Friday, May 28, 2010

In Defense of Patti Smith's "Rock 'N' Roll Nigger"

This post may be offensive to some and I mean no disrespect to those who find the N-word repellent. It is with good reason that this word elicits such a strong reaction. When racists say this word, it is the verbal equivalent of a sledgehammer to the head. In fact, use of the N-word has led to physical confrontations and deaths. The word is derogatory, repugnant, and hurtful. And then there's Patti Smith's song "Rock 'N' Roll Nigger."

When I first heard this song, it was on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack. This song literally knocked me off my feet. Of course, my first reaction was to ask "Did she say what I think she said?" Yepper. In fact, Patti says the N-word 12 times in this song. (At one point she says it 7 times in a row.) I played the song a few more times. And a few more times. And a few more. Like a Grand Cyclops at a Klan rally, I found myself getting more amped with each listen. How can it be that this Black woman is so enamored with the song "Rock 'N' Roll Nigger, a song written by (gasp!) a White woman?"

Consider the context in which the word is used - that is, if you're still reading this post. Smith is not being racist when she says nigger in this song. Crazy but true. When she uses the N-word - because Rock N' Roll Peckerwood or Rock N' Roll White Trash doesn't have as much bite, I suppose - she is using it to refer to the undesirables in society. The nonconformists. The "Other." What more effective way to illustrate this point than to use the ugliest word in the English language. Taken in this context, the artists ("Jackson Pollock") are niggers. Rock musicians ("Jimi Hendrix") are niggers - although her use of the N-word here can be taken literally as well as figuratively. Hell, she even calls Jesus Christ and what sounds like her "Grandma" niggers. The chorus of the song is "Outside of society/Is where I want to be." With lyrics like these, Smith is using the N-word not to degrade but to empower. This song is meant to be a fist-pumping anthem. She's praising the "Other" in society and giving them the sonic power to transcend the word or to wear it as a badge of honor. It is the same reasoning behind African-American men and rappers calling each other "my Nigga." These men, like Patti, are taking the hate out of the word. For them, the N-word is a term of endearment. Still, use of the N-word is a slippery slope and one should do so with extreme caution - and thought - if at all. Strangely, it is because of this song that I became a Patti Smith fan and bought her album Easter, which features this song. It is also because of this song that I can call Patti Smith not only a fucking goddess but a Sistah and a Nigger. ;-D

13 comments:

  1. I like your analysis of it. I too first heard this song when i saw NBK. I listen to it a lot...it is a fist-pumping anthem indeed. It is a love letter, in a strange way, to the undesirables of the world, those existing in the fringes of society. Good analysis.

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    1. Apparently you are. Speak proper English before calling others idiots in all caps like a baby.
      It's *A fucking idiot, didn't anybody teach you basic grammar?
      Her analysis made perfect sense regardless of if you agreed on it. You seem like one of those people that go straight to the comment section to write hate before even reading the article at hand simply because you disagree, stop being so juvenile.

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    1. would you mind explaining why? no mal intent or hate, just wondering.

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  4. ignore the haters. they wouldn't bother if they didn't know you were right.

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  5. As a fellow black woman I am happy to say these were my thoughts exactly, she is showing punk's truest form if you ask me. The song is great. The message is great. This analysis is great.

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  7. Obvs, it was a typo. It was supposed to read 'Johnny Cash was a Rock and Roll Ninja'

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  8. Thank you for addressing this topic! I think that it was 1977 or 78 when I first heard this song. As a white female who had embraced the punk movement, I really did, and do still believe that Patti's point was to transcend the racist context of the word and reassign its place and meaning to include ANYONE who felt that they were an outsider or social outcast, not welcomed by conventional society. She did so fearlessly, even viciously, in this song whose raw and powerful musical force refused to be contained. Yes, I am white. But, I am not oblivious to the impact of this word's power. The first time that I ever heard the "N word", it was as a child living in the South. I was the only white child in the neighborhood we lived in and was playing with a group of my friends. Just innocent children having fun. A car pulled up near us, and I remember the white people in the car glaring at us. They were looking not at my friends, but at me, when the person in the passenger seat, called me a "N Word Lover". I didn't know what the word or phrase meant, but what I did understand was the terrifying intensity of the hatred in the eyes of that face. Even thinking of the incident now, it literally makes me feel sick to my stomach. My point is, I truly believe that words only have as much power as we give to them. To me,the words that those scum bags were saying were not the problem. The hatred behind the words were the problem, and I emphatically believe that the same level of hatred could have been just as easily conveyed without them uttering a single racist word. I grew up in a time when censorship was a fight fought hard by many and it came at a very high cost to those who waged that battle. It seems that I have lived long enough to see everything come full circle. We are right back to where we started with censorship and hatred and racism are still rampant everywhere. I am not, and have never been a racist, but I have an extreme dislike of the ignorance of the human race in general with its refusal to evolve. I really do believe that we all have a very long way to go. Sadly, with the way that we insist upon censoring history and thus, forgetting it, we have damned ourselves to repeating it. Props to those who have the courage to speak freely. Even more credit to those who do so without hate.

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  10. An edgy white girl calling herself the N word is just as absurd as it is hysterical, even in today's day and age.

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