Neither the Time Nor the Place
(Privilege is complicated)
Lola by The Kinks and Get Back by Beatles both came out in 1970. Then Take a Walk on Wild Side by Lou Reed came out in 1972, all concerning transvestite streetwalkers. 1972 was also the year David Bowie became Ziggy Stardust. Three years after that Rocky Horror Picture Show came out.
How did that trend die off? Can’t blame the never-not-offended tumblr generation for this one, there was a definite surge of transgression back then, and then it went away.
It’s perhaps worth noting that later the same decade Lou Reed had a song called I Wanna Be Black and Joni Mitchell wore blackface on an album cover.
This is a very small sample size and it’s a big statement to make idly at noon, but it seems like white people used to feel a lot more comfortable telling other peoples’ stories for them. Robin Williams also used to do a “black guy” voice in his stand up before his black friends told him to stop.
The current hand-wringing about how thin-skinned everyone’s become is not new, it’s an evolving process across decades if not centuries. The smaller voices are made bigger and thus the hills you used to stand on sink into the ground.
The process has been escalated not so much because people are weaker but because voices are louder, even yours, even if you think its not. When you tell your joke to just a few friends you are now telling it to all people in the world across all future recorded history, whether you like it or not, and all the reactions to it will happen whether you like it or not.
And what we need it not thicker skins as an audience, but as orators. We need to be able to say “Someone’s going to hate me for this” and continue speaking. Having a complaint doesn’t make you right, being complained about doesn’t make you right either.
The great litmus test against which to measure offence is death. You can speak flippantly about death and someone will be upset at the memory of a death, and that matters. But people need to joke about death sometimes in order to make peace with it, and that matters too. And literally everyone in the world will be both of those people at some point in their lives.
My typical analogy for causing offence by accident is throwing rocks at a wall and hitting a window by mistake. It’s not the window’s fault that it’s a window, even if the rock wasn’t meant for windows.
Get Back is a really fun, funky song, but the line “Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman, but she was another man” would ruffle a deafening number of feathers if it was released today. And it’s difficult to justify, it’s not like Loretta is an especially vivid fictional character, even if the follow-up line “All the girls around her say she’s got it coming but she gets it while she can” implies a life of prostitution, violence and ostracism. The only real excuse is the artist fall-back “it’s my work so we’re doing it my way,” which does nothing whatsoever to defend what the art actually means. Lola too, despite being a story about falling in love with a gender-atypical woman, ends with the line “I am a man and so’s Lola.” Lou Reed gets the pronoun game right, but then cues in “the coloured girls go do-do-do-do-do-do-do….” which is a different game of cultural contextualisation entirely.
What’s really been lost here is chatter. People don’t accept chatter, everything has to be a finished product, a fully-formed thesis of political intent. Because if it’s not that, people will call it that anyway. When Joni Mitchell wore blackface she wasn’t speaking to 100% of black people across 100% of time, she was speaking to her 1970s music scene, many of whom were black, and at the time, it flew. Dragging it out of the past as if she just did at an Obama rally is utterly utterly pointless. Similarly someday someone’s gonna do a cover of Get Back and someone’s going to say that deserves to be headline news. Or Randy Newman’s “Rednecks”. Or Elvis Costello’s “Oliver’s Army”. These are part of the past, of an evolving language, of an ever-changing human politic. Better to make peace with them as facts than to shout them down entirely.
I wasn’t expecting to write this much. Let me loop it around.
We need more voices, but we need to not be afraid of telling stories about each other. More straight white singers paying lipservice to race and gender in their art wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. We need real black people and real LGBT people to feel empowered too, but the these aren’t separate choices. Lola’s a really fun song with a really positive message behind it, and I’d hate to think that someone’s afraid to sing it in case they get booed at by mistaken people who think they’re helping.
But like I said, the singer has to brave enough to take the boo. And when people boo you down you have to ask “Am I the asshole, or am I just telling a joke about death?”
Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.