Warning! Late-night language.
I think that the only time I’ve ever uttered the “n-word” out loud is in singing along with this song. I still can’t bring myself to type it or speak it in any other context, but the thing is that Patti Smith turns the meaning of the word on its head. She turns a terrible word into a liberating word, or as close to that as possible. She refers to a whole varied raft of people, inlcuding herself, “grandma,” Jackson Pollock, Jimi Hendrix, and Jesus Christ as “n”s. By doing so, she transforms the “n-word” into a commentary on the collective of all those “outside of society” and of the implied negative costs of conformity of whatever type. Fitting in is not a desirable trait here.
Whether this song works for you or is just too shocking and repulsive in its language, there’s an attempt to recognize a commonality and a solidarity. Certainly, I’ve never been the kind of hellion that Patti Smith once was, but I grew to love the way she examines what it means to be different from the norm. The album Easter came out in 1978, and for me it was the beginning of awareness that there are people who celebrate their differences.
It took me a long time to be able to listen to this song, and I was reminded of why when I read recently that the Memphis and Shelby County public school systems are in the process of merging, a process that is re-sparking some earlier racial tensions. It was perhaps in the context of busing for school desegregation (federally mandated in 1973) that I heard the n-word most often and most hideously. More than half the city’s white students’ parents sent them to private schools instead of cooperating, a process they justified in openly racist ways. My parents chose not to participate in white flight, and I was called an n-lover on numerous occasions.
So when, just a few years on, I first heard “Rock ‘N’ Roll N” I just couldn’t bear it. Its defiance, however, kept coming back to me. “Let’s redefine things,” it seemed to say. And I agreed that was a good idea. I had been put down as a woman, as a Southerner, and as an aspiring artist enough times already in my young life to feel a connection to the sensation of debasement, and I eventually embraced the song as a manifesto of sorts.
Patti Smith still has a habit of not accepting the usual definition of things. A.O Scott, in a recent interview, notes:
When I brought up the persistence of grief in her songs, Smith laughed — it was certaintly not the first time an interviewer had raised the subject — and gently corrected me. “I think it’s less about grief than remembrance,” she said. “Grief starts to become indulgent, and it doesn’t serve anyone, and it’s painful. But if you transform it into remembrance, then you’re magnifying the person you lost and also giving something of that person to other people, so they can experience something of that person. That’s why when I’m traveling with my camera, I’ll often take pictures of, you know, Keats’s bed, Shelley’s grave or Victor Hugo’s desk. It has something of them. If I’m taking a picture of Brancusi’s grave, I know that there’s something of him, of his mortal remains, beneath my feet, and there’s something beautiful about that.”
Smith is an artist who has gone through numerous transformations and phases, and I like that. She may not be as angry now as she was then, but she’s still questioning surface interpretations and emotions.