I was a Black girl in the American suburbs, yet I believed The Beatles—and eventually, a dazzle of other white male musicians—were singing only for me. It wasn’t so.
This is Unscrewing the Oreo, a column by Brittany K. Allen that asks: How do you hold space for loving and critiquing art that was never made for you?
Looking back, I can’t help but feel fondly toward that inauguration in the kitchen, the day I met the band everybody knew. But I cringe a little, too, recalling the signs of heartbreak I sped past. Because I was a Black girl in the American suburbs, yet I believed those moptop troubadours—and eventually, a dazzle of other white male musicians—were singing only for me. It wasn’t so.
The lads from Liverpool lit my way down a rabbit hole. Their music led right to The Band, who led to the Velvet Underground, who led, eventually, to Radiohead, Nirvana, Wilco. I quickly realized that one could form a whole personality around rock n’ roll. And for esoterically minded malcontents (read: me and my friends), it was easy to get lost, tracing the influences of bands we fell for. Categorizing rock became half the fun of listening to it, which prompted questions. Like, where did the sound we loved originate from? Who’d first thought to arrange bodies around an electric guitar and screech so pleasingly?
A common theory situated the birth of “rock” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Bob Dylan plugged in and hippies threw up their hands. But others called Elvis, who twisted the year before in Viva Las Vegas, architect supreme.Of course, chalk rock up to Presley’s narrow hips, and you’d really have to point to Chubby Checker, who’d summon the cranky ghost of Chuck Berry—and one couldn’t ignore Little Richard. But my friends and I settled on the Dylan myth. That triumphant narrative seemed like the easiest one to digest.
Yet those muddled origins summoned questions about the genre’s definition. Rock was slippery. Its tent stretched to accommodate some soul, folk, R&B, rap, and electronica. An invisible authority made Nina Simone, with her fire hydrant voice, a soul singer, but dubbed Ben Folds a rockstar. My friends and I couldn’t have said who was responsible for rendering rock primarily the province of white men, but at some point, we decided to stop questioning it. And if we couldn’t say what the music was, precisely, we sure could tell you what it wasn’t.
I think now that the critic Ellen Willis came closest to pinning the butterfly, when she defined the music’s spirit: “As a musical language, [rock] was always on some level about rebellion, freedom, and the expression of emotion.” But even this invites quibbles. Freedom for who? To express what?
It’s not incorrect to say that rock music is the result of a cultural theft from black people. Elvis’ swiveling hips incited riots because he was performing blackness, literally; Mick Jagger’s snarl, and John Lennon’s “WAH!” could be similarly convicted of larceny. In her 1973 polemic, “Ripping Off Music From Black People,” the critic Margo Jefferson went further:
“… Cream, Joe Cocker, Julie Driscoll, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin, Leon Russell, Rod Stewart, fans and record buyers—all took some part of the particular style of hedonism, toughness, sexuality, and cynicism found in black music and committed the sins of legitimization, definition, and miscomprehension against it.”
Jefferson’s critique lacerates the white media narrative, which would have us believe that Bob Dylan started the fire, and many musicians who were actually the antecedents of certain rockers were their grateful “discoveries” (e.g., Odetta; if you don’t know, now ya know). But in addition to white pirates, she also indicted the black performers. Jimi Hendrix, in her estimation, was “a sacred whore . . . playing Black Stud Madman over and over” for a presumably white audience.
The theft charge carries the grim ring of truth, but I chafe against Jefferson’s stridency. By her measure, should we call Hendrix a genius-king or an ill-used puppet? And what about the interracial collaborations of the ’60s and ’70s—like Merry Clayton’s eviscerating solo on the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”? Or Mavis Staples, whose verse on The Band’s “The Weight” could draw tears from stone? After ceding the obvious—Clayton and Staples were never compensated like the Rolling Stones—the fangirl in me still wants to believe her first love was more than commercially-fueled cosplay.
I listen to “Castles Made of Sand,” and feel certain that Jimi wasn’t playing at anything. That was just how his soul sounded when it hit six strings and space.
Yet I hear the equivocating, the urge to square a contradiction: I love rock n’ roll, yet from its very beginning, it did not rate my kin. Here’s Jefferson again, this time in her memoir, Negroland: “Being an other, in America, teaches you to imagine what cannot imagine you.” I’d add that we others are also schooled swiftly in the ways of unrequited love.
Hulu recently launched an adaptation of that urtext for pedantic rockers, Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel, High Fidelity. For the uninitiated: High Fidelity follows Rob, a record store owner who struggles to separate cultural kinship from genuine connection. As a teen, I fell for Rob (in both book and Cusack form) because I recognized his particular brand of culture vulture; I, too, got my kicks from hair-splitting conversations about so and so’s “top five” musical influences. And I too struggled to understand why the art I had contrived most of my meaningful relationships around was not a suitable metric for finding lovers and friends.
In the reboot, Zoe Kravitz steps into Rob’s sad sack-y shoes, offering up a rare mirror for us Black girls who nurse strong opinions about which Fleetwood Mac record is best. (Tusk.) But this mirror alarms even as it affirms. There’s a scene from the show that’s been haunting me, in which Rob is at the Bemelmans Bar listening to a white guy mansplain the discography of the band Wings. The man talks and talks; we see Rob’s eyes roll. Then the moment we’ve been waiting for happens—Rob drops a deep-cut corrective, and the man sputters with disbelief. Rob gets smug, and the other white man at the table—her love interest—falls a little harder for our girl.
I found this whole set-up profoundly unsettling, though not unbelievable. The villain seems clear: the bloviating Wings fan. But the objects involved in Rob’s victory over this man are so noticeably, blindingly, unbearably white. There she is at the Bemelmans Bar, surely one of the top five mise en scene signifiers of ultra-wealthy (i.e. white) Manhattan. And there’s the love interest—an edge-less sweetheart who wears Docker’s and rock-climbs (i.e. white, white, white).
And the weapon to disarm these guards of hegemony? The words writers place in Rob’s mouth? They don’t give her a racial or feminist counterpoint to shoot the braggart down, no—they give her knowledge about one of the whitest bands in history, and then they give her . . . smugness about it.What a triumph, the moral seems to be, to whack whiteness with whiteness inside of whiteness, so as to acquire . . . more whiteness.
The joke’s-on-who quality of this interaction shot me straight back to all the times I employed rock chops, strategically and by accident, to impress white peers and would-be partners. I thought of the moment at my first bonfire party, when I seized a circling guitar to divert a floppy-haired drummer with the only song I knew how to play (“The General” by Dispatch). I thought of the mix CDs I solicited from high school crushes, the way I made studies of Zeppelin and Pavement and Primus(!) half-consciously, with an eye on what smart things I might say about these groups once I was inevitably asked to comment on their canon. I thought of the deep cuts I’d put on the jukebox at the bar I worked at right out of college, the defensive thrill I’d get when someone said, “you know this?” about, say, Steely Dan’s “Peg”—all that signaling, and for what?
At some point in my love affair, I, like Rob, clearly absorbed the value of rock, learning to treat its trivia like a commodity. But did I listen to rock music because I loved it, or because I perceived its specific cache? What did all that knowledge get me, anyway? Who set the price, who paid?
In her essay, “Beginning to See the Light,” writer Ellen Willis tries to reconcile her love and suspicion of (in this case, punk) rock. After attending a Sex Pistols show, she argues for selective listening:
“…music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated—as good rock and roll did—challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.”
Willis’ predicament reminds me of my own relationship to a group that is possibly even whiter than Wings: my beloved [The] Band. In their debut album, Music From Big Pink, The Band—with their Canadian asses!—made a project of romanticizing the antebellum South (euphemistically, “the rebel cause”) in their lyrics and, as far as I know, never assumed political responsibility for invoking those images. As a result, every time I watch Martin Scorcese’s rock-doc of their terrific final concert, The Last Waltz, I am forced to check my fangirl against the fact that half the interview scenes take place in front of a seemingly earnest Confederate flag.
Like Willis, I can hear the good and leave the bad—at times. But the moral gymnastics get harder the older I get. Mavis Staples’ solo on “The Weight,” while spellbinding, gestures at a rainbow coalition that would contradict every line of the group’s popular elegy, “The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down”—which is a beautiful song! When I hear the latter, I tend to sing along until the bridge-abouts, at which point I’ll make a Muppet face and mutter to the (inevitably white) room, wryly: “Bummer.”
Call this my “struggle for liberation.”
I was raised in a subdivision of what Margo Jefferson would call Negroland. My siblings and I were often the only ambassadors from the planet Black in a given room. Yet I had a happy childhood, inside all that whiteness. I fell in love with white art and white artists, and occasionally parsed a lack, but wouldn’t find the language that could fill this hole for years.
Nowadays, memories of microaggressions come to me in the night, like niggling poltergeists. I get flashes of moments when I diminished myself for love of the dominant culture.
In recent years, I’ve started mapping this soul I so fiercely believed the Beatles sang to. I wish to understand what formed me, so as to decide what can and cannot be helped about my equivocating inner fangirl. I used to believe that my teen years were the salad ones; I dwell on my happy childhood. But as an adult, I tally the cost of my nostalgia.
Many writers have wrestled with the itchy quandary, what do we do with the art of ignoble men? But most refuse to commit to the inevitably unpleasant answer. We wish to have our problematic pasts and love them, too. I know I keep trying to square the unsquareable. Let me be clear: I have written this essay because I hope to feel better about what was my plan all along—to hold on to rock music as a constitutive part of my cosmogony. To cede its harms—commercially, culturally, and to the self-denying psyches of the Brittanys and Robs of this world—is to acknowledge personal complicity in a culture that still fails to imagine me.
When we’re nostalgic for the problematic loved thing, what is it that we’re really nostalgic for, anyway? Were we truly moral beings, we would not experience the loss of art objects now rendered distasteful as a loss at all. We would not need to write our elegies for Annie Hall and Thriller, strive to “square the contradictions.” We would simply expand our canons and look to the future. Yet, yet, yet.
What a triumph, the moral seems to be, to whack whiteness with whiteness inside of whiteness, so as to acquire . . . more whiteness.
I listen to “Come Together” or “Castles Made of Sand,” and, suddenly I’m seventeen again, surrounded by my (white) friends. It hits with a ping unwelcome as the shade Jefferson throws on Jimi Hendrix: I’m nostalgic for the days before I had language that could both affirm and roast me, terms like “microaggressions,” “self-denial,” and “complicity.”
As the other who fell for America—and to speak specifically of rock music, a typically misogynist, inherently racist America—I’m nostalgic for the days before I knew those songs could never love me back. The rude awakening was inevitable. But oh, my foolish heart.
How to move forward? Do we put certain records in brackets, or storage? A good first step seems to be ceding the belief that one is baked in the cultural kiln by eleven, or seventeen. I must find a way to be impressionable again, like I was the day I met The Beatles.
I don’t think this is impossible. I’ve been listening to a slate of bangers lately that are radically feminist, subversive, and—even sometimes—Black. Mitski has usurped the throne that Rivers Cuomo used to occupy in my imagination. Phoebe Bridgers has evicted Ryan Adams and is so good she seems on her way to evicting Elliott Smith. And when I really want to feel free, I walk down the street listening to Beyoncé’s “Don’t Hurt Yourself” (the Homecoming version, natch) and dare white boys to make eye contact with me. Wings my mother-fucking ass.
I still want Mavis Staples singing “The Weight” at my funeral, because—to bastardize both Willis and Deee-Lite—part of me still wants to believe the groove is in the heart. But I hear that song differently lately. Though sweet sepia memories spring to mind, I also hear the gall in Robbie Robertson’s ask: Take a load off, Fanny. Take a load for free.
Brittany K. Allen is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer and library goblin. Her prose appears or is forthcoming in Catapult, McSweeney's Quarterly Concern, Kenyon Review Online, and Longreads, among other places, and her short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her stage plays have been produced and developed at Portland Center Stage, Manhattan Theatre Club, Ensemble Studio Theatre, and elsewhere.