Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Without question, there has been too much attention paid to these outbursts and lack of reverence from public figures as of late. However, while Congress has voted to rebuke Joe Wilson and Michael Jordan’s candid (bitter?) Hall of Fame speech has been confined to just basketball media, we’re still talking about the potty mouth of Serena Williams and the complete absurdity of Kanye West’s disruption.

The truth is that while there is no reason for these moments to receive any more attention than they have been given, there’s something at play that is not easy to recognize or as ‘sexy’ to talk about: organizational and/or industrial accountability.

When you look at the two incidents, it’s easy – a bit too easy, perhaps – to say that the backlash on all sides is racially motivated. After all, these are two prominent African-Americans who not only make an impact in their respective arenas, but they have crossed over into other areas (for both, fashion). However, at least in this Scribe’s eyes, that’s the lone significant similarity.

As mentioned in ‘All-American’ in regards to Melanie Oudin, Serena is the biggest star in an individual sport that only gains mainstream attention four times a year. The fact that this happened at the US Open in Queens, New York with ESPN and CBS as broadcasting partners only makes for a longer national conversation, for better or worse. Finally, the story continues to run because tennis has not had success in finding a few good women to consistently battle Serena (and her sister, Venus). Truthfully, if this happened at the Tashkent Open, this would amount to nothing more than a fist-shaking YouTube video of the day.

While non-sports media outlets continue to run with the story, some of the smoldering flames that are still out here are from news about the possibility that Williams would be suspended from next year’s Open. The fines that were imposed on her upset a few people because $10,500 is a pittance, but to be fair, tennis players are more like independent contractors who play for every tourney check than salaried employees who are guaranteed a constant paycheck. Yet, at least when an athlete makes a mistake, there are immediate penalties places upon him/her to go with public ridicule and disappointment within the involved organizations. We may not always agree with how the powers-that-be decide to punish its players, but at least the measures exist.

That’s not the case in the music industry. Despite being on record companies that make pretty album covers and pay radio stations for airplay* and promote their work until the album release date, these companies at large aren’t what you’d call the most organizationally sound businesses. Few of its artists gain significant exposure. Finances for those artists arte pretty questionable, to say the least. Most of all, with the outright shadiness of the business, bad news is good publicity for the artists that receive it, even if we should know better.

Now, unless they release an artist or band from a contract (usually because of the classic cop-out of not being ‘promotable’), it’s not very often that you hear about labels dropping the hammer on their most controversial signees. West has a chronicled history of making himself the center of attention for all the wrong reasons, yet no one – not his label, not his handlers, not the companies that stock his music, not the media that plays his songs or videos – have ever done anything to curb or stop him. Just as many would consider the Minnesota Vikings as enablers in the Brett Favre saga, the music industry as a whole is an enabler to the mainstream artists that make more news for their screw-ups than their music.

In the sports world, it’s second nature to demand swift action from teams and leagues when a player commits a wrong, on or off the field. For all of the anger about the money involved with these games, fans and media can at least scream “suspend him!” until they are blue in the face, knowing that for every action, there is a punitive reaction written into the by-laws of these organizations. Even in much maligned sports such as track & field and boxing, individual athletes and trainers answer to their sports’ organizations along with state and national athletic commissions for their transgressions.

In music, however, the lone penalty there is for an artist’s foolishness is not buying the record (or these days not downloading the songs and not watching the videos). While an economic boycott seems to be the most direct penalty any musician can feel from the fans, (s)he does not have to perform in front of the public during a season. In fact, outside of the rap industry, there aren’t too many artists who release new material yearly, let alone remain the public eye consistently until said new material is released or there’s a tour coming up. As much as the public claims to hate West now, if he has a ‘hot song’ out, the music world will bow down to his supposed greatness until there’s someone else to fawn over or he puts out a new track. If anything, he basically has to become a pariah like Chris Brown to find himself without top-selling records.

Will Serena lose some fans after her tirade? Possibly. Did Kanye? Hopefully after years of waffling from previous acts. Yet, as a society, we continue to demand athletes to shut up, play and ‘be role models’ while we allow artists to skate away relatively unfazed because of some idea that we can infringe on the creatives. Seems a bit unfair, doesn’t it?

Say What?!?!: So I'm not President Obama's favorite basketball player? I'm truly saddened by this.


Aaron said...

I think there's something to be said for gender playing a role in Serena's case more than race (as this article tried to say). Though there has been a history of race tensions in the sport (were you familiar with what Hewitt said 8 years ago?).

I'd say the real financial drag on a musician is when people don't go to their shows, though I suppose buying records makes them get buzz. It's buzz that drives people to shows, and makes them be bigger, and buzz comes from negative just as much as positive.

Jason Clinkscales said...

Aaron, I agree 1000% that the Serena incident is more of a gender issue than race. The reason why I zoned in on race rather than sex was because there are plenty of people out there who made the ill-informed comparision based on skin tones. As an African-American, apparently, I'm supposed to be trained that everything revolves around race first, no matter how the issue at hand proves otherwise. A few friends, acquaintances and possibly some out there in the media believe that both of their actions (moreso Kanye's) "set us back X amount of years", though I'd love to see which idiot decided that both entertainers invoked racial stereotypes of the 1840s. More than anything, I wanted to punch that theory in the gut.

Lack of financial support from touring and one-off shows has a strong effect on artists, without question. I would also go as far as to say that what's more important for West isn't the buzz from fans/media, but also other artists who would want to work with him. Maybe he's threatened to undermine that validation with his peers, but that's hard to determine right now.

By the way, glad you mentioned Hewitt. I didn't recall the exact details, but that was pretty ugly, to say the least.

Stephon Johnson said...

Your're absolutely right. The music industry has been this way since in beginning of radio in the early 20th century. The difference between then and now is the media scrutiny so artists (I wish) should know a lot better.

If Kanye is serious about this whole "taking time off" thing to develop a since of self-respect, he better do it NOW. Tickets for his tour with Lady Gaga in the fall were suppose to go on sale this week and have already been taken down from Ticketmaster. Folks who would love to see Gaga won't go because they don't want to give Kanye their money.

It's appalling because he seems hell-bent on throwing away everything he worked for simply because he wasn't hugged enough as a kid. And while Jason knows I'm one of Kanye's biggest fans (honestly The College Dropout was the first rap album that ever "Spoke to me" before that it was all rock and r&B) I can't even listen to dude's voice right now. Good thing I have 6,600 other songs on the iPod to listen to and not just the 150-plus he had a hand in.

And with other artists in the industry speaking out on his BS, he might not have a choice but to take a break. People respect R. Kelly more than him right now. I would hope he grow a pair by this time next year.

Stephon Johnson said...

And let's not forget. If this decade has taught us anything, it's that there will be an eventual backlash to the backlash against Kanye and folks will start liking him again...until the next stupid act.

Jason Clinkscales said...

As mentioned to someone on another site, overreaction is the new reaction. You know how it goes?