Spring2008

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New Thoughts on Old Songs

If You Asked Me To

By Sean Thayer

How long can this charade be kept up, I am asking myself.

If my disjointed memories and faculties serve, and they have been known to fail me, this was in the eighth grade. I’m sitting in some kind of science class with two of my classmates, in this case two black kids who have seemingly (and quite kindly) adopted me, apparently out of pity, bemusement, or, as I dare to envision in my more reckless imaginings, in a kind of quixotic brotherhood of mutual respect and understanding. I am the only white kid at our lab table, and I feel myself lifted slightly by their presence, energized by their blackness, emboldened amongst its untapped subtextual powers. Embarrassing? Certainly, but I was in eighth grade, with few friends of any color, and not above drawing on clichéd racial stereotypes to ensure my social survival. The white kids with whom I had been sitting previously had thrown me over abruptly, largely at the command of their alpha-male (and unworthy) ringleader, who had objected to my presence at their table from the beginning. But my recent adoption and therefore tacit approval by and from Mario and Raymond, the two boys I was now sitting with, had taken the sting out of this (inevitable?) rejection. Perhaps I can be black on the inside, I tell myself, absurdly.

For the past week, however, sitting with Mario and Raymond, I have been tap-dancing around the indelicate fact that I have not heard, (and frankly, would probably not care to hear), Doggystyle, a recent smash-hit album by American West Coast rapper, Snoop Doggy Dogg, the over-tall, flannel-wearing, and brilliantly braided protégé of hip-hop “mogul,” (as he is uniformly known), Dr. Dre, himself a former member of the rap ensemble, N.W.A., also known as, and rather more to the point, Niggaz With Attitude. Their notorious single, “Fuck Tha Police,” had bizarrely and brazenly inserted itself into the national political scene a few years before, with condemnations from President George Herbert Walker Bush on down. At the time, I am mostly disinterested in the controversy, and I assume that the provocative sentiment of “fuck the police” is just an empty-headed paean designed to court controversy, a la “God Save the Queen.” It has no connection to my world, and it’s political ramifications and masculinist rebellions are lost on me.

Truthfully, I do not try to understand them. I only wish to “pass” for the time being, preferably in 40 minute increments, (the duration of the science class), and the misbegotten misnomer of being “authentically” black, is (quite obviously) not upon me, principally because, uh, I’m not black. It occurs to me now that this option, my option—of half-hearted affectations and fraudulent appropriation—is not nearly as readily available to Mario and Raymond, my classmates.

This album, and others like it, for better or worse, has been deemed “relevant” to (male) African American experience (though by whom I can’t help but wonder), and the cultural cache that comes with it—which I can opt to discard after only a moment’s slightest appraisal—seems to loom large over Mario and Raymond. Perhaps they themselves are not so enthused over Snoop Dogg’s exaggerated machismo and feral harem of bling baring bitches, but if so, they are demonstrating otherwise presently. Here and now they discuss the rhymes of Doggystyle and N.W.A. with rapt due diligence during the time our teacher has allotted for us to work on our “lab” projects, (and by lab, I mean a dirty test tube, a sink, and some sort of Bunsen burner contraption we never turn on because it doesn’t work). We talk about the music enthusiastically, or some of us pretend to. I feel uneasy and am often made uncomfortable by what I hear, but, like Will Smith’s social-climbing hustler character in Six Degrees of Separation, I try to pass myself off as an insider, (or at least not an outsider, anyway), trying to infiltrate a world I do not understand, only here with Doggystyle and “Murder was the Case (That They Gave Me)” standing in for the Dubois and (Nietzsche’s) “Superman” references that Smith’s Manhattan dinner party coterie favored. We do discuss “art,” of a sort, as we ogle the cover shot of Doggystyle: a raunchy cartoon which vaguely gestures toward traditional black folk art, but in this instance depicts a dog/woman (both men and women are presented as dogs) on all fours, the bottom part of her body extending outward from a doghouse, rear end pushed skyward, as a group of drooling “dogs” look on from atop a red brick wall, their thought bubbles bemoaning their inability to do anything else: “Why must I feel like dat?,” “Nuttin but da dogg in me.” To be fair, the overall aim (or effect) of the cover is one of comedy, not degradation, but…I don’t want to be in the room when you show it to Eleanor Holmes Norton, okay?

Anyway, while I listen, nodding maniacally where appropriate to Mario and Raymond’s sermonic zeal, my mind wanders to the music I had heard (for real) throughout the previous summer…

If. You. Asked Me To…

I’m part of a trio again, this time with Howard and Jonathan, my two real, outside-of-school friends. Most mornings during this period began with a short walk to Howard’s house, my worn Wheel of Fortune board game in tow, then a short (but heated!) argument over who would get to “turn” the letters (i.e., slide a cheap, inch-long, plastic covering up and down over a white cardboard sheet printed with the current puzzle’s answer). Inevitably, Howard, a tubby and effeminate (let us not say “flamboyant”) black kid two years our junior, with whom Jonathan and I had been hanging with for the past month, would get hungry, and would carefully extricate himself into the kitchen (his journey punctuated by his intense, labored breathing) to skillfully make breakfast, which he usually (if unusually proudly) would share with Jonathan and I. Returning to the game already in progress, he would insist on playing us some Patti Labelle, whose enormous back-catalogue Howard’s entire living room wall spanning collection was both testament and shrine to. “If. You. Asked me to / I just might change my mind / and let you in my life for-evvv-er,” Labelle’s voice hypothesizes in one of the songs I remember. The vocal is sticky-sweet, more in line with Diana Ross’s girlish warble than Labelle’s normal authoritative balladeer belting, and she even lends a country-tinge to the first chorus.

Howard’s house is an the exact style of my own, only with better furnishings and African American art covering many of the walls, art that I am familiar with thanks to The Cosby Show and the opening sequences to Good Times. The vents in Howard’s house unceasingly blast an artic chill that is remarkable to me, as my own parents monitor the summertime temperature of the air conditioning in our house like a new mother might monitor her newborn’s bowel movements, fussing over every perceived change, sensitive to every fluctuation—though of course, Howard pays no mind to the ceaseless hum of the air conditioner. The house is, in fact, often empty, as his mother and father are rarely around, because they work a lot, and in more professional jobs then those my parents hold. There is however, a lot of coming and going of extended family members, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, and cousins are often referenced, and frequently Howard interrupts our Wheel of Fortune marathons to attend to the latest (welcome) familial interruption at the front door, something that never happens in the oppressive, all too familiar cauldron of my own insulated nuclear family.

Because it is summer, and after Wheel of Fortune is wrapped up, we often find ourselves at a local community pool that is within walking distance, and to which Jonathan’s parents have graciously paid for my entrance into. After a brief, half-hearted game of Marco Polo, Howard’s hunger again calls and we make our way clumsily to the vending machines to facilitate Howard’s addictions. A towel lazily draped over his head, (which serves as his de-facto, all purpose wig), Howard tosses his “hair” with exaggerated femininity (and without shame), then proceeds to parade poolside towards the vending machines, oblivious to the confused and uncomfortable smiles that appear like clockwork from the suburban “stay-at-home” (has there ever been a more condescending appellation?) moms lying on the pool side beach chairs eyeing him skeptically. Deliberate and obnoxious provocation was our pre-teen prerogative that summer, and Jonathan and I delighted in watching the apple-cart unsettled in Howard’s defiant, challenging, and complex wake. An edited version of Snoop’s “Gin and Juice,” (with it’s anti-melodic proclamation: “With my mind on my money / and my money on my mind”), can be heard emanating from someone’s radio, but it elicits nary a second-hearing from the moms (and dads) gathered with their children poolside…

I’m snapped back to science class and Mario and Raymond by (white) Danielle, who has been dispatched from my old lab table to ask me a question: “Do you think you’re smart?” she asks me boldly, her huge, perfect white teeth triumphantly awaiting the wrong answer, which will be whatever answer I provide her. Unsure of how to respond, and sensing the decidedly anti-intellectual temperature of the room, I say, “Naaaawww,” in my most convincing thugged-out voice, an answer that surprisingly seems to meet with her approval, and she heads back to her table promptly, essentially empty-handed (and empty-headed). Mario and Raymond, though, are disappointed with me: “Why are you gonna say you’re not smart in front of her? You know you smart, Thayer,” Raymond says. “Yeah, you wear glasses,” Mario adds accurately, with a teasing laugh. Mario and Raymond know the answer to the antagonistic, obnoxious questioning of “are you smart?” is “yes,” because they have been and will continue to be asked it all their lives, no matter what they achieve. But the thugged-out, dumbed-down persona I tried to adopt for a semester in junior high school, to be discarded later at my leisure, may be enough to sink Mario and Raymond, and other well intentioned black (and some white) kids like them who heard Doggystyle (et .al) and took its bombastic frustrations and unreal egoisms to heart.

There’s more to be said, of course, about the absurd polarities and false choices that are foisted on all of us, both black and white, male and female, rich and poor. There’s more I could say, to be sure, about the lionization of individualism, about the ceaseless production by our popular culture of hierarchies, (racial and otherwise), about the surprisingly inflexible and rigid nature of our gender narratives (“Why must I feel like dat?”). There’s more I could say about all of this.

If you asked me to.

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