The ubiquity of modern cultural criticism notwithstanding I feel like I ought to throw in my two cents about Vinyl, the new HBO series set in the early 70s New York of producers Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s youth now that it has reached the halfway point of the season.
The most recent episode titled “He In Racist Fire” is the fifth of the current season. The title is an anagram of record producer Richie Finestra’s name devised by Hannibal a funk artist Richie (played with punk rock intensity by Bobby Cannavale) is desperate to sign. Richie is a coke-snorting music man on the edge who is desperate to save his company and return it to producing the kind of music he once believed in so zealously. This journey back to realness is spurred by a chance encounter with a former artist and friend named Lester Grimes (played with great pathos and dignity by Ato Essandoh), whom Richie abandoned long ago for the payday that would ultimately start his own record label.
Lester was once a supremely talented blues musician but when Richie could not take him with him he fell victim to a gangster who crushed his windpipe and destroyed his singing voice.
Much of the Internet has taken issue with some characters’ homophobia, its depictions of women and the veracity of Scorsese’s 1970s music industry. To be fair, all of those things are at issue and this show is hardly perfect. But something else is going on in Vinyl that no one else seems to be picking up on.
Vinyl has something to say about race and the coopting of black music by (according to the show) clueless white record executives as well as the commodification of blackness and sexuality.
This is driven home in the latest episode “He In Racist Fire” in two scenes in particular. Both involve the same four characters: Richie, the titular anagram and center of this universe, his wife Devon (a sultry and smart Olivia Wilde), Hannibal (Daniel J. Watts doing what he can with a mostly archetype) a larger than life funk singer with a larger than life afro and Cece (Susan Heyward), Richie’s naive secretary who he can only replace with another black chick because it makes him “look cooler.”
Scene 1: dinner. The double date is going well as all four enjoy some fondue. Devon tells the table a story about starring in an avant-garde play in which she fell into the waiting arms of about eleven men in the finale. Richie expresses jealousy but it doesn’t appear to be too sincere. Devon explains that most of the actors who caught her in that long ago play were gay. That doesn’t matter too much to Richie who swears they were groping her anyway. Hannibal lays on a thick slathering of flattery for Devon, while Cece, Hannibal’s latest girlfriend (one gets the feeling there are many depending on the hour of the day), looks on uncomfortably.
Smash cut to …
Scene 2: the four are back at Hannibal’s hotel room. Cocaine abounds, as does some sultry disco music while Hannibal and Devon dance so suggestively they are both fully aroused. The whole thing ends ugly with Richie storming out dragging Devon away for a good old-fashioned argument on the sidewalk in which Richie utters the phrase “I didn’t give you a million dollars, so you thought a black cock was your consolation prize.”
Many people are taking issue with what they perceive as Richie’s homophobia and racism (no one unfortunately has mentioned his grammar) but I think something is being lost here. A character’s disposition is not the disposition of the narrative or the creators and Vinyl is taking a much wider view than Richie Finestra’s conflicted soul. It’s implied early in the season that his mother was half African-American and half Anglo-American. There are many gestures toward race as a central issue. Each episode employs cutaways to actors lipsyncing soul standards on otherwise empty stages. These are almost exclusively performed by black actors and are meant to be the music of Richie’s youth, the early rock n roll that inspired him.
The thing that seems to be lost on many reviewers is that during that sexually charged dance Richie attempts to pull Cece to him to initiate group sex. That’s a telling moment. Watching his wife guide a black man’s hands over her body in seeming ecstasy both excites and enrages Richie. He doesn’t know whether to have sex with Cece, watch his wife grind against the singer he is trying so desperately to sign to his label or storm out in a rage. Finally when Cece protests and refuses to take part in whatever is about to go down, the spell is broken and Richie chooses anger. He pulls Devon out by the arm, leaving Hannibal standing alone to eye him coldly. Richie offers some insincere flattery on his way out but the damage is done. It would seem that everyone in the room but Richie understood what was happening. He tried to pimp his wife to seal a business deal but lost the nerve.
At least that’s what he was doing for his part. On the street Devon gives him an earful and let’s him know she wasn’t going to sleep with Hannibal even though that’s what she was leading him to believe. But Richie’s guilt is too much, his shame is too much.
Think about Richie’s two reactions to the scenarios he tried to create. First he was a voyeur, enjoying the spectacle of Devon and Hannibal. Next he was a willing participant so he pulled Cece to his lap for a little unsolicited groping of his own. When Cece exercised her right to decline he didn’t relent right away but pulled her back to his lap. She had to try three more times before Richie let her up, because you know: she’s just a black secretary, saying no is only permitted by his leave.
It’s only when he is sitting alone that he can stand to watch Devon in the singer’s hands no longer. And when they’re in the elevator and the tension is too much for them Richie grabs her by the throat (this is an echo of their first encounter when Richie wordlessly wrapped his hand around her neck and they had consensual sex in a bathroom) and runs his hand up her dress only to discover that she is already wet. He’s incensed and on the street he spews out the bile that was roiling in him.
Black bodies have always been commodities for white men to sexualize, monetize or loathe. White femininity is to a degree subject to the same pressure. (This is why Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man features a scene of sexualized violence facilitated for the enjoyment of white men earlier on.) So has black music. The very music that Richie so fervently loves. In an early episode a flashback reveals Richie and Lester connecting for the first time by going down the list of black musicians who have inspired them. Richie makes his living off of black bodies and black pain and it has perverted him in ways he doesn’t fully understand.
This is fiction but it most certainly isn’t. In an age in which Taylor Swift gawks at black female behinds and Iggy Azalea attempts to define herself as “the realest” rapper and parades her own booty as being “authentic” the commodification and sexualizing of anything that isn’t made for white men is very much still alive. The ubiquity of pornography of this bent–white female bodies being ravaged by, as Richie put it, “black cocks” is one of the most requested varieties of porn (NSFW: link to study on pornhub.com site, not actual porn)–is another symptom of the racial miasma that is American living. It is everywhere and nowhere was it ever more present than the music industry.
Vinyl knows this to an extent (though how much of what I’ve discussed above is intentional only time will tell). After all, Mick Jagger, a man whose entire success is owed to the instruction of black American music, produces it. Richie isn’t just a train wreck of a human being; he is the embodiment of the train wreck of America’s racial anxieties.
He’s a little bit black, a little bit white, a little insane and his greed and mania and exploitation of the people he claims to care about is every bit ours.
Bonus: we’ve already seen DJ Cool Herc in one episode. The show is set in 1973 which would be around the time hip-hop was just taking form. Let’s see where this goes.
So far Vinyl is enjoyable but will not live up to the dizzying heights of it’s long form HBO predecessors such as Boardwalk Empire and The Wire if continues to dabble in cheap thrills like a murder that takes place early in the season largely to up the ante. Maybe it doesn’t need to. After all: it’s only rock ‘n roll but I like it.