Thursday, May 14, 2009

Exceptionally Unexceptional: American Pop Culture and the Black Aesthic

No matter what channel you are watching on television it seems that there is some sort of new "American Idol" type of talent show premiering. It has gotten so bad now that even the early morning shows, have talent competitions. Just recently the "TODAY Show" offered viewers a chance to sing with singer/actress, Jennifer Hudson and now they are working on their own "America's Got Talent" auditions.

Similarly, last week Oprah joined in the fun with her own version of "America's Got Talent" calling her show "The World's Got Talent". Joined by American Idol's Simon Cowell, Oprah featured several acts from around the globe culminating with the first American television appearance of Chinese singing sensation Jane Zhang. Zhang has gained international acclaim for her voice. I listened intently to see just what the fuss was about. Before she performed video clips of Zhang singing Minnie Ripperton's "Loving You" were aired where she hit every note. I was impressed somewhat with the range, but honestly I was not blown away with her voice.

Once she did perform one of her own songs to a resounding ovation, Oprah asked Zhang about her influences and she mentioned that Mariah Carey was a big inspiration to her. She recalled a story of hearing the song "Hero" for the first time, which really spoke to her. As I listened to the heart warming story I couldn't help but to think to myself that Zhang was a talented singer, but not the phenom that she was being billed as. She did more mimicry than anything else.

Right after her performance Oprah had a Indian dance team of Suleman Mirza and Madhu Singh, who were trying to create a meeting of Eastern and Western cultures through performance. What it was was, however, was a dead on Michael Jackson impersonation that had some traditional elements of Indian dance.

No need for more examples, but my biggest gripe with these so called talent competitions is that they repackage the black aesthetic largely, the same way that whites have been doing since the nineteenth century in minstrel shows.

What I see from some of this so called "exceptional" talent is mimicry or even reappropriation of the highest order, from a Chinese singer who sounds like a blend of Minne Ripperton/Mariah Carey to a Indian brother who dances so much like the "King of Pop" that he would likely think he was looking in the mirror. Yes, imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but it takes real "talent" to sing with your own voice. Michael Jackson started out copying James Brown's moves, Prince has borrowed a great deal of his showmanship from Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles in the very beginning of his career was imitating the great balladeers of his era until he sang and wrote from his own spirit.

Among contemporary artists, check out Justin Timberlake, Josh Stone, or even Robin Thicke--if they were African American, they would just be "good singers". Even the so called "blue eyed soul" of the eighties which is personified with Hall and Oates, Simply Red, or Tina Marie (though I know many of us have given her a plaque in the Hall of Soul Music) though heavily influenced by African American music made their mark because they had a "black sound." That does not take away from their work in my view, I'm still a fan of some of their music.

However, Oprah, Simon, Paula Abdul, Entertainment Tonight, and the rest of the plethora of popular culture media outlets, don't repackage something I can see on the streets and churches of Philadelphia, Memphis, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, or even in my hometown of St. Louis and tell me that these folks on television "got talent". They may have some, but in my book they are exceptionally UNEXCEPTIONAL.

Just as a parting shot, check out Patti Labelle singing "You Are so Beautiful" with the raspy voice of Joe Cocker (he was the Michael Bolton of the 1980s)...I think this proves my point.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Political Humor for the soul...Wanda Sykes

By now many have watched (or heard about) the stand up routine that was performed by comedian Wanda Sykes at the annual White House Correspondents dinner. Sykes as well as the Obama administration have taken some strong criticism for a joke about the conservative and virulent radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh and the tragic 9/11 terrorist attacks.


Let me just say from the outset that Sykes' jokes were funny as hell! For those such as the numerous bloggers, so-called journalists, and super conservative pundits and their agreeable servants, let me give you some context. Not to fret, however, I will spare you a historic walk down America's checkered past (as I would love to in this instance).

Sykes joked that she hoped Limbaugh's kidneys fail, just as he has wanted our Commander-in-Chief to do holistically. Limbaugh's continued calls for President Obama to fail in my opinion are tantamount to treason in many ways, if you really want to get serious about this. If I or any other person, particularly of African descent, had ever said anything like what Limbaugh has said (and continues to say) about President Obama, there would be a cry of outrage heard 'round the nation. At the very least a radio show that did so would be off the air and the host would likely be incarcerated (believe me that would find a way). "Traitor", "Benedict Arnold", "turncoat" and many other names would have been used to describe such a person or persons who acted in such a way. Remember what happened to rapper Kanye West when he said, that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on national television during Hurricane Katrina? Luckily he survived that, but he expressed a real sentiment in the African American community.

(Go to the 1:34 mark)

However, I cannot recall at any time where folk actually wanted Bush to fail, die, or anything of the sort. Anger toward him, and his administration, had more so do with what they were, or were not doing on behalf of the American people. It was Bush's policies and the development of what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. called the "Imperial Presidency" that made people angry (i.e., his abuse of power). The collapse of his approval rating epitomized by the "boo's" he received when he left Washington at President Obama's inauguration where an example of that profound frustration. Outside of jokes about Bush's lack of intellect and his life as an illustration of white privilege (check out Chris Rock's stand-up on "C-Grade students") I cannot even recall a comedian black, white, or of any color who said they wanted Bush to fail. Now, I have wanted policies adopted by his administration to fail, but Limbaugh wants everything that President Obama is doing to crumble to illustrate how right the "right" is.

Sykes' joke, aside from wanting Limbaugh's kidney's to fail, also includes a reference to Limbaugh as being one of the 9/11 hijackers, which is just an analogous labeling because of what many (including this blogger) perceive as his anti-American comments. Hoping for an administration to fail is just that. Limbaugh's comments in accordance with Sykes' joke make Limbaugh love this empire as much as the 9/11 terrorists did. When the Bush scandal erupted in the 2000 election, black and brown folk everywhere, along with all others who voted for Al Gore, had to take that one on the chin, rumbling under their breath like the cartoon characters Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd when they couldn't catch Bugs Bunny. Regardless, we endured it.

This notion that anything related to 9/11 as untouchable through comedy is rubbish. I have heard jokes about slavery, the civil rights movement, the Jewish holocaust (by Jews themselves) that have been done is a very crafty way. None of those jokes took away from the horror and ugliness of historical fact or memory. Likewise, Sykes never said that the tragedy was not just that--a tragedy, because it was. However, her use of the terrorists as a grouping for Limbaugh, was genius. The really funny thing is watching those who are so-called journalists in the audience who were trying their best not to laugh or look like they found no part of her routine funny, knowing that C-SPAN and other media outlets were covering the event.

Comedy, and specifically African American humor has existed to point out the dirty, ugly, inhumane, and vile things in American life. There is an old saying that I used to hear (and still do sometimes) from older generations of blackfolk that "Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying." I think the sensitivity to Sykes' joke is misplaced and just something else for the very White House Correspondents who were at this dinner to talk about instead of their misreporting (remember when you watch television you rarely see real "news", even if you are only watching Rachel Maddow or Keith Obermann).

To Wanda Sykes' credit she did write a page in history Saturday night. She became the first African-American woman and first openly gay person to ever perform a comic routine at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. I guess she made some more history by being the most talked about comedian after a performance as well. That said, I have a message for Wanda Sykes (if she should ever read my blog), "Sister keep doing your thing!"

For those media outlets that continue to attempt to make this a "news worthy story", negating the real problems that are plaguing this nation..."I hope you fail."

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Negrointellectual by Vernon C. Mitchell, Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
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