Monday, August 5, 2013

No, The Seattle Audience Wasn't "Aggressively Displeased" By Big Freedia

I recently moved to Seattle from New York, and my new hometown gave me a great welcoming present -- a well-timed concert by The Postal Service at the KeyArena.  I was surprised to see that they were playing such a large venue, being a one-off side project of Ben Gibbard that had released only a single album a decade ago.  (It made a little more sense to me that they had played the Barclays Center in New York, where even small up-and-coming acts will often play large venues even if they're otherwise playing in dive bars when they tour cross-country.)  Unsurprisingly, much of the arena was empty the night of July 18th, and so the opening act carried the significant burden of trying to fill an 18-thousand capacity space with maybe 18 hundred attendees trickling in.  This is the context in which it seems many Seattlites (myself included, if I may adopt my new home town's moniker) were introduced to one particularly spunky opening act who goes by the drag personae Big Freedia.

For those of you who haven't heard of Big Freedia before either, the Wikipedia summary is that she's "an American musician known for work in New Orleans genre of hip hop called bounce music."  For those of you who haven't heard of "bounce music" before, here was my introduction to "bounce" (and, unbeknownst to me at the time, to the Queen Diva herself) from the HBO not-really-a-hit series Treme:


You might notice that the scene takes place in a loud, crowded bar packed with sweaty people getting their groove on -- i.e. not in a 18k-capacity arena that's 90% empty but for a few stragglers having their first sip of beer after getting off of work.  Some of those stragglers were less enthralled by Big Freedia and her three booty-shaking consorts on stage, and they took to Twitter to make their opinions known.  This sliver of a reaction proved to be the spark that set off a small firestorm of criticism from one Katie Ryder, who's brutal take-down of "the white audiences" that "aggressive[ly]" responded to Big Freedia allegedly because they felt "confront[ed]" by Big Freedia's "transgress[ion] into a physical room of whiteness" was recently published on Salon.com.

I'm here to say "balderdash!" Balderdash, I say! Aside from extrapolating to a ridiculous degree the reaction of a handful of the Twitterati to an entire audience, Ms. Ryder ignores entirely the delicate balance that goes into a successful concert experience, while at the same time sadly reducing Big Freedia to a "tolerance litmus test."  It's hard not to conclude that Ms. Ryder's article is a conclusion in search of an argument.  She clearly has something to say about the appropriation of black culture by white musicians (which may easily be said to summarize much of American music in general from the late 1800s to the present but in this case summarizes Miley Cyrus's foray into "twerking").  And perhaps the opportunity to package that message together with everybody's favorite hobby these days -- hispter-punching -- was just too tempting.  (I can't wait for the third season of Girls to start so that we can read another dozen articles about the blinding whiteness of Lena Dunham, a topic that just can't be explored enough!)

But before we try to unpack just what the hell Miley Cyrus has to do with a dozen or so tweets from KeyArena and whether Big Freedia made sense as an opening act in The Postal Services' stadium tour, let me share a few thoughts on the strange alchemy of finding the perfect concert experience (and the many pitfalls that can turn an amazing show into a forgettable or even uncomfortable one).


The Sun Ra Arkestra's Sad Decent Back To Earth


I moved to New York from St. Louis in 2003 and among the many culture shocks I went through ("People actually live downtown!", "The stores don't close at sundown!", "You can exist without a car!!!" "Ethiopian food!!!!"), the oddest one for me was just how cold-fish the audiences could be at a concert -- no matter how large or small the venue, no matter how raucous the band, no matter how drunk the audience, I was surrounded by stone-cold faces and crossed arms that would only untangle to clap politely between songs.  I was used to the Midwestern gratitude for any band that chose to spend an extra night between the coasts after playing Chicago.  If you knew how to plug in a speaker and strum a chord, you could get people dancing and shouting without breaking a sweat on stage.  (And that's before I talk about my time at a small state university in a town of about seven thousand people ... there you don't even need the speakers.  Just project your voice and you'll get a standing ovation.)

Somehow I thought New York would be absolutely everything I did love about St. Louis with the volume turned up to 11.  The reality is that when you can attend a blow-out performance by the next-big-thing seven nights out of the week, the shine of that experience begins to lose its luster.  There were exceptions, of course.  The first show the Pixies played in New York on their reunion tour a few years back and a recent New Order concert stand out as absolute barn burners, with thousands of thrilled concert-goers fully expressing their unmitigated joy throughout the entire set.  On the opposite end of the venue spectrum, I had a fantastic time in claustrophobic bars with a few dozen others rocking out to up-and-comers Deleted Scenes and He's My Brother, She's My Sister.

The glut of concert opportunities I enjoyed in New York made clear what should've been obvious -- there's no predicting when a performance is going to fully *click* between the band, the audience, the time and the place.  All those factors and more have to be just right to make a concert worth remembering.

That said, there's something peculiar about New York audiences, generally speaking, that make them an especially hard-sell.  Nothing so captured this reality for me than an unexpected opening band that appeared before Yo La Tengo in a small Brooklyn music hall back around 2006.  Now, generally speaking, I don't usually bother to check the opening bands when I buy concert tickets (more on that later), and that's assuming they've even been announced in advance.  On that particular night, if I'd known that New Jersey's favorite indie rock trio would be joined on stage by none other than the famous space-jazz cult band The Sun Ra Arkestra ... I probably would have done my homework ahead of time.

I'd heard of them in college from some of my more music-savvy friends, but I had never heard them before I stepped into the show mid-performance.  The scene was surreal.  On stage, the human embodiment of Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem was bringing the funk straight from outer space in costumes that the Black Hebrew Israelites of 125th Street would've called garish.  Meanwhile, from the audience's perspective, they might as well have been giving a lecture on wind erosion.  There wasn't what you would call a negative reaction (or what Ms. Ryder might call a disturbing display of white aggression); nobody booed or catcalled or whatever.  But in a sense, the audience's stoic indifference was far worse.  What artist wouldn't rather inspire outrage than apathy?  I swear I saw two band members look at each other and shrug in confusion at the complete lack of audience participation.

As it happens, the coupling of the preeminent space jazz band and the godparents of mumblecore made some sense in context.  Yo La Tengo had recently recorded a cover of Sun Ra's "Nuclear War", and the band was expanding its sound on its then-latest album to include an indie-rock approximation of funk.  Still, if you were in the right disposition, there would've been a lot to say about white Brooklyn's rejection of black performers in their public spaces ... that is, if you stepped into that scene with no knowledge of New York's typical indifference (or how concerts tend to work in general).

Which brings us to a similarly incongruous coupling of music styles, which did spark just such a conversation ...

Who Are You Calling "Preemptively Defensive"?


I was having flashbacks to that night in Brooklyn when I entered the floor of the KeyArena and saw a crowd of maybe a thousand or so gathered around the stage, staring stone-faced as three women shook their asses in the air to a heavy base beat.  It was clear that there was a lot of energy on stage that just wasn't translating into the audience.  From our vantage point in the audience, it wasn't clear whether the singer in the middle of the action was a man or a woman, which led my girlfriend to say, "Is this just some guy pointing at three women's asses?  Because it's making me kind of uncomfortable."  We had no idea who the opening act was going to be so I took to the internet and learned that (a) it was a drag queen on stage, (b) she was a "bounce artist", and (c) "bounce music" is big in New Orleans.

Make of it what you will, but all that suddenly made the performance a lot less offensive to my girlfriend (and me as well).  Seeing Big Freedia herself get into the action and shake her ass with the rest of the ladies also took the edge off the "male gaze" aspect of the whole scene.

I summed up my reaction on Twitter thusly ...

Unsurprisingly, this was not a unique reaction on Twitter, though apparently not so sensational a reaction to warrant any retweets or other such buzz.  The same can't be said, however, for others in the audience who's bewilderment caught the attention of other bloggers (and, eventually, Salon.com).  Here's the sampling that Ms. Ryder highlighted in queuing up her analysis of white privilege in the Seattle music scene:



Between these handful of tweets and a couple of stray reactions (some told second-hand with few specifics) from bloggers, Ms. Ryder reaches the conclusion that the audience in Seattle (along with a few other cities she barely mentions in passing) was "pissed and confounded", "strangely aggressive" and basically a living manifestation of white privilege.  "More than anything else," she writes, "the white audience seemed preemptively defensive."

Also, she seems to think the audience's reaction has everything to do with Miley Cyrus.

Now, before I tell you exactly why this article really set me on edge when I read it, let me unpack in a little more detail exactly how she gets from "Seattle audience surprised that a bounce act is opening for indie band" to "white hispters are preemptively defense against anyone who's different."  Because it's a hell of a toboggan ride.

From the article: "For some reason, audience members reacted as if they had no advance knowledge of who would be playing ..."

Yes, that's correct.

I, for one, had no freakin' idea who the opening act would be because I almost never know who the opening acts will be.  More often than not, it's some up-and-comer whom I've never heard of and who typically disappoints.  And all too often, there are like four of them before the act I paid money to see, so I usually plan on showing up right before the main act is scheduled to go on stage so as not to waste time that could be spent elsewhere.

For the record, here's the confirmation I received when I bought tickets to the show:

Not pictured: Azz Everywhere
So, no, Ms. Ryder.  I had no clue that three women with their asses in the air would be the first thing I saw when I entered KeyArena.  That's fine, I enjoyed the show, and my girlfriend and I made a point of seeing Big Freedia again the following week when she played the Capitol Hill Block Party.  But it wasn't what we'd expected to see before The Postal Service. 
From the article: "Most people, including most Postal Service fans, are familiar with bounce sounds from crossover hits like Juvenile’s 1999 No. 1 “Back That Azz Up” or Beyonc√©’s 2007 “Get Me Bodied."
Ms. Ryder doesn't bother to link to the peer-reviewed survey she took before making this statement, which is unfortunate because it's central to her whole argument.  See, we must have known that Big Freedia was going to be performing, and we also must be familiar with "bounce" music since -- after all -- these other songs exist.  For the record, I'm vaguely familiar that an artist named Juvenile exists, and I'm a little more familiar with Beyonc√©, but not by much.  And yet I'm also a Postal Service fan.  So go figure.  Crazy world.

From the article: "[Miley] Cyrus [twerks] in an all-white room in the video for 'Can’t Stop' ... and [w]ithin the context of the white twerk trend, the Postal Service fan reaction seems disturbing: We’d like our booty shaking, but when we ask for it, and also when we do it ourselves."
And this is precisely where the whole article goes off the freakin' rails.  A few paragraphs before this amazing conclusion, Ms. Ryder went on a detour to explain for those of us unfamiliar with Elvis, Eminem, or the last 150 years of music history that white musicians frequently appropriate the styles of black musicians.  The fact that Ms. Ryder puts the spotlight on Miley's recent penchant for "twerking" is almost poetically appropriate, given that her father Billy Ray Cyrus (whether deservedly or not) came to symbolize the nadir of white country music's appropriation of southern black rhythm and blues into something utterly soulless and tacky.

Sure, maybe there's an article to be written about Miley Cyrus twerking, but what the hell does that have to do The Postal Service???  The assertion Ms. Ryder makes that the same audience that couldn't connect with Big Freedia's performance are the same Whitey McWhitebreads who can't get enough of MILEY FREAKIN' CYRUS is so tone deaf and offensive that I don't know where to begin.  ("Well, it just doesn't make sense that African Americans don't like White Stripes more ... after all, Jimi Hendrix played guitar, too, and he's black!")

Let me just say to Ms. Ryder that all of us Postal Service fans actually don't do our music shopping from gas station discount racks.  We also don't all watch Total Request Live or listen to Top 40 radio religiously.  Also, I do believe it's certainly possible to like Miley's "Can't Stop" video (despite her apparent resemblance to Hitler Youth) while also disliking Big Freedia's performance for reasons other than White Privilege.  But that's because I do not believe music tastes and cultural sensitivity always walk lockstep with one another.

Okay, one more ...
From the article:  "Probably plenty of these uncomfortable attendees consider themselves queer-friendly: This is Seattle, after all.  But transgressing the theoretical space of accepted culture is different from transgressing into a physical room of whiteness, or in this case, an arena — a place of expected sameness.  Apparently, the latter can even be received as a type of trespass."
There's a third option that Ms. Ryder seems not have contemplated: Perhaps the audience didn't much care for Big Freedia's performance because she just didn't connect with the audience, particularly given that she was playing in a nearly empty stadium with an 18 thousand person capacity.  It's a daunting challenge even for the most seasoned of artists.   I once saw The National open for Modest Mouse and R.E.M. at Madison Square Garden, and I can't remember a more flat performance by a band I love.  It turns out it's incredibly difficult to fill a venue that big when there are barely a few hundred people in attendance (and half of them are too busy texting their friends to let them know where they're sitting to actually pay attention to the band on stage).

Let me pause here and acknowledge that Ms. Ryder does mention that some people -- who, she won't tell us -- described the show as "ghetto" and "hoodraft."  It's a shame that she doesn't provide a source for these comments.  She doesn't even provide the city! Surely such clearly racist comments would've made a better lead for the article.  Instead, she makes these absurd allegations the centerpiece of her article.  (She does cite Andrew Matson for the observation that "Men in the stands conspicuously proclaimed their own heterosexuality" during Big Freedia's act ... though, honestly, I don't really know what the hell that means.  It could mean they were shouting (weirdly) "I don't quite care for this act, and I'm straight!"  Or maybe, "I'm going to grab a beer guys.  Oh, and I'm straight."  Or how about, "Wow, I'm a straight man but that Big Freedia sure knows how to shake an azz!"  Sadly, it's left to our imagination.  Mr. Marton does conclude that "Bringing the gay-positive rap party to a straight-leaning indie-pop crowd was challenging without resulting in a mass exodus.  All things considered: a success." Just don't tell Ms. Ryder that, Mr. Marton.  It would ruin her thesis!)

Personally, I felt no "trespass" in Big Freedia's performance, just a flat performance that didn't connect.  Thankfully, as I mentioned above, my girlfriend and I had the chance to see her play again at the Capitol Hill Block Party the next week and the difference was night and day.  In this case, "night" was a nearly empty stadium and "day" was a crowded street packed with drunken revelry and dancing.  That crowd -- the same lily-white Seattlites with their tattoos and proud progressive values -- ate that sh*t up!  It's almost as if Big Freedia was back in her element, and it had a lot more to do with venue than it did with Miley Cyrus.

I tried to raise this point with Ms. Ryder, but it seemed to completely pass her by:


Ms. Ryder reacted to my tweet (in a post that she's since deleted) basically saying, "Yeah, I was writing about context, didn't you catch that?  Also, I wasn't just talking about Seattle.  Oh, and thanks for the comments."  Here was my response to that:


(Ugh, stupid typo ... I know who JT is, even if I'm not intimately familiar with Miley Cyrus's complete discography.)

I would've liked to seen her response to that, but seeing as she deleted her previous responses to me, I gather the conversation is over.  If I take her article in the most charitable light, giving her a pass on the more absurd arguments she makes (highlighted above), I can take away the point that we should always be open to challenging artistic expression, even when it arrives in a surprising, unexpected context.  I can agree with that.  Fine.  I can agree that transgressive art shouldn't be considered "off-limits" anywhere, including in an arena opening for The Postal Service.

But with the megaphone Salon.com provided her, absurd arguments and leaps to conclusion in tact, this seems to be the "take away" instead:

And frankly that just pisses me off.

"Oh yes, they're quite awful.  But they are lesbians, so ..."


Look, it's just an article, one third-hand perspective that hyper-generalizes the perspective of a handful of tweeters and sews it together with the modern day doctrine that "White Privilege Is Bad."  I don't disagree, but it's also taking up bandwidth on Salon.com and sending a message that I ultimately think is bad for everyone. 

First, it's bad for Seattle ...

The town just doesn't deserve this bad rap.  A tepid reaction to an opening act in a poorly suited venue and a dozen or so tweets expressing displeasure are a thin gruel from which to reach the sort of sweeping conclusion Ms. Ryder does about the audience in attendance.  But now the word is out that Seattlites are racists and homophobes to boot.  (Also, we loooooove Miley Cyrus.  Not that there's anything wrong with that.)  It might have said something about the crowd that night if Miley Cyrus herself, or some other white "twerk band" was performing.  Then you'd have an appropriate context for Ms. Ryder's anlysis.

Instead, sadly, we have people re-tweeting the article, commending Ms. Ryder for exposing the racism and homophobia that underlies Seattle culture.  (Oh, and a few other cities, too.  Don't forget that she wasn't just tar and feathering one location.)

Come on.

Second, it's bad for Big Freedia ...

She deserves better than to be reduced to a tolerance litmus test.  There's a thousand reasons why a live performance can go south, but treating the audience's reaction (which, as far as I can tell, never really veered into anything homophobic or racist -- with the exception of the unsubstantiated examples cited without support in the article) as a barometer for queer tolerance is to reduce a complex and engaging artist to a punch line on Parks And Recreation:


Big Freedia's performance at KeyArena didn't achieve its potential.  It wasn't her fault really, there's just too much space in that arena for her to fill.  And when the audience reacts stone-faced and indifferent, it's just impossible for me to feel immersed in the music, which is what I really love about a good concert.   (It might have helped things if Gibbard had thought to bring Big Freedia on stage at some point for a duet.  That may sound unlikely but it absolutely could have worked during Postal Service's kinetic performance of "Natural Anthem.")

On the other hand, if the audience had truly reacted negatively -- that is, if they booed  (as it sounds like they did in Portland judging from a tweet exchange I had with someone from there) or threw things on stage -- at least it would have been a reaction.  Ms. Ryder may have had a field day with that kind of actual manifestation of audience disapproval, but somehow I suspect that Big Freedia would've preferred something over nothing.  (If nothing else, I'm willing to wager Big Freedia doesn't want people to line up to see her just to prove their "queer friendly" credentials to anyone.) 

Third, it's bad for music criticism ...

I'd love to read a serious critique of "bounce" -- how it reappropriates the "male gaze" and interacts with drag queen culture, what it says about the New Orleans culture that birthed it, etc. etc.  Such an article ought to be written by someone who also understands that there's a world of difference in the lived experience of seeing a concert in a crowded, sweaty bar after midnight and milling around a nearly empty stadium floor just after work.  (The writer should also have at least a passing familiarity with how people buy concert tickets these days.  I'm sorry, I just can't get over the fact that she doesn't seem to understand that people rarely know who the opening acts will be.)

That article isn't going to come from me, an outsider to that culture who's only vaguely familiar with this genre of music (through Treme, that is, and not Miley Cyrus, thank you very much).  Perhaps it could come from someone like Ms. Ryder who obviously has a lot to say about it.  (Did you know, for example, that "twerk band" is not a phrase?  She's full of useful insights just like that!)  Hopefully she's gotten all of her zingers against the "lily-white", past-their-prime, beloved-by-"comically unhip"-"yokels" Postal Service out of her system.  I'd love to see her write something from experience (not from Twitter sampling) that tells me something new about culture and music.

For Salon.com, I close with this bit of advice:  if the article you're posting can be summed up with the observation, "Man, hipsters sure are the worst, amirtite?!?", then maybe you should consider posting something else instead.  (Buzzfeed already has that topic covered in spades.)  Please.  Preferably before Girls is back on the air and someone feels the need to remind us again that, gee, Lena Dunham and her fans sure are white and privileged!

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