Thursday, May 17, 2007

Rick Dees and His Cast Of Idiots, "Barely White (That'll Get It Baby)" (1977)

I intend to use the blog mostly to discuss songs I like, but this time I wanted to call your attention to this forgotten flop single from the creator of "Disco Duck." Ostensibly a parody of a certain R&B singer, with the Caucasian-American Dees performing both the egotistical seducer and his reluctant female prey in mock "black" accents, it manages to be at once incredibly offensive and totally unfunny... a magic combination. It's definitely worth a spin just to hear how ill-conceived and clueless an attempt at humor can be: the concluding watermelon reference is jaw-dropping.

The thing that strikes me, though, is that Rick Dees, a working DJ at the time the song was released, emerged unscathed from the experience, and is working in radio to this day. (The song was banned, allegedly, though I can't believe it would have gotten significant airplay in any case.) Thirty years later, one-time Dees competitor Don Imus was tossed out on his ear for racist comments which were rather milder and unpremeditated: unlike Imus, Dees wrote, recorded, released and distributed his song with the knowledge and consent of his corporate masters. Now make no mistake, I'm glad Imus is no longer on the radio, and I hope he never comes back. But why do you think the reaction is so different today than it was thirty years ago? Because we've become overly sensitive and quick to take umbrage? Hardly: in 70s terms, the disc was offensive to anyone who wasn't a George Wallace voter. Because there are no more significant examples of racism left to confront? Guess again. Because the opportunists who've been annointed by the media as "spokesmen for the African-American community" are more interested in cheap stunts than any meaningful attempts to critique the prevailing power structures? You're getting warmer.


CosmicTips said...

I like where you're going with this.

Every time there is a protest outside the Trinity Building, where I work, I immediately think, "It's Reverend Al again!"

It's hard to believe he's the best this generation can do.


Aaron said...

Neither Sharpton nor Jackson is a paragon - "Hymietown" is among the least of their accumulated solecisms - their position in the public eye, which was by no means entirely narcissistically contrived, gives them the right to make fair comment on outrages, and what Imus said was an outrage, not just because of its bone-headed racism, but because of its much more pernicious misogyny: it establishes a paradigm whereby female worth and identity are, in effect, set by the white male gaze. And yes, for that reason it's worse than the Rick Dees song, watermelon notwithstanding.

If anything about this episode troubles me, it's that the station was so slow to act. Also, as you seem to suggest, Imus, who's basically a centrist, albeit a centrist bigot, was targeted when there are other figures as despicable (Falwell, for example - come on and sing "Highway to Hell" with me) who hitherto had gotten a free pass.

David B. Wilson said...

To be sure, the misogyny of Imus's comments makes them more reprehensible overall than "Barely White." But at the same time, the anti-female aspect had basically nothing to do with his firing. If he'd said something with no identifiable racial charge, like "what a bunch of ugly sluts," he'd still be on the air and we wouldn't be having this discussion.

Aaron said...

We're splitting hairs (so to speak), but I don't think that's necessarily true. As long as the comments he made were directed at the people at which they were directed, then there would always be an implicit racial dimension.

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron said...

I should also point out that the word "Caucasian" means something completely different in the States than it does anywhere else in the world. The term "Caucasian-American" (especially thus hyphenated) to me implies an American of, I don't know, Armenian descent. I don't think you would have raised many eyebrows had you referred to Rick Dees as "white" - since "races" don't exist biologically, there's not much use for pseudoscientific terms like "Caucasoid" when common terms like "white" and "black" are probably functional enough in describing the sociological phenomenon of "race".

Of course I don't object to the term "African American", on the basis of the fact that it's the term that many individuals belonging to that group prefer to use to describe themselves. But using a term like "Caucasian American" to describe Rick Dees, or an equivalent term like "Caucasian Canadian" to describe myself would not only be needlessly cumbersome, it would also be totally inaccurate (and not just because I'm Jewish).

a.l.f.a blog said...

So I ponder what it means when songs like this and Rod Hart's "CB Savage" pervade the AM airwaves and yet if they were released today, there would be lawsuits flying. I'm not commenting on the quality of the work, but the litigious nature of our society. Is suing someone the only way that we the people feel any degree of empowerment?

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John E. Bredehoft said...

Sorry for getting to this post several years after you wrote it - I didn't even know you guys had a blog.

I think the difference in reaction to Dees was primarily due to the decade in which he recorded. I'm of the opinion that the 1970s was the most free decade in American history - the 1960s hippies weren't being beaten by the cops any more, and the political correctness police hadn't emerged yet. Richard Pryor, who achieved huge fame in the 1970s, wouldn't have been allowed to perform his routines in the early 1960s or in the early 1990s.

I confess to actually owning this album on cassette back in the day, and still remember the Elvis Presley parody (about eating too many jelly donuts) and the Jimmy Carter parody (a dance called the Peanut Prance). Oh, and there was a "Shaft" parody ("Bad Shark").