrutable, yes, but also genuinely mysterious. 5/5

Bernard Sumner, Hot Chip and Hot City, "Didn't Know What Love Was"

NS: I'm going to keep singling out these group collab tracks written for Converse commercials, not because Sumner and co. are particularly deserving of my ire, but because "What Love Was" provides a solid demonstration of what a song written for commercials sounds like. It's not as good; it's also a mish-mash of New Order's worst early 90's tendencies. 1/5

AM: I have not idea how this was composed, but it resembles a Hot Chip track--and this one, like the others I've heard, sounds like a sleepy version of New Order--with Bernard Sumner singing over it. It's alright, slightly too busy, but mostly it just makes me want to put on "The Perfect Kiss" or "Age Of Consent" or "Bizarre Love Triangle" or... 2.5/5

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Aaron Listens To The Hits, Vol. 2

About 18 months ago, I listened to the the Top 10 songs on Billboard's Hot 100, and offered my thoughts on them. I've meant to revisit the project on numerous occasions, but haven't followed through. At one point, half of the Top 10 was so nauseating that I considered doing the UK Top 10 instead, only to discover that it was just as awful. But with that behind me, it's time to check in with the pop landscape...

Billboard Top 10, Issue Date December 11, 2010
1. Pink, "Raise Your Glass"
A while back, I read something by (I think) Maura Johnston that really nailed the Pink persona. Pink plays the rebel, Johnston noted, but her music always remains just pop enough to score success among the fans of the artists she's supposedly edgier than. "Raise Your Glass" is a good example of that, a song that celebrates outcasts but that will sound at home on Top 40 and Adult Contemporary stations. Musically, there's nothing to object to: this is assembly line Max Martin pop, assembled well. 2.5/5

2. Katy Perry, "Firework"
After the coy, annoying single and the prom night single, the good folks at EMI have deigned to grace us with the inspirational single. This minor Perry, even considering that all Perry is minor Perry (I say this as a fan of "Hot N Cold"). "Firework" sounds too small to achieve grandeur, and Perry, lacking a set of pipes like Mariah's, can't carry the chorus convincingly. 2/5

3. Rihanna, "Only Girl (In The World)"
Rihanna has reached a point where her hits resemble other Rihanna hits, and "Only Girl (In The World)" shares some of the DNA of 2007's M.J.-sampling "Don't Stop The Music." "Only Girl" isn't nearly as compelling, but it shares the sense of anxiety and merciless dancefloor stomp. Rihanna's still not a great singer, but she's distinctive, which can be just as good. 4/5

4. Bruno Mars, "Just The Way You Are"
We covered a Bruno Mars guest spot in the Beatdown, and I have the exact same feelings about this that I did about "Nothin' On You." It's lite rock with percussive nods to hip-hop. Let's not get into the lyrics: this is pure treacle, no way around it. 1/5

5. Rihanna feat. Drake, "What's My Name"
On the fantastic "Rude Boy," Rihanna was a woman out to get hers. I can't help but hear "What's My Name" in the shadow of that jam, and in comparison it sounds docile--"You're so amazing/you figured me out" is not a lyric I ever want to hear, especially about a dude who provides a verse as lazy as Drake's. The production--itself nothing mind-blowing--is the saving grace, airy with a stuttering rhythm. 3/5

6. Ke$ha, "We R Who We R"
This was apparently written in the wake of this fall's string of suicides by bullied, gay teens. Not sure how to feel about that--Ke$ha is probably in a better position to address suicidal teens than most people, but this weak dance-pop does the message no favors, and "We R Who We R" gradually becomes just another song about clubbing. There is something craven in its inability to actually, y'know, acknowledge that subject, or to differentiate itself from Ke$ha first hit in any way. 1.5/5

7. Far East Movement, "Like A G6"
I wish I could tell you that "Like A G6" excoriates earth's six largest economies for their catastrophic hubris, but of course it doesn't. This G6 is some sort of expensive private plane. No, the Far East Movement--the first Korean-American rappers of note--celebrate how fucked up you can get on cough syrup. The beat is minimal-ish, and kind of woozy, but these guys would probably get laughed out of Houston. 2.5/5

8. Nelly, "Just A Dream"
In a list that features "Firework," "Just The Way You Are," and "What's My Name," being the cornball anthem is an accomplishment, and not a good one. I could've swore Nelly's career was dead even before that Akon collaboration, but it seems that a song about being in love with your ex-wife has reignited it. This is pop-rap, but it's not hip-hop. 1.5/5

9. The Black Eyed Peas, "The Time (Dirty Bit)"
With the Black Eyed Peas, you know it's going to be cynical and generic, you just don't know what angle they're going to take. "The Time" forces together a power-ballad chorus, lifted from "I've Had The Time Of My Life," with a bloopy beat not particularly distinct from "Boom Boom Pow." I don't mean to insult B.E.P. fans--the one I know is in second grade, and she's cool--but that music this unimaginative continues to captivate just makes me sad. 0/5

10. Bruno Mars, "Grenade"
I'll give props where they're due: Mars was a co-writer of Cee-Lo's magnificent "Fuck You," which was at Number 9 last week (it's since fallen to 17). "Grenade" is no "Fuck You," but its certainly more dynamic than "Just The Way You Are," and the vocals here are alright. I even detect a hint of Jeff Buckley in its phrasings. "Grenade" is the only the third song in this week's Top 10 that I don't actively dislike. Props. 3/5