Oh, and then Jody Rosen wrote about what I wrote. He did not like it so much, as it happens!
The key contention that he has seems to be that I don’t appropriately understand blackface, as it relates to musical history. And also, that I put too much emphasis on it:
What really troubles me about Doyle’s post is this question of whether Sophie Tucker is “worthy of consideration.” Are we to conclude that had Tucker not stopped performing coon songs, she would be unworthy of consideration? … It is crudely ahistorical to condemn—or to speak of “letting off the hook”—an individual singer for performing racial burlesque in 1908. Blackface minstrelsy was the pre-eminent form of entertainment in the United States for most of the 19th-century and remained wildly popular for at least the first few decades of the 20th.
You know what? Fair enough. For all the mean jokes I have made about pieces that have run in Slate, eventually someone over there was due to call me an idiot or take issue with my stuff. Somewhere, Saletan is weeping a single tear of joy.
That said, I have some thoughts.
First of all, the piece that I wrote was much, much, much shorter than Rosen’s. It had to be; that’s how blogs work. 2,000 words is a relatively short article, and a relatively massive blog post – one which a lot of people won’t take the time to read. (Well. Unless they are reading this blog, maybe!) Rosen writes about space constraints, so I know that he understands them. His piece got to sprawl, to wander around, to explore various facets and nuances. My piece got to pick two interesting parts, zone in on them, and try to explain why they are so interesting: hey, she was doing some cool stuff with gender! Oh, and also, her performances reflected the racism of her culture! What is that about? Etc. Of course other people did blackface; of course, minstrelsy is a part of the history of popular music; of course. Before I handed that piece in, I cut as many words out of it as I left in, some on that very topic.
We should digress here, maybe, to explore the various roles that Rosen and I are playing, and why our interests may differ. Rosen writes about music as music. It’s his job to discuss music, as it relates to other music: its quality, its place in history, its importance. That’s the traditional role of the critic. And there is, undoubtedly, a key place in the world for people who fulfill that role; they do good, important, interesting work. All hail the role of the critic.
It’s not the role that I play, however. Rosen seems to take issue with the fact that I foreground gender and blackface in the piece, rather than music history, linking me implicitly to musical historians who undervalued the role of blackface in pop because “minstrelsy was such a hot-button topic that scholars dared not touch it.” (I also get the sense that he thinks I was taking a dig at him, when I noted that he didn’t put “Queen of Coon Shouters” in his list of Tucker’s nicknames. I wasn’t.) But, although Rosen can write that he’s “totally uninterested in the notion of [Tucker’s] heroism, feminist or otherwise,” and that’s fine – although I question the choice to mention Tucker as a “proto-feminist,” or to write about her place in the shifting gender roles of the time, or to note that her on-stage character and her musical style had roots in blackface, if that’s somehow an inappropriate subject of discussion – the idea of Tucker’s place in feminist history (“heroism” is one way of putting that; the other is that feminists have long been working to uncover praiseworthy predecessors and construct a history of women’s voices) is exactly what interests me.
I write about pop culture because it is a part of culture – because, irrespective of objective quality, our entertainers tell us something about how we live and what we expect of the world. Art which is completely divorced from cultural norms would be unintelligible. Entertainment relies on shared concepts, recognizable and familiar beliefs, just as much as it relies on individual innovation. So, yes, entertainment can reinforce oppressive cultural norms, as blackface did, or it can subvert them, as sexually assertive female performers of the early twentieth century did. Or, as in Tucker’s case, it can do both. And I love that. I love thinking about that. I love writing about that. It’s a big part of what I do.
Tucker both participated in the racist culture of her time and subverted limiting ideas about femininity. And this is tied to a number of infinitely long and tricky discussions. There’s the discussion about whiteness and feminism: it’s long been called a privileged women’s movement, a white movement, and I was conscious, as I wrote, of the history of white feminists embracing women’s work for its gender content without sufficiently addressing how it was based on white privilege or flat-out racism. There’s also the discussion about the history of Jewish assimilation – Rosen notes that Jewish, Irish, and Italian people were also stereotyped and mocked in minstrelsy, and he’s right. They were also outside of whiteness; part of the history of the 20th century is the history of how those groups came to be regarded as white. Tucker, a Jewish woman, is a part of that history. As I noted in the article, one biographer contends that, when Tucker started, people were better able to deal with a put-on mockery of blackness than they were with a real live Jewish lady, and that this informed Tucker’s use of blackface. Had she never quit it, would she still be worthy of consideration? Probably, yes. But if, in this alternate universe, some feminist chose to write about her, it would still be irresponsible not to note the fascinating fact of a woman hiding one kind of marginalization beneath the widespread, culturally tolerated and approved mockery of another oppressed group. And THEN, there’s the discussion of individual responsibility within cultural context: while we’re all informed by our time, nothing would ever change if no-one could see outside of or beyond it, so is it really ever OK to say, to something like blackface, “well, that’s just what people did back then?” Some people didn’t do it. Some people almost certainly regarded it as a hurtful travesty even during its period of greatest popularity. And some of those people were almost undoubtedly the ones being mocked and appropriated on stage. I don’t for a minute think that Rosen is suggesting that we ought to excuse blackface because it was widely acceptable once upon a time, or because talented people did it; still, that is the line some people take, and it is a legitimate problem.
If there’s one thing that I take issue with, as it regards a lot of feminist criticism of pop culture – and a lot of my own work – it’s that we (I) too often go after things with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel. Instead of picking things apart, carefully, we (I) take the route of condemning them and telling people to stay away from them. Which is an easy, sometimes irresistibly easy way to go, when talking about art that is deeply hurtful. However, it also prohibits us from learning as much from that art as we could. That was something I very consciously did not do, in the Tucker piece. And, as I wrote it, I knew that some people would criticize me for not coming down on the blackface hard enough, just as, inevitably, some would take issue with me for focusing on it at all. My statements about not letting her off the hook, about finding her worthy of consideration, were not, as Rosen characterizes them, grudging acts of acceptance, the voice of some haughty know-nothing girl condescending to admit that, all right, maybe Tucker can be admitted onto the approved listening list. They were pretty much entirely the opposite: statements to the effect that, although blackface is so ugly that many of us may find it hard to think about, and many white people may want to disavow it entirely, it – along with everything else that Tucker did – is undoubtedly worthy of consideration, because her career, and the cultural forces that informed it, are such complicated and problematic and rich subjects.
It’s odd that Rosen suggests I would “plug my ears” in response to music that I find “offensive,” when the fact is that I, along with many feminists who discuss pop culture, devote a substantial amount of my time to considering problematic art. It’s also strange that he finds my concerns “ahistorical.” It’s history that I’m talking about. It’s not musical history, I’ll grant you that much. Then again, if you want to read a really good piece on Tucker’s role in music history, you can find it in the New York Times.