Crippled Pilgrim’s Black and White

Central Question: Can you make white pop music about white privilege?

Crippled Pilgrim’s Black and White

Stephanie Burt
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Crippled Pilgrims were one of those early-1980s “jangle” bands that could have been REM but weren’t, with lots of reverb to accent the twelve-string guitars and to offset (barely) the flat male vocals. Their music was no more complex than that of their peers, but it was more melancholy, given to minor chords and half steps down, less angry than sadly baffled, with song titles like “Oblivious and Numb,” “Sad but True,” “People Going Nowhere.”

Many college towns had one, or ten, bands that played in a similar style. But Crippled Pilgrims’ town was DC, where most white kids (and white rock critics) sought not Byrdsy pop but “harDCore,” the fast, tight, hyperaggressive, openly political songs of Minor Threat, whose singer went on to cofound Fugazi. For black kids, and hip black adults, local music instead meant—usually—go-go, the live and virtuosic post-funk grooves of Experience Unlimited (E.U.), of Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers. DC was then and is now a black-majority city where national government, white-ish local art scenes, and black culture chug along in what, to outsiders, might look like surprising isolation from one another.

“Black and White,” the first song on Crippled Pilgrims’ first album, might be about this separation—it might have been one of the few indie-rock guitar efforts from those years in which white singers thought aloud about whiteness, thanks to the suggestive vagueness the song shares with so many indie-rock tunes, there’s no way to know. In any case, it is a song about self-questioning: “When are you gonna find a way to let the answer out? / All this is so perfect, it’s a masterpiece of doubt,” Jay Moglia begins. “There is a reason but I don’t know what it’s all about.”

What does he doubt, and why? Maybe it’s privilege: “When you don’t see right and you’re off the track, / when you don’t see white, you don’t see black.” That’s the whole chorus; the rest of the verses consist of fables about self-deception, chasing fake rewards in artificial environments (“There is a barrel at the bottom of a rusted lake. / I think it’s treasure but they tell me it’s a mistake”). Who’s been deceived, or self-deceived, and why? It could be a sad lover, but it could also be white people—especially white-collar or bohemian white people in or around DC—who don’t see how isolated, how privileged, they are.

The song is a rueful commentary, not a call to arms; it’s about acknowledging the limits of experience, not about breaking those limits apart. But the acknowledgment is surprising enough. The chorus nearly quotes James Baldwin, who told his white readers, “As long as you think you are white, there is no hope for you. Because as long as you think you’re white, I’m forced to think I’m black.” What would it mean for white people to think differently, not on a special occasion but all the time? In their melancholy, elliptical, perhaps unintentional way, Crippled Pilgrims and their catchiest song pointed out a problem to which truly effective solutions have yet to arrive.                

—Stephen Burt

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