[Contents] [Index] [Home]

The Minstrel Cycle

It has been argued--notably by Eric Lott--that the obsession of white boys for black music--the "crossover" phenomenon (cooptation at the level of consumption)--is motivated by the lure of transgressive sex: the bliss or jouissance promised by miscegenation. It lies at the heart of the minstrel traditon. It informs my story about James Sears, and it informs the scene, in The Commitments, where band members study James Brown's stage show. Lott, following Laura Mulvey, labels this "look of love" the "pale gaze." Whites watch blacks, and in a series of shot-reverse shots a circuit of desire is traced. This looking, writes Lott, takes place in relation to an objectified and sexualized black body. Buying records, watching videos, or learning to play soul displaces white sexual desire, rechanneling it towards consumption.

It's a compelling explanation, this minstrel model of cultural appropriation. It accounts for a history of exploitation weighted to dominant white interests. But it's also narcissistic. It expresses white interests alone, even if only to castigate and, ultimately, atone for those interests. Like all models of cooptation, it ignores, discounts, or represses the possibility of reciprocity. It never considers what James Brown might have gained by dancing or, for that matter, what blacks watching The Commitments might gain by watching a band of Irish kids playing soul.

As it turns out, blacks undoubtedly find some pleasure, some confirmation of their identity, in watching whites watch them. White fantasies and desires not only prey upon, they feed black fantasies and desires. That's why James Brown got blacker and proud as his fan base grew whiter and self-conscious. Their gazes met. White and black identity categories linked up. They were reciprocal, forming a mutually defining feedback loop.

Or as Simon Frith puts it: "white youth becomes an object of black pleasure exactly to the degree that the recurring fantasy of being black is coded into white style, white anxiety, white posture" (78). In fact, this circulation of mutually defining desire--which I call the minstrel cycle--is sufficient to create and sustain racial difference. Its operations make race seem like one of the raw materials from which culture is produced, rather than one byproduct of a complex social machine.

The Commitments' affection for soul was, according to Roddy Doyle, a purely formal decision; "it allowed for a bigger cast of characters than a more verisimilar indie-rock or thrash-metal or country-western band would have." Parker's interest in Doyle's "hep minstrel show" is more telling. Dibbell observes: "It's as if the director were offering up a wry commentary on the wigged-out race-twisting themes of his last three movies" (58). And the audience's affection for the Commitments (which is to say, my affection for The Commitments) is anything but aberrant. The film targets white baby-boomers and those who have swallowed boomer-validated and imposed patterns of taste, playing out a fantasy that Commitments trumpeter Joey The Lips Fagan (Johnny Murphy) articulates:

"I'll tell you something, Brothers. ------I've never told anyone this before.
---The biggest regret of my life is that I wasn't born black."

Never before the advent of soul had so many white kids been enamored of African Americann culture, because never before had so many people, of all races, been exposed to African American entertainers. Electronic culture--the phonograph, radio, film, and television--made it possible for everyone to have a James Brown experience (like the one pictured in the film).

In their liner notes to Star Time, Cliff White and Harry Weinger describe when and how Brown became a pop-culture icon:


Brown began 1969 on a furious roll. The funk and the message got heavier: "I Don't Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing," a personal anthem, preceded a slew of "Popcorn" records. They pumped up the stage show, while Brown continued to court the mainstream. He recorded cocktail instrumentals with Cincinnati's Dee Felice Trio, and appeared for an entire week on the "Mike Douglas Show" in June, performing with Felice as well as his regular ensemble. (37)

Soul and funk captivated a mass audience, peaked in popularity, at precisely the same moment that black entertainers gained access to televisual media (i.e., to video as well as audio technology). "Using the placement of number-one black hits on the Billboard pop chart as a barometer, one finds [that] the best year for crossover was 1970, when fifteen of the top black songs in America reached the top fifteen on the pop chart, and seven went to number one" (George 157). Simply put, James Brown's black ecstacy, like baby-boomer envy, registered market conditions echoed and reflected, years later, in The Commitments.