Given that I have a standing Monday morning obligation at The Great Whatsit, I wound up posting my thoughts on Patti Smith’s “Rock n Roll Nigger” over there. So far the comments have been productive, I think.
Smith’s 1978 song is an extraordinarily complicated performance, and one that still makes people uncomfortable, 30 years later — no mean feat, when much of 1970s punk rock is now widely available as background music for grocery shopping or on luxury cruise TV ads.
I do think that Smith’s song (and her earlier controversial engagements with race) warrant something more than a knee-jerk decision about whether or not it’s appropriate or offensive. I think the long context provided in NYC performance/literary history — through Beat performance, through earlier rock and roll, through ragtime and jazz, through blackface minstrelsy — is key to understanding Smith’s attempt at cross-racial identification (or is it an attempt at separating racial performance or style from race itself?), whether or not one thinks she finally succeeds. Since I’ll be writing more about this sometime in the next couple years, I welcome further comments, here, there, or in private.