Illadelph Dispatch: More w/r/t “Whiteness”

Been enjoying the ASA conference in Philly for the last few days. Our panel on Thursday went pretty well, I think. We actually seemed to have some coherence across our papers and although we had a rather compromised a/v situation (holding a Shure 58 to laptop speakers don’t really cut it in a ballroom), I think my own attempts to incorporate all sorts of YouTubery actually worked.

Interestingly, my engagement with / analysis of the YouTubosphere® seems to have been the part of my paper that left the greatest mark, at least according to the feedback I’ve received. It seems sorta elementary to me that YouTube would be a rich site for con/textual readings, but maybe that’s because I’m a blogga and have been doing that sort of thing for a while now. Not sure. But allow me to share a few of my more YouTubological® paragraphs here. Hope they’re of interest to the non-academics who read here too. (Btw, yet again I’ve discovered, while talking to colleagues at this conference, that there are a lot more academics reading my blog than I usually imagine. All you lurkers could leave a comment from time to time, y’know. I like to have a sense of who’s reading; it really does inform the way I write.)

Music’s centrality in the formation of American racial ideologies is amplified by the “new media” spaces of digital public spheres. In a world of globalized media, US-produced and US-inflected texts still dominate, in particular those musically-propelled products which perhaps carry US racial ideologies more explicitly than others (hip-hop and reggaeton certainly come to mind). In the circulation of music videos — especially karaoke-style versions of the most popular, or “viral,” videos — cross-racial performances appear more visible than ever, offering with their mix of exhibitionism and voyeurism, intimate glimpses of desire and distance, love and theft. The YouTubosphere thus stands as a new and perhaps unprecedented public stage for dramatizations of race and nation. Tellingly, a great many videos show people lip-syncing and dancing in front of a mirror, whether an actual (but unseen) mirror or the mirror provided by one’s computer screen when the web-cam is rolling. In such performances, there emerges a sense of possibility, of new projects and subjectivities in formation, even as one also sees, no doubt, the legacies of blackface minstrelsy once again come to the fore.

It speaks volumes that the most viewed video on YouTube features a white stand-up comic performing the “evolution of dance,” beginning with some moves cribbed from Elvis and riffing on Vanilla Ice and Eminem, among others.

Offering a rather virtuosic survey of US dance forms, the video speaks profoundly to what Ralph Ellison, in “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” refers to as the “whiteness of blackness,” or conversely what we might see and hear as the “blackness of whiteness.” The video, or at least the most popular copy of it, has been watched over 60 million times. Interestingly, just as music has driven peer-to-peer technology and exchange, increasingly, with the rise of p2p video, the marriage between the sonic and the visual appears to be driving music culture in an unprecedented manner. The relative popularity of dance videos on YouTube is quite striking. The site has seemingly fostered, for instance, a renaissance of local and regional African-American dances, from Detroit jit to Chicago juke, Memphis buckin to Harlem’s “Chicken Noodle Soup” and “Aunt Jackie.” Notably, such videos are more often made for local consumption and conversation, but global access to YouTube means they circulate much more widely and in unexpected ways, appearing on “hipster” blogs from New York to Brussels and engendering new, if still problematic, engagements with African-American music and culture outside the communities where such practices arise.

Significantly, with regard to the Latin American YouTubosphere, reggaeton has served as the primary musical-cultural engine animating renewed discussions around race, class, gender, nation, and morality. Heated arguments ensue when various nationally-bound racial formations interact with this US-accented, transnational circulation of texts. In the production and sharing of, commenting on, and creative engagement with music videos, reggaeton’s suggestive embodiment of various racialized, gendered, and nationalized subject positions offers a charged cultural resource for the performance and parody of self and other. International and intranational debates on message-boards and comment-threads frequently demonstrate — contrary to the mainstream media’s celebration of reggaeton as the sound of pan-latinidad — that the genre’s contested racial and national character supports fracture and disarticulation as well as gestures to cultural and political solidarity.

I’ve gotta thank /jace, with whom I’ve been trying to wrap my head around some of this stuff, for pointing out the role of the (unseen) mirror in a lot of YouTube dance videos. He mentioned to me not long ago that someone asked him why so many of these videos take place in bedrooms or bathrooms or locker-rooms, and aside from the fact that these are obv private spaces and thus facilitate the kinds of intimate performances on display (despite, yes, their ultimately extremely public nature), the reason people would video tape themselves in such contexts is fairly elementary, he noted: we often dance in front of mirrors (even in clubs, innit) — that’s where/how we craft&refine our self-presentation, via this magic feedback machine.

I found that insight rather important — in part b/c the mirror has long been a resonant metaphor for me. In my dissertation, for example, I borrow/refigure Rex Nettleford’s foundational Mirror Mirror notion in order to explore the mimetic back-and-forth between reggae and hip-hop. I like how mirror metaphors can open up into notions of mimesis, but also of distortion (e.g., funhouse mirrors), and how the mirror image seems to occupy that liminal space between self and other. Eric Lott, in his generous comment on the panel, suggested that I might pursue the metaphor further, thinking about how YouTube’s mirrored forms of public performance might relate to the Lacanian concept of the “mirror stage,” including / emphasizing the double-meaning of “stage.” Seems like fertile territory, perhaps — except that it means, I s’pose, that I have to read Lacan again (or at least his interpreters).

It only occurred to me after the paper that I totally forgot to mention — in the litany of Af-Am dance crazes I offered — an obvious local reference: Philly’s own homegrown, the Wu-Tang!

Fortunately, I was reminded of the Wu-Tang by Alexis (of teenjeoparty), who kindly offered me some tips of things to do while in Illadelph, incl the following tidbit —

there are also all of these 18+ “rock star” parties with kids wu-tanging and listening to baltimore club and dressing outrageously that supposedly happen at the starlight ballroom and other loft/factory like that in north philly or northern liberties, but i haven’t been to one yet and i don’t know how to find out if there are any going on this weekend.

In a nice bit of unforeseen ideational circuitry, when I asked Emil last night about these “rock star” parties, he noted an interesting implication of the recent ironic adoption/appropriation of “rock” fashion and iconography by Af-Am youth: white folk cannot so easily (re)appropriate “rock star” style for themselves (say, in the way they may don the trappings of a “thug-rave” aesthetic), for if they do, rather than looking as if they were engaging in some sort of cross-racial parody/performance, they’d simply look really quite white. It’s an interesting and funny observation, and it makes me wonder about the implications of this nu-phenom.

Indeed, sometimes these days, looking around, I really wonder whether the (racial) politics of culture in this country — which we no doubt export, and fairly rapidly these days via blogs and such — is undergoing a rather profound transformation. For kids who grew up with an MTV dominated by hip-hop, rather than one on which Michael “I’m White” Jackson had to fight for airplay, the meanings of racial difference may in fact be very different — less entrenched, more playful. At the same time, as I note above with regard to the legacies of blackface minstrelsy, it can be quite tricky to figure out how much of this change is surfacy and hence how much remains the same. And beyond all that, of course, playful or not, racialized class privilege ain’t going nowhere.

Additionally apropos, I should mention that just before leaving for the conference, I got some interesting feedback on my abstract from El Canyonazo (via email):

wrt whiteness: I’m DJing at a spot in Granada (Babylon, its called, lamentably) that advertises itself as a hiphop club. We pull a huge Senegalese crowd every night. The weekend DJ is Senegalese — he plays a lot of Akon. The Senegalese come decked to the tens everynight (5950s, Tims, white Ts, fake chains), following strictly hiphop’s ethics of aesthetics. Their English isnt that good, so they dont really understand most of the lyrics, which is probably why they love the southern shit, Young Buck, Lil Wayne, Yung Juc, etc. Then theres the American white kids, school year abroad college juniors looking for a little slice of home. They want the Jay-Z, Kanye, Timbaland. Their appropriation of hip-hop garb is less blatant (they seem more aware of their own ridiculousness and therefore more a bit more restrained in blatant copycatting) but its still clear that theyre not repping their own style, but borrowing from something they learned on TV. There’s something that strikes me awkward about the whole scene: (Black) Africans and (White) Americans listening to African-American music. Neither group can wholeheartedly claim the culture as their own — both groups have one foot each inside hiphop, but a different foot. Not sure of my own point, a sloppy one nonetheless, but there’s something very “white” about the Senegalese hiphoppers. This isnt about authenticity (I know you love that word), but just looking natural, like you’re comfortable wearing your own skin. Gawkward.

Let me say first that I don’t exactly “love” the word authenticity (tho I do kinda love “gawkward”), despite the relative frequency with which I return to the concept. People always seem to read me wrong on that, as if I’m looking for the real. As I’ve said before w/r/t authenticity, I’m not really in search of any real “real” — rather, I believe that there’s no “there” there: authenticity is a construct, an imagined thing, and yet I do think it continues to play a strong role in the formation and imagination of another big construct that feels real — race. So, despite Canyon’s assertion to the contrary, when we’re talking about looking/feeling comfortable in our own skins, and we’re assessing that sort of thing in a context where we’re donning the trappings of a desired-but-ineffably-distant “other,” I suspect that notions of authenticity — as encapsulated here by the performance of African-American blackness (by whites and Africans alike) — do come into play.

Similar to my paper on Thursday, I don’t have a “properly conclusory gesture” for this here blog post, but I can’t resist finishing by embedding the video for Rich Boy’s new single, “Let’s Get Some Paper.” As I sat watching it last night, twice, in between watching the Red Sox kick some Cleveland ass with them bols Emynd and Bo Bliz, I was utterly struck by how effectively Rich Boy penetrated my usual resistance to get-the-paper pragmatics. Putting the hustle in the context of economic abandonment and police brutality as powerfully and poetically as he does, Rich Boy completely converts me. Fuck a racial politic, this is class conflict, mang. Thug motivation, knamean. Grind harder. Life ain’t gotta be this way. But still don’t nothing move but the $$$ —