Normally I can keep a cool head about language and keep scientific, descriptive detachment. However, today I saw something deeply perplexing to me, as a musician who plays music in the tradition of Black American Music (jazz, funk, etc.): A kitty litter company has taken the term stank face redefined it, and used it as the main hook for a large scale advertising campaign. Elsewhere, I've written about imagined Black English, and borrowing of terms. This is not borrowing. Rather, whoever does marketing for Tidycat has chosen to simply take and redefine an existing term.
So today, on television, I saw this:
Now, why was this horrifying to me? Well, musicians have used stank face for decades to refer to something completely different. More importantly, this is not natural borrowing and reinterpretation; this is corporate.
First, it may be helpful to discuss the origin: stank comes from a stereotypically black/southern pronunciation of "stink." What stinks? Thinks that are funky. Things that are nasty. Filthy McNasty. There's a long tradition of reacting to something particularly funky with stank face. It's a sign of respect, and for musicians like me, a sign that you're doing it really right. When I first heard Vulfpeck's "Funky Duck" the musician who put the recording on for me knew I liked it because of my reflexive stank face (not duck face!).
Let me reiterate: he knew I LIKED it because of stank face. LIKED IT!
The thing is, the above ad is so close as to be almost right, and then it's just very, very wrong. And it's wrong at the expense of a community of musicians who tend to come from marginalized backgrounds. It literally takes something that musicians -- in primarily black styles -- use, and declares it to be something completely different, for the purpose of selling kitty litter to middle class, white women. And make no mistake, it's very explicitly targeted to middle class, white, female cat owners:
Moreover, it is asking if they're at risk of doing something associated with black cultural styles, assuming you have ever heard of stank face before. Which it's hard not to have. Outkast's André 3000 is stanky enough to say "stank you smelly much" on the regular. I might be wrong, but I'm pretty sure that even if you aren't the kind of fan who saw the movie Idlewild in theaters, you probably still know who Outkast is. And of course, A3K's use is a nod to George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic, which brings me to my second point, one which is way more hilarious to me than the first.
Another thing that's stereotypically stank ain't kitty litter, it's marijuana:
So we've got a cultural mode of expression tied to musical styles (and often associated with marijuana) that's now being (1) explicitly portrayed as negative (no surprises there), and (2) used to sell kitty litter to the group least likely to participate in the culture it's from (although equally likely to participate in drug use -- see, for instance this ACLU report. The sociology of drug use and arrest rates is a fascinating topic, but one for another day, and maybe another blog). Note that this is not to say there aren't some funky white housewives (great band name!), they're just not really the target audience here.
So, I've given two examples of not-quite-stank-face above. What's real stank face look like? This keyboard player listening to another member of Snarky Puppy tear up the keys:
In fact, if you'd like to experience stank face firsthand, you can listen to the track here, and stank along.
Another example is the drummer for the Roy Hargrove Quintet, listening to the pianist while they're playing "Strasbourg St. Denis":
And here's the full recording:
I mentioned "Funky Duck," and it turns out I'm not the only one who finds it funky enough to trigger stank face -- the singer is so nasty he can't help but react to his own funk:
The most ironic thing about all of this, for me, is that it's taking (sometimes) drug-related and always funk related slang and using it so innocently and wrong, while trying to be cool, or as cool as you can be while still being a suburban cat owner. It's reminiscent of the Kyle & Kyle (Kyle from SNL) YouTube sketch in which the character desperately wants to be seen as a stoner, but doesn't know quite how to use any of the words, so claims his toddler is dealing, and suggests "we should box hot the place." (instead of "hot box").
Now, it should be noted that stank face is distinct from a number of other possible faces, including the ill grill:
or the mean mug:
Lastly, there's something ironic about using stank face to sell kitty litter, since it's the cats (yes, musicians still say this) who like it stanky. So while I won't go so far as sayin "somethin' stank and I want some," since I'm not about that life, I will say that I wish they'd stop marketing me whatever funk comes with their kitty litter, and just make my funk the P-Funk.
©Taylor Jones 2016
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