Passing Into Coverage

As I was playing Can't Buy a Thrill, the debut by one of my long-time favorite bands, Steely Dan, the conversation at the breakfast table this morning turned to the confusing profusion of lead singers on the album. Keyboardist/ songwriter Donald Fagen, who would go on to take exclusive singing duties on subsequent albums, takes lead vocals on most of the album's cuts, but drummer Jim Hodder sings one tune ("Midnight Cruiser"), and two songs ("Dirty Work," one of Kelly's favorites, and "Brooklyn") are handled by vocalist David Palmer. Obviously, this gives the album a slightly less unified feel than one might expect, but I explained that the band's perfectionism demanded a particular kind of vocalist for particular songs.  When I mentioned Palmer's status as a "blue-eyed soul singer," Kel looked amused.

"Interesting euphemism there," she said.  "Like the eye color is the important thing."

"Well, that's an old one," I noted.  "I mean, 'Brown-Eyed Handsome Man' isn't really about eye color, either."

That apparently hadn't occurred to her before, nor had the sexual implications of "rounding third, he was heading for home" made themselves clear, but I tend to follow the Aerosmith Rule ("If a line CAN be about sex, it's about sex.") with Berry songs as well.

But the issue of euphemism for race is ancient.  The term "cover song," after all, originates from the idea of having white performers sing songs originally made popular by black artists, covering up the presumed blackness of the music.  Elvis's success as a "white boy with the black sound," as Col. Tom Parker put it, was the most obvious case of coverage, but later examples range from Eric Clapton doing Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" to Tom Jones singing Prince's "Kiss." (The most painful was without question Pat Boone whitewashing Fats Domino's "Ain't That a Shame.")

All of these issues are cropping up in my thinking as I've become involved in our school's continuing attempt to improve the environment on campus. Last fall the Caucus (formerly known as the Minority Caucus) put together a showcase of sketches and presentations to explain the difficulties faced by students of different races, religions, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, etc., and this fall I'll be helping out.  Student organizations other than the Caucus will be helping set up the program this year, and it's hoped that we'll be able to demonstrate to the community that there are certain standards of civility that we expect everyone to support.  (These standards, I should note, are still evolving.  The school's official display of the Confederate Battle Flag ended only about a decade ago, and we didn't have a student come out of the closet on campus until 2005.)

I've been brought into this discussion largely to demonstrate that yes, straight white males consider the issue of civility in the community important, but in some ways, I feel as though I'm a bit of a cover-up myself.  I am certainly straight, white, and male (and brown-eyed, for that matter), but in at least a couple of significant ways, I'm not part of the majority at all; I'm just passing.

The most obvious is the fact that, according to the laws of Moses and Israel, I'd be considered Jewish.  My mother was a Jew, though she's been a practicing Episcopalian all my life.  Given my oh-so-Christian first name and WASPish surname, however, I've never yet been taken for Jewish by a stranger, so I've been personally subjected to anti-Semitism only once, at summer camp in about 1973, when a kid who knew my background decided to tease me about it. I was so surprised that it took me a while to realize how upset I was, whereupon I burst into tears and ran back to the cabin. Other than that, however, I've never had problems, unless you consider the internal debates about the nature of God that have raged back and forth in my head for the last forty-odd years to be a problem. I suspect that my nature would have led me to my current non-churchgoing semi-agnostic/Taoist perspective in the long run anyway, but I can see how my internal Jewishness might have been at least partly responsible for my voluntary departure from the Episcopal church soon after my confirmation in 1975.

That's not the only passing I do, though.  A much more widespread form of passing exists for all of us with external genitalia, and it's so subtle that I'm not even sure it's passing.

I speak, naturally, of sports.

Look, by any reasonable standard, I am a nerd.  A nerd and a half. You know this. I've been reading comic books since I was four, and I can not only use the word "Excelsior!" non-ironically, but even provide you a reasonably accurate list of every member of the Legion of Super-Heroes over the past fifty years.  I know what a General Products hull is and why you shouldn't get near a major gravity well in one.  I know where the Fords of Bruinen and the Wobbish River are.  I have a Roger Dean album cover on my classroom wall (along with my Bros. Hildebrand Star Wars poster and my map of Middle-Earth). I know what "fnord" and "slash" and "OTP" mean, and I can sing "Reviewing the Situation," "Marian the Librarian," and a variety of other show tunes from memory. I even have a 21st-level paladin who's been through three separate Holy Avenger longswords. (I don't want to talk about it.)

But I can pass for a jock.  Okay, I'm way the heck out of shape, but I can still hit a free throw or hit a penalty kick with some degree of skill; I can walk the walk.  And while I will never attain the degree of fan interest necessary to follow an entire baseball season, I can definitely talk the talk; I know the significance of numbers such as 714, .400, and 61*.  I may have little interest in the NBA as it's currently set up, but I'm a longtime follower of college hoops and can give you a lengthy argument as to who UNC's best-ever point guard was.  (Phil Ford, but I'm prepared to listen to supporters of Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson.)  And I have no football experience beyond the Pee-Wee level, but I've been a fan of the NFL since second grade and will cheerfully debate with you about who you should take in the first round of your fantasy league draft this fall.  (Be wary of Steven Jackson; I don't trust the Rams' offensive line.) 

Maybe this last doesn't really lessen my innate nerditude, since, as D&D Greg says, "Fantasy football is still fantasy."  Still, all this means that even in the company of people who coach sports for a living, I can make conversation.  I'm not held at arm's length by people who fear I'll suddenly start reciting digits of pi (of which I know relatively few anyway: 3.14159) or singing Tom Bombadil songs. This is often a comfort to me, particularly on long bus rides with my colleagues, but I do sometimes feel as though I'm being less than honest.  Is my fondness for sports really part of my makeup, or have I deliberately adopted it as a form of protective coloration?  Is passing a sin, particularly if I'm not deliberately trying to pass?  If I'm not walking around proclaiming my nerdhood to the world, does that automatically mean I'm in the closet?

Perhaps I'll figure some of this out while I'm working on this fall's presentation.  And who knows, at the end, maybe the world will be a little more comfortable for everyone at Woodberry.  Even the brown-eyed.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on April 26, 2009 8:35 AM.

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