Monday, March 28, 2011

It Ain't All About Fish and Grits: Outkast as Interpreters of the Black South

We interpret things all the time. That is, we often make explicit what we take to be the meaning or significance of the things we encounter.

We interpret the utterances of others:
Adam: "You know, the salad is great here." Beth: "Are you trying to tell me I'm fat?"

We interpret our dreams:
"I dreamed that I was being chased by a steak. That must mean I need more protein in my diet."

Some of our interpretations are good, some bad. But what are the criterion for a good interpretation?

According to legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin, a good interpretation must satisfy two criterion: "fit" and "best light" [note: my explication of these terms differs a bit from Dworkin's. But it's all good.]

An interpretation fits the object of interpretation if the interpretation is, in some sense, true to the object. For example, an interpretation of a speaker's utterance fits (is true to) that utterance if the interpretation allows one to view the utterance as reasonable in light of the speaker's past and present behavior and the situation in which the utterance takes place.

If Adam has been riding Beth about her weight for the past few months and consistently criticizes her food choices, Beth's interpretation of Adam's utterance fits.

Additionally, comedians often attempt to comically interpret events and public figures. A comedic interpretation (an impression) of, say, Oprah, fits its object (Oprah) if , among other things, the comic gets Oprah right, if his or her mannerisms and voice remind one of Oprah (Tracey Morgan's interpretation of Oprah, for example, fits).

An interpretation presents its object in the best light if, according to Dworkin, the interpretation makes the object the "best possible example of the form or genre to which it is taken to belong."

For example, Beth would interpret Adam's utterance in the best light if she simply interpreted him as recommending the salad. The best utterances are those that are positive, not mocking or condescending [of course, one could argue about this. But you get the point].

A comedian interpreting Oprah would interpret her in the best light if he or she poked fun at Oprah for being too self-sacrificing and generous (by, say, depicting Oprah as literally giving up an arm and a leg to help out a friend). To interpret Oprah in a bad light, in this context, would be to poke fun at her for being naive or out of touch.

An interpretation can fit its object, yet not show it in its best light. And, an interpretation can show its object in its best light, yet not fit.

So, what does all of this talk about interpretation have to do with Outkast? Well, I wish to make the case that Outkast has provided us with an excellent interpretation of the black south. Outkast's music is true to southern culture. It fits. They get the language right (in terms of both slang and cultural references):

" can go on and get the hell on (you and yo mama)." (from "Ms. Jackson").

"...this fine bow-legged girl, fine as all outdoors." (from "Spottieottiedopaliscious").

"The way she moved reminded me of a brown stallion horse with skates on/ smooth like a hot comb on nappy ass hair." (also from "Spottieottiedopaliscious").

"...if you like fish and grits and all that pimp sh*t." (from "Elevators (Me &You)," of course).

Dre and Big Boy have perfect southern accents. Just listen to two of the tracks referenced above:

and this one:

And this last track is an example of Outkast getting the deliberately cool and laid-back black southern attitude right.

It's clear (to me at least) that Outkast's music is true to Black southern culture. But, we can't count Outkast as excellent interpreters of black southern culture if it is not also true that 'Kast presents the black south in the best light.

I also think Outkast presents the black south in the best light. Big Boi and Dre see black southern culture as having an aim, that of overcoming the adversities created by past and present racism in this country while being cool, laid-back, driving bass-filled Cadillacs, eating catfish and grits and speaking that elegant black southern slang. In short, Outkast sees black southern culture as having the aim of overcoming adversity as outkasts.

That Outkast interprets black southern culture in this way can be seen most clearly in Big Rube's interlude "True Dat." Particularly, this line:

" Are you an outkast? If you understand and feel the basic principles and fundamental truths contained within this music, you probably are. If you think it's all about pimpin' hoes and slammin' Cadillac doors..." (I'll leave out the rest, to not offend.)

The theme of overcoming as an outkast is also expressed in the songs "Git up, Git out," "Babylon," "Mainstream," "Phobia," "13th Floor/Growing Old," "Aquemini," and "Humble Mumble." And, we see the best expression of Outkast's interpretation of the black south in the song, "Liberation."

Of course, Big Boi and Dre may not see themselves as interpreters of the black south or as interpreting the black south in this way, so I guess this is just my interpretation of the situation.


  1. The way you explain "fit" and "best light" makes it possible for successful attempts at the two of them to conflict (take your Beth and Adam examples). So I don't understand how you can say that "a good interpretation *must* satisfy" both criteria.

    Nevertheless, nice post (with a witty ending). Something interesting to notice about the place of one of the songs you mentioned, "Humble Mumble", on the album Stankonia: its chorus refers back (quite directly, I would argue) to the 1st song of the album, "Gasoline Dreams". The intertextual play between the 2 songs is fascinating but easy to miss...

  2. Ah, I gotta check that out.

    And I think that "best light" should be understood as "best *possible* light." Clearly, sometimes folks just say messed up stuff that can't be viewed in a positive light.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!