Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Two Words this Music History Student Never Wants to Hear Again

As a former Music History student, I learned a lot about…well…music history. And music history is in many ways an easy way to follow history in general. One of the most important things I learned in all my music history classes was also one of the most obvious ones, and that is that everyone borrows from and is influenced by everyone.

This doesn’t just mean that Bach, from Germany is also influenced by Buxtehude, who is also from Germany; it means that he was also influenced by Vivaldi, from Italy. All over Europe, composers were traveling and hearing music from other countries, and bringing back those styles to be used with the music of their own countries.

To borrow a term from botany, that’s the way cross-fertilization works. Georg Friedrich Handel, a German, moves to England, where he becomes George Frederick Handel, and influences English music for generations to come. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, from Austria, becomes known for Italian music, and greatly influences its style. Oh, and he also wrote a Turkish rondo, while Beethoven wrote a Turkish section to his 9th Symphony.

People from one culture are hearing things in another, bringing it back, and working it into what was native to them, and no one complained. It’s the way that music works.

It was also the way that fashion worked. You didn’t have to be French to wear French-styled clothes. Those styles made their way to Germany and England just as styles from Germany and England made their way to France.

Worth noting is that this cross-fertilization often happened even while those countries were at war with each other…which seemed to be fairly often.

So with this in mind, what are the two words I never want to hear again?

Cultural appropriation.

The way I’ve heard it used lately, it’s the idea that white people are illegitimately taking and profiting from things from black culture. They’re taking what is “ours” and using it when they really have no right to. This refers to everything from “our” music to “our” hairstyles, and even “our” way of speaking.

How do you say “bullshit” in Swahili?

Is it cultural appropriation when white people play “our” music, wear “our” hairstyles, and use “our” slang?

I don’t know…is it cultural appropriation when Scott Joplin uses the European diatonic and chromatic scales, the AABBACCDD compositional structure, and the distinctly Italian fortepiano to create ragtime? Is it cultural appropriation when musicians like Louis Armstrong use European instruments like the trumpet and saxophone to create jazz? Is it cultural appropriation when black women straighten their hair, and avail themselves of the additional style choices that come with it? Or when they dye it colors not found in nature? Is it cultural appropriation when a black person uses Yiddish terms like klutz or chutzpah? Or are all of these simply more cases of the cross-fertilization that happens when one culture meets another?

And lest you try to say that those cases are different because we were simply absorbing what was in the culture we were brought into against our wills, consider Hawaii. Was it cultural appropriation when Hawaiians took the ukulele that was brought over by Portuguese traders, and made it their own? And what about Asia? Is it cultural appropriation when young people in Japan, China, and Korea copy American or European music and styles? And is it cultural appropriation when we copy theirs?

My answer is “no.”

Sometimes we see something in another culture that we hadn’t thought of before, and like. That’s normal cross-fertilization. We’re not Monsanto here, trying to make sure that no one else uses our patented genetically modified soybean seeds. This is the way it is…we get ideas from others, they get ideas from us, and we spread them around like manure, helping new things grow.

So the next time I hear someone use the term “cultural appropriation”, I’m going to appropriate a 2x4 and smack them upside the head with it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Confederate Flag Conundrum

In the wake of this week’s shootings at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, the call has come once again, for the Confederate flag at the state capitol to come down. This is not an easy thing by any stretch of the imagination, and if you are at all able to hold two opposing ideas in your head at the same time, you can understand why. But for those of you who can’t, let me explain why it’s not quite a slam dunk in either direction.

And then let me propose a solution.

Let me start out by saying that as a kid…or at least a teenager…the Confederate flag was the symbol of a region. Yeah, sure, it was also the symbol of those people during the Civil War, but those people lived in a specific region, and that region had its own flag. New England didn’t have a flag that could be used as an identifying symbol like that. Nor did the Midwest, the West Coast (which is really just California, so I guess it does), the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, or my own Middle Atlantic States. The South actually had a symbol, and that flag was it.

You could be pretty sure that car with a Confederate flag symbol on it was from the South. What you couldn’t be sure of was that the person driving it was a white racist redneck. After all, even black Southerners have a sense of regional pride.

So there’s that.

But there’s something else, and it comes up every time someone talks about getting rid of that flag. It’s called “honoring your ancestors.” I’m betting that just about every white Southerner worth their accent has ancestors who fought on the side of the Confederacy, and it’s not an easy thing to say that your great-great-grandfather fought on the wrong side or for the wrong ideals. It’s not an easy thing to say that the flag that your great-great-grandfather fought under should be treated with contempt.

And yet, today’s Germans do that all the time with their ancestors and the Nazi era flag.

Let me add one more point, and then I’ll propose my solution. This point is that in many cases, that flag made a resurgence in the mid 20th century as a form of “in your face” passive-aggressive resistance to the changing Civil Rights scene. It was sort of like, “You can make us change our laws, but you can’t make us change our hearts. So take our flag and stick it up your…” It’s this more recent resurgence of the use of any form of the Confederate flag which has been the source of many of the issues surrounding it.

And now it’s time for a solution.

My original idea for a graceful solution was that they should go back to the historical state flag from before the Civil War, just as the Germans did with the Nazi flag after WWII.

And then I found out that this isn’t even the state flag. The actual state flag would be perfectly fine.

So how then to solve this problem gracefully, without anyone feeling like they were backed into a corner, and needing to save face?

Fly the current flag, the Confederate flag, at half-mast for 30 days, treating each of the people killed on Tuesday night as fallen heroes, not of the Confederacy, but of the South…the New South…the South that South Carolina wants to be a part of. Will it make certain people’s ancestors spin like turbines? I don’t know. On the one hand, I’d like to think that they’re beyond caring. On the other hand, I’d really like to think that if they do care, what they care about is rectifying what they now understand are the grievous wrongs that they played a part in trying to prolong.

Yes, fly the current flag at half-mast for 30 days, and when those 30 days are over, take it down, and replace it forever with the official state flag. The flag that stands, in no uncertain terms, for all of South Carolina’s residents.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Bowtie, a Plaid Jacket, a Paisley Tux, and Flip Flops at the White House

There’s a picture on Facebook for “Throwback Thursday” of me receiving my National Achievement Scholarship award from Western Electric back in 1974. The first thing most of my friends noticed was the tie I was wearing…it was a huge white bowtie. After that, they noticed the jacket. It was plaid…boldly plaid.

When the comments started coming in, the first thing I did was to remind them of the era that photo was from. But then I remembered my prom…and Susan Ford’s prom…and realized that other factors were involved here…one that might explain the infamous White House “Flip Flop Flap” of 2005.

The missing factors were culture and socioeconomic class.

I grew up among people for whom a jacket and tie were not everyday wear, but something you put on when you got dressed up. These were postal workers, teachers, hairdressers, retail workers, librarians, autoworkers, and such. Solid middle-class or working-class citizens who took pride in how they looked when they got dressed up. And when they got dressed up, they put on their best…and fanciest…clothes. We didn’t have a distinction between business clothes and formal wear – anything that involved wearing a jacket and shiny shoes was getting dressed up.

This leads me to my prom. There’s another Throwback Thursday photo of me, from that same year, at my senior prom, wearing a black and white paisley print tux with a powder blue ruffled shirt, and a big black bowtie. I recall reading that same year that a President Ford’s daughter Susan’s prom, the big question was “black tux or white tux?”

“Black tux or white tux?” How boring! How totally lacking in imagination and style! What was wrong with these people?

Little did I realize that I was laughing at how “tastefully boring” their prom attire would be, people in the social class of the Fords (both the Geralds and the Henrys) would be laughing at the tacky “costumes” that my friends and I chose for our prom attire…even though it was fancier than what we would wear on a regular basis.

I figured this out somewhere during the next 10 years, as I left the people I knew in East Orange, and met other people from other places, and saw how people in other cultures and different socioeconomic classes did things. It was then that I learned the difference between dress (or business) clothes and fancy ones. It was then that I learned, to my horror, that despite the fact that they were shiny and black, and not suede, loafers were not considered dress shoes; and that the “proper” shoes to wear for such occasions would be wingtips, which I thought were among the ugliest shoes known to mankind. Not to worry though, I wore loafers to my wedding anyway…after all, it was my wedding.

And this brings us to the Flip Flop Flap of 2005. For those of you who don’t remember, this was when members of the Northwestern University Women’s Lacrosse Team were taken to task for wearing…gasp…flip flops to a White House ceremony in their honor. Now I’m not talking the cheap little rubber things you buy to wear at the beach. I’m talking really nice…really fancy…shoes, that just happened to have descended from that lineage, and had the little strap between the toes. The Fashion Police, accompanied by people of certain social classes, went out with their riot gear on over this one. “How could they possibly wear…gasp…flip flops…to the White House?”

Um…probably the same way that I’d wear nice black loafers.

But there are two important things to consider here. The first is that, at the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, there is probably not a straight male anywhere who saw the photo of those girls at the White House, and noticed their shoes. I doubt that President Bush himself even noticed. Guys tend to know four types of women’s shoes: flats, heels, sandals, and sneakers. Anything else is a subset that we don’t really need to know about.

The second is that the people who got bent so horribly out of shape about the flip flops…the really nice flip flops that some members of the team were wearing…are…wait for it…snobs. These girls dressed up in their nicest clothes and nicest shoes for a very special occasion, and these people decided to go ballistic over a fashion rule that many of them probably didn’t even know existed, because they didn’t grow up with it.

I look back at those pictures of me in that plaid jacket with that huge bowtie, or my paisley print tux for the prom, and I laugh. But I look at the picture of the Northwestern Women’s Lacrosse Team, and I still don’t see anything wrong with their shoes.

At least they weren’t wearing wingtips.