A little more perspective on Korea’s most recent blackface incident

John Lennon, the most progressive guy ever, right?

I know it’s tired by now. The blackface incedent has been talked about to death by this point, mostly by people who are not black themselves. I didn’t really have much to say about it though.  It’s not because I don’t care, it’s more because other bloggers have basically said practically everything I want to say.  But in a previous post I heavily criticized the sheer amount of condemnation for Korea or Koreans emanating from the K-blogosphere over the issue.  I must reiterate again, that I don’t in any way approve of what happened.  I think that it was and is wrong to make fun of other races of people, and ignorance is not enough of an excuse, especially when this is not the first time it happened, and there was a high profile backlash the last few times it happened.

So if this is your view, then why were you so critical of other bloggers and their judgement of Korean society based on this incident?

I said what I said because I learned about the incident from a Korean who hasn’t spent a long time overseas, who was outraged over it.  I said that you can’t make a blanket generalization of the whole society based on one incident alone, without proper context.  Saying that Korea is a racist country because this kind of thing is tolerated isn’t really fair, nor is it particularly constructive.

Take a look at that guy in the picture.  He’s a pretty famous guy.  (John Lennon for those who are too young to recognize him, though honestly that would be hard for me to believe).

WTF does John Lennon have anything to do with this?

Is John Lennon a racist?

Huh?

You heard me…. Is John Lennon a racist?

You’re kidding me right? The guy who wrote the song Imagine?  The guy who wrote Give Peace a Chance? Basically one of the most influential figures of the 1960’s and the civil rights movement? The self-proclaimed feminist? The man hated by “the man?” You have got to be kidding!  No way! John Lennon was not a racist! He was the personification of peace, tolerance, and brotherhood of man! Did you ever listen to his music? Come on Euge, what the F are you talking about?


Woah woah!  Slow down! I agree, John Lennon was not a racist, and stood for the end of racism and peace and love between all men and women.

What’s your point then?

I’ll get to my point after the jump.

Okay now watch this video. If you don’t want to sit through the beginning, skip to 3:38

Okay. Now that you watched that video…

John Lennon, the personification of social activism and liberal thought did the following:

1. Admitted that he makes Pearl Harbor jokes with his wife.
2. Mocked Japanese accented English.
3. Mocked a traditional Japanese form of art, Kabuki, thereby mocking Japan’s culture.
4. Mocked the Japanese language with what I would equate with “Ching Chong”.
5. Used a racial slur, “Nip.”

[Edit:  The Hip Nip was what Pat Morita (Mr. Miyagi from those Karate Kid Films) was calling himself as a stand up comedian back then.  But Lennon didn’t say THE Hip Nip at first.  He said only the hip Nips would get his Kabuki mockery…]

You can clearly see, that EVEN JOHN LENNON while SITTING NEXT TO HIS JAPANESE BORN WIFE said and did some of the most offensive things towards Japanese people I have EVER seen in my life. This would ABSOLUTELY not fly today, and if John Lennon had said these things today his career would suffer immensely.

But his wife is Japanese and she thought it was funny…

No, I’m sorry, I can’t let anyone continue down that train of thought. First.. the fact that his wife is Japanese does not give him the right to say things offensive to Japanese. Even if Yoko was fine with it, validation by one member of another group does not mean the rest of the group will also welcome it.  This line of defense sounds vaguely familiar, like the people who do some of the most racist stuff ever, then claim to not be racist because they have friends of another race.  Weak sauce defense!

I don’t really know why Yoko Ono let that kind of stuff fly, but anytime any of my non-Korean ex-girlfriends did anything even remotely similar to what John did, it was kind of a deal breaker. (Thankfully it didn’t happen that often, but there was one girl who used to call me her little half-Asian boy… Yeah I didn’t really appreciate that, and yes it did contribute to my decision to break up with her.) I have not followed Yoko Ono’s career, statements, or activism in depth, but I don’t understand why she sits there and takes it, or worse, encourages it. All I can say is that perhaps there is just a sliver of truth to the fact that it was a different time.

Yes, it was a different time back then and…

Yes, at THAT time in history, the civil rights movement was centered around blacks and women. People somehow didn’t realize that Asians, Latinos, Homosexuals, and any other type of minority ALSO deserved respect and civil rights. This was a time when it was still accepted to call people Oriental, where every representation of Asian men and women on TV and in the movies was based on stereotypes, and children in kindergarten classes were reading the story of a “Chinese” boy with a really long name who almost died because his brother could not remember how to say it as he was running around trying to find help. Teachers were being PAID to basically teach kids to be racist to Asians back then, but you’d be hung if you even said the word “nigger” merely to discuss the word itself. Clearly, at that time, the voice crying out for the civil rights of Asians hadn’t been considered or simply became muddled amongst the more audible cries for justice from NOW and the Black Panthers (and their associated groups.) So.. John Lennon gets a pass. He gets to claim ignorance because it was a different time..

So John Lennon, the personification of the civil rights movement, clearly NOT a racist is doing stuff that clearly IS offensive, and could be seen as racist…. but he gets a pass because…. it was a different time. Also, I think we can ALL agree that it was not his intention to be racist towards Japanese people. He may not have even seen it as racist.

So John Lennon is allowed to be deliberately offensive in post 1960’s USA…

Questions:

1. Is post 1960’s USA more progressive or less progressive than 2010’s Korea?

Most of the bloggers who complain will agree that the USA was further along than Korea is now, as far as civil rights are concerned.

Is John Lennon on the progressive side or was he one of those who favored the status quo and wanted to resist change?

Obviously he wanted change.

3. Korea hasn’t had anything that is even a candle next to the nuclear explosion that was the 1960’s civil rights movement in the US.

True.

4. The people in blackface in Korea are also not activists that personify the movement for peace and tolerance in society.

Also true.

So if we are going to allow John Lennon to still be the personification of social change, then you have to give Korea (the country) a break… if not totally exonerate the comedians themselves. Why? Because John Lennon is he personification of social change! He should know better.  The comedians are not the personification of social change, and have probably not been involved in social issues surrounding racial minorities.

My point, I guess, is that we can judge Korea through the moral lens that we have acquired outside of Korea, but that comparison doesn’t mean anything until Korea has had some time to play catch up. Furthermore, if one of the most outspoken activists for change can be super offensive, and still not be considered a racist, in fact, to be considered exactly the opposite…

Then maybe we should try to understand that the Korean comedians who wore blackface were not deliberately trying to be racist. To understand that does not mean we approve of what they did. In fact, the understanding might lead to more dialogue on the subject, which may stop these kinds of things from happening again.

Endpoint.

(edit: it’s now 3 years later, and I realize this entire blog post falls apart if you would have answered the question differently. Some might say… Yes, John Lennon is racist.. afterall he wrote a song called “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” But I think we can agree that John Lennon may not be aware of his own racism, and definitely stood for social change. The time he lived in allowed for him to still be the voice of liberalism even as he was unaware of his own racism… and that’s my point… that Korea hasn’t yet developed a sense of right and wrong when it comes to discussions about race.)

13 Responses to “A little more perspective on Korea’s most recent blackface incident”

  1. This is interesting, but I think you’re maybe a bit idealistic about Lennon. He was a rock musician and activist, but when we start talking about the greatest men (or women) who ever lived, I dunno. I tend to think of people like… Alan Turing? Ada Augusta Lovelace? Jonas Salk? Marie Curie? JS Bach, maybe?

    It makes less sense to say Lennon wasn’t a racist than to simply note that if we distinguish racist attitudes or behaviours (which can be reassessed or discarded) from some essentialized state of “racism” discussion becomes possible. After all, how can we deem someone “racist” or “not racist” in an absolute sense? Discussing whether a person is or isn’t, in that essentializing sense, “racist” is often useless. It becomes about the identity of the person with the unhealthy attitude, and not the attitude itself, and becomes a barrier to any discussion of the attitude at all.

    I don’t know if you saw my own post on the subject of the blackface outcry (here) but racial caricature was basically the core of American entertainment for a long, long time, and a fundamental part of the process of people becoming familiar with other ethnicities, in both healthy and unhealthy ways all at once. That racial caricature was definitely a symptom of social anxieties about immigration patterns in the US at the time, and of course, Korea’s starting to feel those anxieties too now… starting. So it’s a bit self-righteous for people to start railing about it, as if this never happened in their own culture. (Not to excuse it, but…)

    That said, I have to say the Lennon clip feels a little different to me, for a few reasons. And I should note I’m not much of a fan of Lennon, really; far from a defensive fanboy.

    In part it feels different to me because I don’t think Lennon is simply trying to denigrate Japanese culture or people. His imitation of kabuki is something I can see Yoko Ono finding funny in part because it’s funny to hear what an outsider thinks things in your culture sound like. (I also suspect Yoko Ono doesn’t see herself in an oppressed subject-position, ie. as a victim; it’s hard to get teary-eyed about someone mocking your culture when you can mock them straight back, from a position as equals, which, let’s hope, is what characterized their marriage as much as possible in those days. In contrast, I find in discussions of racism in Korea, many Koreans seem intent on assuming the oppressed object-position: ask about the issue of racism in Korea, and many people start talking about how rude foreigners were to them on the subway, or how that black man beat up the grandpa on a bus, until you point out that, actually, you mean racism directed by many Koreans towards, say Southeast Asians.)

    For my part, I’m always amused when I hear Koreans doing impressions of how Anglophones of various kinds sound to them — or Brits trying to do Texan accents, or Koreans trying to do Brit ones. My partner finds it amusing when I come out with bizarre nonsense snippets of Korean conversation or do my impression of how pansori sounds to me. (And I have to say, I don’t find the Kabuki impression as offensive as Ching-Chang-Chong (or the kind of imitation of tones that Koreans do for the local equivalent) in part because it felt like Lennon was trying to get across the musical content, and couldn’t do so without some syllables. I’m much MORE uncomfortable with his dismissive (or arrogant?) comment, “I learned it all in one sitting,” than the impression itself, which is not far off from how I’d try to convey what pansori sounds like to a non-Korean-speaking audience… though maybe not on national TV!)

    Part of the in-joke about my impression of pansori is that neither my partner nor I is so wrapped up in nationality- or race-based based identity; as Lennon describes of himself (and I’m sure it informed his relationship with Ono), other shared identifiers (like our interests, our passions, our politics, the art and entertainment we consume, our shared projects) matter much more to us in terms of defining ourselves. That makes it a lot easier for us to see the amusing side of *some* caricature without jumping to the conclusion that it is always racist or hateful — because not all caricature is.

    (There’s room for discussion about the Dooly character, though it strikes me as much more one-sided in nature: Yoko doesn’t get to say much on the subject, and I’m curious to what degree she made fun of Englishness to Lennon — I’d wager she probably gave as good as she got.)

    That shared identity I mentioned also makes us mad about a lot of the same stupidities in the society we live in, which for now is Korean society. Your assumption that Ono would be insulted at Pearl Harbor jokes overlooks the fact that a younger Japanese person in her position (an expatriate, an avant-garde artist, an anti-war activist) likely looked back on the Japanese Empire and the men running it — the men who made Pearl Harbor happen, and the young men who unthinkingly went along with it — with as much disgust and disdain as young Britons then looked back on the British Empire. I mean, the Kim Dynasty up in North Korea (and the Park Chung Hee flunkies who still cling to power here) are constantly mocked in our household… by both of us.

    But then, I may be overintellectualizing. As a musician myself, I have known a lot of musicians and many of them — especially those into more popular forms of music — weren’t exactly the type to reflect extremely deeply on such issues.

    BTW: I must be old: I think of Pat Morita as being “from Happy Days”…🙂

    • Lots to talk about here, so what you said is in bold, what I say in reply will not be…

      This is interesting, but I think you’re maybe a bit idealistic about Lennon. He was a rock musician and activist, but when we start talking about the greatest men (or women) who ever lived, I dunno. I tend to think of people like… Alan Turing? Ada Augusta Lovelace? Jonas Salk? Marie Curie? JS Bach, maybe?

      Well, I agree with you on all of those, but certainly if you are going to add Johan Sebastian Bach in there, then Lennon and Michael Jackson have to be in the conversation. Certainly if you base it on how far reaching their music is, I can guarantee you that Lennon and Jackson’s music has reached and means a lot to just as many people. Of course we’ll need centuries to see if people are still talking about Lennon and Jackson before we can make any jugement. Something tells me though that Thriller will still be listened to in 2512 so long as the human race still exists and has the means to play recorded material. But essentially my point was that Lennon was an important voice in the civil rights movement… and that’s undeniable.


      It makes less sense to say Lennon wasn’t a racist than to simply note that if we distinguish racist attitudes or behaviours (which can be reassessed or discarded) from some essentialized state of “racism” discussion becomes possible. After all, how can we deem someone “racist” or “not racist” in an absolute sense? Discussing whether a person is or isn’t, in that essentializing sense, “racist” is often useless. It becomes about the identity of the person with the unhealthy attitude, and not the attitude itself, and becomes a barrier to any discussion of the attitude at all.

      I disagree a bit here. I think we can say that Lennon was not intentionally racist, and if anyone wants to call Korean society or Koreans racist, over the blackface thing, then they have to include Lennon in their definition of who is racist. Most of the people who do put Koreans in this category do so in contrast with their home country in a sense to suggest that their home societies, and by extension, they themselves are superior to Korea because they are less tolerant of racism. This may even be only subconsciously. But that’s what it accomplishes. But my example is there to point out that it’s not that easy, because obviously a very progressive man in what is believed to be a progressive society is caught in a similar act, therefore we need to re-evaluate this type of opinion.

      I don’t know if you saw my own post on the subject of the blackface outcry (here) but racial caricature was basically the core of American entertainment for a long, long time, and a fundamental part of the process of people becoming familiar with other ethnicities, in both healthy and unhealthy ways all at once. That racial caricature was definitely a symptom of social anxieties about immigration patterns in the US at the time, and of course, Korea’s starting to feel those anxieties too now… starting. So it’s a bit self-righteous for people to start railing about it, as if this never happened in their own culture. (Not to excuse it, but…)

      I did see your post on it, an it was very well written and I was impressed on the pre-bubble sisters information you had in there. I agree with your assessment of the self righteousness and the social anxieties about Korea’s new immigration patterns.


      That said, I have to say the Lennon clip feels a little different to me, for a few reasons. And I should note I’m not much of a fan of Lennon, really; far from a defensive fanboy.

      In part it feels different to me because I don’t think Lennon is simply trying to denigrate Japanese culture or people.

      I agree. Of course he isn’t. But can we say that those guys dressed up like Michael were trying to denigrate black culture? I am not defending what they did at all, but I don’t think this was their intent. And I know you personally understand this, but I feel as if others who are complaining about this do not.


      His imitation of kabuki is something I can see Yoko Ono finding funny in part because it’s funny to hear what an outsider thinks things in your culture sound like. (I also suspect Yoko Ono doesn’t see herself in an oppressed subject-position, ie. as a victim; it’s hard to get teary-eyed about someone mocking your culture when you can mock them straight back, from a position as equals, which, let’s hope, is what characterized their marriage as much as possible in those days. In contrast, I find in discussions of racism in Korea, many Koreans seem intent on assuming the oppressed object-position: ask about the issue of racism in Korea, and many people start talking about how rude foreigners were to them on the subway, or how that black man beat up the grandpa on a bus, until you point out that, actually, you mean racism directed by many Koreans towards, say Southeast Asians.)

      For my part, I’m always amused when I hear Koreans doing impressions of how Anglophones of various kinds sound to them — or Brits trying to do Texan accents, or Koreans trying to do Brit ones. My partner finds it amusing when I come out with bizarre nonsense snippets of Korean conversation or do my impression of how pansori sounds to me. (And I have to say, I don’t find the Kabuki impression as offensive as Ching-Chang-Chong (or the kind of imitation of tones that Koreans do for the local equivalent) in part because it felt like Lennon was trying to get across the musical content, and couldn’t do so without some syllables. I’m much MORE uncomfortable with his dismissive (or arrogant?) comment, “I learned it all in one sitting,” than the impression itself, which is not far off from how I’d try to convey what pansori sounds like to a non-Korean-speaking audience… though maybe not on national TV!)

      You’ve got some fair points in there, but I have to disagree. What Lennon is doing here is very offensive to me, and probably many Asian-Americans might take issue with it. I do equate it with Ching Chang Chong, but then again, I am guessing that Lennon did not speak Japanese so he filled it in with what it sounds like to him, which is what people saying ching chong are basically doing. I learned it all in one sitting is less offensive to me because he was obviously being sarcastic, and we know that he knows that he didn’t learn it all in one sitting. Also, I can say that whether Yoko herself felt offended or not doesn’t matter too much. If they were in the privacy of their own home and doing that type of thing, sure.. but this is national TV so you have to take into account that Yoko isn’t the only Japanese person who would be hearing it.

      Let me give an example… When I was in high school and college, one of my best friends was an African American. (Sadly I have very few black friends these days because I live in Korea and lets face it, our melanin enriched friends are fewer in number here.) But, we were close enough that we sometimes used racial slurs as terms of affection towards each other. I am somewhat ashamed to admit it publicly, but yes, I sometimes called him my N-gga, and he called me his C_ink sometimes. But that wouldn’t give me the right to go up to any random black person and use the word with them in the same way. Certainly if I was on national TV I would not use this word, even if it was a show about our friendship. It was only acceptable between he and I, and therefore should be reserved for situations when he and I were alone.


      Part of the in-joke about my impression of pansori is that neither my partner nor I is so wrapped up in nationality- or race-based based identity; as Lennon describes of himself (and I’m sure it informed his relationship with Ono), other shared identifiers (like our interests, our passions, our politics, the art and entertainment we consume, our shared projects) matter much more to us in terms of defining ourselves. That makes it a lot easier for us to see the amusing side of *some* caricature without jumping to the conclusion that it is always racist or hateful — because not all caricature is.

      (There’s room for discussion about the Dooly character, though it strikes me as much more one-sided in nature: Yoko doesn’t get to say much on the subject, and I’m curious to what degree she made fun of Englishness to Lennon — I’d wager she probably gave as good as she got.)

      Another thing that makes this a bit more complicated, and I am sure there will be many who disagree, but Yoko making fun of Lennon’s Englishness in return is not justification either… for one major reason… Lennon is white, there is very little you can say to a white person that can be considered offensive. The reason is because of the position that white people occupy in the racial consiousness, seeing a dirty fat white criminal who drives badly and acts all annoying in public does not cause people to assume that all white people are that way… they say that the person himself is a slovenly low life rather than white people in general. Were the same person black, Asian, or Latino, observers not of that race make a mental note of the person’s race and attribute those negative qualities to that person’s race. This is why we have often nonsensical stereotypes about groups of people that even contradict each other… Example: Mexicans are all lazy. Mexicans are great at manual labor.
      How can they both be true? They can’t, but because someone has observed some lazy Mexicans, that entered the consciousness instead of “that particular person is lazy.” So I don’t think Yoko making fun of John’s Scouser accent or calling him a rat eater would be nearly as damaging as John pulling back his eyes and making his teeth protrude would be.

      In short, what John and Yoko do and say to each other is up to them, but when they make it public, they can and should be judged. And even after we are done judging them, John is still seen as a progressive leader of the civil rights movement. Therefore to not pass judgement on him or American society over his racist acts towards Asians, but to fault Korea for the tolerance of Blackface is hypocritical.


      That shared identity I mentioned also makes us mad about a lot of the same stupidities in the society we live in, which for now is Korean society. Your assumption that Ono would be insulted at Pearl Harbor jokes overlooks the fact that a younger Japanese person in her position (an expatriate, an avant-garde artist, an anti-war activist) likely looked back on the Japanese Empire and the men running it — the men who made Pearl Harbor happen, and the young men who unthinkingly went along with it — with as much disgust and disdain as young Britons then looked back on the British Empire. I mean, the Kim Dynasty up in North Korea (and the Park Chung Hee flunkies who still cling to power here) are constantly mocked in our household… by both of us.

      I don’t know in what context the Pearl Harbor jokes were said but if they were directed at her, or at Japanese in general then they are not acceptable in my viewpoint. Just as I don’t think Germans these days would appreciate being told that they baked Jews, or are “Sons of Hitler” I don’t think it’s really right to say much to the effect like “You and your people are sneaky and you bombed Pearl Harbor.” Again, I’m assuming a lot here, but I would think that Yoko’s anti-war stance and age and position at the time would have the opposite effect, and make her feel MORE insulted over Pearl Harbor jokes, as she would think that the people telling them to her would be not seeing her as a person…

      I mean how offended were a lot of us expats during the Bush administration, when people would come up to us and blame us for everything and anything that Bush said or did. They were not seeing us as people, they were seeing us as the faceless other enemy.

      I guess that you at least understood what I was trying to do with this post, and I appreciate the long commentary on it. (I was beginning to worry that nobody had noticed.) You and I are probably closer together in our feelings about it and we are arguing over teeny tiny details that in the grand scheme of things don’t really matter as much.

      Cheers, and if we ever run into each other, I’d love to have a drink and continue the conversation.

      • Hi there,

        Ha, I’m a funny type when it comes to music. I don’t think Michael Jackson or John Lennon hold a teeny tiny birthday candle to JS Bach, and I have what I think are pretty solid grounds for saying so, but I know I’ll never sway many people to my point of view. I do doubt many people 500 years from now will be listening to Thriller as anything more than a curio or a historical relic, for the same reason very few people today listen to Robert Johnson or Jelly Roll Morton in any other way. Bach, not so much.

        (This is not to denigrate: I’m an SF writer, and I know 99% of what I write has a definite shelf life. If that worried me, I would have started writing poetry or fantasy fiction again. It doesn’t, not much anyway.)

        I’m not sure whether you’re mixing up my post with Matt’s, which had more Korean blackface history. (Mine had more American racial caricature stuff in it.)

        As for racism, I think intentionality doesn’t count for much; most racist comments come from people not trying to be racist, who also don’t seem themselves as racist but think they’re just saying what’s “true.” Intentionality is a terrible gauge for what is racist.

        But as for the rest, I suspect you’re right about us generally agreeing and quibbling over little things.

        And I’d be happy to meet up sometime and talk… if you’re going to the Spring Beer Festival in a couple of weeks, I’ll be around (serving beers at Pinoy Mart, actually). If not, I’m sure something can be arranged eventually… assuming you’re in the Seoul area.

        • Fans of the classical music genre like to listen to Bach still but to everyone else all classical music might as well be a historical relic. We also don’t have the luxury of hearing Bach himself because he wasn’t recorded and what we have are interpretations of his music by other artists. The only person of that genre that I think we can say makes any impact himself is John Williams and when you shine Lennon and Jackson next to him it is no contest. But I like that this is probably the biggest point that we disagree on, something that you or I won’t live long enough to know which of us was right.

          I’m sorry, you’re right, I did have you confused with someone else and I did read your post on this as well and was very impressed with that
          post.

          As for intent and racism, I agree. That’s not a good way to define what is and isn’t racist, but it is a good way to gauge whether the person in question believes one race is superior or inferior to another. I don’t think Mr. Lennon felt this way because I think we can gauge his intent.

          But again, the main purpose of my post was to try to get people to see two things.

          It’s not fair to judge Korea by the moral lens one has acquired overseas yet.

          It’s also not fair that under the circumstances in Korea we call the country racist because blackface is tolerated while turning a blind eye to what is supposed to be a civil rights icon saying clearly offensive things about another race.

          If anyone is willing to say that John Lennon is a racist bigot, then I won’t take much issue with their opinion that Koreans are racist, because by that person’s definition, practically the whole world is racist and saying that Korea is is merely stating the obvious.

          Not gonna be at the beer festival but I’m buds with roboseyo so if u are too our paths may cross.

          • Ha, well, Bach is baroque music, not classical, but anyway… he is still VERY widely appreciated today, and his influence on music is huge regardless of his current audience: without JS Bach, it’s possible we would not have adopted the very tuning system and harmony without which we would not have Jackson and Lennon (and the rest of music since his time).

            (And we need no recordings of Bach; as a composer, he rendered amazing recordings using the best technology of the time — musical notation — and we still have his oeuvre available, interpreted by many different schools of performance — romanticist, traditionalist, even jazz re-interpretation.)

            But Bach vs. Lennon/Jackson are like apples and oranges: it’s a bit like comparing someone like Van Gogh to John Cassavetes: pop music mostly isn’t about music, it’s about persona and “performance” (the dancing and butt-wiggling) and the raw emotion and stuff. The extremely vast majority of pop music is about as innovative or unique as Kraft Dinner (or whatever Americans call cheap instant macaroni — KD’s a Canadian thing, right?). When it shines, it’s often because of other things: particularly apt lyrics, synergy between lyrics and music, a showy stage or video performance, something in the zeitgeist, etc. And I highly doubt Michael Jackson will matter more to our descendants than he did to us in 1999, when Thriller and the rest of the man’s output was fodder for oldies stations. His recent death has thrown him into higher profile, but these things pass.

            Oh, and John Williams? You mean the guy who remixes Igor Stravinsky for Hollywoodbucks? I’m guessing you’re talking about film score output, in which case, people who study music tend consider him either heavily derivative or simply a good film score composer (or, sometimes, an outright thief). There are good reasons for a film score composer to be unoriginal and conventional, of course… Again, apples and oranges. Stravinsky is the immensely superior composer in terms of originality and influence, of course (*far* more influential, indeed, Williams draws deeply on Stravinsky’s work; in fact, much of what seems common in film soundtracks sounds that way to us because of Stravinsky), but he’s playing a different game than Williams anyway. Williams will be remembered for complementing movies. Stravinsky (and Bach, and John Coltrane, and Miles Davis, and a few more people from the century into which we were born) will be remembered for changing music forever.

            That’s how I see it, anyway. Studying music history, and carefully considering the music of people from hundreds of years ago, does funny things to your perspective when it comes to musical posterity, I’m afraid… but likewise, I’d say that so does not doing so…

            In any case, apples and oranges. I don’t really hang out with Rob, but maybe paths will cross nonetheless. It’s a small world…

          • The more you correct me on my lack of knowledge of old music, the more you prove my point. Yes I don’t know the difference between classical and baroque. I’ll bet those who do are in the minority. All of your points are a hundred percent correct if you add “…for old music snobs like me.” to your claims. Also as far as changing music forever, you can’t deny that music videos were mastered by MJ and they were all rather boorish before him, but he opened imaginations. The Beatles also changed the industry forever from the business side by creating Apple records. These changes are the very least of how either artist influenced music.

          • Aw, I should have known addressing that point would lead nowhere good. After a lifetime of not hiding my taste, I can say that your reaction is disappointingly typical: in fact, calling someone a snob for liking different music than you is an extremely common kneejerk reaction — at least when that person happens to like the music I like — but I am disappointed because you struck me as more thoughtful than that.

            Do you really imagine that I listen to the music I love because I want to seem clever or smarter than others? Seriously? Having a particular taste is necessarily snobby? (That’s like someone calling someone white supremacist for liking the Beatles better than any other rock band — just as nonsensical.) Is it so hard to imagine that maybe I just love it and think it’s the best music on Earth? (And I do actually listen to some popular music too, as you can see if you hunt a bit on my blog; I just don’t think it has anything like the shelf life of the music I like best.)

            Meanwhile, note, I’m not judging your tastes; I just think it’s extremely unrealistic to map them uncritically onto our descendants of 500 years from now. Quick: without using a search engine, can you name five pieces of music you listen to today, or can sing yourself, that date back 500 years? I can, but most people cannot, and it’s not just because there aren’t recordings. Even if there had been, I sincerely doubt we’d be listening to that stuff in greater numbers. (Music from 500 years ago is very weird to most modern ears, and assuredly, music from today will sound quite weird to people that far in our future too.)

            As for the music video: as I said, Michael Jackson/John Lennon : Bach/Coltrane/Stravinsky = apples : oranges.

            If you’re arguing on the grounds of music videos and starting record labels, then apples-and-oranges is obvious, since those things are not music, but rather promotional material and business innovations, respectively.

            I don’t know if Jackson was the only one to refine music videos — I was a kid when it came out, and saw it when it was brand new, but remember it being one among a welter of other videos — but I do remember enjoying it (mostly because it was scary) as a child. But videos are not music, as hard as the record industry wants to make us think they are — and that’s why sometimes a B-side on an album catches fire (or even just appeals to one listener) despite there being no video.

            As for Apple Records, I don’t know how innovative that was: jazz musicians like John Coltrane created publishing companies for their music, in order to secure rights over compositions and maximize control over the use of their music; Coltrane had done that by at least 1965, and probably before. At the time of his death, in 1968, he was working on setting up a musician-run tour circuit and musician-run performance venues as well, which sounds much more innovative to me. (If only he had not died so young, one wonders what might have happened to his plans, and how they might have affected all music, including popular music).

            “The more you correct me on my lack of knowledge of old music, the more you prove my point.”

            Not really. See, you’re using a metric of popularity in the sense of being a household name within his or her lifetime. That’s a common understanding, of course, and one the pop music industry has encouraged in the past century. But even a little careful study of music history — like, even just looking carefully at trends in popular music over the last 100 years — does not bear this idea out.

            I have a lot more to say, but I suspect you’re not particularly interested, so I’ll save it for a post on my own blog.

            Oh, except to say I was always more partial to George, not John…

          • I’ll take back the snob remark. I didn’t realize you would take offense to it. I would say that I am a bit of a video game RPG snob or Spider-Man comic snob, or even a crappy sports team snob because I know more about those things than the masses and I am slightly proud of that. I meant no offense and I appreciate that people have different tastes and that’s cool really, so my bad.

            I actually like Paul’s singing better and I enjoyed George’s work post Beatles. I admire Lennon’s music for the populist political messages, but they are much better when sung by someone else in my opinion.

            I would enjoy discussing the topic more so shoot me a line when you write that post.

            500 years maybe not.. But say 100 to 300?

            London Bridge is falling down
            Happy Birthday to You
            For he’s a jolly good fellow
            God Save the King
            Arirang
            Sakura
            The Star Spangled Banner
            Ring around the rosy

            I could be wrong about the ages of some of those songs, so I’ll admit that 500 years was somewhat of an exaggeration.

            For what it’s worth I enjoy classical (and I guess baroque) music when I hear it. I just don’t feel like doing all the research to know who it is that I am hearing. Perhaps I am lazy but oh well.

          • Ha, we seem to have killed your comment threading…

            Anyway, sorry to have misread you: the “snob” thing is a button of mine. Probably dates back to before geekery was, you know, mainstream? I’ve had people call me that in all seriousness too many times for me to really be comfortable hearing it anymore.

            I agree, George is more interesting solo, and especially his double album All Things Must Pass. Almost every song on that thing is a good one. Paul does nothing for me and Lennon, *shrug* — not much there for me.

            “I would enjoy discussing the topic more so shoot me a line when you write that post.”

            Will do, though you’ve sort of defused the topic a bit. It was about people throwing that word “snob” around.

            As for the songs you mention, yeah, anything under 200 years is fish in a barrel, really, especially for folksongs — which tend to be borrowed and have mutated from language to language, as “London Bridge,” “Ring Around the Rosy,” and “Jolly Good Fellow” — the latter being a special case, as it was formalized and popularized very recently (and essentially resulted in the jettisoning of a bunch of other arirang).

            Actually, to look at your list closely, it’s interesting: I see nursery rhymes, national anthems or folksongs adopted for nationalist purposes, and very little else. The exceptions are Sakura (which I don’t think was coopted for nationalist purposes, was it?), and Happy Birthday to You (which is so modern it’s still under copyright — though probably unjustifiably so –but someone is still sending out bills in the US for performances in media). I’d say Michael Jackson and John Lennon’s chances are raised, but only slightly, by the fact we have recordings of them performing their work themselves… but I’d still bet against them.

            But you never know: my Quebecois mother has told me that she was shocked to discover a number of songs she’d learned as a child dated back to the (medieval, 12th century) troubadours — or so she said after reading a book about them, with lyrics translated into modern French and so on.

  2. I’ve read your article with interest but I seem to fail to completely understand your view. As you already know,I’m a terrible (English) reader as much as terrible writer. So could you answer my some questions to help me understand and clarify your opinion about this issue?
    1. Do you think it is racist if someone (Blacks or Asians) puts a big artificial nose on his nose to perform Caucasian in public?
    2. Do you think it is racist if someone acts like and transforms himself to look like one other particular race even with a good(positive) intention? (He loves and adores them so much that he wants to be them)
    3. So is it OK to mock each other(race) as long as they’re in intimate relationship and doing it in private?
    4. Do you regard John Lennon as a hypocrite?
    5. When and by what Blacks and Asians do do Caucasians get offended?

    • Ken, here are some answers.

      1. Yes, that’s racist.

      2. It depends on the intent, but if someone of that race doesn’t like it, then there is a problem. Also, saying that you want to be that race is even more problematic and it would be better to examine oneself to find out why you hate yourself.

      3. In private, if both of the people are comfortable enough, then fine…. what people do in their private lives is not my concern.

      4. No, I just regard him as ignorant because of the times that he lived in. I think if this were in the 1990s an he did the same thing, then he would be a hypocrite.

      5. I’m only half white and only one person, so I am not qualified to answer this question on behalf of white people. However, I don’t think that there is much that anyone can do to white people that really offends them because whites enjoy privilege worldwide. That’s somewhat of a double standard,but that’s the world we live in.

      • Just another data point, re: #5:

        I’ve told my Korean students that for white men like me, at least, there isn’t a racial slur for whites that we find offensive. We might feel threatened if someone says the slur in a certain context, but as you say, white privilege makes it hard to be offended. But, as I told my students, if you want to see a white liberal really get hurt, call them a “racist” or a “bigot”; they’ll either go into paroxysms of denial/excusal, or lose sleep at night, or both. (That certainly is my experience, and seems to be the experience of a lot of people I know.)

        I don’t know what is the scariest thing for a white conservative man to be called, but for a white liberal man, I think “racist” or “bigot” is near the top of the list. It’s scary in the way that late-Victorian men were terrified of being called “homosexual” because in those days, one never quite knew for sure that such “illness” wouldn’t crop up at any time, and because men’s lives were largely spent in the company of other men. How do you prove you’re not gay, or not a bigot? You can’t, definitively.

        (Notably, slurs against masculinity or sexual orientation still offend white men of all stripes. And of course, sexism ensures that there are still plenty of slurs for white women can be offended by, such as the c-word.)

        By the way, Ken, someone putting on a big artificial nose and “pretending to be Caucasian” wouldn’t bother me mostly because the idea white people have big noses is (to me) a quaint, backwater Asian perception. I don’t see white people that way, and there isn’t really a tradition of mocking white people in my awareness, so it’s not offensive: it makes the performers look ignorant and backwards. But that is a product of (And the luxury of) white privilege, as mentioned above.

        As for someone “loving and respecting” others, well, it’s an odd idea that one would engage in racial caricature because they “want to be” from that race; the reality is that claim is usually made after complaints, in a defense against the accusation of racism. (This is something white folks have pioneered and mastered, so it seems pretty familiar when I see it done.) We cannot really trust that it is a primary motivation, when the explanation is offered *after* accusations of racism. For example, consider the Bubble Sisters: they claimed this, but it seems obvious they were in search of a schtick to sell their music, seeing as they were not likely to be perceived as “sexy” in Korean media terms. Their outfits when in blackface look quite clown-like to me, much more than when they perform without it, for example in this video.

        But question 3 interests me more, because I’d say what I saw in the Lennon video was more mockery of culture or nation — “Shut up, you English!” and the Pearl Harbor reference — than of race. (I see mockery of race as making fun of racial characteristics, mockery of nation or culture as mocking a country’s actions or cultural norms in a society.) Are these interchangeably offensive? Is humor on these subjects ultimately taboo in general? ie. Is humor on these subjects always “mockery”? I don’t have an answer, except to say that sometimes it feels like nobody is willing to laugh at themselves, including us white liberals. Me, I get a kick out of Richard Pryor’s impression of white folks — something I think of mainly as cultural rather than racial mockery. Hmmm.

      • Thank you for the response. It helped me understand your view more clearly. I’m glad to hear the opinion from people like you who’ve lived in many countries and had a lot of experiences. I understand how you became susceptible to this issue as a mixed-race more than single-race people living in only their mother countries like me.

        So you basically think that, whether it’s intentional or not, every races must stop mimicking each other in public,right? But there’s something I can’t still get. F.e. your answer #1&5 a little bit confused me. How can it be racism when whites don’t get offended by mimicking which has no intention to insult them?
        And as for #4, my definition of ‘hypocrites’ is people who are acting like a philanthropist in public place while they mock other races in jest in private no matter what era they live in. It would be more hypocritical if John gave hollow compliments about Japanese on TV while he joked about Pearl Harbor and Yoko(Japanese)’s accent in his house,IMO.
        No one can deny we are living in the world that white men completely control and is filled with double standards. (White people denounced Japanese girls as racist when they saw Ganguro make-up gals(please google it if you don’t know), while they like to deride them as white-wannabe by looking their daily make-up). ‘Lady first’ concept was based on the sexual discrimination. ‘Affirmative action’ was created in order to narrow the disparity of ability between races. We have an inkling of the existence of absolute beauty and unfairness even though we never speak of it openly.

        What do you think can we do to make this world get closer to the ideal world without racism? It must be hard for most people in the world to get rid of discrimination towards other races. Do you believe someday we’ll live completely equally and have no discrimination against each other if we keep suppressing public hate speech? Or will we still live in the world full of double standards 50 years later? I’d like to hear your opinion.

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