Popular Music

By DeCurtis, Anthony | Nieman Reports, Fall 1992 | Go to article overview
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Popular Music

DeCurtis, Anthony, Nieman Reports

LAST FALL I ATTENDED A seminar on media coverage of Africa held at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University. The two dozen or so participants represented an impressive range of backgrounds and ideological and professional viewpoints. The prevailing opinion seemed to be that coverage was highly inadequate, that it painted an incomplete and unfair portrait of Africa, quite possibly for reasons of an, at best, unconscious racism.

I essentially agree with both those conclusions. But, ultimately, what struck me as odd about the seminar was that coverage of Africa from a cultural perspective was--this time for reasons that might best be described as beneath consciousness--entirely excluded from the discussion. When I raised this point, I met with polite bemusement; it was considered, in near silence, for a moment then the conversation moved on, presumably to what were regarded as more serious issues.

Culture is not only as important as politics in its own right, but also one of the most profound ways in which political and social realities--and the fears and anxities underlying those realities--find honest expression.

There is simply no question that for the past decade or so popular music has provided the most significant forum in which issues of importance to Africa could be explored and brought to the attention of millions of people. The "We Are the World" single and the Live Aid concert brought the story of famine in Africa into virtually every American home. A series of concerts organized by Amnesty International dramatized the plight of political prisoners in African countries and around the world. A day-long concert calling for the release of Nelson Mandela, attended by more than 70,000 people in London in 1988, triggered a barrage of media debate about apartheid, corporate involvement with South Africa and, after the broadcast in the United States was stripped of its political content, the moral culpability of the international community.

And when Paul Simon released "Graceland" in 1986, no review of that album could ignore such charged questions as: Was it appropriate for a Western musician, whatever his stature and intentions, to travel to South Africa to record an album in violation of the United Nations boycott? Did Simon's use of black South African musicians and musical styles constitute cultural homage or cultural imperialism? How did his borrowings relate to the entire history of white artists, from Picasso to the Rolling Stones, who have drawn inspiration and perhaps more than that from African and African-derived sources?

In our own country, the current presidential campaign makes grimly palpable the extent to which popular music--and specifically rap--has become a cultural battleground. Is it possible to discuss the work of Ice-T or Sister Souljah in purely aesthetic terms, independent of the attacks on them by the likes of President Bush and Governor Clinton? And, as in the days of Elvis and before, every group interested in limiting freedom of expression--an issue of no small significance to the media--finds a ready target in the world of popular music, one of the few cultural arenas that has routinely admitted the voices of minorities and the working-class.

This is not at all to say that popular music criticism can somehow substitute for incisive, analytical coverage of news issues. High-minded actions by millionaire rock stars will not save the world, and rapping about a problem does not solve it. If artists wish to engage the world of public events either in their work or outside it, their motives and opinions need to be examined as stringently as those of any other public figures.

The most skillful writing about popular music is able to do this, to balance a full array of concerns--the intentions of the artists, the aesthetic worth of their efforts, and their meaning in the surrounding culture--with grace, intelligence and insight.

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