Is Stephin Merritt a racist because he doesn’t like hip-hop?

Stephin Merritt

Stephin Merritt is an unlikely cracker. The creative force behind the Magnetic Fields, Merritt is diminutive, gay, and painfully intellectual. His music is witty and tender. He plays the ukulele. He named his Chihuahua after Irving Berlin. And yet no less an influential music critic than The New Yorker’s Sasha Frere-Jones has used that word—“cracker”—to describe him. Frere-Jones has also called him “Stephin ‘Southern Strategy’ Merritt,” presumably in reference to Richard Nixon’s race-baiting attempt to crush the Democratic Party. These are heady words, part of a two-year online campaign of sorts by Frere-Jones (also a former Slate music critic) and the Chicago Reader music contributor Jessica Hopper to brand Merritt a racist. The charge: He doesn’t like hip-hop, and on those occasions when he’s publicly discussed his personal music tastes, he has criticized black artists.

The bizarre case against Merritt came to a head last month at the Experience Music Project’s annual Pop Conference. Merritt was the keynote speaker, and in a panel conversation he described “Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah,” from Disney’s legendarily racist 1946 musical Song of the South, as a “great song.” He made clear, according to a partial transcript of the panel provided by his band mate Claudia Gonson, that he did not actually like Song of the South, calling it unwatchable and saying that it has just “one great song. The rest of it is terrible, actually.”

This was too much for Hopper, who was in the audience and had already written on her blog that she intended to confront Merritt. She walked out in anger and wrote, falsely, that, “I did not have to ask Stephin Merrit [sic] of Magnetic Flds whether he was racist, because his nice, long elucidating comment about his love, NAY, obsession with racist cartoon, Song of the South, served as a pre-emptive answer. It’s one thing to have ‘Zippitty Doo Da’ be your favorite song. It is another to lay in for Uncle Remus appreciation hour amidst a panel—(’I love all of it,’ he says).”

Of course Merritt had said no such thing. Later, when confronted with a transcript of the panel, Hopper retracted her comments. But not before other bloggers picked up the meme. Frere-Jones linked to a list of favorite recordings of the 20th century—one for each year—that Merritt had written for Time Out New York six years ago and noted that few of the artists or composers were black. I have never met Merritt, and I have no idea whether or not he hates black people. But neither do Sasha Frere-Jones and Jessica Hopper. The evidence on which they base their claims and insinuations—the fact that Merritt doesn’t enjoy listening to select black artists and doesn’t like most hip-hop—is flimsy stuff. Moreover, the whole of their sustained attack against Merritt is founded on the dangerous and stupid notion that one’s taste in music can be interrogated for signs of racist intent the same way a university’s admissions process can: If the number of black artists in your iPod falls too far below 12.5 percent of the total, then you are violating someone’s civil rights.

“I’ve obviously said it already,” Hopper told me when I asked her flat-out if Merritt is a racist. “I think there’s some real questionable shit in what he thinks about race and music.” Asked where that “questionable shit” can be found, Hopper referred me to a 2004 Salon interview in which Merritt said that he liked “the first two years of rap,” including the first Run DMC record, but that he finds contemporary hip-hop boring and—wait for it—racist. “I think it’s shocking that we’re not allowed to play coon songs anymore,” Merritt said, “but people, both black and white, behave in more vicious caricatures of African-Americans than they had in the 19th century. It’s grotesque. … It probably would have been considered too tasteless for the Christy Minstrels.” In the same interview, he made the moral error of not liking OutKast, whose single “Hey Ya!” was at the time serving as America’s background music: “I’m desperately sick of hearing it.”

Around the same time, in a New York magazine interview, Merritt again dared to publicly express his boredom with OutKast and furthermore said of Justin Timberlake: “I’m not really exposed to him except as a photographic image. He gives good photo shoot.” Of Beyoncé and Britney Spears: “[Spears] would be absolutely meaningless if we didn’t see pictures of her. Beyoncé is not famous for her songs, she’s famous for that outfit. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.”

A reasonable person would understand two things from these comments: 1) that Merritt believes contemporary popular music, whether it’s produced by white people (Timberlake and Spears), or black people (Beyoncé), to be more concerned with selling an image than recording and performing songs; and 2) that, like much of America, he had heard as much OutKast as he cared to. Frere-Jones, who writes cogently and seriously about hip-hop and plays guitar and sings in his own carefully disorganized (and quite good) rock band, surveyed the above and reacted as though Merritt had stood in the doorway of the University of Alabama’s Foster Auditorium and declared that OutKast shall not pass. “[N]ote how eager Merritt is to dismiss Beyoncé, OutKast, Britney, and Justin, not just as singers and songwriters but as bearers of meaning. That’s a bias. Two women, three people of color and one white artist openly in love with black American music. That’s who he’s biased against. You could say there’s no pattern here. … You would then, hopefully, let me get a taste of whatever has made you so HIGH.”

The final count in Merritt’s indictment is a Playlist he wrote for the New York Times’ Sunday Arts and Leisure section in May 2004. According to his band mate Gonson, the Times presented Merritt with a stack of forthcoming CDs to write about. He chose seven, and all of them were by white artists. To which Frere-Jones responded: “The new idea for Playlist at the New York Times is to find some rockist cracker and let him loose. … Let’s watch Stephen [sic] Merritt swing a scythe through the fields of popular music with a blindfold on. Huh! Seven ‘great’ new pop records and not a person of color involved in a single one. That’s one magical, coincidence-prone scythe you got there, Stephen.”

I would refute Frere-Jones’ posturing, but upon inspection there is no argument to refute. There is nothing but innuendo and implication. Frere-Jones is either too cowardly or too prudent to call Merritt a racist, but he doesn’t have to—he lets sophistry do the work for him. It would be one thing if Frere-Jones were just some disgruntled OutKast fan with a MySpace page. But he is in fact a disgruntled OutKast fan with access to TheNew Yorker’s pages and all the credibility and authority that go along with that. He ought to take the things he writes on his blog seriously.

I asked Frere-Jones what, precisely, he was trying to say about Merritt, but after promising to reply via e-mail, he never did. So, we are left to assume that his argument is something along the lines of: In order to not be racist, you have to like Beyoncé, or at least pretend to. Or we could give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he simply means that you must like, or publicly profess to like, some minimum number of black artists relative to the total number of artists you like. Which puts him in an awkward position with respect to Merritt, considering he has no earthly idea what other artists Merritt listens to, or why.

And even if he did: If black artists are underrepresented in my CD collection relative to the frequency with which black people are found in the general population, does that make me a racist? To even begin to believe that it does, you have to first maintain that racial preferences somehow logically relate to music preferences; that racists avoid music made by black people, and that people who aren’t racist don’t pay attention to the race of the artist when evaluating music. Both propositions are ludicrous. Anybody who has been to a frat party knows that people can simultaneously a) entertain racist attitudes and b) enjoy listening to hip-hop music created by black people. (In fact, Merritt’s argument is that the latter tends to reinforce the former.)

By the same token, perfectly reasonable nonracist people take race and ethnicity into account in their musical preferences all the time. Hopper herself, whom I presume Frere-Jones would certify is kosher when it comes to the race-music axis, has complained bitterly on her blog of the “whiteness”—which she describes as “purposeful,” “icky,” and “dangerous”—of Merritt’s music. So, if it sounds dangerously white, we can infer that she’d like it to sound like something else. More … what?

The closest thing to a coherent argument that can be gleaned from what Frere-Jones and Hopper are saying is that a genuine respect for our common dignity and humanity requires that we enjoy listening to hip-hop, and that we bend our intuitive aesthetic judgments about music to a political will—like eating our vegetables and avoiding dessert. “Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah” may be catchy and delightfully mindless, but an understanding of its context requires you to reject its charms. And Beyoncé may be trite and boring, but your subtle racist ideology provokes that reaction, so you must find a way to appreciate her music.

And if you can’t? Try harder, cracker.