The whitening of rock and roll (“Roll Over McFly” Addendum A/ Gladwellocalypse, Part 4)
Another of Malcolm Gladwell’s more misguided podcasts from season four of Revisionist History provided me with a reason to revisit the appropriation and revisionism in Back to the Future. The episode was “In a Metal Mood”, which was about cultural appropriation, but making terrible analogies and drawing poor conclusions, so also fitting into my Gladwellocalypse series.¹
Let’s get Gladwell’s central premise out of the way: he wants to tell us conservative Christian rocker Pat Boone’s vanilla covers of songs originally by black performers are morally preferable to those by Elvis Presley because the latter is stealing their style as well. He argues for Boone’s inclusion in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for this reason as well as because his career was only second to Presley’s, spanning decades with dozens of top-10 singles and albums. Just to touch on it briefly, the strained comparison Gladwell makes to Boone’s music is—wait for it—Taco Bell. He reasons their food is an acceptable form of appropriation because it isn’t trying to eclipse Mexican cuisine but to create something entirely new merely inspired by it.
As absurd as this is, his thoughts about Presley are still stranger. He and his panel, including childhood friend and partner on the Broken Record podcast, Bruce Headlam, Justin Richmond, that podcast’s producer, and Gladwell’s producer, Jacob Smith, and which Gladwell calls a “cultural appropriation summit”, listen to “Don’t be Cruel” as recorded by Elvis and then songwriter Otis Blackwell’s version of the song. Their reaction was as follows:
Gladwell (voice over): It’s the same song! As we’re listening, Justin puts his head in his hands.
Gladwell: I’m sorry, that’s brutal.
Richmond: I forget how bad it is every time I hear it—this is just Elvis.
And later, listening to “One Broken Heart for Sale” they’re not sure whether they’re listening to Presley or Blackwell, and when they determine it’s the latter, Gladwell says:
[E]lvis has completely… he’s completely stolen this guy’s sound.
And based on this finding, Gladwell concludes:
This is the King of Rock and Roll. The singer with his own vast dedicated room at the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame. Now imagine how Otis Blackwell or any of the other black songwriters of that era felt about what Elvis did. They’d been asked to write a song for someone much more famous than they were. Fine. What hurts is when a so-called genius takes the song that you wrote and that came out of your cultural community and doesn’t change a lick of it.
But this is complete nonsense: Presley didn’t “steal” Blackwell’s sound, Blackwell quite literally sold it to him. If anything, the songwriter became part of the behind-the-scenes packaging of The King, exactly on the lines of Sam Phillips’ vision for the whitening of rock and roll. On the same 1984 Late Night with David Letterman episode on which Gladwell’s group watched Blackwell’s performance of “Don’t be Cruel”, there’s also an interview (not discussed on the podcast), which includes the following exchange:²
Letterman: Did you feel funny about [Presley] imitating so closely what you were putting on tape or… or not?
Blackwell: Well, no—I felt a little funny the first time, but after he sold four million, I didn’t.
And later in the same interview, Blackwell goes further:
[H]e was doing [the songs] the way I would like for them to be done.
Blackwell details that while he had been a performer, he hadn’t done well and had given it up when he had discovered he could make good money in songwriting. In another 1984 interview, he added still more detail on the topic:³
I was surprised when I heard “Don’t Be Cruel” because it was just like I had done the demo. I used to sing all my own demos, and it just so happened that a lot of what Presley and Jerry Lee [Lewis] did sounded alike. I thought they did justice to the songs. They put the kind of feeling into it that I felt.
Indeed, after Presley’s success with this song, Blackwell went on selling him songs in similar fashion for five years, including such hits as “All Shook Up” and “Return to Sender”, and valued the relationship so highly he became superstitious, refusing to meet with Elvis in person because of the possibility of jinxing it.
So was Blackwell hurt by cultural appropriation? Yes; just not in the way or for the reasons Gladwell posits. The podcaster’s silly analogies and reductive arguments are ill-suited to deal with a widespread, insidious, emotionally charged, and highly complex issue. It’s an issue also closely linked with “cancel culture”, which has the admirable goal of performing social justice but potentially tramples freedom of speech in doing so. I honestly approach this topic with trepidation, as it’s hardly my hill to die on, but hope I can offer a bit more sensitivity and insight than Gladwell does.
Time for some real talk. In her scalding article, “Ripping Off Black Music”, Margo Jefferson links white rock and roll closely to minstrelsy, with white performers essentially mimicking black ones, and quotes John Lennon as saying, “We sing more colored than the Africans.” As for Presley, she states:⁴
Elvis and his contemporaries shocked and thrilled because they were hybrids. What had taken place was a kind of Immaculate Miscegenation, resulting in a creature who was at once a Prancing N—— and a Blue-Eyed Boy.
Effectively, Blackwell and other black rockers ceded the territory to this minstrelsy, and worse, sold out by giving them a script and model for how to make their shows most effective. Lest you think I’m casting these black artists as the real villains of the piece, I’m not: as Blackwell himself notes, he’s trying to overcome economic disadvantage, as he describes himself prior to getting the writing gig:⁵
No hat, holes in the shoes, standing on the corner […]
Songwriting happened to be his means of doing so, apart from, “Anything that came along that would make me a dollar or two”. Indeed, he seems mainly to have cared about the $25 advance for the six songs he initially sold, realizing only later how lucrative they could turn out to be. Not that he was treated at all fairly in the relationship, being forced to give Presley a songwriting credit despite the singer not having contributed anything in that regard, thus cutting himself in for half the royalties from the songs.
Already by the ’60s, Jefferson notes:⁶
Blacks, it seemed, had lost the battle for mythological ownership of rock, as future events would prove.
And one major issue with the whitening of rock (or indeed anything else stolen from another culture) is white interpretation—they become the critics and arbiters of taste for everything within the genre, including the black performers who created it. Jefferson tells us in the environment so created:⁷
[N]o black performer yet has been able to get the praise and attention he or she deserves independent of white tutelage and translation.
Furthermore, this appropriation distorts meaning—when Chuck Berry sings:
Roll over Beethoven
And dig these rhythm and blues!
Jefferson tells us, “it is an outlaw’s challenge to white culture”.⁸ This is why I alluded to it in the title of my original piece. But when the Beatles sing the same lyrics, they are creating a continuity between the classical music of their culture’s past (even in childish faux rebellion against it) and the rock and roll also putatively of their culture in modernity.
Done well, recontextualization can be clever and thought provoking as in Jorge Luis Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”, in which he claims Don Quixote to have been written in the 20th century by a Frenchman, or Umberto Eco’s critical analysis of Alessandro Mazoni’s The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) as if it were a work of James Joyce in “My Examination Round his Factification for Incamination to Reduplication with Ridecolation of a Portrait of the Artist as Manzoni”.⁹ But the Beatles and other white rockers do so without considering the implications, simply as a byproduct of the act of appropriation.
Finally, because rock and roll is now white territory, black performers have become oddities in the space you can tick off on one hand: Jimi Hendrix, Living Color, Fishbone. And they are problematic both within the scene they’ve chosen to be part of as well as within the black community. Taking Hendrix, for example, academician and culture critic Jack Hamilton tells us:¹⁰
[D]uring his career [he] was judged by many as a fraud or sellout, his blackness rendering his music as inauthentically rock at the same time that his music rendered his person as inauthentically black.
Even though he was able to become an important, even iconic figure in music, arguably this conflict was one of the reasons for his drug abuse, and ultimately, his premature death, 50 years ago last week. Far from being harmless, there are pretty real consequences here and this is just one performer that’s particularly well known—there’s no way of knowing how many others there have been.
For another real-world example, let’s look at Fishbone. This black band played an eclectic mix of ska, punk, metal, and funk. Although they were highly talented, they never achieved the mainstream success of arguably less talented mainly white bands from the same scene, like No Doubt. Comedian Damon Wayans incorporated a story about attending one of their shows into his standup, discussing some of the issues:¹¹
I went to see Fishbone. Yeah. Just like two people [clapping in Wayans’ audience]. Black people don’t know Fishbone; they go, “Is that that soul food restaurant?” No, these some brothers that play that heavy metal—like (makes guitar noises). That stuff you see on MTV and turn from. […] White people—nothin’ but white people in here [i.e., at the Fishbone show].
You can clearly see Wayans and his audience reject the band as playing “white people’s music” for a white audience. But, despite his claims, we can also see from their lack of accolades, white audiences do not accept the band as legitimate either because they are PoCs.
So to recap:
- Pat Boone: A cultural appropriator for audiences that didn’t want any vestige of blackness in their rock and roll. This makes his music inauthentic as rock and roll, so the Hall of Fame is happy to decry and exclude him.
- Elvis Presley: A cultural appropriator for audiences that wanted a minstrelsy version of rock and roll. The Hall of Fame adores him because he is essential to white rock and roll, which is rock and roll as they define it.
- Otis Blackwell: An authentic rock and roll creator who sold his creations in order to overcome his economic circumstances. He probably couldn’t foresee PoC being excluded from the musical genre they had created to the extent they have been.
- Sam Phillips: The mastermind behind stealing cultural products from PoC like Blackwell and packaging them into rock and roll minstrelsy. He knew exactly what the audience wanted and made lots of money giving it to them.
- Taco Bell: Faux Mexican junk food; inauthentic as cultural product and also as food.
In the end, Gladwell’s piece is deeply self-serving: he shows he’s against cultural appropriation, promotes another podcast he’s associated with, and justifies his love of Taco Bell. But really, and more insidiously, he’s whitewashing his own appropriation of thought from the intellectual realm into the mainstream.
I think this really will conclude the Gladwellocalypse series. When it began, it was to point out a rare misstep in RevHist’s first season. I followed it up because there was another minor issue I wanted to discuss in season two. Season three was largely uninteresting, but then came season four. I’ve already taken issue with a three-part miniseries appearing there, even while generally defending Gladwell. And there was little to like in season five. Even when I disagreed with RevHist initially, it was fun to argue with. Lately I just find it disappointing, so I guess I should find another podcast to listen to.
Read Subsequent Addendum
Read the Original Article
Read Previous Articles in the Gladwellocalypse Series
- Macolm Gladwell, “In a Metal Mood”, Revisionist History, 2019.
- January 10th Broadcast, Late Night with David Letterman, 1984.
- Otis Blackwell, Interview with Jan-Erik Kjeseth, 1984.
- Margo Jefferson, “Ripping Off Black Music”, Harper’s Magazine, 1973. She’s quite frank with her language. I couldn’t find another source for the Lennon quote, but that’s exactly the sort of thing that would be whitewashed from his legacy.
- Letterman, 1984.
- Jefferson, 1973.
- “Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote”, collected in Jorge Luis Borges, Fictions (Ficciones), 1962, and Umberto Eco, collected in Misreadings (Diario minimo), 1993.
- Jack Hamilton, “How Rock and Roll Became White”, Slate, 2016.
- Damon Wayans, Damon Wayans: The Last Stand?, 1991.