As usual I have constructed a prose rollercoaster that possibly only I enjoyed riding…
I kept waiting for Jim Goad or Joe Bob Briggs to write about Chuck Berry, so when they didn’t, I figured I’d give it a shot:
Look: I loathe thin-skinned numpties who detect “racism” everywhere (I hear “milk is white supremacist” now…). But again, I’m forced to admit that in this instance, the “Ackchyuallies” had a valid point:
That “Chuck Berry” sequence in Back to the Future was indeed the most racially tone-deaf scene in American cinema since Mickey Rooney and his prosthetic teeth rendered Breakfast at Tiffany’s unwatchable in 1961.
That is: In Back to the Future’s climactic scene, (very white) 1980s kid Marty McFly, having accidentally time-traveled to the early 1950s, “invents” rock & roll by performing Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (complete with duck walk) at a high school dance. In the wings, the leader of the (black) combo originally hired to provide the evening’s more subdued musical entertainment phones his “cousin” Chuck Berry, yells, “Listen!” and holds out the receiver in the direction of McFly’s ringing guitar.
I defy even Richard Spencer to sit through this scene without cringing. But for the accidental-on-purpose intervention of some random Caucasian kid, certain African-American musicians would never have composed their own songs? The “Magical Negro” trope is troublesome enough; in Back to the Future, it slathers on whiteface. Just appallingly insulting and ignorant.
But while those who find that scene unforgivably wrongheaded are right, they don’t go far enough. To do so uncovers a more complicated story.
I regret not getting to something which was talked about a lot (again) after Berry’s death:
The obsession with white artists like Pat Boone “sanitizing” black rock ‘n’ roll artists songs for white consumption.
The lesser known truth is that those songs, lyrically, had already been sanitized for public consumption, by… black musicians like Berry and Little Richard.
The songs we’re familiar with are revved up musically but toned down lyrically, as Tim Sommers explains here. (He’s not the first to point this out, but he does so exceptionally well.)
The other thing that amazes me is that these rock ‘n’ roll pioneers have lived so long:
Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chubby Checker… Fats Domino somehow survived Hurricane Katrina, if barely.
Oh, and I left out Yoko. Sorry!