HBO's 'Vinyl': Let's Just Say It - Pitchfork Was Wrong

Wrong About What? 'Vinyl (HBO)'

So, today, Pitchfork Media posted its endorsement of HBO's decision, reported yesterday, to cancel its 1970's music show 'Vinyl.'

This was the title of their article:

"Let's Just Say It: 'Vinyl' Deserved to be Canceled."

Probably just Pitchfork taking shots at Vinyl because everyone else has been taking shots since it was released. Blood is in the water so why not take your own shots?

Look, I spent the whole year defending Vinyl despite having plenty of my own issues with the show. So, I am more than a bit reluctant to jump back into the endless (and often unfair) criticism of HBO's (now canceled) show.

But then I read the article.

Before I start, I have nothing against Eric Harvey at all, I even chatted with him a bit on Twitter and he was very professional and pleasant to me. I have nothing against Pitchfork and repost their articles all the time across my social media channels.

I don't even disagree with the bulk of what he said in the article, the show did spend too much time making things seem old instead of making what was old feel new again (strong criticism IMHO). The show made far too many music icons seem blocky and boring  Vinyl got too many little details wrong.

Of course, my theory is that even with all of those problems, the biggest mistake was that the central band driving the show, The Nasty Bits, sucked.  A good band can paper over lots of mistakes.

I heartily disagree with Harvey about what he calls "the dewy nostalgia" for 60's acts (many of which were intended to address the very "appropriation" argument you make later). I called those characters "Ghosts" and spent the season explaining why they were central to the plot.

But much of the rest of the article criticizes Vinyl's treatment of race. And, much of that criticism is just not fair (or even correct).

So, here I go, defending this show again.

Magical Powers?

So, I am going to start with the parts of the article that made me most grumpy. First, Mr. Harvey says of Ato Essandoh's Lester Grimes character:

"Grimes, screwed out of a blues career by Finestra’s—and the mob’s—contractual demand that he make lucrative pop songs, turned Finestra’s guilt into a gig as the Nasty Bits’ E-A-B-fixated manager. Thus, the show turns him into a kindly Magical Negro figure, whose primary motivation is to help white protagonists succeed by giving them an authentic throughline to the Delta roots of rock‘n’roll." 

Look, the whole point of the Magical "N-Word" theory suggested by Spike Lee all those years ago was that white people often explain talents in black people on film as "Magic" instead of as learned or earned. The point wasn't that white people couldn't 'learn' from black characters in films like in 'The Green Mile' or in 'The Legend of Bagger Vance.' It was that the black people had no agency in developing and honing the skills that they were passing on to white folks. 

As Lee put in the Yale speech in 2001,  "They're still doing the same old thing ... recycling the noble savage and the happy slave."

The point is that white writers still don't accord agency to black characters.

You could not watch Vinyl and think Lester was either a "happy slave" or a "noble savage." You could never say that the writers did not give him agency.

Lester was NEVER happy to be "teaching" the Nasty Bits (not even in the E A B episode).

Lester only agreed to work with them at all because he was trying to get back at Richie. Lester only continues to work with them after leveraging Richie into a deal that overwhelmingly favors Lester. And, even at the exact moment of the show that Harvey is referring to, Lester is explaining this to them out of shocked incredulity and not out of pure altruism.

Also, since when is E A B the secret ingredient to understanding the Delta Blues?

What the hell is Mr. Harvey talking about (with respect)?

Lester teaches them about E A B because he cannot believe that they don't understand anything about the importance of basic chord progressions. Sure, he does an amazing job explaining it, but he explains it out of frustration at how much they suck and in trying to get a b-side track recorded in time (they had a time deadline) .

As an aside, Lee's explanation of this theory happened about the time of the release of Bamboozled which is one of my favorite Lee movies and about the same topic (my copy of the movie is about five feet from where I am typing). I challenge Mr. Harvey (or Pitchfork) to explain Lester Grimes actions in the context of Bamboozled.

Racial Reductionism

There is another larger problem here. I am pretty sure Mr. Harvey misunderstands the racial relationship between Richie and Lester (or is mischaracterizing it).

Richie is a mulatto, his mother was black (disclosed by Richie's father in the episode "He In Racist Fire).

It takes real chutzpah to call out a series for recreating traditional white/black dynamics when the character being called "white" is actually mixed-race. 

The show intentionally cloaks the relationship between Richie and Lester in Richie's own racism based in Richie's desire to "pass" as white. 

The show presents multiple and varied examples of the social construction of race for exactly this reason.

The show purposely problematizes what constitutes race and this is  also played out in the relationship between Richie and his secretary Cece. Richie is called out by the Funk artist Hannibal purposely to show that not everyone is fooled by his double-agent-like relationship to his own racial makeup.

The point is not that Hannibal makes smart anagrams, it is that Richie is himself an anagram when it comes to race.

Mr. Harvey clearly plays this as if Richie is a typical white man exploiting a black man.

When I say most people who criticize the show either don't watch very carefully or didn't watch all of the episodes, this is exactly what I am referring to.

Mr. Harvey even makes this misunderstanding of the 'He In Racist Fire' episode worse by adding:

"Meanwhile, the character of Hannibal is a flashy, hyper-sexualized George Clinton composite who isn’t given much to do except flirt with Finestra’s wife and devise anagrams on the spot."

Are you kidding me?

That is what you got out of the "He In Racist Fire Episode?"

The anagram is used consciously by Hannibal to demonstrate that he knows the score about who Richie really is. And if you want to understand the complex interaction between Devon, Hannibal, Richie, and Cece I would suggest you check out my recap of the episode.

Short form, he is not a hyper-sexualized cartoon, he is really smart, knows Richie is full of shit, and is taking advantage of the situation presented to him.

It could be argued that it is actually you reducing his character to only sexual elements in your description of him here more than anything the show enacted. 

Look, I have never said Vinyl was the greatest show in the world, but people need to be fair and careful when they write about race (me too).

Throwing around critical race theory like napalm does nobody any good and often entirely misses the point.

Appropriation Part Two

I agree with the Trey Songz appropriation argument (I made it myself at the time). I agree that Vinyl could have done a better job of identifying Ryan Shaw's vocal on the Xavier spontaneous song. However, Mr. Harvey should acknowledge that Vinyl spent more time than any other show I have ever making a point of calling out Rock's debt to black music.

Maybe one of the most bizarre parts of the Pitchfork article is dismissing the dewy nostalgia that forms much of the strong defense the show has against the claim that it is about appropriation. It is shocking that Mr. Harvey literally mentions Ruth Brown as one of the bows to nostalgia (since she is an example of the show acknowledging historical debt). The whole point of much of the first episode was to address the appropriation elephant in music's living room (remember Bo Diddley's mocking ghost or Otis Blackwell?).


The last issue that I want to address is whitewashing. This is really not a defense of the show as much as a disagreement with Mr. Harvey's argument.

Saying that:

By inducting N.W.A.Run-D.M.C.Madonna, and Donna Summer into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, legendary musicians can be honored while their cultural contributions—they’re not rap or dance-pop or disco, but rock‘n’roll—are whitewashed. That’s a large part of how rock continues to live on as a cultural force—not just through distortion pedals and barre chords, but flattery and semantics.

Is no surprise given many of the simple black and white arguments deployed earlier in the Pitchfork article, but, it makes very little sense to claim that rock appropriated black music then claim that black musicians can't be included in rock and roll.

In addition, the inclusion of diverse voices in music might seem like a way to "save" Rock and Roll but the truth is that there is no such thing as "pure" Rock and Roll in the first place. The notion of what it is changes with whoever you admit to the club. In other words, who is admitted to the Rock and Roll club changes what Rock and Roll (and being in the club) means. 

It is dangerously paternalistic to assume that cultural transfer only moves in the direction from dominant to oppressed or from well-served to underserved communities. Important to be aware of power but also to avoid using power as an excuse to divorce people from their agency or potential to change the institutions that oppress them.

Okay, that is all I have. 

Again, I have nothing against Mr. Harvey or Pitchfork at all. I just really disagree with elements of that particular article.

A Music Lover's Guide to HBO"s Vinyl

Oh right, I wrote recaps of all the episodes of Vinyl, just a few days ago (before HBO's announcement), I released them as an eBook on Amazon. Here is a link, it is only $2.99 and is intended as a companion to watching the episodes in the series.

What did you think of the Pitchfork article? Let me know what you thought, leave a comment!