Monday, April 25, 2016

a brief excerpt from Noah Berlatsky on Prince

To be plain, I was never exactly a huge fan of Prince.  He wrote some songs I can't forget, though, and I respect that.  And unlike pretty much the entire grunge scene of the 1990s Prince wrote songs I haven't spent the last fifteen years wishing I hadn't heard and wishing I could forget.  So, I dunno, call it a kind of paradoxical apophatic appreciation for Prince.  If I never exactly dug his music I never loathed it. 

In the outpouring of thoughts and feelings about the passing of Prince this little set of sentences has stuck with me:
Part of Prince’s genius was that he made it so obvious that the line between “white music” and “black music” was meaningless. Listening to a Prince album, even the dullest rock critic couldn’t help notice that nothing went in the box it was supposed to.

A bit too predictably Berlatsky went on to stick with the proposal that rock and roll has always been black music.  He's more persuasive, paradoxically, when he's not trying so hard to be persuasive.  The Thin White Duke was still the Thin White Duke, right? 

But in that quoted sentence there's a kernel. I've been writing about how the musical heroes of our era seem to be the musicians who aspire to and at some level achieve what some musicologists and composers have called "fusion". A lot of fusion stinks and a lot of fusion, even successful fusion, fails in some way or another to convince people it has done justly by the styles fused. In an era of not-jazz-at-Yale in the academic world we're getting another case study in what music historian Richard Taruskin has elsewhere and in another context called the chasm between the academic canon and the repertoire canon, between the kinds of music scholars say we should be talking about and the kind f music the rest of us pay money to hear. The Cuban guitarist and composer Leo Brouwer has said that fusion is something academics have tended to ignore but that it is one of the central experiments in popular music of the last half century.  Why?  Why has fusion been such a recurring experiment and aspiration in popular music?  Berlatsky touches on what I think it generally turns out to be in many cases.

And how obviously do we have to say this?  Fusions, whether they succeed or fail, seem to crop up among people who think that a music that reflects a peaceful coexistence of different racial groups with their associated musical legacies is worth pursuing. Those of us who believe in the possibility of musical fusion could, at the risk of a Berlatskian level of overstatement, hope that another kind of fusion is possible. Anyone who is the child of an inter-racial marriage has plenty of personal reasons to believe that fusion isn't just something that's only "musically" possible.

Blues is at least a century old, after all. There's no reason it shouldn't be considered part of the Western canon globally and it seems vital to recognize it as a foundation in the canon of music in the United States of America in the last century.

Which may be why when a musician like Prince pulls off the fusion against all expected odds we celebrate that musician.  Whether we're talking the lately departed Prince or Bowie, it seems the musical heroes of our era were successful chameleons, successful at fusions.  We go through life wanting something that's predictable enough to please but to please by way of a surprise.  That's simple to say but exceptionally hard to achieve.  To express familiar longings in a way that leaves room for surprise could be a way to describe the core aspiration of the arts.  Whether or not he's at the top of your list of favorite musicians, Prince pulled off this feat in a way that few others have in our time.

If 2016 keeps on this track of famous musicians and artists dying we've got to wonder if we couldn't lose Stevie Wonder or Bob Dylan or Judi Dench this year. :(