My two-year-old son, Thing One, loves the music of Abd Al-Malik; we listen to his album Gibraltar in the car so frequently that I have almost all the words memorized to the first two songs (the average length of our drives). Thing One has recently taking to requesting “Al-Malik!” at bedtime, so I am forced to try to imitate French hip-hop in lieu of lullabies. Here’s a sample from my personal favorite, “12 Septembre 2001“:
Je fus choqué dans mon intime et je vous jure,
que si j’n’avais pas eu la foi j’aurais eu honte d’être mouslim.
Après ça fallait qu’on montre aux yeux du monde,
que nous aussi nous n’étions que des hommes,
que s’il y avait des fous, la majorité d’entre nous ne mélangeait pas, la politique avec la foi.

I wonder if Thing One realizes he’s steeping himself in a Franco-muslim response to the “war” on “terror”? Regardless, he loves Abd Al-Malik, and he requests him at every opportunity. Which is why this morning, I shouldn’t have been surprised when K. put on “Cars,” and Thing One started gyrating like a dervish, and he yelled,

“I’m dancing REALLY FAST!! This is Al-Malik!!”

I shouldn’t have been surprised. There was precedent for this, like the time we got up and listened to Cat Stevens and he insisted that it was Cat Power. So I shouldn’t have been caught unawares. But I was.

Advertisements

I was listening to His Royal Princeliness the other day and reflecting upon the fact (anecdotal, it’s true, but borne out by years of experience and, as any of my girlfriends can tell you, I have made an exhaustive multi-decade study of white male culture and habits) that straight white boys almost universally don’t like Prince, or rather they display a kind of embarrassed squeamishness about his music, as if listening to it will magically paint them with the broad brush of Biracial Metrosexuality and Possible Gayness (despite His Purpleness’s having addressed the issue of sexuality in “Uptown,” and despite his legendary success with the ladies).

As I’ve already addressed in these pages, white males like, or pretend to like, Joni Mitchell, and if you can explain why, I’d be delighted to send you a lifetime supply of ear plugs. And white males like Elvis Costello, which is something I’ve also never understood, because to me Elvis Costello is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of music: the best thing about him is his titles. Seriously. This Side of Paradise, for example. The Beautiful and Damned. These titles have an evocative elegance that’s impossible to top, and Elvis Costello’s jauntily ironic Brutal Youth and My Aim is True do the same thing for pop music. Unfortunately, none of the works in question really lives up to the title (call me a Philistine, but I agree with Fitzgerald: “I’m sick of all this shoddy realism.” After all, who reads novels or listens to pop music for realism? Especially the realism of the overprivileged, disaffected, callow white male? Don’t we have enough of that in life?). But still, in my day there always seemed to be legions of straight white males who loved Elvis Costello in the same way that eighteen-year-old lesbians loved Ani Difranco. I think of Elvis Costello as the everyman for the American college male. Of course I’m dating myself, and maybe now James Blunt is the everyman.

But anyway, somehow it’s cool for your average twenty- to thirty-something straight white male (you know, those people who still get paid more than the rest of us) to like Elvis Costello, but it’s not cool for him to like The Artist. The Artist is somehow too swishy, too funky, too flirty, too damned good-looking, and what’s up with that falsetto, anyway? In fact, the only way to make Prince palatable to Joe Quarterback Punk is to cover his songs; when I met my husband, he owned only one album of Prince’s music, a covers album by Yo La Tengo’s bassist called That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?, which makes it OK to appreciate Prince’s songwriting, just not his eyeliner (it’s worthy of note that Dump, a.k.a. James McNew, is “pasty, overweight, and …not really unhandsome,” according to Flak Magazine, and it’s my theory that McNew’s dumpiness cancels out the frightening prettiness of Prince).

Of course, since he married me, K. has become the proud joint owner of many of Prince’s fine works, including the original motion picture soundtrack cassette (yeah, mofos!) of Purple Rain (recently named “Best Soundtrack Ever” by the editors of Vanity Fair) and the three cd-set Prince: The Hits/The B-Sides, which has kept me company on many a long drive. But he still displays a marked squeamishness when it comes to actually listening to them. He agrees with me when I claim that Prince is a musical genius, one of the few true polymaths to hit pop music in the last fifty years, a person of astonishing talent, skill, and inspiration. And yet when it comes time to press ‘play’ he hems and haws and usually mutters something like “can’t we listen to someone kind of scrubby and lopsided, like Thom Yorke, or paunchy and dumpy, like Mark Kozelek?”

Not that there’s anything wrong with the music of Red House Painters or Radiohead. It’s pleasant and pretty and really, really white: comfortingly undanceable and whinily eloquent on the subject of self-image and personal experience, those luxuries of the middle class. But even die-hard Radiohead fans (e.g. my husband) concede that Prince has the superior musicianship. And yet he remains conspicuously absent from their record collections. Why?

I think the answer is simple: Prince fucks with Joe Quarterback’s idea of masculinity. For one thing, he knows who he is, and he doesn’t have to write songs about his self-image, which is unfathomable to your average white college boy in baggy jeans. Prince needs no baggy jeans. And it’s not just that he’s too pretty; he can also dance! His music is way too funky and way too flagrantly wanton. And not only that, he wears makeup and girly clothes, custom-tailored to his tiny frame, and the overall effect is a kind of feline sexiness reminiscent of a pin-up calendar. But Prince’s discomfiting habit of transcending stereotype doesn’t end there; he also happens to swear like a mofo (or he did, before Jehovah came on the scene), attract all the ladies like sugar water in an ant colony, and be the biracial product of a black father and a white mother (one of the deepest insecurities of white America), and if you think the average white American male is comfortable with the idea of a delicately fairylike mulatto in tights stealing all the women, well, you’re more of an optimist than I.

In fact, I’ve only had one white American male friend who was an avid Prince fan, and he finally came out of the closet.

So, for example, when Radiohead offers In Rainbows for download, these average white American males and the women they influence think this is a radical new idea, even though Prince did it years ago. And when Pete Doherty wears eyeliner and acts debauched, they think he’s rakish, charming, and inventive, even though Prince did it years ago. And when Britney address issues of her media image in overproduced, ghostwritten neo-hip-hop songs, everyone, even Ken Tucker, thinks she’s being trenchant and ironic, even though Prince did that years ago too (only without the “ghostwritten” and “overproduced” parts).

It’s like when my colleague asked me if I thought Barack Obama had a chance, and I said “that would be awfully nice; maybe in fifty years.” There’s a huge part of America that just isn’t ready for a biracial black man. But for the rest of us — everyone who’s not Joe Quarterback — Prince continues to reign.

This morning I got up and my living room was filled with the noise of Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds” album. Prima facie, I have no particular objection to Joni Mitchell, but nor do I have particular affection for her. (None of the women I know do. We’re much too hard, in the bourgeois gangster sense of hard, too busy listening to NWA while competing in triathlons to benefit childhood cancer research or humming along to The Chronic on our iPods while doing our taxes. That sort of thing.) Joni Mitchell is so ethereal. I mean, last I checked there is nothing — no mention at all — of the fact that the police might very well choose to fuck with her for being a teenager with a little bit of gold and a pager. Of course, she’s a middle-aged white woman with long blonde hair, and therefore has probably never used a pager; in her demographic, they went straight to cell phones. But anyway, I don’t have a ton of feeling about Joni Mitchell. To me, Joni Mitchell is like blancmange, except that I can get enthusiastic about vanilla cornstarch pudding in a way that “Big Yellow Taxi” just can’t replicate.

But I do have is a bizarre little factoid for you: every guy I’ve ever dated (and, as we know, I’ve dated a pretty much representative sample of every guy in America, including football players, effete poets, artists, artistes, stockbrokers, Young Republicans, hippie treehuggers, survivalist voyagers, Sensitive New-Age Guys, nonprofit employees, small-town blue-collar types, big city Brahmins, illegal immigrant rock guitarists, refugee advocates, mama’s boys, mother-hating wastrel hipsters, academics, failed academics, wannabe academics, unskilled workers, confused race traitors hoping to ‘pass,’ etc. etc. — in short, every possible manifestation of the Infinite Variation of Neuroses Possible in the Great White [or almost-White] American male) plays Joni Mitchell’s “Clouds” album. At least in mixed company. In private, I’m sure a lot of them secretly listen to Slayer.

So I guess I’d have to say I didn’t have a ton of feeling about Joni Mitchell, that she struck me as a mildly disappointing sort of pudding, until I began seeing the Eternal Return of Joni Mitchell in every relationship I ever had, usually when it had hit the kind of rough patch where the sex is perfunctory and the dinner conversation thin. Joni Mitchell would start popping up with a glass of wine after dinner, or Joni Mitchell would make a rainyday afternoon appearance over tea, or — and this is the worst — Joni Mitchell would crawl into the bedroom and attempt to make earnest and utterly bathetic love to me.

I had no deep-seated feeling about Joni Mitchell until Joni Mitchell became for me like a hydra, menacing the little boat of my sanity as I tried to navigate it past her craggy rock, her appearance so consistent and so predictably terrifying that I began to question the origin of the menace.

Originally, I concluded that:

1)The Great White American Male likes weepy folk warbled loopily against a lazy guitar. Except that this would be too simple. What are the odds? Greater talents than Ms. Mitchell (Leo Kottke, for one; Leonard Cohen, for another) go unrecognized by the breadth of audience she commands. There must be an ulterior motive, some great psychic unifying factor that makes everything between the ages of fifteen and fifty with a penis feel compelled to own at least a copy of “Clouds,” if not Mitchell’s entire oeuvre.

Which brings me to:

2)The Great White American Male thinks weepy, warbled folk impresses chicks, probably because it hints at a secretly sensitive side in lieu of his ever having to display anything remotely resembling “emotional intelligence.”

It’s worth noting that the male currently in question has only resorted to Joni after three years of marriage. I wonder what he’s up to.