Suzanne Vega has an interesting piece in the NY Times that talks about her own experiences as a biracial child, raised Latin but with a white father. But she ties it all into musical tastes and the way we affiliate ourselves along those lines as well as racial lines.
Songs brand us a part of a tribe. We can pick and choose what tribe we belong to. Goth, emo, hippie, punk, folk, alternative, for example. “Mom! Why are you wearing all black?” my daughter recently shouted at me. “You look so emo!” “I always wear black,” I mumbled. “But we are at the beach!” she said. Well, maybe she had a point....On the plus side, Vega throws her biases out there for public consumption--why would she assume that black teenagers would call her out for liking the Smiths if she weren't making assumptions about their musical taste based on skin color?--but I think she overstates the case a bit by saying that our musical tastes can act as an affiliating mechanism on their own.
I remember walking down the street one day, wearing a Smiths t-shirt, back in the mid-’80s. I was headed for the subway station, and I had to pass through a crowd of black teenagers to get there. There were maybe eight or so young men, looking me up and down as I picked my way through them. My neck prickled with worry. What would they say? Would they call me a goofy white girl, or worse?
One of them snickered. My stomach dropped. Then another one sang out, “I am human and I need to be loved!! Just like everybody else does!!” Morrissey’s transcendental lyrics from “How Soon Is Now?” It was so unexpected that I burst out laughing. They knew the song! Then we all laughed, and the tension was broken. Maybe we were the same tribe after all.
Not everyone has varied musical tastes, but a lot of people do. Look at my Random Tens if you want an example of just how varied one person's taste can be. I also have "How Soon Is Now?" on my iPod, but I also have everything Robert Johnson ever recorded, a fair amount of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie, Ornette Coleman and Dave Brubeck, pretty much the entire Public Enemy discography, a frightening amount of cheesy 80s pop, the occasional hair band song, lots of Dave Matthews and the latest CD by Nas. And I know I'm leaving multiple categories out of the list. So how am I affiliating in terms of my music?
The short answer is that I'm not. Much as I liked the film "High Fidelity," I don't agree with John Cusack's character when he says that what's important is what we like, that that's what defines us. I'm very much a person who tries not to judge another based on his or her musical tastes, because, with a few exceptions, I don't think they're that informative a measure. I doubt that anyone looking at me with no other context would imagine that I, a bespectacled, balding, pudgy, middle-aged white guy poetry teacher loves bumping along to DJ Kool or Ozomatli (even though I don't know half the latter's lyrics). But if you looked at my iPod playlist, you might come to the conclusion that I'm not that guy. (Honestly, I don't know what conclusion you'd come to.)
But it's the last part of her post that I found most interesting, though not for the reasons Vega intended, I'd imagine.
The last verse was inspired by a real-life discussion I overheard at a bar in Baltimore. A black man and a white woman were discussing a recent sports event. He called her “baby” playfully. She called him “stats boy,” meaning, I guess, someone well-versed in statistics. The conversation escalated quickly into a loud yelling argument, as he did not feel he was a boy of any kind and that word had racist overtones. Maybe the recent election means my song is on its way to being obsolete. I hope so.Set aside the last two sentences for a moment--the part that really struck me was that while the black man got upset for being called a "stat boy" (and to argue that boy in that context has racial overtones is, to me, a bit far-fetched--the adjective take race completely out of the mix), he didn't think twice about diminishing the woman by calling her "baby." And if the woman objected to that word, Vega didn't include it in her post or in the song she subsequently wrote. Yet another example of how sexism is often casually overlooked.