Paul Simon’s Graceland: Of Cultural Appropriation and Guilty Pleasures

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As I’ve been brainstorming about future blog post topics, one that keeps coming back to me is the old “guilty pleasures” cliché. We all have them, or at least we have songs or music we sincerely like, sometimes for no reason other than we like the sound of it, the way it makes us feel, or because it’s silly or funny. What makes a song, album, or artist a guilty pleasure is usually that we think (or know) the music isn’t cool. Popular music will never, ever get away from coolness being a litmus test for what’s “good.”

I started thinking about a list of songs I like that are outside my preferred genres or are so insanely popular that they’ve gone beyond having “artistic credibility.” I resist caring, but I see this impossible value system at work all the time. For example, I’m in a secret Facebook group where people share the music they’re listening to, and one member posted an album by an 80’s rock singer who was pretty popular and was played on FM rock stations quite a bit then. The member said he/she didn’t care if the singer wasn’t cool and embraced wanting to fire up that disc and dance. Many other members wrote supporting comments, several saying they liked it, too. I loved seeing that because I’ve seen people on there making the snarkiest and meanest comments about music they deem to lack authenticity, to be too mainstream, terrible and trivial and not real music, etc. I haven’t experienced that reaction to my posts so much as people offering up their hot takes and trivia to demonstrate their knowledge, which seems many times less about connecting and talking about the music than to be “that person.” The one who starts a lot of sentences with, “Well, actually….”

My biggest guilty pleasure is one I’ve been conflicted about not about whether it’s cool or not, but because its creation involved a striking case of cultural appropriation and the crossing of a cultural boycott of South African artists. Yep, I’m talking about Graceland (which you surely must have figured out by the big photo of the album cover above).

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Ladysmith Black Mambazo found and member Joseph Shabalala onstage with Paul Simon in 2012.

Paul Simon’s album came out in 1986 before apartheid ended in South Africa (in 1991). When it came out, I was aware of the singles “Graceland” and “You Can Call Me Al,” but I don’t remember the controversy. I was fourteen years old, so it’s not surprising that I didn’t catch wind of it. I started paying more attention to Simon when I saw The Graduate at age seventeen, and by the time he did the free concert in Central Park in 1991, I was a fan. At that time, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison and apartheid was being dismantled. I was certainly aware of apartheid at the time, but my college-aged reasoning was that Simon had, in making the album, celebrated oppressed Black musicians by writing, recording, and touring with them. Among the musicians Simon worked with are Ladysmith Black Mambazo, a Black South African vocal group who also played live with Simon in support of the album and who have been nominated for and won several Grammy awards after the album’s release.

The issue is much more complex than that, of course. Simon was seen to be guilty of mining the culture of a disempowered people for his artistic and financial gain, and he also didn’t comment on apartheid on the album at all. The lyrics ruminate on love, loss, the meaning of our individual lives, disappointment, and feelings that one would have the impulse to say are universal. They are, but maybe those are things one might focus on while enjoying the ease of living when one’s civil rights have not been stripped, denied, or abused.

Additionally, the story of rock and roll IS the story of cultural appropriation. The sounds of rock and roll were rooted in Black American music, and once white singers such as Elvis got ahold of those sounds, they gained financial success far beyond that of Black musicians by and large, and the rock industry has continued to be dominated by white men, from musicians to record execs to critics, even. That’s the plain truth, although there has been some change throughout the years. Simon’s use of Elvis’s house, Graceland, as the title of a song and the album, is surely a nod to popular music’s racial roots and his acknowledgement of his drawing from Black South African musical forms.

On the other hand, a lot of musicians have said and will continue to say they have no interest in being political. Bono and Sting aside, many artists (and people) don’t center their working or emotional lives on political issues. Those in the “art for art’s sake” focus on crafting the music, expressing personal emotional truths or questions, and don’t feel they are obligated to push for social change within their music and/or on their celebrity pedestals. Then there are musicians who just want to have a good time, embrace hedonism, and let the politicians do their thing.

Although the sound of his music is generally much softer than I generally gravitate to, I’m a fan in large part because his lyrics are inventive, with vivid imagery that evoke a mood, a memory, a feeling, and often in a unique way. Graceland has been one of those first-to-last-track albums for me; it’s a rarity that I don’t skip a track or two during most listens of an album. This is one I never hit that forward button. The music is lovely, richly textured, and the lyrics just do my head in – in the best of ways. Funnily enough, I’ve been listening to it while writing this, and I really wasn’t feeling it, most likely because I’ve been on a Depeche Mode-aissance 😁.

So yes, this album is my greatest guilty pleasure because I can’t help but feel complicit in Simon’s cultural appropriation. I want to forgive Simon, though, based even on this one lyric: “Why am I soft in the middle / The rest of my life is so hard.” I thought it was brilliant when I was 18, and now that I’m on the wrong side of 40, I just think, “God yes” each time I hear it. I do, however, realize that even while I have a number of personal challenges and struggles, I’m lucky to not face more than I do, by accident of where I was born and live.

*  Robert Christgau, an outstanding rock critic, wrote in the Village Voice about the controversy and the album in great detail just after its release; it’s outstanding writing and very much worth reading.

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5 comments

  1. jprobichaud · June 25

    “Well actually…” hahaha. I have to say I’ve never listened to this album from beginning to end, though I do know the singles well enough. I’m not offended by his cultural appropriation or think he’s uncool, I just never found my way to the album. I love his work with Mr Garfunkel though.

    Liked by 1 person

    • stereocrush · June 25

      🙂 “Well, actually” Yes, Simon & Garfunkel are pretty good – LOL. I like a lot of Paul Simon’s other solo stuff as well. Best use of one of his songs in a movie: “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” in The Royal Tennenbaums!

      Liked by 1 person

      • jprobichaud · June 25

        Nice. I love Wes Anderson’s use of music in film. I’ll never forget Peter Sarsdedt’s Where do you go to my lovely in Darjeeling Limited.

        Liked by 1 person

      • stereocrush · June 25

        Yes! And the Kinks songs in Darjeeling also.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Blondie, “The Tide Is High”: Favorite 80s Songs | Stereo Crush

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