A few observations on Patti Smith’s “Rock n Roll Nigger”

Or a few questions, at least. I’m curious about how you read (or hear) this song, performed last year by a 60-year-old singer generally regarded as the godmother of punk:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AjmsyhgotWY[/youtube]

If you don’t know the song, check out the lyrics here. It closes out side one of the 1978 album Easter, which also included the top 20 hit “Because the Night,” a co-write with Springsteen.* Few albums could be so simultaneously mainstream and potentially subversive.

In asking what you think about the song, I’m not looking for apologetic explanations, and I’m not asking you to decide whether or not you think it’s racist. I’m wondering what kinds of cultural work you think it does in the late 1970s and how you historicize the gesture (in this instance, from a white artist) toward cross-racial imagination or identification.

One way to think about it — a connection made by the song’s earliest critics (in both senses of the term) — is belonging to the tradition crystalized in Norman Mailer’s 1957 essay “The White Negro,” which sought to locate the origins of the American “hipster” (the rebels of a generation of white kids born circa 1930) in a desire to appropriate black culture as a badge of outlaw status: jazz, weed, and jive talk. Think Ginsberg, in the opening lines of Howl (1956), wandering down “Negro streets at dawn.”

don\'t call me whitey

For Mailer (and perhaps for Ginsberg), this was a logical response to the Holocaust and Hiroshima. To have death hang over one’s head, on a daily basis, is what Mailer imagined life to be like for American blacks:

So no wonder that in certain cities of America, in New York of course, and New Orleans, in Chicago and San Francisco and Los Angeles, in such American cities as Paris and Mexico, D.F., this particular part of a generation was attracted to what the Negro had to offer. In such places as Greenwich Village, a menage-a-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were Hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry. Any Negro who wishes to live must live with danger from his first day, and no experience can ever be casual to him, no Negro can saunter down a street with any real certainty that violence will not visit him on his walk.

Mailer also identified with what he imagined to be a primitive African virility, which puts him in the same tradition that made supposed black primitivism a central trope in modern art, from Picasso to the New Negro Renaissance.

You might also connect Smith’s or Mailer’s cross-racial identifications with this gesture

that\'s my little mammy i\'m talkin\' about!

which has certainly been read in a variety of ways, most excoriating but some seeking to redeem an insouciant impulse that runs back through nineteenth-century blackface minstrelsy to slave dances at wharves on the Lower East Side. The former tend to see Jolson’s act (representative of the widespread and long-lived form in general) as belonging to processes of assimilation by which marginalized immigrant groups — the Irish, say, or Eastern European Jews a few decades later — become “white” or assimilate into mainstream American culture by differentiating themselves from black Others.

A version of the latter argument, seeking to redeem something vital and anti-authoritarian in blackface performance, operates on understandings of “culture” and “assimilation” in which “appropriation” has no secure meaning. Take this, for instance, from the cultural historian W. T. Lhamon:

Too many discussions of … assimilation make ‘replacement’ the issue. A former self is
exchanged, goes this argument, for another self or identity. But assimilation is not a clean
erasure of one identity substituting another. It proceeds, instead, by combination and
transaction. … Assimilation is negotiated in a moving ratio that always retains traces of
the previous identity.

With this notion in mind, you might be able to read Jolson as attempting a kind of cross-racial, cosmopolitan imagining — “cosmopolitan” in the sense Anthony Appiah uses it: an anti-essentialist embrace of cultural “contamination” as both inevitable and enriching.

From her first articulations of an autobiographical account that mediated her rise to celebrity and the reception of her poetry and, later, her rock and roll, Smith made gestures that would culminate in the 1978 song. In a 1973 feature in Andy Warhol’s Interview, two years before her first album would be released, she derided most feminist poets along with “the new black poets, [who] can’t get out of what they are.” Essentialism, that is, inevitably limits the imagination.

The connection between poetry and identity politics — and her resistance to that connection — is, from the first, central to her own self-presentation. From an early post-Horses interview with Penthouse, spring of 1976:

Every time I say the word pussy at a poetry reading, some idiot broad rises and has a fit. “What’s your definition of pussy, sister?” I dunno, it’s a slang term. If I wanna say pussy, I’ll say pussy. If I wanna say nigger, I’ll say nigger. If somebody wants to call me a cracker bitch, that’s cool. It’s all part of being American. But all these tight-assed movements are fucking up our slang, and that eats it.

Don’t tell me how to use language, in other words. That’s my job. Identity politics = “tight-assed movements,” which contrast with an association she made early on between dance and words. From the 1973 Interview interview again, explaining that South Jersey, where she grew up, “is very different from North Jersey”:

Yes, I’m just a Jersey girl. I really loved that I was from South Jersey because it was a real spade area. I learned to dance real good … there was a lot of colloquial stuff I picked up, that’s where I get my bad speech from. Even though my father was an intellectual, I wanted to be like the kids I went to school with so I intentionally never learned to speak good, although I wish I would have now because it hinders my work sometimes. I thought I couldn’t use it on the dance floor so what good was it?

The version of her story told most often involves near-religious encounters with black and white singers, all of whom she embraces as “niggers”: Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix. The song from Easter, in fact, combines two seminal Smith stories: her teen pregnancy and her acknowledgment of the black origins of the art that moves her most. (Even her hero Rimbaud, she was fond of saying, liked to think of himself as of African descent.) Smith told a recent interviewer about meeting Jimi Hendrix, whose “Star-Spangled Banner” she borrows when playing “Rock N Roll Nigger” live, at the opening party for his West Village recording studio, Electric Ladyland. (She would record Horses there after Hendrix’s death.) It’s a tender story about outsider identification, more tender than most of the stories she told in her early 30s: “Too overawed to enter,” the interviewer writes, “she was loitering on the steps when Jimi came out and sat beside her. ‘I said I was too shy to go in and he laughed and said, I’m shy, that’s why I’m leaving.'”

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Smith’s self-identification as a “rock n roll nigger,” though, has less to do with race than gender. From the Mapplethorpe cover of Horses (and the self-directed publicity for the album) forward, Smith’s mantra was “beyond gender.” If blackface made Al Jolson white, the N word somehow had the talismanic force to render Smith genderless, or perhaps multigendered? Here’s what she told a Rolling Stone interviewer right after Easter was released:

Reporter: The other day you said that if anyone was qualified to be a nigger, it was Mick Jagger. How is Mick Jagger qualified to be a nigger?

Smith: On our liner notes I redefined the word nigger as being an artist-mutant that was going beyond gender.

Reporter: I didn’t understand how Mick Jagger has suffered like anyone who grew up in Harlem.

Smith: Suffering don’t make you a nigger. I mean, I grew up poor too. Stylistically, I believe he qualifies. I think Mick Jagger has suffered plenty. He also has a great heart, and I believe, ya know, even in his most cynical moments, a great love for his children. He’s got a lot of soul. I mean, like, I don’t understand the question. Ya think black people are better than white people or sumpthin’? I was raised with black people. It’s like, I can walk down the street and say to a kid, “Hey nigger.” I don’t have any kind of super-respect or fear of that kind of stuff. When I say statements like that, they’re not supposed to be analyzed, ’cause they’re more like off-the- cuff humorous statements. I do have a sense of humor, ya know, which is sumpthin’ that most people completely wash over when they deal with me. I never read anything where anybody talked about my sense of humor. It’s like, a lot of the stuff I say is true, but it’s supposed to be funny.

Reporter: I just think that people should be allowed to label themselves. If black people want to be called blacks, I call them blacks, just as I would not want to be called honkie.

Smith: What I would think is, a word can become archaic because we progress into the future, so words can be redefined. And I’m not, like, a slob with words, ya know. I don’t mean that, ya know, uh, I don’t, I don’t, wish to, like, um, twist and rend words to my whim. But I do feel words can outlive their usefulness, unless we redefine them.

Does this clear things up, or just make them more complicated? And if it’s the latter — in an election year when race-baiting reigns supreme — is it any wonder that race and gender should remain complicated things, even three decades after she put her most controversial song on vinyl?

*For what it’s worth, side two starts out with a song called “Privilege.”

31 responses to “A few observations on Patti Smith’s “Rock n Roll Nigger””

  1. marleyfan says:

    Sup Cracker,
    Patty’s comments remind me of me at seventeen. Confident enough to say what was on my mind, and naive enough, to not comprehend my naivate’. While the lyrics seem introspective and mature? The Privilege title on the B-side takes the cake.
    Wonderbread

  2. Godfree says:

    I think it’s a pretty amazing thing for a whitey to lift the heavy crown of the word, “nigger” from the heads of black people and place it on his or herself. Not that this simple gesture makes a whole lot of difference, but every act of re-appropriating counts to a degree.

    Loved the post.

  3. Rachel says:

    I recently watched Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, a film whose satire is directed in many directions, but largely at those who perpetuate racist words and stereotypes under the guise of affection / respect for the culture (i.e., when the studio audience starts showing up in blackface for tapings of the postmodern minstrel TV show). It’s such a fine line between homage and violent appropriation. Smith’s song has always made me uncomfortable, but I don’t judge her for taking up such a complicated idea. We might also want to consider Lennon & Ono’s “Woman Is The Nigger of the World,” which I believe makes similar points with the word’s rhetorical power.

  4. I’ve often used the montage from Bamboozled when I teach Jazz Singer. One way to read Lee’s film is as a refutation of the blackface scholarship that aims to recuperate something vital and subversive about the forms. Lee’s montage is pretty hard to argue with.

    That said, every time I watch the Jolson film I find it more and more compelling, and I realize there was something going on there that I simply don’t have access to. In one of the shorts that accompanies the new DVD release Jolson has a bit of banter about how some people want him to give up “mammy songs,” but he argues they’re the most American of American forms and need to be preserved.

    I’ve wished I could get inside Patti’s head in 1978 and figure out what’s going on there, too. I find it interesting that she’s never given up the song — as the clip shows, she still rocks it. She also has said that it was one of her mom’s favorites among her songs. I think it’s part of a history of American culture that doesn’t get articulated or investigated very well precisely because we perpetuate segregationist forms in the academy by assuming that black and white cultures should be studied separately, as if they emerged separately. Ann Douglas’s Terrible Honesty is a rare exception. I’m not sure it succeeds entirely, but I admire the effort to get beyond notions of purity and authenticity in cultural production when it comes to race.

    I wanted to end this piece by asking what it means when the guy calling out Obama on race through this campaign is the white guy who was dubbed America’s “first black president”? I’m kind of hoping, too, that Obama’s speech was in the background while people read this.

  5. I also think it’s interesting that John Leland’s Hip: The History, which I pulled down while I was writing this, glosses over the Mailer essay almost entirely (he spends more time on Thoreau) and, though it mentions Patti briefly (in a chapter devoted to “the ladies”), doesn’t take “Rock n Roll N” into account. His book does proceed from what he takes to be a key fact that the word “hip” has African origins, though, and spends considerable time talking about how the history of race in America is tied to the history of hip: but he makes this case in a way that almost reprises Mailer’s argument. Kind of weird.

  6. rm says:

    bryan, i like the questions you’re asking but am going to ask patti to hold herself to her own questionable standard: can you use her song on the dance floor?

    my answer is no.

    and let me be the first to throw lou’s “i wanna be black” into the discussion mix.

  7. ssw says:

    I was thinking about how violence touches all of us, although in different ways. as a woman, i may be very conscious about the threat of getting raped whereas a man may worry about being mugged in a similar situation. I come with certain culture outsider/devalued status as well as privilege. It seems important to me that people unpack their privileges as well as their traumas. For me, understanding the ways I’ve felt “other” or devalued help me to have empathy for others. Patti is super cool–activist, gutsy. I like her last name. A lot.

  8. Tim says:

    I like Patti Smith, but have never been a huge fan, partially because this song gives me the serious whim-whams. I must admit that it’s pretty damned gutsy and amazing to write a song like this in the first place, but even more so to stick by it through the years. Still, she seems to want to leave her use of the word under-thought, willfully so. It’s not her job to over-think things, I guess; that’s our job.

    I know that you didn’t want us to debate whether we think this song is racist, but comment instead on the kind of cultural work it does, so I won’t dwell on it. However, your inclusion of Jolson and blackface made me think of this somewhat humorous, somewhat serious flowchart, on whether or not one should put blackface on an image. I tend to think that the use of the n word dwells in the same territory. The “meme gun,” as Dauphin puts it, is just way too big and messy to use without very careful thought.

    All that aside, I think it’s a powerful and amazing thing for PS to get white people to think about their own race. White is the color that generally gets a pass when it comes to racial/ethnic examination, so anytime a writer can get her audience out of their comfort zone I take to be productive.

  9. Thanks, Tim, for that link. It reminds me of something A White Bear would have come up with. Where did you find it?

  10. Tim says:

    A few weeks ago I read Gary Dauphin’s piece about Stuff White People Like on The Root. I followed the link to his blog and eventually found the blackface flowchart. I dimly remember, though, seeing it when he first put it up, just after Billmon put an image of Wolf Blitzer in blackface up on his blog.

  11. Another great link, Tim — you are on a roll today! It would be interesting to hear where you think Patti’s song falls on the StuffWhitePeopleLike/Race Traitor spectrum. I’m kind of leaning toward the latter, though like you and Rachel I’ve never been entirely comfortable with the song. (It hasn’t kept me from being a warm admirer, though — maybe even a geeky fanboy.)

    bw

  12. Dave says:

    Wasn’t there another blackface/blogger incident? I’m thinking someone on Firedoglake. Ah, here it is: Jane Hamsher put Lieberman in blackface.

    Patti Smith is a strong enough artist that I’m totally convinced by her use of the n-word, although I’m not articulate enough to explain why. I respect Billmon enough and am thoroughly convinced of his anti-racist credentials that I’m not bothered by his appropriation. Jane Hamsher, on the other hand — not appropriate. She carries too much honkitude.

    I suppose my basic attitude in these matters is generally in favor of anti-essentialist boundary-pushing and appropriation, but also fairly ignorant and unsure of myself.

  13. Dave says:

    Aesthetically, RnRN is probably Smith’s greatest song, don’t you think?

  14. Tim says:

    If it were to fall anywhere on the scale between “Stuff White People Like” and “Race Traitor,” RnRN would be closer to the latter. I’m not sure, though, that it necessarily does fall between them. I’m not entirely sure why, but they both seem like such different kinds of expressions about race than this song, which is almost sui generis, even very different from the Lennon/Ono song, which works by analogy.

    Using “Rock n Roll” and “n___” in the same phrase is a gesture toward reinjecting rock with the kind of threat it had posed in its early days. Elvis in 1958, the Rolling Stones in 1968, the Sex Pistols in 1978? All were a threat. Writing this song in 1978 was definitely a threat. It was totally punk rock, which is why I think it’s so powerful. It’s offensive as hell, wherein lies its power. N____s pose a threat, that’s why they’re marginalized, right? The dark power of that word also poses a threat, both to blacks and non-blacks.

    In another direction, calling Mick Jagger a “n___” in 1978? Kinda bogus. The dude was flying around in a Lear jet by then, the face of a rapidly-expanding global brand. No threat.

  15. brooke says:

    A thought-provoking post, Bryan, thank you. I have to say that hearing or reading that word makes my stomach turn. It’s the ugliest racial epithet in the American lexicon, so deeply charged and representative of the darkest parts of our collective history. I know I’m stating the obvious, but I’m saying it anyway.

    Historical and cultural context, as you point out, is critical to understanding the value of appropriating such language and imagery. On balance, I don’t think there is much intrinsic value to it in this particular case. I understand Patti Smith’s intent, as well as the others you cite. In the tradition of punk rock (and the culture of the 70’s), Smith’s song makes a lot more sense than it does now. Absconding with the term and using it to describe herself, Jesus, etc., is very much in line with the punk ethos that has always been about rebellion and breaking the rules. That is one of the most distinctive elements of punk culture and arguably its key contribution to American culture generally. To be honest, I don’t even thing the song is about race per se, it ‘s about being subversive and saying and doing things that people find unsavory. That’s just punk rock for you.

    The arrogance and ignorance these artists exhibit with their art also deserves some attention, in my opinion. They are not only appropriating these words and imagery, they are in no uncertain terms appropriating the plight of African Americans. They are effectively saying “I’ve faced the same or similar struggles of black folks in this country and can therefore behave in ways that would otherwise be totally offensive.” That’s a difficult argument to swallow.

    In terms of using racial epithets or racist imagery as a device to talk about racism or racial tension, I think it’s counterproductive or ineffective at best. I don’t know how that conversation is supposed to go, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to start with me, as a privileged white male, calling people the n-word and what not.

    With all of that said, I’m not really interested in being a language or behavior cop. Patti Smith can say whatever the hell she wants, and I’m free to not listen to that song.

  16. trixie says:

    i am a huge patti smith fan. i have always, however, hated that song. not only do the lyrics make me uncomfortable, but i have to disagree with dave and say that i think it is one of her least listenable songs (setting aside the awful “people have the power”).
    my pick for her best song aesthetically would be “Land:; Horses\ Land Of A Thousand Dances\ La Mer(de)”, on the album Horses.

  17. trixie says:

    darn you bryan, now i have patti smith fever and i am at work. i may be forced to rebuy one of her albums on itunes.

  18. Dave says:

    “People Have the Power” is unspeakably bad.

  19. trixie says:

    indeed.

  20. thanks for keeping this going, guys. sorry i’m buried so deep in work this afternoon or i’d have more to say. but for now: yes, “power” is unbearable (yet she keeps playing it, too! which i find kind of sweet). i agree with dave, though, that rnrn is a finely tuned song that really packs a punch, esp. live. and though i agree with everything said about the horror the word packs, i also wonder, perhaps for the sake of playing devil’s advocate: isn’t she doing something more vital, or at least more interesting, than, say, some lame-o like tarrantino with all his flippant n-word button pushing? or, perhaps more to the point, isn’t she calling the bluff on the degree to which mainstream american culture has, for at least 120 years and probably longer, appropriated various forms of african-american culture, though usually without attribution or any attempt to identify. she also says that “land” (which i agree with trixie is her crowning achievement) is written as an homage to hendrix. she acknowledges that he is a precursor for part of what she does, as is jagger, as is dylan, and she acknowledges that they both draw from african-american forms and traditions too, or at least from forms that should be called, following ann douglas, “mongrel.” is there a way to talk about the multiracial and contaminated (in a positive sense) origins of “American culture” without having to try to quantify racial contribution and essence and appropriation? i see patti as attempting to reach across boundaries, not trying to wear masks. (though i sometimes find the use of masks to be effective as well.)

  21. ps — anyone seen the documentary afropunk, which uses patti’s title as a subtitle? (i haven’t; from what i understand, though, it doesn’t tackle the problematics of the subtitle in ways it might have.)

    for that matter, anyone catch the patti documentary that premiered at sundance this year?

    ok — back to the salt mines. i’ll catch up with y’all later tonight.

  22. brooke says:

    #20: I think it’s an interesting take on the song, and on Smith’s intentions. I also really like your point about how academics (and non-academics) tend to segregate the analysis of American culture along racial/ethnic lines, and that this, particularly for mainstream culture, limits the efficacy and honesty of the analysis. That’s a really salient point.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this today. I tend to agree with what Tim said in #8 about the depth of thought that went into the song. She probably wasn’t getting nearly as deep into the weeds of the issues raised by her gesture. Indeed that’s our (or more accurately, all y’alls) job. My guess is that Patti was just expressing herself, as an artist and a punk rocker, in a fairly simple and to the point way. But I don’t think she has any claim to, nor should we attribute to her, any sort of racially enlightened sentiment.

    This song came out in 1978, a time when there was a very positive and racially conscious movement that was much more inclusive that Smith’s punk rock world. Ska was taking its modern form in England. In 1977, the Specials formed, and toured and released their seminal album, The Specials, in 1979. The 2-Tone movement that was in many ways exemplified by the Specials, was a movement that explicitly sought avenues of reconciliation and respect between races, at a time of heightened tension. That to me represents a much more sincere, integrated and enlightened take on racial division and racial harmony than does Smith’s attempt.

    Also in 1978, Bob Marley’s music and the message it carried was in full steam, and he was touring the US extensively in 1978. I have a hard time imagining listening to Patti Smith’s song back to back with redemption song, and finding any merit to Smith’s racial analysis. Equally, I’d be curious to see those two in a debate. Scratch that, I’d pay to see them in a steel cage match. Not now obviously.

    I guess my point is that if we are trying to attribute some social value or social analysis or positive intent to Smith’s song, it must be done in the context of the other artists working at that time. And I think it’s impossible to ignore the artists who were specifically focused on the race issue. In this respect, Smith’s contribution strikes me as sloppy and snide. And I say this as a supporter of the much anticipated Barack Obama/Patti Smith ticket.

  23. It’s interesting, though — she mentions Bob Marley repeatedly in interviews in the mid 1970s, even before this album came out. She identifies herself with him, too, and suggests that they are both taking off because they share a revolutionary moment in time.

    It might be worth noting that the intro to her very first 7″ engages black revolutionary iconography — again, in a way that will probably make many uncomfortable. but her engagement with race is pretty consistent from her earliest work on, even if it’s in ways that seem sloppy or undertheorized. i actually think she’d theorized it pretty carefully. i’ve also found it interesting that one of her early partners in crime was mapplethorpe, who’s had his own uncomfortable legacy when it comes to racial appropriations or identifications.

    here’s a bit from the 1/1/76 Rolling Stone interview. The interviewer didn’t buy her cross-racial identifications then — note the explicit comparison to Mailer:

    And when her sense of mission becomes confused with her sense of fantasy, problems can arise. “I’m into rock & roll right now because there’s a place for me. I don’t think it’s no accident that Bob Marley and me should be coming up at the same time. Not because I have anything to do with Bob Marley — I just feel like a whole new thing’s happening. It’s time to figure out what happened in the Sixties What we can get from the Sixties is that people got so far out that old concepts were really dead. Everything that keeps us part is really old news, man. People don’t know it yet, but future generations will figure it out. That’s why I’m working on a link — to keep it going.”

    This is excellent rhetoric but there are some fearsome contradictions in Smith’s specific application of her fantasy to reality. Talking about Jimi Hendrix’s reasons for operating in the white idiom, she remarks: “He had to become white because it’s a white tradition to do high art and Jimi was really into poetry. And Rimbaud was totally into black people, Rimbaud believed totally that he was part nigger, because of the Ethiopians being a totally relentless physical race. Jimi Hendrix had to be like that because of synthesizing.” Or speaking of how reggae has led her to a fascination with Rastafarianism, the Jamaican religion: “So many kids are getting into it, they’re gonna have to change the rules. It’s not a black thing anymore; it’s not even Jamaican. It belongs to us now.”

    Those fantasies are like nothing so much as Norman Mailers’ White Negro, the ultimate cultural usurper; worse, they are reminiscent of Mailer’s championing of Charles Manson, another white man who wanted to appropriate black revolution for his own purposes.

    Some of Patti’s theories are more charming. Her perspective on women is illuminating: “I don’t like categorizing stuff, but women’s roles all through history have been to act as hierophant or someone who’s guarded the secrets or guarded the temple. I’m a girl doing what guys usually did, the way that I look, the goals and kinds of things I want to help achieve through rock. It’s more heroic stuff and heroic stuff has been traditionally male. Like Hendrix and Jim Morrison and all those people. I mean, Jim Morrison was trying to elevate the word; he was the poet in rock & roll before me. He was an academic poet. Lou Reed — another academic poet. I’m more like down-to-earth than them guys.”

  24. swells says:

    Is it too obvious to want more of a close reading of the lyrics? Is she just using the N word to denote being “outside of society” and “understanding suffering”? (which is not nearly as pointed as Ono/Lennon’s use of the word in their statement about women?) What is a “copper wave”? Toeing the line (“behav[ing]”) to ride the wave to riches? And is the only other option to embrace being outside society because that is the wellspring of being “fertile” as an artist? If so, was Jackson Pollock really that much of a suffering outsider? I’m sorry, but I don’t think so. And Mick Jagger? What Tim said.

    If that is her intention, she’s using the word a little loosely and in a way I’m uncomfortable with (white guilt, anyone? Well, not her, obviously.) At the end when the lyrics just repeat the word over and over, you can’t help but hear Chuck D chanting it through “I don’t wanna be called yo’ N_____” and the very different resonance it has. Yes, the cultural context is different in the ‘90s from the ‘70s, but all the MORE reason I think she shoulda been a little more careful. I’m all for freedom of rock, and as Brooke says she should sing what she wants and I don’t have to listen, but I can’t really get behind it even if she is such a true indie outsider. And if she’s using Mailer/Ginsberg’s admiring hipster connotation of the word, then it seems a little, well, Limp Bizkit.

    But: absolutely fantastic post. Such interesting questions raised!! Identity politix—and the essentialism inherent in their malpractice–good as it gets!

  25. swells says:

    oops–I meant Flav.

  26. “copper wave” could indicate skin color. and she’s certainly making the connection to ginsberg — one of her key idols. is it the word itself that’s the dealbreaker, or the possibility of cross-racial imagination and identification?

    as long as we’re keeping problematic patti/ys on the table, here’s the link to her intro to her version of “hey joe,” her first 7″, which i mentioned above. her part’s called “sixty days.”

  27. swells says:

    Hmmm. I think the problem is partially the word itself, but more than that the problematics of cross-racial imagination (which I’m for) from the safe perspective of whiteness. I love the attempt to break down the strictly-race connotations of the word and smear it across all marginalized people–but it’s a lot easier to do that from a position of privilege, no?

  28. swells says:

    And if “copper wave” does indicate skin color (which makes perfect sense to me now, duh!)–then isn’t she highlighting (and criticizing) the trendiness of whiteys embracing the term?

  29. Missy says:

    I’ve been thinking about this all day. My fav comment so far is Brooke’s number 15, which I think touches on all the really salient points about what’s wrong with this song. And yet, I’m with Dave on its aesthetic appeal. I have to confess that I really, really love the song–love the tune, love the beat–and wish the words were different, so that I could sing it loudly. Particularly because I have most of Babelogue memorized and I could segue seamlessly into it . . . But that word, that word. It’s not okay.

    I taught the album Easter as a text a long, long time ago, and I tried to contextualize the song within the album as a whole by walking the students through the liner notes where she talks about Rimbaud and his sisters and their crazy Easter vision. (Is that in the liner notes? maybe it’s in Patti Smith Complete, which I also taught that semester. dunno. can’t find my cd to double check.) I tried to explain how the level of outsiderness conveyed by the word was part of an attempt to align herself with Rimbaud/Jimi Hendrix/Jesus Christ as a cultural martyr, and how this is an impossibly complicated gesture, because she’s trying to be an insider/outsider and there’s this huge clashing of high culture aspiring to low culture chic going on. (Maybe I could do better now, especially with Smith’s confession that she cultivated her outsiderness to the point of feigning working-classness via her use of slang. Wow. That’s huge. And a little galling.)

  30. hey missy — i certainly had your old teaching experiences in mind while going through this stuff yesterday.

    i’m curious about your use of “feigned” and “cultivated.” Isn’t she describing how any of us creates a world and identity? How hard does she have to work to quantify working-classness or alienation? I read her as describing how she learned to speak — a big difference from making a “confession” about faking anything.

    So I totally recommend reading W.T. Lhamon’s _Raising Cain_. It’s so thoroughly readable. If you’ve never dug into the blackface scholarship, you wouldn’t expect to enjoy it, but Lhamon makes it an easy task. Much easier to get along with than Lott, for instance, though I respect that book too. Anyway — one thing that appeals to me about it (and in this it’s aligned with something like Roach’s _Cities of the Dead_, which is also a marvel) is that it leans a little more toward performance studies than straightforward lit crit. I found, teaching a bunch of the blackface stuff in a seminar a couple years ago, that the performance studies students had an easier time with things similar to patti’s “confession” than english lit students did. Thirty years on from Greenblatt, English students still distrust the notion of “self-fashioning.” It’s authenticity everyone wants! A bad by-product of the culture wars, I think.

    Than again, it’s one of my performance studies colleagues (someone I’ve only met once but would love to know better) who’s written a piece that haunts me every times I want to let the culture off the hook for having kept some of this junk alive as long as it did: you can catch it here if you have access to muse. (rachel — you may want to check out his discussion of bamboozled in particular; best i’ve seen.)

    The upshot of his consideration of “racist/racial kitsch” is this: “while authenticity is subject to a great deal of skepticism in Bamboozled, the shamefulness of inauthenticity is never questioned,” which in part limits the film. what nyongo looks for instead is a form of creative response to shame that transforms it into something else, some form of protection even: to “achieve a kind of prophylactic invulnerability to the object that says ‘Shame on you! Shame on you for being black!’ We do not, at this late date, need yet newer formulations of pride to negate this shame. The point may be to locate, within the transformations of our shame, a way out of scapegoating, and thus, out of the bloodletting that accompanies with such monotonous reliability our attempts to regain our innocence.”

    With this in mind, I’m struck by how much of Patti’s song is about a teenage pregnancy that resembles her own (okay, I know we were trained not to read like this, but her continual offering up of an autobiographical narrative — long before “Piss Factory” — has been part of her schtick all along and has to be accounted for somehow) and also by the lines about “love” in the middle:

    I was lost in a valley of pleasure.
    I was lost in the infinite sea.
    I was lost, and measure for measure,
    love spewed from the heart of me.
    I was lost, and the cost,
    and the cost didn’t matter to me.
    I was lost, and the cost
    was to be outside society.

    For anyone who’s followed the early interviews and the beginning of the career, this should mark a turning point from her early suggestions of conflict between her own gendered self-determination and what the pregnancy and birth did to her, as well as a marked shift in tone from early discussions of giving up the baby.

    This has been a helpful discussion for me, people.

  31. swells: re 27, i’ll recopy this bit: “It’s time to figure out what happened in the Sixties What we can get from the Sixties is that people got so far out that old concepts were really dead. Everything that keeps us apart is really old news, man. People don’t know it yet, but future generations will figure it out. That’s why I’m working on a link — to keep it going.”

    re 28: the opening is a call to awakening and awareness, as i read it, so part of what she’s doing is saying “look around you: the inside of your culture is just as ‘black’ [or ‘mixed’? the color ‘copper’ is intriguingly ambivalent here] as the portion you’ve marked for outsiders.” nevertheless, as long as they’re drawing lines, she’ll kindly take hers out of bounds. whether or not you recognize her right to make the gesture is, i guess, what the comments thread is about for the most part.