Friday, May 15, 2020

On the margins of rock history

This article on the late Little Richard by Tavia Nyong'o, while not a wholesale corrective to pieces like Bob Stanley's, certainly presents a fascinating alternative thesis. In Nyongo's view, "Rock 'n' roll history has never exactly neglected or ignored Little Richard: it just has never quite known what to do with him". As the title of the article has it, he was simply "too black, too queer, too holy" to fit neatly into rock critics' cut-and-dried frameworks.

For example, the widespread dismissal of Little Richard's religious phases, Nyong'o claims, was not necessarily a matter of the music lacking intrinsic merit but perhaps more "motivated by the artist's own declaration that his gospel records and ministerial career represent a recantation of his wild and wayward life as a rock 'n' roller; the prodigal son's return". In other words, critics were stung by the way in which Little Richard undermined the foundational narratives of the genre, especially having been at other times an enthusiastic exponent of excess - because those foundational narratives were what their own careers were built on.

Perhaps the major contribution of Nyong'o's piece, however, is the way in which it dispels the myth that Little Richard came from nowhere. On the contrary, he evidently stood on the shoulders of others before him - "transgressively queer performers of a bawdy, sped-up blues" who, like "the black publics they performed it for, were overlooked by a generation of white male critics and collectors eager to fetishise the rural: Robert Johnson standing at a lonesome crossroads in the Mississippi Delta". As is so often the case, it seems, an artist universally lauded as a pioneer - so much so that he earned the titles "The Originator" and "The Innovator" - was actually pioneering only insofar as he brought niche underground culture into the mainstream.

"Only" is perhaps the wrong word, though - to do what Little Richard did is fraught with risks, not least the risk of being misunderstood or misinterpreted by those appointed (whether by others or by themselves) as cultural guardians. Despite pointing out Little Richard's debt to his forefathers, Nyong'o doesn't downplay the musician's enormous significance as a supremely subversive figure even in the supposedly subversive world of rock 'n' roll.

(Thanks to Kev for the link.)

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