The other day I was Gchatting with my friend Maura Johnston at the Village Voice. Maura is a great person to pay attention to if you like pop music but don't have enough time or tolerance for inexhaustibly overblown production and mastering to sift through all of it looking for the gems that haven't made it into heavy rotation on KISS FM yet. So when she sent me a Spotify link to the new Foxy Shazam single, "I Like It," I just clicked on it without thinking it was anything more than a tip on a record I probably wouldn't have otherwise paid attention to.
My thoughts during that first spin of "I Like It," in chronological order, went something like this:
1. "I can get down with this, in a big, broad, 70s rock kind of way." (It's worth mentioning that recently I've been on a Meat Loaf kick for reasons that I'm still figuring out.)
2. "But it still bums me out that so much of rock 'n' roll has made the decision to turn its back on the future and content itself with revisiting its past successes, like the middle-aged former jock reminiscing about the time his high school team went all the way to the state championships."
3. "Wait, is that guy really saying what I think he's saying?"
It turns out that he was, and that the chorus indeed consists of a white dude singing, "That's the biggest black ass I've ever seen / And I like it." No shit.
Now, I'm not saying that front man Eric Sean Nally or anyone else in Foxy Shazam is racist. But their song is definitely racist.
One quick test you can use to help determine whether a song lyric/blog comment/joke/whatever is racist/sexist/homophobic/whatever is to swap out the cultural identities it uses for other cultural identities and see if that configuration raises any red flags that you may not have noticed the first time around. For instance, picture a black guy singing a song about big white-girl titties.
OK, so that probably doesn't ping on your race radar quite as loudly as "I Like It," maybe because (sadly enough) the portrayal of black men as hypersexual predators lusting over white women is so baked into the history of pop culture that we're just used to the stereotype. But imagine a song by a white female singer about huge black cocks, and red flags start popping up all over the place.
There are a few possible ways to defend "I Like It," and an informal poll of online friends (some white, some black) suggests that they come to mind more or less automatically. (Interestingly, everybody I asked at least tried to figure out how to let the band and the song off the hook, though all admitted that their attempts fell apart quickly under scrutiny.)
You can make the argument that the song is ostensibly, at its heart, pro-black woman, and because of that Foxy Shazam should get a pass on the racial-objectification angle, but the problem with that argument is that it's bullshit. It's pro-big black ass, maybe (which I'm sure we can all agree is in and of itself a perfectly fine position to take), but the lines about "my gangsta girl" who uses "sexy, street-talkin' slang" are straight-up Fetishizing the Other, which comes with the baggage of several hundred years of gruesome treatment of black women—and black women's asses—at the hands of white men. Adding to that lineage, even in a winking or knowing way, is repulsive. Even adding to it without intending to—which, again, I what I suspect is going on here—is bad.
You can argue that we live in a postracial society now, which means that we're free to revive retrograde ideas about race and play around with them for fun, because with racism out of the picture they aren't dangerous or ugly anymore. And that is even more obviously bullshit. The only people who actually believe that America—a country whose third most populous city is still racially segregated at an Eisenhower-era level—suddenly became "postracial" after Obama was elected are Fox Nation true believers and privileged young hipsters, and both groups seem to use this belief primarily as a get-out-of-jail-free card when they indulge in heinous race talk. Because if racism is dead (the theory goes), then saying racist shit isn't racist, right? (This is the same dumb thinking that's been getting Girls writer Lesley Arfin in well-earned trouble recently.)
You could say that Nally and company are simply reviving the character of the racially curious white hipster lothario that Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, and pretty much every arena-rock star played at a certain point during the 70s—obviously that pose, or something very much like it, is what Foxy Shazam are shooting for here. But while it's possible to write off Jagger et al's icky race numbers (I mean, seriously) to time and place (and to chemically impaired judgment, and to egos inflated to superhuman proportions by otherworldly levels of fame), there's no good excuse for bringing that sort of thing back now. Leave that shit in the 70s where it belongs. Maybe if America ever truly becomes postracial, a white male will be able to sing the praises of big black asses without either deliberately or inadvertently invoking centuries of institutionalized sexual exploitation, but until then it would be best to consider it off the table.
Before I took my issues with "I Like It" public, I ran the song by the aforementioned friends, who all agreed it's unbelievable that during the entire process of writing, performing, recording, mixing, mastering, distributing, and promoting the new Foxy Shazam single, no one held up a finger and asked, "Don't the lyrics to this song seem really fucked up?" But I wanted an expert's opinion as well, so I turned to Andrew Ti, proprietor of the extremely good blog Yo, Is This Racist?
"OK," he wrote me in an e-mail after I introduced him to the song, "so yeah, this is some 'oh, I'm not racist, these are positive stereotypes' bullshit. It's still fucking racist, and sexist, and reducing people to sexuality stereotypes is some bullshit only racists do." Which seems pretty conclusive to me.
The shame is that, other than the lyrics, I actually like the song, and honestly I feel a slight twinge of guilt for picking on music that's delivered with such a turbocharged desire to please the audience. But we are not pleased, Foxy Shazam. We are not pleased.