How Tina Lost Her Blues: White and Black Music in America – Exerpt

While she would later express regret, Tina Turner did choose to perform for an all-white South African audience during high apartheid, and in one televised interview in her post-Ike period, even went so far as to describe Africans as “lazy.” Her seemingly Damoscene conversion to a European understanding of the world put me in mind of two tropes. The first was from my time as a journalist in South Africa in the early aughts six years after the fall of the white minority government. When the expats got together to make sense of a story that we were writing or some odd feature of the new democratic–that is a small D–order in South Africa, we would often shake our heads and say:

“Blame Apartheid! Even when you’re wrong, you’re right!”

The second phrase that comes to mind in weighing Tina Turner’s legacy was a phrase popularized by Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign reminding the candidate to stay focused on the issue most salient with voters: “It’s the economy stupid!”

What I mean is that Tina Turner’s transformation from Blues singer to Rock icon is the product of a white backlash that coopted her and her sound to cancel not just Ike, but the Black musical tradition from which she came.

This backlash began roughly around our nation’s bicentennial year, fueled by a tectonic shift in Americans’ material realities as the Golden Age of Industrialism came to a close and the Age of Ronald Wilson Reagan was coming into view. By the time that Tina and Ike signed their divorce settlement in 1978, the supply of unionized, decent-paying manufacturing jobs had begun to dry up. One third of all workers were employed in value-added industries in 1953; by 1978 that number had dipped to a quarter, and would plummet to less than nine percent by 2015.

The burden, however, was not borne equally: between 1975 and 1980, the number of unemployed white workers fell by 562,000 while the numbers of jobless blacks increased by 200,000 over the same period.

Still, inflation was soaring, economic growth slowing, paychecks shrinking. And whites turned their ire on the usual suspects, Black Folks, rather than the wealthy who were to blame for their declining material fortunes.

And nowhere was the rising tide of racial resentment more evident than in the culture wars beginning to take shape at precisely the moment that Tina Turner was releasing her first solo album in the late 1970s.

If you are old enough to remember, flip through the photo album in your mind and recall movies like Rocky, Death Wish, and the Dirty Harry franchise, all of which depicted the honest white man as beseiged by the swarthy hordes. The John Travolta vehicle, Saturday Night Fever, was an especially heinous and counterfactual ode to white men who felt they were losing ground to women, gays, Puerto Ricans and drumroll please— Blacks.

And nothing stoked white rage so much as disco, a music that was grounded in black masculinity, gay club culture and women’s empowerment.For all its saccharine qualities, disco formed a bridge, however flimsy, “between what George Clinton famously called the chocolate cities and the vanilla suburbs, encouraging women, gays, blacks, Latinos, and ethnic whites to enjoy a polyrhythmic point of integration.”

But as the decade wore on, white brittleness intensified, emasculating young white men who rejected the integration of musical traditions that produced the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and early iterations of groups like the band Chicago, which in its early iterations, sounded like a knock-off of Sly and the Family Stone (Chicago, play 25 or 6 to 4 here).

As the anti-disco movement picked up considerable steam, one music critic wrote that “white rock was sounding whiter and black music was sounding blacker.” Here is what Chicago sounded like in its post-Black period: (play Chicago “You’re the Inspiration” here:)

On July 12, 1977, a Chicago disc jockey, Steve Dahl, invited White Sox fans to turn up at Comiskey Park on July 12th with a disco record to gain admittance to the game for 98¢. Dahl planned to fill a dumpster with the records during the seventh inning stretch and blow them up as a publicity stunt.

In a 2019 retrospective for the Guardian newspaper entitled “Disco Demolition: The night they tried to crush black music,” Alexis Petridis wrote of one African American usher, Vince Lawrence, who  

“. . . realized something wasn’t right: people weren’t just turning up with disco records, but anything made by a black artist. “I said to my boss: ‘Hey, a lot of these records they’re bringing in aren’t disco – they’re R&B, they’re funk. Should I make them go home and get a real disco record?’ He said no: if they brought a record, take it, they get a ticket.” He laughs. “I want to say maybe the person bringing the record just made a mistake. But given the amount of mistakes I witnessed, why weren’t there any Air Supply or Cheap Trick records in the bins? No Carpenters records – they weren’t rock’n’roll, right? It was just disco records and black records in the dumpster.

Things turned uglier after Dahl’s demolition took place and the crowd – estimated at 50,000 – rushed the field. Unable to cope with the surge of people the ushers were told to go home and that the police would have to deal with what was degenerating into a riot. “Someone walked up to me said: ‘Hey you – disco sucks!’ and snapped a 12in in half in my face,” Lawrence says. “That’s when I started feeling like: ‘OK, they’re just targeting me because I’m black.’ I’ve got a Loop T-shirt on – what’s the difference between me and the next usher trying to get back to his locker? I was one of the few African American people in the stadium. Steve Dahl said it wasn’t discriminatory, he was an equal opportunities offender or whatever, but Steve didn’t invite no brothers to Comiskey Park.”

You needn’t be a historian to see the 1977 debacle at Comiskey Park as a precursor to the January 6th mob that was their own generational fear that white men, especially, are losing ground to Black and Brown people and the LGBT community..

Or in other words, the pogrom against disco at Comiskey Park in 1977 was an attempt to CANCEL BLACK MUSIC.

This segregation of sound partitioned New York City as well: uptown, blacks and Puerto Ricans blended funk, disco, and the Black Arts movement to create an explicitly political genre that came to be known as rap, or hip-hop, the first authentically American art form since jazz; while downtown at hotspots like CBGB,  disaffected white youths consciously shunned all black musical influences to create a sound known as punk rock. Of the latter, the Ramones were by far the most well-known group in the U.S. Wrote Jefferson Cowie in his splendid historiography, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class:

“The Ramones returned rock ‘n’ roll to its proper garage setting, promising a do-it-yourself kit for those interested in emancipation from the chains of mainstream seventies music that (rock critic) Greil Marcus could dismiss as little more than ‘a habit, a structure, an invisible oppression.’ They were the United States’ most important contribution to, and much of the catalyst for, the Anglo-American punk movement, but what was curious about the band, especially as opposed to their British cousins, was their distinct lack of class politics –and when they had them, their often conservative bend. Rather than being class conscious or even political, they tended to embrace simply being “dumbbell pillhead teenagers” stripped of any sentimentality and who could whipsaw angst into contempt and farce. It is not that the Ramones were not often witty or even brilliant, but simply, in contrast to much of the punk movement across the Atlantic, they were part of the breakdown of class as a category of analysis rather than a re-imagining of it.” 

It’s hardly a coincidence that the biggest white musical acts of the 1980s  –the Clash, U2, the Police, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen–all consciously embraced the Blues, reggae or Motown and even black dance styles, beguiling white audiences who knew something was missing from their mixtapes even if they couldn’t quite put their finger on it. (play Police-Roxanne) Cowie continues:

“The most important thing that a band like the Clash had that almost all American music of the late seventies lacked was a conscious infusion of black musical traditions. As rock critic Lester Bangs put it, ‘Somewhere in their assimilation of reggae is the closest thing yet to the lost chord, the missing link between black and white noise, rock capable of making a bow to black forms without smearing on the blackface.’


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