It’s interesting that so much controversy surrounds Paul Simon’s crowning achievement, Graceland. Simon, a darling of critics during the early 1970s, had hit a rough patch both creatively and commercially before Graceland, a blending of Western ideas and African music that propelled him to No. 1 worldwide and earned him a Grammy in 1987 for Album of the Year. But at what cost?
Music ambassador or cultural appropriation?
Desperate for new material following the disappointment of his 1983 album Hearts and Bones, Simon looked eastward for inspiration and found it in a cassette of African street music. What happened next can be interpreted in several ways. Simon and his fans believe the singer-songwriter introduced African musicians to the world and made stars out of some of the performers on the album. And it is true that several of the musicians toured America after the release of Graceland.
But in recording in South Africa, Simon broke the U.N.-imposed cultural boycott of the country for its apartheid policies. He also recruited Linda Ronstadt to appear on the album, and Ronstadt herself had faced criticism from the African National Congress for breaking the boycott. It’s like he was asking for trouble from the ANC.
Graceland is mostly an African album, and it’s odd to hear such music coming from a white New Yorker known for folk music. At times, the arrangements, while lovely, seem forced, making you wonder if the African influences are a gimmick for Simon. Some critics have even labeled Simon a musical colonialist, mining South Africa for its sounds, trying to find something to make him sound relevant again, and then making those sounds his own.
Charges of plagiarism
That accusation opens up another red flag for Graceland: Plagiarism. Several artists including Good Rockin’ Dopsie and the Twisters and Los Lobos said Simon lifted Graceland tracks from their songs and didn’t give them credit. When Los Lobos approached Simon about the similarities, he allegedly told them, “Sue me.” No one ever did, but it’s a sign that everything about Graceland is derivative.
The music of Graceland
But what about the music?
Sure, the music is fresh and inspiring. And that’s exactly what Simon was looking for. You just wonder how much of it is his. Certain passages are beautiful; Simon sings on the title track, “Losing love is like a window in your heart,” and the tumbling melody matches the sentiment exactly.
Simon’s lyrics are meaningful, but he tries to be too nonchalant, too prose-driven, and his lyrics are often a smorgasbord of syllables. Take, for instance, this line: “My traveling companion is nine years old / He is the child of my first marriage.” There’s no meter in the world that would make that line flow. And in the hit single “You Can Call Me Al,” he sings, “Get these mutts away from me / You know, I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore.” Try to say that clearly at 129 beats per minute.
Graceland rightly put attention on African music, but the way Paul Simon did it isn’t acceptable. As a result, the whole album just leaves a bad taste in your mouth.