The Write to Rock: Racial Mythologies, Feminist Theory, and the Pleasures of Rock Music Criticism

Article excerpt

WITNESS HOW, IN THE HANDS OF TENACIOUS D, the self-proclaimed "greatest rock band of all time," the history of rock and roll--a hallowed history that mainstream rock music critics have been repeating in varied forms for decades now--comes to life in all its delicious absurdity. In the ironically sincere film epic Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny that history gets passed down from "wise man" Ben Stiller to the duo known as "the D," his lordliness Jack Black and fellow swashbuckling power folk metal shredder Kyle Gas. Huddled together in a dimly lit room located deep in the bowels of Guitar Center, our two heroes absorb the tales of a "magical" guitar pick that moves mysteriously through the hands of famed blues men and axe-wielding metal gods. Equal parts grotesque camp and loving, reverential affection, The Pick of Destiny's version of rock history--a blend of skull and bones secrecy, Da Vinci Code conspiracy, Arthurian legend, and Middle-earth grandeur--exposes the inflated mythologies of rock music culture and criticism for what they in fact are--"mythologies." At the same time the film embraces, enhances, and perpetuates these myths in "supranatural" proportions. (1)

Arguably, no artist has been inflated to greater "supranatural" proportions in the history of rock music criticism than his highness, "the Bard," Bob Dylan. In the case of Dylan it most surely is his iconographic "mythos" that remains a central element of not only rock and roll history but, more broadly, how critics of the past several decades write about popular music in American culture. (2) Any music wonk will tell you that Dylan persists as a revered if surprisingly confounding racial trickster in popular music culture--one whose recordings continue to spark debates about "love and theft" and the myth of rock and roll's origins. His most recent effort, 2006's much-lauded Modern Times, for instance, lifts huge swathes of arcane lyric from Henry Timrod, aka "the poet laureate of the Confederacy," only to cut and mix it, as Greil Marcus has astutely pointed out to me, with the compositional aesthetics of multiple black bluesmen, men who were no doubt driven to the blues by the historical traumas that Timrod and his army sought to protect and perpetuate. (3)

Dylan's late-career "master works," as many critics often refer to his last three studio recordings, are no doubt rich, iconic examples of the kinds of electric spectacles of racial miscegenation and transgressive social encounters that, in part, shape and fuel dominant narratives in rock music criticism. Love and Death. Love and Theft. The sexed-up, necrophilic dalliances of white (musical) masters and the (always) black, (most often) men that they admire and desire, consume and cannibalize continue to hold center stage in the critical imaginaries of performance studies and rock music histories alike. Huck and Jim on a raft. Clapton and Hendrix in a deadly embrace. Into the woods with Kurt and Leadbelly. These are the historical mythologies that dominate our narratives of racial appropriation and fetishization. And yet for a few years now I have been making a public plea in rock critic gatherings organized by my colleagues Ann Powers, Eric Weisbard, and others at Seattle's Experience Music Project Museum for "new narratives of love and theft." (4)

To be sure, the Bob Dylan blackface romance, a synecdoche for a much broader passion in rock music criticism, always threatens to recycle the racial and gendered biases of cultural appropriation debates plaguing pop culture since the rise of minstrelsy. Dylan hagiography reminds me only of the fact that when rock and roll criticism talks about cultural appropriation, these discussions far too often remain coded as homosocial affairs. Instead of awakening us to the kinds of cultural "thefts" that remain presently absent in rock memory, instead of forcing us to talk in more specific terms about the very gendered economy of the cultural appropriation wars, Dylan's musical borrowings have somehow managed to foreclose sustained conversations about the conservation of stable masculinities in these sorts of debates. …