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.


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