Wednesday, July 6, 2011

An Apology: The Black Keys and an Anonymous Student

One of the overarching topics of UNT's “Popular Music in American Culture” was to examine the codependent relationship between the music cultures of black and white America.  When I was a TA for this class, I was approached by a student on several occasions who insisted with some conviction that we check out The Black Keys, although he never really made a cogent case as to how they might be relevant.  This was a couple of years ago when they were relatively unknown, so his suggestion was filed under the “OK (yeah, right)” file and never saw the light of day. 
Brothers (Amazon MP3 Exclusive Version) [+digital booklet]In the interim The Black Keys became critical darlings of a sort, appearing on a number of commercials and movie soundtracks.  I am usually wary of the attention of the music press, but, despite never actually hearing a single note of their music, I finally relented and picked up Brothers last year as a counterbalance to Ratatat’s electronic extravaganza LP4Fortunately, every now and then a band lives up to its own hype, and Brothers spent quite a bit of time in the player in 2010.  I am revisiting it again this week, though, and it has recaptured my interest.

In retrospect, I should have followed up on the student’s suggestion.  At he most, we would have seemed brilliant, and at the least enriched the class experience.  A close examination of the classic blues and Motown elements that The Black Keys employ would have revealed how the complex musical relationship between black and white America is still comingling.  Although my knowledge of The Black Keys’ back catalog is still limited, Brothers is undoubtedly an excellent collection of consistently well-crafted and accessible songs that have just a hint of bluesy gutbucket grit.

Like other whitewashed adaptations of African-American culture, though, the performance similarities that Next Girl and other Black Keys songs have with the raw emotionalism of the blues is, to a degree, measured.  I don’t care how much they may have suffered for their art I doubt that two white guys from Ohio have had the kind of experiences that informed the music of Robert Johnson and Son House as they lived in black America at the turn of the century.  Still, The Black Keys’ reverence for this performance style is clear, and folding it into their songs infuses their work with an effective gravitas.

At this point in the game, I also think that the moral implications of irreverent “whiteboy blues” are less pronounced than they were when Elvis, the Beach Boys, Cream, and the Rolling Stones initially discovered and rewrote America’s underground folk music for the masses.  African-American music has been widely broadcast and reinterpreted, and it now runs near the motherlode of contemporary music worldwide.  It is very likely that The Black Keys grew up listening to Motown and the blues, so one can hardly blame them for playing so well in a familiar style.  No apologies necessary (although some acknowledgement might be nice).

This post, however, is intended to be a sincere apology to the student for blowing off his suggestion. The class regularly had the largest enrollment of any in the music department, with roughly 500 students online and 300 face-to-face students, so you will perhaps forgive me for forgetting the student’s name, if I ever even knew it. If somehow you run across this, though, please be assured that you were right.  Totally relevant.  My bad.  Way to pay attention.

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