Why Are Culture Vultures In Charge Of Anything? (The Wine Taster Theorem.)
Wine tasting has always fascinated me. A team of experts shows up to sniff, spin, sip a bunch of wine in order to judge it’s quality. Red, white, dry, aroma, so many things go into how wine is critiqued in order for winners to be crowned and shown who is the best at crafting the perfect drink and who needs to go back to the drawing board. The hands of a select few people who purport to know the most about a subject are tasked with telling the world at large that something is the next big thing in wine to shoot the prices up and guarantee scarcity due to said judgment of quality.
Except...wine tasting experts are full of shit. Tests have proven time and time again that these so-called “experts” are more self-professed than anything and to be honest most of the people I know that drink wine regularly don’t even care about all of the things that experts critique or even consume it in a way that needs an expert at all. My friend Jen bemoaned to me about “Hannibal Lector types” swirling around drinks thinking they know better than the populous. The same thing happens when it comes to self-professed experts judging aspects of the wider culture in general. There is no reason for those who are not of a specific culture to critique it or tell others what are the best aspects of it. Period. Follow me…
A couple of months ago I wrote about the Blackfamous trend that lit up social media for a few days. In my piece, I discussed the need for creating our own spaces to cultivate the best of what we have due to the fact that if we waited for others not in our spaces to notice us, a lot of people wouldn’t have a shot at all. We have award shows, movies, and a whole lot of other things going on that showcase the best of who we are and this should be championed. What shouldn’t be championed is coming to pilfer from said culture in order to dilute it in order to be accepted on a massive scale at the expense of what made it unique. My first example: remaking Asians movies.
Asian [specifically South Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and the more Pacific area] cinema is created largely by and for the people in the area it was made around. Unless they specifically are using American/English dialogue and trying to pander to westerners, their films are catered towards who they are and things that inform their daily lives. The architecture of their buildings, how their society functions, their healthcare, their food, the kinds of cars they drive, how they live with their families, all of these things go into their movies and shape it in a way that could not have been created in another country or region. It makes those films unique because they are so cultural and when we have a chance to watch them we marvel at the differences because there are aspects that are, quite literally, foreign to us. Even their languages are filled with certain sayings and phrasing that don’t translate as easily to us which is why some people prefer subtitles to dubbing an English language track onto these movies. The English track tries to match the time a character's mouth is moving with comparable words that may fit a similar meaning, however, this often results in mistranslations and confusion regarding how the story flows. Many people prefer subtitles for this very reason as most of the context is left in tact without always trying to shoehorn words that don’t fit. It’s not a perfect system but it helps.
Where we run into issues is when studios here in the States decide that it’s too much to just bring the movie over, but instead decide to just remake it for an audience it was never intended. Not long ago a remake of the classic anime Ghost In The Shell was commissioned with Scarlett Johansen in the lead. While she may have done a serviceable job in the film, what was the point of taking over the movie and just whitewashing it? It was a spectacular film to begin with and other projects could have been made instead of taking elements and influence from cultures that were not fully understood and just using others to cash a check. Oldboy, another classic Asian film, was remade a few years back as well instead of just showing it in theaters in a new release or propping up the existing versions readily available that have been out for years. Then you have a film like Parasite that’s doing so well that...there are rumblings of doing it over again with an American cast. Why?
There’s a video floating around of a woman ‘translating’ Rihanna’s song “Work” and making it more palpable and easier to understand. There are a bunch of comments under the video praising this version with some saying that it’s better than the original as they can understand it now. This is a direct slap in the face to the work (no pun intended) that was put into creating this song. The patois used in “Work” could definitely be looked up in order to follow along with it but if it were meant to be in standard English then it would’ve been recorded that way. Without the translation, “Work” was a #1 song and sold millions worldwide with a billion views on YouTube. All of those people didn’t understand every word but to be honest, it wasn’t recorded for them to. The vision for the song was for it to sound as it did, not translated and watered down. And what’s worse is the woman who made the version is not of the culture in which this song was created. She did not respect where it came from and instead removed any soul or authenticity from it. And after having done this, stripping away what made the song unique in order to serve it to others who don’t have an appreciation for its origins, a portion of the public loved it. Which is to say, they don’t love our culture, they love our stuff when it’s taken from us and given to them by a familiar face. (For the record, I refuse to link to that version.)
I have a love/hate relationship with the site Genius. Initially billed as Rap Exegesis and then Rap Genius, it was formed by college kids from Yale who wanted to translate lyrics by the rapper Cam’Ron. While it’s cool to grab some hard to understand lyrics from songs, their crowdsourced translations leave much to be desired. But honestly, what else can you expect from a site created not by people who are of the culture, but people who decided to capitalize off of a culture not their own and then spread it to the world as if they were the best to do it, not realizing that the Original Hip-Hop Lyrics Archive has been around since 1992.
Hip-Hop slang, and really slang in general, is quite literally coded language. Black people have put codes into our language since the beginning with putting escape routes in braided hair to instructions in hymns in order to evade capture and relay plans. Over time slang has evolved for us to be able to speak another language in plain sight and identify who’s actually cool with you and who you relate to. If you’re in a group and someone says, “hide the biscuit, one time is coming,” you either know what it means or you don’t. You’re from the area or you’re not and if you need to have it explained to you then it probably wasn’t meant for you to understand. Even the context of why things are said changes and you can mishear something but how else would you know unless you were there? In the song, “Brooklyn Zoo” by the late, great Ol’ Dirty Bastard, a lyric was widely misheard as “energy building, takin’ all types of medicine.” On the surface, this sounds right...unless you’re from the Brooklyn area and are aware of the G Building, the psychiatric ward of the Kings County Hospital. The lyrics are actually “in the G Building, takin’ all types of medicine.” The context of what you hear and know changes as a result. But that’s the thing about it; it wasn’t created for you to get unless it was explained to you or you just knew because you were around.
And while I’m here, I want to make something clear. I am not saying that people are not allowed to enjoy works of cultures that are not their own. Far from it. I watch anime and I love martial arts movies. Something that is being sold or available for consumption that is not restricted from you means that you’re allowed to partake as it hits you. What I am saying, is that, unless you are of the culture of the thing you’re enjoying, you shouldn’t be the one to criticize, critique it, or tell someone it is the best of anything because you honestly don’t know enough about it to say so. You’re not immersed in the culture and you don’t even get the regional connotations. You don’t get the language of it or why it’s phrased in a certain manner. You’re allowed to even say you don’t enjoy it, but to tell others something is the next-best is harmful at worst and disingenuous at best.
Paul Ryan was quoted as saying he’s a fan of Rage Against The Machine. A conservative, republican lawmaker somehow grew up on a band that discusses bringing down the establishment and thought somehow they were speaking to him. This is the perfect example of not understanding a culture enough to not only critique it but not even enough to get the disconnect between who you are as a person and what is being relayed to you. I’m sure Paul doesn’t even realize that Zach de la Rocha isn’t even a singer but a rapper and always has been. This is even more fascinating to hear as I’ve been privy to people who have conservative leanings and somehow listen to underground rap. It literally makes no sense to be able to listen to Talib Kweli and Wu-Tang while also voting for conditions they speak against. To hear Ghostface discuss issues growing up with disabled brothers yet want to deny healthcare access to impoverished people, or to hear about racism they experienced yet deny that white privilege exists only confirms that you’re a spectator that’s dedicated to misunderstanding. This is also one of the myriad reasons why you’re not allowed to say the N-word without being Black.
All of these thoughts came together as I was thinking about the award shows that happen this time of year in the five months between October and February. Each year we notice that the nominees aren’t diverse at all and when called out on it we hear excuses about how these were the best movies/songs/artists picked. But how would they honestly know? First off, it’s been admitted that people who vote for the Oscars don’t watch the movies that win and songs have to be campaigned for at the Grammys. Second, think about everything stated here. These award shows will pick out some of the most mediocre of things because they’re popular or because they feel they have artistic merit, not necessarily because they’re great. They’ll pick out what they feel is the best and most accurate representation of something from a culture they don’t understand, a language they need translating and only when stripped of the most potent parts do they think it has merit. There are a lot of wine tasters running record labels, movie and TV studios pretending to know what’s the best representation of culture when really they’re just overpaid scam artists. I guess if that’s a culture then they’ve mastered it.
Lastly, think of all of the music we’re told is classic and groundbreaking from the ’70s and before. Who told us these things and what did they know? It’s widely known that Elvis was one of the biggest culture vultures, stealing most of his musical style from Black people, and yet, we’re told he’s a king. By whom? Think of the movies we’re told that are the best of the best, knowing that most don’t stand the test of time. I feel we shouldn’t even give out awards until, at minimum, 2-5 years have passed. You can say something was good but was it only good because it got an award six months after it was released, or is it still remembered six years later? I keep hearing about sequels to Avatar but I don’t know three people who can name three characters from it without looking them up. Yet I know HUNDREDS of people who can name every nuance in Friday. There’s a reason for that.
Be leery of institutions that try to sell you your own culture back to you. Be leery of critics who try to tell you that the worst musicians saying nonsense have this deeper meaning when it’s just that they’re not knowledgeable enough to even get what they’re listening to and don’t have the tools to find who’s better. Just like I’ve never done the studies or made myself an expert wine taster to tell you what’s best, don’t let these people watching us from binoculars sell you and tell you who you are. We all know better.