Imagine this: You’ve just seen a photo of the most appetizing fettuccine pasta, smothered with Alfredo sauce, on someone’s Instagram story. You don’t know the person well, but the food looks scrumptious; you have to know where they got it from. You respond to the post, asking for the name of the restaurant that prepared this mouth-watering meal.
“This spot is kind of a personal thing to me,” comes the response. “What’s really crazy is … you wouldn’t have even wanted this if you hadn’t seen me post it.”
This exchange probably comes across as unrealistic. In reality, it’s a joke — a quote from a video that recently circulated on the internet that pokes fun at people who go to great lengths to prevent others from accessing the things they treasure. Most people call this gatekeeping.
I laughed, but then again, maybe sometimes the mental trick is only natural. We are protective over the things that are valuable to us. Maybe the extent to which we care about safeguarding those personal finds is a metric for how valuable they are to us. Secretly you hate it when the two trees in the Diag that you always use for your hammock have been occupied by someone else. Or maybe you don’t want to see anyone you know in the quaint little coffee shop you discovered last week because it stops being special when someone else finds out about it.
In our heads we all gatekeep the restaurants and study spots and coffee shops that we love, but no one is more vocal with their gatekeeping than music fans.
Unfortunately, I am a music fan. I am also the first to admit that it’s both comical and absurd when a music fan tells you about a band that you’ve “probably never heard of before.” Nevertheless, I get pretty excited about an intricate chord progression or a thumping bassline. If I find a niche song that I’ve never heard, I feel like I now possess something special. Maybe I have a subconscious fear that the song that is now special to me could lose its value if it fell into the laps of my friends.
But where does that attachment come from? It’s not my song, and yet I buy into the illusion that since I “discovered” it, I have some claim to originality.
We want things that other people have, but it also feels good when other people want something that we have. So for music fans, gatekeeping may be a natural human tendency. This begs the question: Who are the true owners of artistic expression? Is it the creator, the person who produces an original creation and makes something out of nothing? Or is it the consumer, who inhabits it, identifies with it and affirms its invention?
And more importantly, when thinking about genres of music rooted in the voices and efforts of people of color, what does it mean when this art is co-opted or appropriated by a hegemonic group, namely, white people?
At first, the notion of a music listener thinking they have ownership over someone else’s creation sounds delusional. However, entire genres of music — indie, house music and underground hip hop come to mind — are appealing to listeners because they haven’t crossed over into the mainstream. An artist’s success correlates directly to their cult-like following when the listeners are vital to what makes the music valuable: its niche status. The paradox is that when a band’s unpopularity is what makes them cool, people are naturally drawn to that coolness and inadvertently cause the band to grow in popularity.
And while we don’t tend to think of artists as gatekeepers themselves, in a column for Medium, Hal H. Harris reminds us that jazz music initially gained its character thanks to key gatekeepers.
“Jazz was such rebel music. In its genesis, it was unmistakably black,” Harris asserts. “Though you had artists like Django Reinhardt and Benny Goodman making bank, they were still subjected to the influence — and needed the cosign — of black gatekeepers like Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and others.”
Jazz greats like Duke Ellington, perhaps the most famous American jazz composer, set the bar for other creators when it came to jazz standards. His composition “Black, Brown and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro” in America debuted at Carnegie Hall in 1943 and asserted that the lived experience and cultural expression of Black Americans deserved the same recognition as that of their white counterparts.
However, the rise of the recording industry eventually determined that jazz’s commercial success was dependent on its palatability to broader audiences and its acceptance by white Americans rather than the innovation and creativity of Black musicians. As Harris puts it, “Jazz became colonized, and how we treated its figures became warped as well.”
In an article for New Music USA, Eugene Holly Jr. recalls that “Duke Ellington knocked on Dave Brubeck’s hotel door, to show the white pianist that he made the cover of Time magazine in 1954 before (Ellington) did.” Holly explains, “Throughout my life, it had been drilled into me that jazz was created by blacks and represented the apex of African-American musical civilization.” So how could a white jazz pianist end up on the cover of Time magazine before one of the genre’s most influential, trailblazing composers?
Gatekeeping can accomplish only so much in preserving the original character of a musical style. It couldn’t prevent jazz from being co-opted by white musicians and adopted to suit mainstream audiences, which above all else reveals our society’s intrinsic racism that artists like Duke Ellington had attempted to subvert with their musical expression in the first place.
Maybe as music becomes more and more accessible, ideas of ownership and gatekeeping will become less and less concrete. We can stream music anywhere we go using our mobile devices. In fact, anyone can make a professional-sounding, perhaps slightly rudimentary, song all by themselves on their iPhone. The utilization of “sampling” in modern music production has already put our ideas of intellectual property to the test. And because of all this, the genre of jazz has suffered.
According to Nielsen’s 2014 year-end report, jazz is steadily falling out of favor with American listeners. In 2014 it was tied with classical music as the least-consumed music in the U.S. Francis Davis, writing for NPR Music, notes that “For decades now, wags have had it that jazz is dead. But what’s actually falling prey to changing times is the entire recording industry. Jazz is merely collateral damage.”
I did say that when artists create, they make “something out of nothing,” but that isn’t entirely true. Jazz took inspiration from a variety of different techniques, instruments and sounds to give people something that they had never heard before. We can try to protect the music we love, but originality arises out of our willingness to see it change and meld in the hands of others.
In the same way, the next time someone asks where I got the delicious fettuccine pasta I’m eating, I’ll ask if they want to come with me the next time I go. The harder I try to keep that Alfredo sauce to myself, the less I appreciate what makes it special in the moment.
Like the improvisation of a jazz solo, it’s the little quirks of flavor that make the dish unique that should be celebrated and given the recognition they deserve.
Statement Columnist Connor O’Leary Herreras can be reached at email@example.com.