Thursday, November 3, 2016

Far Out West

David Crosby is a crusty, mean old curmudgeon.  And I'm grateful for that.
The 75-year-old veteran rocker drew a lot of flak in 2015 for dismissing Kanye West as a poser.  Rap fans and contemporary pop critics were quick to denounce him as an aging white male rockist who just didn't get that popular music had changed and that rock and roll was being defined by someone who was reclaiming it for the black Americans who invented it back in the fifties.  Well, Crosby doubled down on his criticisms only recently, saying that West "certainly can’t play anything, and he certainly doesn’t sing."
The Cros could have stopped there, but he had more to say on the issue. "The thing that bugs me about him is the 'I’m the world’s greatest living rock star.' Somebody needs to drive him over to Stevie Wonder’s house right now so he understands what a real one is."  He also said that West should listen to Ray Charles records to learn how to sing.
It would be easy to dismiss Crosby as someone as a musician hopelessly set in his ways, but such a dismissal wouldn't hold water.  Because even though he's admitted to having problems with rap in general, he's developed a respect for the form, which he admitted to starting out having hated.  As I recall, in a 1991 television interview, Crosby endorsed the messages in rap lyrics and singled out one Dana Owens of Newark, New Jersey (that would be Queen Latifah, of course) for special praise.  More recently, Crosby gave a thumbs-up to Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the acclaimed musical Hamilton, for being a fantastic songwriter.  So Crosby's problem with Kanye West is not so much with the fact that West is a rapper as it is with the fact that West is . . . Kanye West.
And it was shrewd of Crosby to compare West not to Bob Dylan or his buddy Neil Young and instead compare him to Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, and not necessarily because Charles was and Wonder is black.  He compared West to Charles and Wonder because they are heralded as geniuses, and West is famous for labeling himself as one.  As if to drive the point home that one does not have the right to anoint oneself a genius, Crosby used that very word to describe . . . Lin-Manuel Miranda.
None of this, of course, is going to insulate Crosby from further criticism.  But give him credit; in the past quarter century, he's shown himself to be more broadminded about rap than I'll ever be.  (That would also go for Stephen Stills, who let a rap act sample his Buffalo Springfield song "For What It's Worth," and and for Graham Nash, who endorsed rap for its political lyrics.)   I understand that West is more broadminded about rock than I am about rap and has experimented with fusing the two forms on his records.  Yeah, well, that's what I've been told.  That's not going to change my opinion that rap isn't music.  Nor is it going to change my opinion about West, who clearly will resort to any trick to aggrandize himself.  (Do you want to know how many people got apoplectic when West teamed up with Paul McCartney?  Plenty!)  But I am aware that, for all my protests against rap, I'm going to be seen as an intolerant white guy by more than a few people.  Those of us who reject rap as music could make an argument against it purely based on aesthetics and win the debate with little effort.  But when rap fans set the aesthetic issue aside and bring up race in response, what can we do?     

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