Which is hardly to say that whiteness--inasmuch as white hip-hop fans love both Keith and Paul--is a commercial handicap. Kid Rock and Eminem demonstrated that whiteface is quite a flexible mask, that cracking wise doesn't cut down on your groupie quotient, that white kids identify with rappers' dysfunction as much as their machismo, that whigger is just another word for nothing left to lose. And in another genre universe altogether, Moby scored off a bunch of dead black folks who never saw a royalty check to begin with (yet another reason it's so baffling that DJs never used field recordings before now). Like so many rhythmically adept types before him, he went looking among the other for spirituality.
But here's the rub: Moby found that spirituality. Play is deeper--in every sense--than anything the Roots amassed with all their good intentions and real keyboards. That all three of my fellow ghostfaces in the above graph made good music (as in exciting, galvanizing, epochal--all those words) merely demonstrates the range of aesthetic devices white artists have at their disposal. And one of those constructs happens to be the full-length CD--which leads me to close with a quartet of what I'm afraid I'll have to call, well, masterworks.
Or proposed, supposed masterworks. Cue gloomy drum 'n' bass, stage lights to half, enter Spin's Man of the Year Trent Reznor, in black, alone. Listen closely, children, and learn the harrowing secrets Trent gleaned from his descent into rock stardom. Nine Inch Nails' The Fragile certainly has the heft, length, and ponderous self-absorption of an objet d'art, and it is a nifty sound-effects sampler at that. But anyone who thinks these qualities make it a great album deserves to be forcibly dosed on four tabs of bad acid and locked in an all-night basement screening of The Wall. Trent Reznor is the beleaguered white dude as pessimistic modernist. Like T.S. Eliot, but with stodgier lyrics, he projects his malaise onto the sum total of Western culture.
I suppose you could say the same about Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips and Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. But the former is so nice about it, the latter so ambivalent about it, and they're both so obscure, that you're barking up a tree that could fall in the forest without anyone hearing it. The Lips' The Soft Bulletin is the most humane art rock in recent memory, placing a truly fragile cracked-white-guy tenor into a cosmos so hostile, so pitiless, so unreliable that even Superman drops the ball when he's lyrically called upon. But instead of collapsing into self-loathing, Coyne stands up and says yeah.
For all his vaunted sourness, though, Merritt hangs in there, too. There's something Sisyphean about his three-disc encyclopedia of romance tropes, something doomed in his quest to achieve completeness while eschewing mastery. But nobody pens 69 Love Songs because he thinks the subject is stupid, no matter how he gets off on those oral implications or how priapically keen he is on proving his songwriting stamina. Merritt wants it to work out, and he hits it, baby, one more time. And again.
Of the 16 romances that constitute John Prine's In Spite of Ourselves, however, only four qualify as happy endings. Some of the others are hopeful, some resigned, some perplexed. Like Merritt, Prine searches for truth in product: Instead of the punny ironies of romance, he plows the clichés of music row, breathing new life into the venerable copyrights he exhumes. And like Merritt, he invites women to sing some of the words, dueting with everyone from Iris DeMent to Trisha Yearwood.
The songs, and the singers, revel in the idiosyncrasies that wary grown-ups bring to a relationship--exactly those quirks of character that cultural overviews like the one you're reading are designed to miss when they generalize about gender. His album, like Randy Newman's Bad Love, falls plop between pop and art.
Meanwhile, bubble gum's pinups mouth generalities about eternal affection, then sulk when affairs fall apart: I'm a boy, you're a girl, how could we not be in love? Nihilist auteurs like Trent Reznor cry, "My labyrinthine pain is too idiosyncratic for another human to comprehend!" And ideologues like Rage Against the Machine can't be bothered with the home front--such inessentials can be worried about after the revolution. Yet some people want to fill the world with bitter, contradictory, dirty, funny, keen, silly love songs. What's wrong with that, I'd like to know.
Yes, yes, love is a bourgeois fantasy and a utopian pipe dream and a meaningless abstraction and a distraction. Not only isn't love the answer. It isn't even always a pertinent question. And nonetheless, records like Prine's suggest that this most maligned of emotions just might await lucky backstreet girls when they outgrow airbrushed ideals and plunge into messy specifics. Or it may be in the future for fortunate frat boys and gangstas should they ever decide to shrug off the privilege of hating women. Maybe it'll happen because of our best intentions. But more likely it'll blossom in spite of ourselves.