White music fans are afraid of difference

When Postal Service fans get aggressively upset over a black opening act, that's evidence of a bigger problem

Published August 1, 2013 8:10PM (EDT)

 Big Freedia (bigfreedia.com)
Big Freedia (bigfreedia.com)


“An actual twerk team is opening for The Postal Service.  I don’t know what’s going on.”

“@PostalService great concert in SD tonight but @bigfreedia is for a totally different demographic.”

“Why in the hell is Big Freedia opening for Postal Service?  What, are you’re gonna bounce/twerk your ass, then guilty cry about it afterward?”

Well, crying to the Postal Service is for teenagers a decade ago.  But these are just a few of many tweets from fans at a handful of recent Postal Service concerts who told the world they were “so confused,” and in many cases pretty displeased, by the opening act, sissy bounce artist Big Freedia. For some reason, audience members reacted as if they had no advance knowledge of who would be playing, and attendees in Vancouver, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and especially Seattle thought perhaps they’d been “pranked” by the unlikely pairing of hypersexual New Orleans dance-rap with the light-synthy lily-white lullabies of the Postal Service.  The presence of Big Freedia and her dancers was said to be “inexplicable,” “awkward” and the result of a decision made by someone “on crack.”

A fan in L.A. wondered if the main act was “trolling hipsters” — the same question posed by Uproxx, in a post headlined in part, “Exceedingly White Postal Service Fans Are Confused.”  Uproxx picked up the story from the Seattle Times, where blogger Andrew Matson reported,  “In the normally neutral space of KeyArena, audience members were irritated, seemed to be uncomfortable with Freedia’s brand of sexual expression and questioned whether the performance was ‘real music.’”

For the uninitiated, bounce is New Orleans-flavored rap, around since the early 1990s.  It’s based on samples — often from a 1986 recording called “Drag Rap” or 1991’s “Where Dey At,” the song that solidified bounce as a distinctive local style — high-tempo beats; repetitive lyrics, chants, and call and response.  It’s also all about dancing, and a performer like Big Freedia is usually accompanied by seriously skilled movers, working below the waist in ways many can only aspire to in dreams. Raps are heavily inflected with dance directions like “shake,” “twerk,” “pop,” “wobble” and “bounce.” Dancers — men and women — get real low, real bent over, and lyrics can be super-sexual. One of Freedia’s hits is called “Azz Everywhere” and that’s where you’re moving from when you bounce to it.

Over the last few months, there’s been plenty of white appropriation of black dance styles, such as Miley Cyrus twerking in her video for “Can’t Stop” (in which black women cheer her on, seemingly there to validate the star's nothing-to-see moves), these white high school girls suspended for similarly bad twerking, and the D.I.Y. “Harlem Shake” video trend, featuring poor imitations of the real dance of that name, in the form of wild gyration (and taken down smoothly by Melissa Harris-Perry here).

Cyrus first debuted her twerk in a grainy black-and-white video in March, conveniently hiding in a baggy unicorn costume resembling kids’ onesie pajamas. Her dancing there involves a lot more standing and Jane Fonda workout speed-skater arm sways than twerking, but Miley’s made it pretty clear she’s aiming for what has usually been black style: She wore a gold grill to a MySpace launch event in June; in her “Can’t Stop” video, she throws her hands around in faux gangsta poses; and she won’t stop bearing her teeth with curled lip askew à la O.D.B, all while looking like Madonna circa the Girlie Show tour.  Oh, and there’s this: She told the songwriters for her new album that she wanted it to sound “black.”

Most people, including most Postal Service fans, are familiar with bounce sounds from crossover hits like Juvenile’s 1999 No. 1 “Back That Azz Up” or Beyoncé’s 2007 “Get Me Bodied.”  But still reaction to Big Freedia’s set spiraled from baffled to outright racist: The show was said to be “ghetto” and “hoodrat,” while multiple pissed attendees echoed Twitter user @vangrafics: “I thought that I came for The Postal Service, and not a twerk show.”

Some fans said the show “cracked [them] up.”  One wrote, “I knew Ben Gibbard had to have some humor in there somewhere.”  But what exactly was funny? Freedia’s act isn’t tongue-in-cheek.  The implication was that Postal Service frontman Gibbard had offered a spectacle — something ridiculous.  In fact he had offered a legitimate performer of another genre. What would be funny is Miley Cyrus twerking, if she didn’t look vaguely like Hitler Youth doing it.

Following the fan outburst, many people who hadn't attended the concerts said on Twitter and elsewhere that they found the audience reaction itself “hilarious.”  And indeed Postal Service devotees seemed comically unhip and lacking in self-awareness.  The Seattle crowd in particular came off as a bunch of yokels, though there was plenty of that to go around: “Apparently The Postal Service has been touring with a twerk band.” (“Twerk band” is not a phrase.)

Nonetheless, I’m not so sure the fan response was funny.  It was actually strangely aggressive.  OK, so the opening act isn't for you.  How often do people expect to adore the opener?  Why is it so absurd that this performance might cross your path?  More than anything else, the white audiences seemed preemptively defensive.

Bounce shows can undeniably underline an audience member’s difference from the performers in a way that few other shows might.  You may love what you see and hear, and you may be completely unable to keep up.  Do not be fooled by the seeming simplicity: twerking is hard, and moving beyond the basics to make it interesting is a serious talent. Participating as a newcomer is not for those without a sense of humor, and not for those who can't take pleasure in and respect something they themselves don't offer. It makes sense that a white audience might take to the public realm quickly to clarify just who it is that doesn't belong, just who it is that is out of place: Certainly, it couldn't be them.

Most interesting to me were the comments that plainly stated the facts of the concert as if those entirely spoke for themselves. (“There are women bent over on the Key Arena stage, waggling their asses at the crowd. This is the opener for Postal Service.”) This was thought to so obviously communicate something that it needed no explanation. The unusual pairing of the musicians is clear.  But what were these fans saying?  That they can pick out difference and contrast like a child who has learned colors and shapes? Or did they intend to communicate that they were being exposed to something “not for them,” or, dare I venture, “beneath” them?

When Miley Cyrus sings “To all my homegirls here with the big butt, / shaking it like we at strip club, / remember now only God can judge ya/,” she’s right only in so far as she speaks for herself. Socially, compared to people of other races and classes, she’s mostly above judgment.  And she’s in the privileged position of breaking up expectations. A famous, young, blond white woman, who was previously a famous, more young, less blond white girl can shake her ass in rebellion — it’s an easy one, obviously, but a rebellion.  For a black woman, or a black man, the choice is altogether different.  Twitter user @CorettaReine aptly remarks: “Black girls twerk and they’re ghetto.  Miley Cyrus twerks and it’s entertainment.  I don’t understand.”  When a white audience sees a black woman twerking, they have a heavy stack of cultural assumptions to back up however they interpret her. Cyrus performs in an all-white room in the video for “Can’t Stop” appropriately: She gets a blank slate.  She doesn’t use it very well, but there it is: her cultural inheritance and privilege made material.

Within the context of the white twerk trend, the Postal Service fan reaction seems disturbing: We'd like our booty shaking, but when we ask for it, and also when we do it ourselves. An uninvited performance by a raw, aggressive MC like Big Freedia, on white music-goers' home turf, and not on their own terms, was received as a whole different game: a confrontation.

In his book "Bounce: Rap Music and Local Identity in New Orleans," scholar Matt Miller writes that New Orleans rap works to wear away divisions between musician and listener, dancer and watcher. Like the polyphonic jazz that came before it that  “articulated a particular philosophy regarding the importance of spontaneity and the bridging of the artist/ audience divide,” bounce grays the line between crowd and performer.

While Cyrus has been said to be crossing color lines — or more aptly, crossing over, grabbing what she likes, and crossing back — a bounce performance for a Postal Service crowd asks the audience to forget the line (color, sexuality, audience vs. artist) for the duration of one short show.  But apparently, without prior warning, this is an outlandish request.  By calling out difference in such a loud way, the Seattle audience and others made it clear they weren’t up for graying the line. They wanted to call it out; they wanted to remain distinct.

Writers like Miller have said that gender-queer or gender-fluid “sissy” performers like Big Freedia, as opposed to non-queer bounce artists, have been able to connect to a wider audience — specifically, a white middle-class audience — precisely because that class welcomes the opportunity to support something transgressive. The queerness, in a weird turn, makes the rap “safer.” But in this case, the queer card didn’t play well.  Of the Seattle show, Andrew Matson reported: “Men in the stands conspicuously proclaimed their own heterosexuality, and in general the response was uneasy."

Probably plenty of these uncomfortable attendees consider themselves queer-friendly: This is Seattle, after all.  But transgressing the theoretical space of accepted culture is different from transgressing into a physical room of whiteness, or in this case, an arena — a place of expected sameness.  Apparently, the latter can even be received as a type of trespass.

Preferring "your music" is fine and good.  But sticking stiffly to the stance you arrived in, claiming the territory of your tastes, and leaving unchanged, isn’t what live music is for.  American studies scholar Charles Keil has written that “music is our last and best source of participatory consciousness,” containing the “capacity not just to model but maybe to enact some ideal communities.”  Art is our imaginative space, and live music a communal one.  If we can’t welcome difference there, something is deeply wrong.

Maybe the most pissed and confounded Twitter responders to Big Freedia’s show hate rap, hip-hop and butts.  But I bet they don’t.  They appear to be white people mostly in their late 20s like me, and I bet they consume all kinds of music.  But they were walking into an evening they believed would be a warm bath of sameness (the other opener for the Postal Service on this tour is actually called Baths), where they, more than anyone else, would distinctly belong.  If we only welcome difference when it’s on the bill — a rap show, a queer night at a club—or when we imitate it, whiten it and straighten it, but don’t want it as a part of our regular space, we don’t really welcome it at all.  If difference has to be invited, the walls are still up for all of us.

Artists like Big Freedia don’t ask to be accepted by the audience.  They tell the crowd to get with it.  The MC makes you shout and move as an homage to her, as a performance of group identity.  This is rap in commands and in command, and it’s part of why people can get so loose. And bounce is about getting loose, if nothing else. If Postal Service fans don’t wanna, fine.  But it sure sounds like they could use it — like they could use some help shaking it across some lines, just like the rest of us.

By Katie Ryder

Katie Ryder is a freelance writer and a contributing editor for Guernica. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily, NewYorker.com, and others.

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Big Freedia Hip-hop Music Postal Service Race Seattle Twerking Twitter