Black Music and the Presidential Experience

"Do you remember lying in bed with the covers pulled up over your head? Radio playin' so no one can see?"

When he died this April, Joey Ramone may have looked like a kid ready to slouch against the wall of a laundromat, but really he was nearly the same age as the Early Boomers who then ruled the world: Clinton, Bush, Gore. (The dates of boomer birth, 1946 to 1964, may be sociologically useful in some respects, but not for accurate popular culture critique. Hence, Early Boomers, who can remember getting their first television sets; Mid Boomers, who to the best of their recollection have had TV in the family room their entire lives; and Late Boomers, who've always had TV in their bedrooms.)

In "Do You Remember Rock 'n' Roll Radio," he was recalling one of his generation's mythic type-scenes. Most boomers can share a story like his of sneaking off to listen to forbidden music. Most would agree with the language: "so no one can see," not "so no one can hear." You didn't pull the covers up because the noise would upset your parents. Instead, it was the concept of rock 'n roll that shook them to their Victorian cores. Listening to "Jerry Lee, John Lennon, T. Rex and Ol' Moulty" thus outstripped teenagers' other most popular solitary bedtime activity for parent-shocking potential.

More than television, in its infancy a socializing machine that involved the whole family, the transistor radio helped define boomers as a separate (even secessionist) generation. Boomers with transistors may have started out using them to listen surreptitiously to the World Series during history class (a mid-‘50s caricature scene), but eventually found them more useful for sneaking through the back alleys of mass culture. In bed, late at night, you could listen in while strange people sang about things you'd never even think of if you lived in the suburbs or other dominant culture compounds. With your secret transistor radio, you experienced life with hillbillies, with Latinos, with blacks from the Delta and from the big city.

This generational epiphany, this class-and-race-vexing instant of revelation, is as much a sign of Early Boomerdom as CNN coverage of the Gulf War is to Gen X and CNN coverage of school shooters is to Gen Now. That is why a recent White House ceremony is interesting. Although the President is generationally a boomer -- indeed, given his birth soon after his father's return from service, he is chronologically a boomer of near-laboratory quality -- George W. Bush lacks certain important connections to his contemporaries. At the ceremony he revealed a startling cluelessness about 20th century music, especially popular songs, that suggests that, growing up, he may have lacked benefit of a transistor radio. Certainly he appears not to have twiddled the knobs in adolescent secrecy, tuning in interesting strangers from far away, while Poppy and Bar had cocktails downstairs.

On June 29, Bush proclaimed June Black Music Month. The dating of this proclamation -- and the "backdating" of the celebration -- caught the attention of Slate's Timothy Noah: "Two measly days to celebrate Black Music Month? Particularly given the central role blacks played in creating most genres of contemporary music, including jazz and rock 'n' roll, that hardly seems enough."

And certainly this does seem a miscalculation, though it is not raising much ire. For instance, BuzzFlash.com, which is sensitive to every Bush misstep, had not even linked to Noah five days after his posting and was in every other respect ignoring Bush on Black Music. That this sensitive barometer has thus far failed to register the president's apparently shoddy treatment of Black Music Month suggests that this story has no legs just yet.

But there is more to the story than simply the suspicious tardiness of the June 29 proclamation. There is also a speech which allows textual analysis of the president's (or his speechwriters') failure to understand how people with his generational and class backgrounds use black music. At the signing ceremony for his proclamation, the president celebrated "People who brought a lot of joy and heart and energy to the American scene." While the musicians he celebrated included some who created jazz, the president seemed unwilling to extend his welcome far beyond the entertainers whose r&b, soul, and rock 'n roll music was his generation's soundtrack -- a soundtrack that, it turns out, he hardly listened to. And he went on to say that black music "is always easy to enjoy, yet impossible to imitate."

Easy to enjoy, impossible to imitate: The description is so neatly balanced, so rhetorically tidy, that you have to stop, go back, and reflect on it before realizing how wrong it is. Of course, it is possible to imitate black music. Elvis did it; Creedence did it; Madonna did (and still sort of does) it. You can come up with your own list: just close your eyes and point at any list of Top 40 artists from the '50s on, you're sure to tap an imitator. (Earlier: Stephen Foster imitated it; the guy who wrote "Dixie"; etc.) In fact, any history of American popular culture has to account for white Americans' insatiable desire to experience blackness vicariously -- that is, through imitation. Carl Wilson ached to be Chuck Berry just as Fred Durst aches to be Chuck D.

And "easy to enjoy" is just as dumfounding. How can an American George W. Bush's age -- he turned 55 July 6 -- say that black music is "always easy to enjoy"? What black music has he been listening to? (Performers at the White House celebration included James Brown, who regularly performs at Strom Thurmond's birthday parties, and the Four Tops.) In short, how can he call black music -- which includes not only the Tops' "Baby I Need Your Loving" and JB's "Hot Pants (Part 1)," but also such works as AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted, There's a Riot Goin' On, and Fear of a Black Planet -- "easy to enjoy"?

He has famously claimed to prefer country music over other pop genres, and numerous cultural critics have pointed out his blissful obliviousness toward the arts. So there are perhaps those pretexts for his cluelessness. But he has also claimed to be a representative of his generation. In his Republican National Convention speech, he uses the word generation 11 times, and his point seemed to be that he would represent boomers better than his predecessor by reining in Bill Clinton's excess. So how can he, who campaigned as a kind of super-boomer, say that black music is "easy"? How can his speechwriters give him such shallow words? How can his handlers imply that he missed out on his generation's acquaintance with black and other minority musics, arguably the most significant agent of cultural change in the United States over the last half-century?

Did he not have a transistor radio?

Now that Little Richard has become a fixture on the Disney Channel it is hard to remember just what he meant to the first boomers listening to him shriek on their transistor radios. But what he implied was the deliriously violent overthrow of Western civilization. The name of his band -- the Upsetters -- is a hilarious (and somewhat chilling) reminder of the contrarian extremes early rock 'n' roll operated in. A white middle-class kid listening to Little Richard on the sly was widening his experience to include apocalyptic culture-hopping as a lifestyle.

One such kid went to the trouble of plagiarizing the name of Richard's band for his own high school group: Upsetter's Revue. He would grow up to become perhaps the first real Republican super-boomer. When he was 8 years old, Lee Atwater experienced the generational type-scene. John Brady writes about it in Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater.

"One afternoon, ... Lee sat on the automobile's floor fiddling with the radio dial. A song came on with a cadence, a beat, a spirit that seemed to transfix the youngster. It was James Brown singing 'Please, Please, Please.' [His father] turned the dial, but that night Lee found the same station on the radio in his room -- WLAC in Nashville, Tennessee - -and he was hooked on rhythm and blues."

Apparently Lee Atwater shared his generation's transistorized epiphany; like Joey Ramone, he remembered rock 'n' roll radio.

John Brady offers many more details of Lee Atwater's appropriation of black music. His appreciation of r&b usually seems sincere, though there is almost always a hint of willfulness, as if performing with his band on a flatbed truck in a Columbia, S.C., shopping center parking lot in the late ’60s is simultaneously a true celebration of black music and an underhanded bad-boy assault on good taste. Thus in the life of this most honored Republican strategist, there is a markedly complex lifelong interest in black music. (An article at Soul-Patrol.com even blames Atwater, with some rationale, for "the Destruction of Black Music.")

His musical appearance on David Letterman's program -- he was one of those sidemen who sit in with Paul and the band -- predated Bill Clinton's Soul Man turn with Arsenio by several years and was not as embarrassing as it could have been. His fratboy vanity CD, Red, Hot, and Blue, may not stay in your personal rotation, but, for celebrity musicianship, it beats, say, Keanu Reeves and Russell Crowe. Along with Atwater's political acumen, his endorsement of Sun-Tzu, his deathbed renunciation of assault politics, and his continuing influence via such disciples as Karl Rove and Mary Matalin, that interest in black music forms a major part of the Atwater mythos.

So, too, does the 1988 Bush, Sr., campaign, which Atwater successfully managed (not creating the Willie Horton strategy, as his apologists are quick to point out, but benefiting from it nevertheless). During the '88 campaign, the younger George Bush "observed" Atwater, ostensibly because Atwater, a Reagan functionary in 1980 and hence perhaps not viscerally loyal to Bush, bore watching. George W. Bush and Atwater eventually came to be close friends, the Butch and Sundance of the Right. (And last year's election provided many opportunities to link the candidate with Atwater -- a way to establish his gravitas.) According to a Washington Post article, one "mutual friend" even called it "a giggling, laughing Beavis and Butt-head [sic] relationship."

Of course, Beavis and Butthead shared an interest in music, a connection the mutual friend perhaps did not intend to draw. But the comparison leads once again to the question of how George W. Bush, who had in his background both four years of swinging frat parties and a Damon and Pythias relationship with a white bluesman-Machiavelli manqué, could have made it to 2001 without having noticed that black music is more than "easy to enjoy" and "hard to imitate."

Of his youthful experience with popular music, we know that George W. Bush participated in a rock 'n' roll band of sorts when he was at Andover, but that it appears to have been a parody display, an excuse for schoolboys to stand onstage and make fun of things they didn't understand. At college he gave up trying to seem interested in his generation's music. Calvin Hill, a fellow Deke Yalie, noted in an interview with the Washington Post, "George was a fraternity guy, but he wasn't Belushi in Animal House."

So our commander-in-chief did not gator while Otis Day sang "Shout," but in the end that is about all we can say of George W. Bush's response to the music of the ‘60s. (He told Oprah that his all-time favorite song was the Everly Brother's "Wake Up, Little Susie," an estimable song, but a sign that his musical interest extended only to 1957.) History records that the Yalie Bush swiped a Christmas wreath (charges dropped) and went to Princeton to pull down its goalposts, but not what he thought of "Mr. Pitiful" or "Are You Experienced?"

The liner notes for that first Jimi Hendrix album reflect the generational changes that apparently escaped George W. Bush's attention. "Used to be an Experience made you a bit older," you read. "This one makes you wider." In the well-advertised generation wars of the '60s, you could gain experience, meaning wisdom or cache, without suffering the indignity of growing older. (At the Republican National Convention, George W. Bush spoke about the age anxieties of boomers: "Our generation has a chance to . . . show we have grown up before we grow old." He did not name-drop Pete Townshend.)

But there is more to the notes' lexicographical quibbling than mere age-focused marketing savvy. Whatever sexual and pharmacological roads of excess the Jimi Hendrix Experience led dominant culture along, whatever the message implied by his band's racial integration (and shortly thereafter by Sly and the Family Stone's racial and sexual integration) a broader definition of "widening" is worth noting, especially since those liner notes seem to look backward rather than to the future.

To a major extent the groundwork for boomer appropriation of black music had already been done several years before "Are You Experienced?", when kids were listening to music on radios by themselves because they knew their parents wouldn't allow it. An entire generation ought to have come to some sort of understanding about how black music, among other then-outsider arts, worked within dominant culture. Popular music was no longer the simple entertainment of your parents' generation. Sometimes it was "easy to listen to," but often it was hard.

You do not have to be an especially adept critic of popular music or have a terrific memory for pop songs to understand that. Nor ought you to be a particularly astute politician to know that almost every boomer knows these things. All you need is a sense of the secret history of your generation, a memory of the strange and wonderful things that came through the night sky many years back, a marvelous experience if only you had been listening.

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