Paint It Black

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The most refreshing aspect of Jack Hamilton’s 2016 book, Just Around Midnight:  Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination, is that it doesn’t rehearse the familiar history of popular music as a long sequence of white artists ripping off black ones for fun and profit.  Instead Hamilton is more interested in the history of popular music criticism – an original avenue of scholarship, even if the writer is inclined to indict critics for the same prejudices others have attributed to the industry as a whole.  It’s a provocative premise which is largely, but not entirely, borne out by his evidence.

Just Around Midnight does present a convincing case against “rockism,” the tendency of journalists and radio programmers to elevate the works of white performers from the mid-1960s on as artistically significant, while at the same time relegating contemporary songs by black people to a general category of primitive source material.  Rockism holds that Bob Dylan and the Beatles, for example, were uniquely talented individuals, but Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin merely had the inborn musical natures of any and all African Americans.  Hamilton deconstructs this ideology, arguing that Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is as much a classic protest anthem as Dylan’s “Blowin’ In the Wind,” and that Franklin’s career path was as important as Janis Joplin’s, even if sanctioned rock retrospectives (most of them by whites) give far more attention to the Dylans and the Joplins than the Cookes and the Franklins.

As well, Just Around Midnight explores how much white and black musicians were actively and fruitfully adopting each other’s styles – Hamilton scrutinizes Paul McCartney’s bass lines alongside Motown ace James Jamerson’s – despite purists’ insistence that whites could never have soul and that polished black acts, e.g. Motown’s Supremes, were denying their own heritage.  The key figures here are the Rolling Stones, who always emphasized their debt to black American artists even as they enjoyed creative and commercial advantages exclusive to white Englishmen.  Though benefiting from their place atop a racialized social order, they at least acknowledged the order itself.  In an insightful passage on the Stones’ notorious 1971 hit “Brown Sugar,” Hamilton writes:

In a moment when conversations about musical and racial authenticity had become dominated by claims about innate white and black expressive capacity that could be traced back to the most primordial origins of American racial thought, the Rolling Stones wrote a song about those origins.

[“Brown Sugar”] is morally outrageous, yet I am not sure it is more so than the many, many songs since that have sought to replicate its fantasies of white male sexual hedonism while assiduously obscuring the horrors that have fed those fantasies.

One thing Just Around Midnight doesn’t really consider, though, is the demographic makeup of Britain and the US during the rock era.  Discussions of “white” and “black” in culture or politics sometimes assume there is or should be a 50-50 split between two opposite colors, but groups of actual people seldom divide so evenly.  At scarcely more than fifteen percent of the population, African Americans may have been underpaid by record labels and underappreciated by record reviewers, but they were surely overrepresented on the record charts.  Whites dominated popular music in the Twentieth Century less through racist bias (though that was certainly a factor) than through sheer numbers, among performers and audiences alike.  The disproportionate influence of a relatively small minority may have been a hopeful sign of acceptance, rather than a troubling legacy of oppression.  It was the Stones’ Keith Richards, asked in a 1965 interview why the bluesmen who inspired him were so much less successful than his own band, who may have delivered the closing verdict:  “One, they’re old; two, they’re black; three, they’re ugly.”  But Just Around Midnight presents an interesting response to the same question.

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