Oliver Wang and Mark Anthony Neal:
CULTURAL CRITICISM 2.0
?How Do You Filter the Infinite??
I?m sitting in Franklin Center 240 LiveBlogging a conversation between two of our smartest cultural critics, Oliver Wang and Mark Anthony Neal. As background, check out these great blogs by Wang and Neal. The topic of the conversation is soul music, "blue-eyed soul," race and popular music, and what it means to be a cultural critic . . . where anything you write on the internet "never, ever goes away . . . "
These are some sketchy notes. Later, the whole conversation will be up on the Franklin Center's iUniversity site. I'll post the url after it goes up.
MAN opens the conversation by asking "What would Oliver be doing in 2008 if not for the internet?" OW says "I can't even imagine what the world would look like without the internet."
OW's music journalism began in the 1990s, including in the pre-internet era, on the early UseNet usergroups. (For non-geeks who don't know what that was, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usenet).
"Growing up Asian American, there was no organic musical tradition I could identify with. My dad listened to Simon and Garfunkel . . . My friends and I latched on to New Wave. And then Hip Hop, through the Alternative Rock station (which would be anathema today). I went out and bought Three Feet High and Rising."
The Filipino mobile dj culture in the Bay Area really takes off in the 1990s. What did it mean? What was it about? It's the subject of the book OW is doing for Duke U Press.
MAN asks what is the reaction of these dj's to being studied? OW says no one had ever really studied them before, no one had documented this history, no one had ever bothered to ask them about their experiences . . . esp the relationship between their dj'ing and being Filipino. They hadn't really thought about race and ethnicity and their music, and his questions made the dj's think about that. The younger dj's now are very aware of these issues, the issues are much more a part of their culture today.
MAN: At one time, people went to the Village Voice for cultural critidism, now, in the very competitive internet scene of music journalism, what kind of questions are you being asked to explain?
OW says that in his experience he hasn't really had to account for being Asian writing on soul and hip hop because of the multicultural nature of the Bay Area (and forerunners like Jeff Chang).
MAN: In a perfect world, you would have been lecturing today and then spinning here on Friday night. . . . Who are you when you are singing?
OW: That's like 'what kind of tree would I be?' He says a dj is a mediator . . . mediating is the function he serves, and he is also using media for that experience. Plus, as a mediator, you are a conduit, a point of convergence: If you push only your own vision, you lose the crowd. If you don't have a vision, why bother? Just get the iPod play list and get out of there! How to get the audience to go with you on this journey?
MAN: What about democratization of the internet?
OW: What happens in the new internet world when speed and brevity rule? Where are the venues for longer criticism? Why the privileging of the 400-word blogger (a real art form . . .but there are other literary and critical forms too.) There are fewer and fewer ways to earn a living as a music journalist. And at the same time, through the internet, one has an audience and a freedom not available anywhere else.
MAN: How do you equip readers with the tools to do the critical work beyond the popular? This is an issue for any internet journalist, for any blogger.
OW: Good question. "It's not easy being critical. Artists don't like it. As far as I know, I've had more rappers dis me on a song than any other journalist!"
MAN notes that a first generation writing about hip hop has to justify that it is worth writing about. Now, there can actually be critique. Engagement on an aesthetic level is crucial, yet there are still institutional issues, persistent, of race, culture, and "the popular," whatever that may mean.
(Photos of mobile Filipino djs and their gear, courtesy of Flickr. Click on the images for full citation and more photos.)