Welcome to Up for Debate. Each week, Conor Friedersdorf rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Question of the Week
What is the most constructive way for the press to cover race if its objectives include accurately informing citizens about the past and the present––no matter how awful or uncomfortable––and refraining from framing the news in ways that are needlessly polarizing or essentialist?
Send your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Conversations of Note
On April 6, 1988, the singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman released a self-titled album that ranks among the best debuts––hell, the best albums––ever, in large part because of the singles “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution,” the demo of which got her the record deal, and “Fast Car.” Summon every flawless lyric and guitar riff to your mind’s ear, or else go stream it now.
How undeniable was this album and its biggest hit single? Within its first two weeks, Tracy Chapman sold 1 million copies. It peaked at No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard 200. It has been certified platinum six times over. It was nominated for six Grammys, including Album of the Year. Chapman won three: Best Contemporary Folk Album, Best New Artist, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for “Fast Car.” The album warranted superstar acclaim and riches for its theretofore unknown creator––and it got them from the start.
In a testament to the music’s broad appeal and timelessness, Tracy Chapman and “Fast Car” also rocketed to No. 1 in multiple foreign countries, and every so often, when a new generation discovers it, lightning strikes again. In 2011, “Fast Car” reached No. 4 on the U.K. Singles Chart when it was covered on Britain’s Got Talent. And this year, when the country singer Luke Combs released a cover of the song, it rocketed to No. 1 on the Country Songwriters Chart. Shortly after, Chapman herself released a statement to Billboard. “I never expected to find myself on the country charts, but I’m honored to be there,” she said. “I’m happy for Luke and his success and grateful that new fans have found and embraced ‘Fast Car.’” Billboard reports that the cover has earned Chapman roughly $500,000 in publishing royalties thus far. Rolling Stone notes that she will be the first Black woman “to have the sole songwriting credit on a Number One country hit.”
“Fast Car” is a gritty and heartbreaking song that taps into our shared humanity while exploring poverty, addiction, hope, disappointment, and yearning––hearing it, even for the thousandth time, one is reminded anew how tough so many have it right now. And yet the song’s success is a feelgood story of exceptional art recognized and lavishly rewarded, repeatedly, while bringing people of all sorts together across cultures, nations, and generations.
Or is it?
Problematizing the “Fast Car” Story
Last week, the Washington Post Style-section reporter Emily Yahr published an article titled “Tracy Chapman, Luke Combs and the Complicated Response to ‘Fast Car.’” Its focus is as follows:
To quite a few people, [the cover recording’s success] is cause for yet another celebration in Combs’s whirlwind journey as the genre’s reigning megastar with 16 consecutive No. 1 hits. But it has also prompted a wave of complicated feelings among some listeners and in the Nashville music community. Although many are thrilled to see “Fast Car” back in the spotlight and a new generation discovering Chapman’s work, it’s clouded by the fact that, as a Black queer woman, Chapman, 59, would have almost zero chance of that achievement herself in country music. The numbers are bleak: A recent study by data journalist Jan Diehm and musicologist Jada Watson reported that fewer than 0.5 percent of songs played on country radio in 2022 were by women of color and LGBTQ+ artists. Watson’s previous work shows that songs by women of color and LGBTQ+ artists were largely excluded from radio playlists for most of the two decades prior.
Very quickly, the Post article became one of those polarizing mainstream-media stories that stokes eye-rolling and mockery on social media and podcasts, as well as passionate defenses from people who regard the negative responses as reactionary.
Here’s a sample of Twitter reactions to the Post story:
Noah Smith: “Man just let people sing a song. Making every piece of entertainment into a race war is just utterly exhausting.”
Varad Mehta: “This is incoherent. Tracy Chapman’s not a country artist. So of course she’s not going to place on the country charts. And as everyone has pointed out, Chapman’s original did great on the pop and mainstream charts. Which is a lot better than doing well on the country charts.”
Nadia Gill: “Isn’t the takeaway that art is not to be emotionally possessed. That it can be universal. That a black lesbian and a straight white man may feel the same depth and story despite identity differences. What if we pushed that narrative.”
Free Black Thought: “A really great thing happens for an already deservedly successful black LGBT woman and all the @washingtonpost can do is talk about how no black person can ever make it in America.”
Into the Fray
I weighed in, too, reiterating a long-standing concern: Most news events can be framed in any number of ways, and in the media today, many journalists believe they advance social justice by choosing frames that center the racial identities of their subjects. However, the effect of so frequently emphasizing racial identity can be to increase interracial antagonism and bigoted othering, as the people least psychologically comfortable with difference are reaffirmed daily in their false and pernicious conceit that people of different races are “others” rather than “one of us.”
I’m particularly concerned about overemphasizing racial identity because political-psychology research on people with a predisposition to authoritarianism shows that who they consider to be an “other” is actually quite malleable; everyone in society benefits when would-be authoritarians regard race as a less salient characteristic. But many progressives are so averse to that concern that they don’t even wrestle with the research literature underpinning it, instead treating the concern itself as reactionary. The sociologist Victor Ray responded to my tweet: “A faction of reactionary centrists and conservatives downplay the importance of race in every corner of American life, ensuring traditional hierarchies are never challenged.”
To defenders of the Washington Post article more generally, it was a timely, important look at the factually undeniable dearth of queer Black women in country music, and the criticism of it confirmed that many Americans are reflexively averse to confronting racism, so much so that they lash out at anyone who tries to shed light on racial inequity. And sure, some Americans are like that.
To me, however, it seems self-evident that, because of ongoing racial inequity, it is possible to talk too little about race and racism; but that, just as surely, because race is a false and pernicious construct of slavers and bigots, it is possible to elevate its salience and to emphasize it too much. What’s more, a reflexive unwillingness to confront racism is not credibly behind all criticism of the left-identitarian approach to discussing race, as convenient as that uncharitable assessment would be to the progressives whose approach is being criticized.
Among critics of the Post article, many––including me––have also published and endorsed scores of journalistic efforts that highlight racism and challenge bigoted hierarchies. Why did the Post story vex people in a way that so many other articles about race or racism didn’t? Here’s my best effort to explain my reaction––and insofar as you disagree, I hope you’ll push back via email.
Fitting Facts to Theory or Theory to Facts?
It may surprise some of you, at this point, to learn that I’d be glad to read a feature on country music as it intersects with race and sexual orientation. What are the details of this fraught history? How many Black women and how many LGBTQ people are trying to make it on the country charts? How varied are their experiences? The Post mentions that in the early 20th century, Black singers “were filtered out of the genre.” Are Black women getting rejected by genre gatekeepers today? Are they being steered elsewhere by managers or self-selecting out of the genre because of discrimination, fear of prejudice, and/or complex commercial considerations? If one could choose among different genre charts, in terms of prestige or reach or remuneration, which charts are considered by insiders to be the best and the worst? To what degree do buyers and streamers of country music consume music in other genres? I have no strong priors on these and other interesting questions and am open to any well-argued conclusion.
Now contrast that hypothetical article––interrogating complex questions by marshaling facts with nuance and arguing to a considered conclusion––with the Post article’s approach to the subject. At its center is the fact that very few queer Black women succeed on the country charts. In place of nuanced reporting and analysis on why that is so, the story presumes that the success of the “Fast Car” cover on the country charts tells us something significant about that dearth of representation, and although that significant thing is never precisely articulated, it has something to do with racism and the place of queer Black women at the bottom of the intersectional hierarchy.
In the Post article, one Black country-music singer-songwriter, Rissi Palmer, is quoted praising Tracy Chapman’s work, but we never hear from any queer or Black songwriters describing their own experiences trying to work in country music, stories that could better inform us about the article’s core subject. Instead, we hear from cultural observers who share their feelings about what the Luke Combs cover supposedly tells us. The writer does not push them to engage with obvious counters to their perspective. And we don’t hear from analysts with complicating or countervailing perspectives. Why not include a voice who regards the cover as unproblematic?
The result is a one-sided analysis that begs a lot of questions. I think the backlash to the Post story is largely rooted in the fact that the success of a “Fast Car” cover is an inapt peg for a story about a dearth of queer Black women succeeding on the country-music charts. Chapman is a wildly successful musician, she has never been a country singer, and no one ever considered “Fast Car” a country song. To choose the “Fast Car” news peg for an exploration of queer Black exclusion forces the article to proceed not with real stories of the dynamics of race and sexual orientation in country music, but with speculative hypotheticals about how it feels like identity functions.
Here, examples are useful. Holly G, founder of the Black Opry, an organization for Black country music singers and fans, is quoted telling the Post: “On one hand, Luke Combs is an amazing artist, and it’s great to see that someone in country music is influenced by a Black queer woman—that’s really exciting. But at the same time, it’s hard to really lean into that excitement knowing that Tracy Chapman would not be celebrated in the industry without that kind of middleman being a White man.” But do we “know” that Chapman would not be celebrated in a hypothetical where she emerged today and tried launching “Fast Car” on the country charts? No more, I think, than we “knew” what would happen if the Black frontman of Hootie and the Blowfish reinvented himself as a country singer and covered the old standard “Wagon Wheel.” (Here’s a Billboard article about Darius Rucker stopping by the Country Music Hall of Fame and receiving a plaque to commemorate his cover going platinum eight times over.)
Another section of the Post story airs the speculative concern that Combs might overshadow Chapman:
Jake Blount, an Afrofuturist folk artist who has devoted his career to studying music history and reinterpreting older songs, tweeted about the concern of Chapman’s “legacy being overwritten in real-time.” He thought about how Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” was consumed by Elvis Presley or how Memphis Minnie and Kansas Joe McCoy’s “When the Levee Breaks” was overshadowed by Led Zeppelin, along with endless other examples of the “White male genius” archetype that often receives credit for songs by Black artists.
“When I wrote those tweets, people [replied] to me and said, ‘Oh, there’s no way anybody’s going to forget Tracy Chapman, she’s too big already.’ … And I hope that’s true, but I know how it’s played out before,” Blount said. “We know Black visionaries who have created incredible, powerful, influential works … that have been forgotten and erased. It’s not malice from the White artists making derivative music based on theirs, but it’s how society works.”
Is that “how society works”? With full acknowledgment of the countless Black recording artists short-shrifted by racism, our society has long been much more complicated than that. To cite one relevant example, Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” has far overshadowed the original Dolly Parton country version. Sometimes, our society works that way, too. And while I can imagine a future case where a white man records a cover that overshadows a Black woman’s original song, it seems obvious to me that in this case, there is almost zero chance that the Combs version of “Fast Car” will overshadow, or even remotely approach in success, the Chapman version.
I was also struck by the newspaper’s parenthetical: “Chapman does not discuss her personal life, but writer Alice Walker has disclosed their relationship, which occurred in the 1990s.” To me, that only underscores the weirdness of the article’s reliance on hypotheticals. So Chapman’s reported “queerness” would have given her almost zero chance of succeeding in the 1980s country music scene because, sometime in the next decade, a famous author would out her as having had a same-sex relationship? Maybe! I don’t doubt that queer Black women faced prejudice in 1980s country music. But Chapman’s sexuality was not being discussed at the time. Moreover, Chapman did not face prejudice––indeed, she experienced nothing at all, good or bad––as a country music recording artist, so why is that what I am reading about in the Post? Isn’t there enough injustice in the world without speculating about hypothetical bygone oppressions?
A Difficult Calibration
Emily Yahr, the author of the Post article, is taking unfair grief and abuse for misreadings of her thesis, as always happens when articles go viral. What’s more, the question of how to best calibrate the relevance of race to news stories in a multiethnic democracy is hugely difficult to answer. Perspectives will differ, as will judgments in individual instances, and different people are entitled to their opinions, which oughtn’t subject them to unconstructive digs or vilification.
But insofar as the idea behind this sort of coverage is that it advances social justice by talking about racism––backlash be damned, because talking about racism is important––I have a question: In a world of solipsistic news consumers, who report fatigue when any problem is covered often, might it be best if journalism writ large focused its coverage of racism on relatively consequential real-world examples, rather than, for example, the fact that some country fans worry a Black woman’s version of “Fast Car” might be overshadowed by a white man’s cover, even though the Black woman’s version remains much more successful right now?
Ultimately I am not averse to close, uncomfortable, detailed journalism about racism––but I am averse to speculative hypotheticals about racism that would have theoretically happened, but did not, at least when they come in the context of taking the inspiring and heartening history of a Black folk-rock artist succeeding tremendously in 1980s America and reframing her actual, ongoing success as a feel-bad story about how much less successful she would have been than a white man. Especially given that Chapman is, in reality, more successful than that white man, what kind of racism or racists are these speculative scenarios about Tracy Chapman diminishing? And we need not frame identity in the way this final excerpt from the Post story did:
Holly of the Black Opry said that now would be a great time for Combs to invite a queer Black female artist to join him on tour or to offer his support: “You used her art to enrich your career, and that opens you up to a little bit of responsibility giving back to the community.”
Set aside this corrosively zero-sum characterization of a cover that benefitted Chapman, by her own account. As I see it, Chapman, a singular and singularly talented individual, wrote “Fast Car,” not the Black community, or the queer community, or a collective encompassing all Black female artists. To me, Combs would be guilty of tokenization if he found a queer Black woman and said, “I covered a song by someone with your skin tone and sexual orientation; want to join me on tour?” I would cheer affirmative efforts by successful country musicians to diversify their genre, but the racecraft quoted above is incompatible with a world where people of different races are equals in a beloved community, not “others.” At the same time, I appreciate that Holly of the Black Opry is trying to do good as she sees it, and I wish her success in much of her project, not least because I am excited to see the first Black female country star.
That’s all for today––see you next week.
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