American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business, and the End of White America , by Leon E. Wynter. Crown Publishers, 296 pages, $25.
A hundred years after W.E.B. Du Bois proclaimed that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line,” Leon Wynter may have come up with a solution: draw it sloppily. The blackface coon shouter, Norman Mailer’s “White Negro,” the stockbroker standing over his Bloomberg bellowing ” Waaaaassssup ?”-all have played their part, for better and worse, in rescuing us from a nation of Pat Boones and Nancy Reagans. As Mr. Wynter points out in American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business, and the End of White America , race-bending has been endemic to white America for at least a century. But as the “Business & Race” columnist for The Wall Street Journal during the 90’s, Mr. Wynter picked up on something new: This cultural miscegenation-this “deep fusion,” as he puts it, between “nonwhiteness” and popular culture-is now taking us forever out of a white-dominant America and converting us into a truly transracial society.
So maybe, if you catch Mr. Wynter’s drift, the promise of Freedom Riding and nanny-state engineering is best fulfilled by Viacom and North Face. (Did I mention he wrote for The Journal ?)
American Skin gets off to an absolutely smoking start: “When I was in junior high school,” Mr. Wynter writes, “you could tell the color of another boy’s skin by looking at his feet.” Thus begins a bull’s-eye riff on the evolution of a generalized black aesthetic among American youth. But this book was written at the height of public faith in the curative powers of the free market, back when the 20-year imperium for the global media business was still going strong and conference-room bywords like “mindshare” didn’t activate rueful sniggers. Sadly, Mr. Wynter abandons his elegant autobiography too quickly, trading it for a very 90’s argot and a mediasphere where only two sorts of people seem to exist: icons and wannabes.
The icons-Will Smith, Oprah, Tiger Woods-possess an inoffensive appeal that transcends race; hence their status as desirable international product-endorsers. Mr. Wynter points out that “white” is being replaced by “corporate” in American life; that “All American” has evolved from a racial code-word signaling “clean-cut Caucasian” to meaning simply approachable, likable and, above all, unobjectionable. Meanwhile, in the 1990’s, “edginess” itself became a commercial cultural value. As the icons become de-racialized über -pitchmen, the wannabes become ever more self-consciously “urban”: They listen to Jay-Z, they sport $200 Nike kicks and, as the hipper development execs say out in Hollywood now-I’m not joking – they roll deep with their posses .
So is this really the end of white-bread America? Or is it a giant slice of Wonder in tapwater-the triumph of something absorbent, soggy, expanding, utterly flavorless? Mr. Wynter traces the history of cultural miscegenation back to minstrelsy, through the blues and jazz, through the entire catalog of white degraders, admirers and expropriators. (Josephine Baker puts it best: “The white imagination is sure something when it comes to blacks.”) But the real turning point in his history comes in the early 1980’s, with the shift into overdrive of omni-media identity and lifestyle marketing. Within a span of a few years, MTV is created, Michael Jackson releases Thriller , and sports-courtesy of the newly corporatized Olympics and the emergence of the N.B.A. as the hipster ticket for young white professionals-begins evolving into the global marketing dreadnought it is today. “The ultimate irony of the triumph of free-market capitalist ideology,” Mr. Wynter points out, “is that the action of the global markets for information and entertainment have demolished the hegemony of the white-bread culture Ronald Reagan epitomized.” But what’s taken its place? Is it really the legacy of Du Bois, of James Baldwin or James Brown, of Big Joe Turner or Bukka White? By the time it hits the airwaves as a Sprite ad, what began as an expression of racial identity (or racial trauma) is served up as a kind of generic youthquake sass.
After all, the enormous imaginative investment on the part of white America in black America takes much of its energy as a reaction against the rootlessness and blandness of mass consumption. We’re endlessly reaching out to someplace “real”: Soul music comes from Macon, Muscle Shoals and Memphis, and before that from the gospel choir and the church; jazz from the funeral parades and cathouses of New Orleans. But where does “Black or White” come from? Nowhere does Mr. Wynter fully engage with the tortured legacy of Michael Jackson. He points out that Thriller (undeniably a masterpiece, along with Off the Wall ) brought black music back to mainstream radio and mainstream tastes; he reminds us that in 1984 a shilling Michael Jackson delivered $2.4 billion to Pepsi’s bottom line. The excruciating 20-year sequel, however, in which “Jacko” sandblasted away every remnant of his Africanness-the better to resemble Diana Ross crossed with Tintin-is left almost wholly unexplored.
And Mr. Wynter, though he is a conservative-leaning black intellectual, also fails to give a sufficiently critical account of hip-hop, which is now the default teenage fashion. “Old-school” rap was “For Us, By Us,” a homegrown phenomenon. Its expansion into an entire hip-hop empire emerges out of two complimentary impulses: black America’s need to unnerve white America, and white suburban teenagers’ need to unnerve their parents. As a more extensive black middle class began to emerge in the 70’s and 80’s, and as black musical and personal styles filtered into the mainstream in the 80’s and 90’s, the search for “authenticity” has pushed corporate America much closer to the edge. This is just where Mr. Wynter might have made a nuanced argument: Hip-hop is one of the truly original pop-cultural art forms of the last 20 years; but even as it fills the coffers of global conglomerates, its message is increasingly antisocial and destructive.
What started as a brilliant (albeit raw) American Studies seminar led by the estimable Chuck D. may end in sheer decadence.
No one would argue that exclusion and humiliation are worth it as long as they give us Ralph Ellison and Miles Davis and Grandmaster Flash. The problem, however, is that Boyz II Men, Coolio and T.L.C. represent a world of utter tastelessness without necessarily heralding an advance in actual political or economic power for anybody. Very, very late in the proceedings, Mr. Wynter admits, “I have never claimed that transracial pop culture represents a trend towards political racial equality,” though the bulk of his book certainly suggests otherwise, and he certainly believes, as he tells us, that “consumption conditions identity.” The big question gives him the slip: What will become of the American identity now that it’s inspired by little more than consumerism itself?
Stephen Metcalf writes for Slate and reviews books regularly for The Observer .