Sunday, September 15, 2019

1983: Dancing About Architecture

Note: I went to SUNY Purchase and there came a time when my group of friends decided that an arts school should have an arts magazine, so we created MOA: Magazine of the Arts. My role was as an editor and music critic and I started a column called Dancing About Architecture. This is one of those columns, reproduced here exactly as it was published 36 years ago.

Radio is in a pretty bad state. It's conformist, commercially dependent, and, with few exceptions, blatantly racist.

Among offenders there are degrees: worst is WLIR-FM (92.7), ignoring all but the most homogenized black music. Contemporary Hits Radio (CHR) stations are little better, giving more airplay to black music, but only if it's already making a lot of money. The only stations with integrity are the "Urban" stations (WKTU, WBLS, WRKS, all FM, 92.0, 107.5, and 98.7, respectively), who set their own criteria for what they play, independent of sales.

I'll start with WLIR, the supposed "New Music Station." WLIR's programming policy translates: White/English - YES, Black/American - NO. WLIR justifies its "new" title by playing songs that are a hit in England, while ignoring new American music, especially if it's black. When questioned about the intimated racism of their programming, WLIR directors responded: "We play what fits our format - we play music that's good." One could argue that WLIR is "making a statement" by not giving airplay to "Thriller," but if the issue is quality, why does the station keep "Undercover," the Stones latest, on the air? Evidently, in the language of WLIR, "good" means "not black."

The same thinking informs the 24-hour cable music television channel, MTV. When an MTV executive was asked why his channel did not play more black videos, he replied, "We play rock'n'roll." One might ask then, what is R'n'R? Is it, as the people at WLIR and MTV would have us believe, a rootless dance music played by white people, mainly on synthesizers, exclusive of black performers?

The latest alternative - CHR - offers a definition-by-no-definition: they play anything that is a hit. However their programming policy affect the consistency of their audience (if it has any consistency), CHR stations do at least participate in breaking down racial barriers. For instance, during the time CHR stations were playing Culture Club's "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me" and Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," WLIR played only Culture Club and wouldn't touch the latter. Of course, CHR's motives in this case were purely profit-oriented, a fact which becomes less relevant when one's concern is getting as large an audience as possible to accept a variety of music. What is relevant is that these stations are very popular. In fact, Z-100 was for several months early this year the Number One station the New York listening area.

The predictable irony is that CHR stations and WLIR suffer from the same problem: across-the-board mediocrity. The fact that the "new music" WLIR plays is on the charts is not a triumph for new music, but rather, a defeat for The Music. There's nothing "new" about Duran Duran that wasn't new about Herman's Hermits. What WLIR has done, simply, is to fool the public into thinking that the same old thing is new - and has done so without taking any risk. There will always be pop, and it will always have its listeners - many, many listeners.

Not every "New Music" station in the past has had such narrow programming. A few years back, WPIX-FM, 101.9 (now playing love songs, nothing but love songs), was one New Music station that dared quite a bit. They played the Specials before they signed with the Chrysalis label and even played the B-52's "Rock Lobster" from a demo tape. WPIX also contributed to the success of lesser known bands like XTC, whose album "Drums and Wires," as a result of continual airplay on WPIX, resulted in that band's largest following ever. The temptation is to conclude that we have entered into a period of musical mediocrity, an error that amounts to "blaming the victim." There is lots of good music now; for example XTC's new album "Mummer," which receives no airplay. The radio stations are at fault.

There are a few innovators, the "Urban Stations" - WKTU, WBLS and WRKS - who play anything, as long as it fits their criteria of quality. The difference between these stations and CHR is that whereas CHR plays what is a hit, Urban stations are a major force in making the hits. This is where the innovations are happening, in so-called "Black Music." As a musician, I find most of the things that catch my ear are on 12" dance singles, like the great, crunchy synthesizer sound in "You've Gotta Believe" by "Love Bug" Starski, or the huge drum sound in Shannon's "Let The Music Play." Not to mention Scratching (rubbing the needle on the record to create literally a scratching sound), which is something really new - using the medium to renew itself, like making a collage out of the Mona Lisa. This is what distinguishes Urban stations from all the others: they act on the music itself - making new mixes, scratches, etc. Some of the D.J.-made hits are so good that they have become airplay hits and are eventually released as records themselves.

What emerges from all this is an essential difference in black and white attitudes towards music. To overgeneralize: blacks view music more as a medium while whites treat it primarily as a commodity. Of course, this hasn't stopped white musicians from borrowing heavily (I'm being kind) from black artists - How many people talked to Bo Diddley before using his beat? - but when it comes to repaying the debt, they can be remarkably selfish. Recently Sugarhill Records approached 99 Records for use of a Liquid Liquid bassline and were refused. When Sugarhill asked if it was possible to buy a percentage of the rights, 99 said flat out "No. We own 100% of the song and we will continue to own 100%." Sugarhill used the bassline anyway (promising royalties to 99) and created a better song - "White Lines,"  by Grandmaster and Melle Mel. White musicians should learn to give a little with all that take - let's face it, they didn't invent the funk.

Despite all this, there is hope. By the sheer quality of the music, Urban Stations are managing to convince other stations what's good. Recently, WLIR picked up "White Lines," making it the first black record to receive steady airplay on that station. Although radio's basic premise is still to reach as large an audience as possible, I believe better radio could be a reality; radio that's less racist and more confident, that can introduce to the American public some really new music. A change like this could only be accompanied by other, bigger changes. The supposedly revived music industry would have to start signing and promoting young, fresh artists, and even, perhaps, using some good, old-fashioned power politics (such as CBS allegedly used to get Michael Jackson's videos on MTV) to get their music played on commercial stations. Musicians would also have to cooperate and try, on both sides, to bridge the still-yawning racial gap. I don't know if this will happen in my lifetime, but I am sure, as an interested party and working musician, that it is up to us to lay the foundations for radio's hopefully brighter future.

(Jeremy Shatan, a junior at the State University of New York at Purchase, plays bass for Susanna and the Elders.)

Susanna and the Elders
(l-r: Andrew Berenyi (Guitar), Joe Leonard (Drums), Verushka (Vocals), Jeremy Shatan (Bass)

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