Moving on From Dixie Songs: the Negotiation Process

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So, it’s a few months since Joey Minshall captured the feeling of a moment with her #donewithdixie post. In the time since, the hard work has started of negotiating with individual ensembles about why these songs, once so central to barbershop repertoire, are no longer being received quite so enthusiastically in all quarters as they once were.

You can understand singers who have put a lot of time and love into polishing performances feeling reluctant to let go of that investment, and they will often bring out arguments as to why they should continue singing these songs. This post takes a few of the frequently-heard points to consider outside of the context of any one conversation. Just so we can get our heads round them in a place where nobody has to take it personally right here right now.

“But audiences like it!”

There’s a local restaurant we used to go to quite often, where they changed how they did their garlic nans. When they asked how our meal was, we told them we liked the old way better. ‘But our customers prefer them this way,’ was their reply.

Eh? But we’re customers, and we’ve just told you otherwise, we thought. Clearly we don’t count. We’ve not been back since. (Actually, we’d be quite happy to give them another chance on the food front, but we can’t face having to explain why we stopped going, given how they responded to feedback last time.)

Some of your audience may applaud your Dixie songs, for sure. But you only hear the applause of the people actually in the room. By definition you can’t hear the ones who come once and then stay away. If you’re not interested in growing your audience, keep doing what you’re doing.

“But you don’t hear POC/women/whatever group is insulted by the song complaining about it”

You hear this one a lot in real life too, not just song-choice contexts. This is particularly aimed at people not in the discriminated group pointing out a discriminatory issue. The implication is that we’re being do-gooder busy-bodies.

Two points here:

  1. The more someone objects to a song or policy or behaviour, the less safe they will feel to tell you. Have you seen the vitriol that comes back when you call someone out? It makes me look back with nostalgia to the guy who merely never spoke to me again back in my youth when I asked him to stop addressing me with a particularly sexist label.

    (This is also why we often find ourselves calling out our closest allies on their infelicitous turns of phrase. It feels a bit unfair since they generally have our backs, but they are the only ones we actually trust to listen rather than lash out.)

  2. My dad used to tell a joke about a guy on a train, who every few minutes would peel a banana, dip it in salt, and throw it out the window. Eventually another passenger just had to ask why he was doing this.

    ‘It keeps the elephants away,’ was the reply.
    ‘But there aren’t any elephants for miles around!’
    ‘I know – it works!’

    The ‘you don’t hear complaints’ argument has the same kinky logic as this joke, only inside out. You’re only really likely to hear people complaining about things that make them uncomfortable if you find yourself in a conversation with them. And if you keep doing things that push them away, that conversation isn’t going to come to you as a matter of course.

    You might not have heard the objections to this repertoire before, but we’re telling you now – they exist, and you can hear them if you take the time to stop and listen.

“But *point at member of minority in question* is okay with it”

Right, that’s one data point. We’re telling you about other data points with different opinions. You could consider choosing repertoire (policies/behaviours) that all of the sampled data points will be fine with, rather than choosing to alienate some of them.

“Being offended is a choice”

Being offensive is a choice too, and you’re the ones on stage controlling the content of the encounter. Of course you are free to sing whatever you like, but how much of a jerk do you want to look?

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