Tuesday, June 17, 2008

This black girl loves Icky Thump: My life as a musical heretic

I'm headed to work this a.m. The sun is bright. The sky is blue. And the temperature hasn't reached boiling yet. So, I ditch the AC, roll down my windows, plug in my iPod and turn the volume up high. When the weather is nice and I have the right tunes, my 40-minute commute can be almost painless. Music is like that for me. It makes everything better. It provides a soundtrack for my daydreams (and I'm the sort who daydreams a lot). On the playlist this morning: The White Stripes' "Icky Thump." I feel kind of energized today, in the mood for jangling guitars and a driving bass and drum. So, I'm 10 minutes from work and a brother pulls up to my bumper at a stoplight. He looks over at me quizzically--dumbfounded. It was then that I remembered: I am a musical heretic.
It is possible that the image of a black woman sporting an afro puff and nodding her head to loud rock-n-roll was a little incongruous to my fellow commuter. Not surprising. I have been defending my eclectic musical tastes since middle school. Everybody knows that black folks don't listen to rock or folk or country or roots music. But guess what? I love all of that stuff.
I blame the elementary school sock hops. When weather kept the students at Alfred E. Nobel Elementary School inside for the lunch hour, the matrons would haul out the record player and we'd dance. To accommodate a diverse audience (the neighborhood and school were predominately white, but "white flight" was making way for families of color), the school played a little bit of everything: Queen and Parliament Funkadelic, AC/DC and Earth, Wind & Fire, Rod Stewart and Prince. So, I learned to appreciate "Fat-Bottomed Girls" just as much as "Flashlight."
At home, my dad had an awesome record collection filled great old school stuff: Aretha, Motown, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, crooners like The Spinners. There was also some Barbara Streisand and Carpenters in there, too. On Saturdays, I flipped between Soul Train and American Bandstand. On Sundays, I often watched the Lawrence Welk Show and Hee Haw (yes, Hee Haw) with my grandparents.
In the early 70s, the station that I remember most reliably reaching the south shore of Lake Michigan from Chicago was the 50,000-watt rock station WLS-AM. Later, stations emerged devoted to black music, but when I was a wee Tami, it was Billy Joel, Elton John and the Eagles that drifted from the radio at night.
I guess that's how a young black girl, growing up in a Midwestern chocolate city comes to appreciate rock, pop, R&B, country and the occasional polka. My best friend, Carol, had similar musical influences. Together, we went to our first rock and pop concerts and had the typical suburban girl pop idol crushes (Shaun Cassidy, Rick Springfield...stop laughing). Back then (as today), we both seemed to gravitate a bit more towards the rock than the rhythm and blues, but my music collection had enough room for both the J.Geils Band and Dazz Band.
I reckoned my tastes were common until I graduated to an all-black middle school across town from my neighborhood. Then I learned that it was hopelessly uncool to listen to "all that white music," especially when hip hop (the great, groundbreaking early hip hop) was making it's way from New York City to urban centers across the country. I liked some of it, learned to do "the wop" and other popular dances to it, and acknowledged it as an important cultural touchstone, but from middle school through high school, on my turntable and in my Walkman (Heh...remember those), it was New Wave and British Invasion pop: Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, Depeche Mode, Wham, Yaz and the Smiths. In college, I predictably graduated to "alternative college rock" like R.E.M., 10,000 Maniacs, The Cure and U2.
Today, the shuffle mode on my mp3 player yields a schizophrenic mix. While writing this post, I set my iPod on shuffle to see what came up: Feist, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Clash, Johnny Cash, U2, DeBarge and Erykah Badu to name a few. I love a bumping bass, but there is something I find really sexy and exhilarating about a screaming guitar. And any song, of any genre, with good, meaningful lyrics, has my appreciation--that's the influence of the writer in me.

I learned early on to keep my musical tastes hidden from black folks. My favorite tunes have often been raised as examples of my "acting white" or have earned me the derision of black friends. I remember a few years ago when a friend spied a 10,000 Maniacs Greatest Hits CD peaking out of my bag. "What is that?" She asked, grimacing. I lamely tried to explain myself, saying I loved the band in college and how I've always listened to different kinds of music, not just "black music." My friend retorted: "Well, yeah, I listened to white music too, back in the 80s when it was cool, but not anymore!" (That friend is no longer a friend, btw.)
One of the things that I love about the blogosphere is that I've found there are other black folks like me, who love songs like "Icky Thump" as much as songs like "Sticky Icky" (A song I despise and will not link to. But you get my point).
So, to all my fellow musical heretics--this post is for you.


ac said...

Your stoplight moment cracks me up. Everytime I swing by the local community center for yoga practice in the Summer I feel like I should turn down my radio so as not to disturb all the little b-boy kiddies with my classic rock, electronica and alternative music.

My late brother once tried to "correct" my musical tastes by giving me an album of the music I "should" be listening to for Christmas. My parents called him out on that one. But then they have everything from opera, jazz, symphony classical, calypso and steeldrums to Eric Clapton and Hendrix in their musical collection - lol! I guess I come by my heresy honestly.

heartsandflowers said...

Oh Tami I feel ya! But that attitude [which is definitely American] is part of what holds Black people back as well. It doesn't acknowledge the contribution of the artists that started rock music and it segregates along color lines. Of course the record companies micro-analyze for trends as well. It is a matter of liking QUALITY. I was never as into hip-hop as say...new wave. I certainly appreciate the early message of exemplifying the status of people at the time but this crap that's being promoted now does not resemble it all. It's underground all the way. Anyway 7 Nation Army is one of my all time fave songs and it even sounds good with a cello in place of the guitar. I will only to music that uplifts and invigorates me with an emotional resonance.

blackwomenblowthetrumpet.blogspot.com said...

Hey Tami!

This is a great post because I love music... not just so-called "black music"....I love Vivaldi...I love Mozart (when I'm in a funk)...I love to hear Yo Yo Ma make love to a composition...I love Gospel...and I loved Devo when I was a teenager...and Sting...and Barry Manilow...and Elton John...

Yes...and Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers too...and Tom Jones with his swivel hips...

Go you just enjoy your music, Tami!! (smiles) And know that there will always be those who are in such a tiny little box of what "being black" means that they miss out on being more exposed....

Peace, blessings and DUNAMIS!

AJ Plaid said...

Wait...did you say "Hee Haw?" I *dug* that show I was a wee AJ growing up in Ohio! And Dolly Parton and Cole Porter? Pure rhinestone-country magic!

And how are you and Lisa from BWBTT gonna snatch my iPod and read off my playlist, friends?:-D Sting (still swoon-tastic after all these years), Yo-Yo Ma (his tangos and early American music makes me wanna take his cello bow and....well, you get the point.;-)), Duran Duran, Yaz, Depeche Mode...definitely. May I add Steely Dan, Hard Kaur, DJ Rekha, Eurythmics, Pretenders, Thomas Dolby, Celia Cruz, Poncho Sanchez, Los Lobos, The Style Council, Adam Ant, and Go West?

Yeah, I'm totally down with the Musical Heretics Club.

@ Lisa--"And know that there will always be those who are in such a tiny little box of what "being black" means that they miss out on being more exposed...." Exactly!

Tami said...


Saaah-lute! (a little humor for the Hee Haw fans.)To this day I loves me some Dolly Parton. Dolly is cool.

Aaah...Steely Dan! Their greatest hits album is awesome! Okay, AJ and BWBTT, stay out of my music collection! :)

Los Angelista said...

Hardcore Depeche Mode fan signing in for duty! ;)

What always kills me about those folks who'd diss rock or techno (or house) was that black folks invented all of it so they clearly don't really know what's "black" music! It's ALL black music. And even if it weren't invented by black folks, a whole lot of it is great, so why wouldn't I listen to it?

I can't count the number of times I've been told that I only liked Depeche Mode because I'm half white -- or it was my weird, white side coming out. Such idiocy.

Keep rockin' the Icky Thump. It's a fave around here too!

Beth said...

Great music is great music. Who says you can't just listen to what you like? In my home we listen to just about every type of music, and the kids are better for it - even the neighbor kids, lol! Great blog!

DP said...


I feel this post. My musical tastes are all over the place too. I mean, Fishbone is my all time favorite band. I saw them in concert about 10 times during my young adult years. Talk about a wild, musical happening. But some people's musical boxes are so small that they cannot see the similarities between that band and P-Funk. Musical rigidness like that limits kids mentally and that is precisely where our kids do not need to be limited.

whatsername said...

Wow, you're more eclectic than me!

I remember catching shit in Elementary school because I liked TLC. Yah they were huge at the time but I was in a lily white northern cali suburb, the thing then was Green Day (my favorite band...) Unfortunately the peer pressure rather worked and I stopped listening to R&B and rap until Rage Against the Machine came out and I realized that guitars and rap could be merged. And then I started to like some of it again.

Really didn't come back around until I saw Erykah Badu on The Dave Chappelle show. She's fucking awesome. And that got me interested again. Anyway, I've gotten that look before, apparently skinny pretty white girls aren't supposed to listen to Rage?

But speaking of eclectic music, have you checked out Flobots?? That "Handlebars" song on the radio is seriously the worst song on the album, I think you might really appreciate all the different instruments and styles they blend.

Somebodies Friend said...

God loves musicians and artists, doesn't he Tami, I've been thinking about that for weeks. If you listen to the lyrics to a lot of artists songs, they just scream out at ya, Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon, John Cougar Mellencamp - Small Town, The list goes on and on.

They are doing what musisians do all to well: They are screaming out "Listen to me, listen to what I am saying"

I hear them, maybe we can have a disussion about our favorite musicians and artists at another time.

Until then!


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