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This Week, In Medicine-Tasting: Rosen vs. Doyle vs. Tucker vs. World

So, you all know about how I liked Jody Rosen’s Sophie Tucker article, right? I liked it very much! I liked it so much that I wrote about it elsewhere!

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.

12 Comments

  1. Laura wrote:

    You know, a cynical person might think that Rosen is inclined to downplay the role of blackface as a tool of oppression because he writes for a newspaper that as recently as the 1940′s ran articles about “giant negro rampages” – as mentioned here: http://undercoverblackman.blogspot.com/2007/07/attack-of-giant-negroes.html

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 8:33 am | Permalink
  2. Samantha b. wrote:

    This is what about.com has to say r.e. Sophie Tucker’s blackface: “Sophie Tucker was required to wear blackface by managers who felt that she would not otherwise be accepted, since she was ‘so big and ugly’ as one manager put it.”

    And then their blurb continues,”Sophie Tucker’s stage image emphasized her “fat girl” image but also a humorous suggestiveness. She sang songs like “I Don’t Want to Be Thin,” “Nobody Loves a Fat Girl, But Oh How a Fat Girl Can Love.”

    It strikes me then the use of blackface was explicitly detrimental to her career- in that the aspects which others demanded she should mask were precisely what would carry to her reknown.

    To argue that blackface was simply a staple of the time and should be elided over then strikes me as a critical failing- it wasn’t in fact entirely incidental to her music career.

    But you know, I also think that his response reflects how little a feminist perspective is presented in the American MSM- the notions seem to alien to him. I was an Art History major in a college with a highly regarded AH program, and my professors had very little trouble inserting feminist critique into a laudatory assessment of an artist. To argue that meaningful aesthetic criticism can’t bear the burden of larger social analysis is absurd. If cute children can’t pull off the everybody was doing it argument, Rosen certainly can’t. It’s a non-starter, and an irrelevancy to your points. Historical context doesn’t negate jack shit here.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  3. Sady wrote:

    @Laura: Two things. First: OH MY GOD HOLY HELL “GIANT NEGROES.” That was a worthwhile link.

    Second: I’m hesitant to impute any hidden personal motives to Rosen – since, obviously, having my motives misconstrued was fairly uncomfortable. If he were just some random dude showing up on the blog to do the “OMG YOU ARE SOOOO PC” thing, fine, yeah, I’d be mean. In this case, it’s a disagreement with someone whose work I respect. And this is not so much about your comment as it is about wanting to lay things out, should this comment thread get longer: I want to steer away from any “Rosen is X” or “Sady is Y” stuff that reduces the terms of the disagreement to some argument about the personal virtues (or lack thereof) of the people involved.

    @Samantha: That’s a solid point. I guess I used to get mad at more critics for missing what I thought were fairly obvious social or political elements to what they were talking about. Now, although the “ARGH GOD SO PC ART IS ART” thing still gets under my skin when it’s coming from unskilled practitioners, I realize that there are things more traditional critics know and can do that I don’t know or wouldn’t be able to do. And there are things that feminist analysis can deal with that would otherwise go unacknowledged. I think there’s room for both discussions, even if I wish they would interpenetrate more often.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 9:09 am | Permalink
  4. Jody wrote:

    Hi, everybody. Jody here.

    First: Sady, thanks for a smart, thoughtful response, and response to my response. I hope my tone wasn’t off — didn’t mean to be shrill or snide! Honestly, I was excited to engage in a some feisty back-and-forth with a colleague. Can’t resist a good debate. Anyway, the points you make here are well-taken.

    Thanks also for defending me against what Laura says. For the record: I’m not a member of the Sulzburgher family, I’m a freelancer, and have no stake in defending the Times’ record on race or anything else. Also, I don’t think I’m downplaying blackface as a tool of oppression — just saying it was complicated and did more cultural work than *simply* oppressing people.

    But Laura, while we’re on the subject of ahistorical thinking (which I wrongly, I guess imputed to Sady): what do you expect when you read a newspaper from the 1940s? The slaves had been emancipated fewer than 80 years earlier, Jim Crow laws were still on the books! The Times article you cite is disgusting, but not surprising.

    Also, I’m not (per Samantha B.), saying that aesthetic criticism and social analysis can’t be reconciled — and I’m not throwing around the bullshit charge “PC.” It’s just that, as I suggested in the Times piece, (justifiable, understandable) condemnation of minstrelsy has shut down conversation for decades about its broader meanings/implications/what-have-you. That’s an important conversation to have. And not just in order to understand pop music.

    Finally, if you look at my music writing, I daresay I am representing a feminist perspective in the MSM!

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  5. al_zorra wrote:

    Sophie Tucker emerged out that deep, long, and nearly forgotten by most people except those who work extensively to recover the roots of our 20th c popular culture, of which music is the foundation, meaning, very specifically, music that came out of black cultures. The Jazz Age, which escorted in the American Century, modernism and the hegemony of the U.S. post WWII of American pop culture, is named for an extreme cauldron of black musics colliding in black New Orleans.

    That said though, there was also vaudville and the Yiddish Theater, in which all the cultures collided and influenced each other, particularly musically: black people doing black face, white people doing black face, Irish, Jewish, and Italian, immigrants and the non-entitled of every kind found in the U.S. This was Sophie Tucker’s musical and performance education. In terms of her America, it was a world class education. That she, a woman, succeeded so greatly is part and parcel of that, which I think you were trying to get at, and which, I think Jody, with all good intention, missed.

    And I really hope I’m making sense above — no sleep!

    Love, c.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink
  6. Samantha b. wrote:

    After this discussion, I think I will be reading the book which Jody recommends (a link is an implicit recommendation, right,)”Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class.” If you know anything about art (I’m thinking visual art here,)and you discuss it ever with people who know nothing about art, you are always bumping into a vaguely Grandma Moses-esque notion, the idea that an interesting work of art is an interesting work of art even if it never leaves a basement in the boonies.
    It’s an incredibly naive argument, art necessarily has to engage with the culture around it in order to successfully function as a work of art. Salesmanship is part and parcel of that successful functioning, not an anathema to it. And, so, many art historians tend to fairly obsess over it in their analyses of a particular work.

    So I think Jody’s absolutely right to suggest that musical history ought not to be denied or whitewashed here. On the other hand, I’m still really discomfited by the idea I still read as put forth here- that racism can be dismissed as a feature of it’s time. Social progress isn’t linear- there have always been pockets of resistance, and their existence is worth emphasizing.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink
  7. Julia duMais wrote:

    What really troubles me about Doyle’s post is this question of whether Sophie Tucker is “worthy of consideration.”

    Okay, it’s probably silly of me to be focusing on this, but. What? I should think the mere fact that you found the subject worth writing about suggests that you think she’s “worthy of consideration”.

    Having done my BA History thesis on gender in pop music, however, I tend to get very impatient with most music historians very quickly, so I will doubtless be coming off as very biased should I go on. Well, no, to be honest, mostly I feel myself gearing up for a tangent on how music historians irritate me re: gender and my favorite musicians. For whatever it’s worth, I thought you did a great job of looking at the complexities of the issue, from an historical perspective, and touching on the issue you mention here, that “irrespective of objective quality, our entertainers tell us something about how we live and what we expect of the world”.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  8. al_zorra wrote:

    I know Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class well — and so does Bob Dylan, for instance. He took “Love and Theft” for the title of his 31st album — one of his very best albums.

    Eric Lott is a brilliant scholar.

    Love, C.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink
  9. al_zorra wrote:

    Another excellent book on American popular music is Elijah Wald’s How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n Roll (a bait and switch title — he doesn’t really say this in his book. This book focuses on the really popular music, i.e. the Billboard charting numbers that are often forgotten in music history, and what they meant in terms of the culture.

    One thing that many of us really like in terms of what this means is that the most popular music is dance music. Ladies like to dance. Gentlemen come to dances because that’s where the ladies are. But gentlemen don’t really like dance music for itself. Thus gentlemen love things like “Revolver” but ladies do not because they cannot dance to it.

    Love, c.

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  10. Sady wrote:

    @Jody: Thanks for weighing in. I, too, am not immune to the charms of a good debate, so I’m happy we’ve been able to engage in that. As for what you wrote, I didn’t see it as intentionally cruel; I just thought that we actually agreed more than your piece would lead one to believe, and that you (no doubt unintentionally) mischaracterized my intentions.

    You’re right when you note that we can’t divorce the history of pop from the history of appropriation, and that blackface and minstrelsy are a crucial point in that history. To your list of Joplin, Eminem, Jagger (especially complicated because he was a British white dude appropriating a specifically American kind of blackness), etc., I’d add Lou Reed (“I Want To Be Black,” anyone?), Joni Mitchell (who not only claimed jazz, but actually went to parties and/or posed for an album cover dressed as a “black pimp,” Jesus Lord Almighty), and Bob Dylan – who (ha!) appropriated “Love and Theft” for the title of an album.

    I won’t pretend that I don’t love the music of all three. “Hejira” is one of my favorite albums. But, on that album, there’s “Furry Sings the Blues,” which is a really moving song about mortality and loneliness and the cost of placing your art above everything else, and also a really weird moment wherein Joni tries to claim kinship with a black blues musician (ah, his poverty! His authenticity! He is like me, but not, for some reason, a multi-millionaire!) who did not like her and was subsequently furious that this rich white lady had cashed in on his name and legacy in song. And, when discussing it, I feel it’s only right to give due emphasis to this side of the story – because it, and others like it, are often obscure, swept under the carpet when it comes time to evaluate musicians like Mitchell.

    Musically, there’s a lot of richness to be gained from cross-pollination of different styles. I am in no way suggesting that white musicians should always and only be influenced by “white” music, or vice versa. That would be criminally stupid. Also, pretty racist! But when we look at actual power dynamics, it often begins to look less like cross-pollination than flat-out exploitation. And, obviously, you probably know this.

    And, yes, I think it’s important to note that even when something is culturally normative, it’s made so by the folks in power – and discussing only the fact that it was so “normal” may lead us to overlook a substantial amount of opposition and resistance that was also a part of the culture. That deserves to be a part of the account, too. “Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me,” etc.

    And I would go on, but this thing is already nine million words long and probably pretty sloppy too, so maybe I should stop here.

    Also, I think you are good at writing about gender! I should say that!

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Permalink
  11. Jody wrote:

    Sady, this discussion could go on forever. And will, if not in this venue…

    Would just add to what you say above that I probably should have included Lil Jon or 50 Cent in my list of latter day minstrels instead of Eminem. Even brilliant trickster Lil Wayne is playing around with minstrel tropes all the time. It’s not just the white folks figuratively blacking up, in other words. This shit is complicated!

    Thursday, September 3, 2009 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  12. al_zorra wrote:

    Blackface is a strong British tradition in entertainment. See composer, theater entrepreneur of the 18th century, Charles Dibdin, who regularly blackfaced up.

    See also the sequel to Gay’s The Beggars Opera, in which McHeath goes to the Americas — as well there’s a great deal of transgendering as well as trans racialing going on.

    Love, C.

    Friday, September 4, 2009 at 11:07 am | Permalink