The Roots' image, by contrast, has been decidedly and purposefully nondescript. They're not gangstas, they're not backpacker rap (though they often get lumped in with that subset), and they're not really boho kneegrows--though they're often tagged as such by folks who don't know either the Roots or the true meaning of the term. While some measure of Parton's success can be traced to the fact of her being a woman doing female drag, much of the failure of the Roots to connect with larger pop and even rap audiences might lie in their refusal to do the racial drag that passes for "realness." The pimps, thugs, and playas that fill radio and television airwaves do a performance of blackness that makes them easily digestible; their images and cartoonish 'hood narratives chute easily along well-worn grooves of Negro threat and menace. Their dubious triumph lies in parlaying hoary stereotype into a paycheck and calling it empowerment. The Roots, by virtue of having images and laid-back personas more in keeping with the bulk of American black men--how we dress, how we walk and talk, how we carry ourselves--and despite having paid their dues and earned their stripes, continue to be baffling commodities to the machine of popular culture.
The Roots concert DVD is less a real capture of the group at work than it is a showcase of associates, friends, and musical heroes. Jean Grae, Martin Luther, Skillz, Young Gunz, Dice Raw, and Mobb Deep all take turns on the mic, and they largely do great jobs. But a real Roots concert would have been even better. What would that have entailed? The group's patented fucking with arrangements of their (relative) hits, digging deep and giving you album cuts, acing covers of everything from the Jackson 5 and Nirvana to whatever is currently blowing up on BET's 106 and Park; the Roots in concert dazzle you with their dexterity, with the depth of their musical vocab and vision. And while they clearly intend to blow you away at every opportunity, they're not just a technically unfuckwitable entity. They have a genuine joy in what they do. They get themselves off by getting the crowd off.
Watching the two DVDs back to back, what strikes you is the similarities at work. Country is sold as all-American music, the stuff of family, morals, and old-fashioned values, tales of the way real Americans live. Rap, despite being the pop of the late 20th/early 21st century, is still perceived in many quarters as the sound of urban blight and American decay. But these two styles are more analogous than contrasting. Both forms are largely first person and narrative, filled with tales of economic struggle, the lure of escapist flights (booze- or weed-fueled) and baby-mama drama. One of the greatest cons that politicians and the culture barons of American history ever pulled (and continue to pull) was convincing poor whites that they were different from and had nothing in common with blacks, especially poor blacks. But the struggles and hard-won victories that Parton details in her lyrics echo those of 'hood reportage. The battles for respect, the gender conflicts, and the grind of daily life for working folk that the Roots talk about is paralleled in country.
An interesting aspect of both the Roots and Parton is the way they defy genre/cultural conventions and expectations of gender and sexuality. While the depiction of women in rap continues to be more than problematic, the Roots have long been non-showy supporters of strong females. They've collaborated with some of the most dynamic women in contemporary race music--Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Ursula Rucker, Jean Grae--while expressing feminist sympathies in their own work. Parton, who playfully dedicates "Jolene" to the drag queens in her concert audience, recently donated a track to the Human Rights Campaign benefit album, Love Rocks, an all-star effort in support of gay marriage. In tandem, all these shows of support complicate the easy characterizations that now pass for cultural analysis. (Red state; blue state.) They illustrate cracks in popular perception, showing how the margins of culture continue to be where meaningful, progressive political work is being done, and where common ground is being tilled.
Both the Roots and Parton powerfully embody the elements of their respective musical genres--namely the forging of self in the face of myriad obstacles. Rich sociopolitical commentary is inherent in their work due to the mere fact of them (a white woman sprung from poor mountain people; black American men articulating blackness in a way that sidesteps the cooning that is marketed as "keeping it real") giving voice to their realities, visions, and dreams. And, tellingly, their careers are testimonials to the triumphs and costs of true individuality, something Americans are deeply conflicted about. We define ourselves as a place where individual liberties and personal freedom are core ideals. Our historical heroes and cultural icons are paragons of idiosyncrasy, stubborn iconoclasm, and those who went/go against the grain. Rebels with or without causes. But in truth, we champion those who are "individual" but not "different," those whose words and actions actually reinforce the myths and lies we tell ourselves, the conventions that we cling to in order to hold at bay the imagined chaos of true democracy. We worship and elevate the ones who ride their toothless individuality all the way to the bank, not those who risk obscurity, poverty, or ridicule for the same. The soundtrack for the former is the contrived, market-driven cross-pollination of the Nellys and Tim McGraws. But Parton and the Roots are the sound of the latter--those who risk, those who genuinely inspire.
Ernest Hardy writes about film and music from his home base of Los Angeles. He's currently working on a book of criticism that will be published by Redbone Press in the fall of 2005.