Conversations around historically “racist” music genres can foster understanding and diversity of thought and sound

Professor Alexander Carpenter examines recent decries of certain music genres like country and classical music as racist, and sees these conversations as opportunities towards diversity.

Alexander Carpenter - 30 March 2021

Recently, country music star Morgan Wallen made headlines, thanks to a video recording on which he is drunk and heard uttering ugly racial slurs (the “n-word”). An avalanche of denunciations on social media followed, and Wallen was suspended by his record label. The press announced the need for Wallen’s—and country music’s—“racial reckoning,” asserting that country music has long been a genre that has celebrated its mythical origins as “the white man’s blues” at the expense of black artists, whose exclusion from the history of country music is another example of institutionalized white supremacy attempting to erase blackness from culture.

The American music theorist, Philip Ewell, made the news lately for similar reasons, but with much less fanfare. Ewell published a paper about musical analysis and race, focusing on the influential Austrian music theorist Heinrich Schenker. Schenker had developed a method of analysis in the early 20th century that identifies the masterpieces of the classical tradition by locating their common underlying musical architecture. But Schenker had also articulated some decidedly racist views that disparaged any culture that was non-German, and that characterized people of colour as completely inferior. 

Ewell’s argument, which shocked the music theory community, was that Schenker’s analytical methodology and focus on musical hierarchies—widely taught in North American music programs—is not an objective, systematic approach, but rather mirrors Schenker’s racist views on social hierarchies and, by extension, reflects deeper problems of racism in the world of classical music generally.

Central to these controversies is not so much the issue of racism as it may relate to individual men, but rather the bigger question of race and racism in relation to genre, and of a pervading mythology of whiteness promoted and defended by both country and classical music. Separating the person from the music—or from the music theory—is one thing: Wallen’s individual songs, I suspect, are not themselves racist in content or aim; and Schenker’s system for isolating paradigmatic structural counterpoint in the music of composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is an esoteric intellectual exercise far removed from racial politics. The claim that critics are making, however, is that Wallen’s and Schenker’s personal racism underwrites creative and intellectual activity, and ultimately indicts genre itself.

In the case of country music, the problem is not an individual uttering slurs, but instead the notion that the genre is historically associated with the expression of a certain imaginary vision of American rurality that promotes normative and exclusionary narratives of the white middle class, via a pantheon of superstars that is almost exclusively white. Likewise, in the case of European classical music, the problem is not Schenker per se but rather how this sort of German chauvinism is thought to be embedded in the genre institutionally. Schenkerian theory, from this perspective, re-inscribes and re-enforces the predominance of European culture and its values, excluding both people of colour and a greater variety of non-Western traditions and approaches to music from the canons of music education and performance.

Some social justice activists insist that it is time for classical music—and its putative institutionalised racism—“to die.” Meanwhile, country music’s “racist history,” exclaims Rolling Stone magazine, must be reckoned with and “rewritten.” But there is a less nihilistic and more nuanced way forward. With respect to country music, it may be that natural evolution is a remedy: the recent history of the genre has already seen significant hybridization and diversification, especially through collaborations with hip-hop artists and the growing crossover success of black country performers, like the Grammy-nominated British country-soul singer Yola. With respect to classical music, music schools can continue to teach Schenkerian theory but also provide the context of Schenker’s troubling views on the racial and cultural supremacy of Germans and include Schenker in a more diversified offering of theoretical approaches to music.

In each of these cases, music—rather than serving as a battleground for clashing ideologies—can provide an opportunity to foster greater understanding, diversity of thought and of sound and can offer a challenge to pernicious views. 

Alexander Carpenter, Music, Augustana Campus, University of Alberta. This column was originally published in the Camrose Booster on March 9, 2020.