JUICE would like to believe that we live in a post-racial, post-genre… post-post world, but our collective experience with interacting with music fans proved otherwise. Taste in music is still incredibly segmented, and more often than not it comes with racial connotations. We don’t pretend to know what it’s like to live as a coloured person in the States, but we know enough. Too often people are astounded, confounded even, when a black person likes something that is oddly associated with white people. Worse when it comes with a backhanded compliment like so; “Oh wow, you like My Bloody Valentine? That’s so cool.” As if only white dudes have a monopoly on good things – the shortlived Sh!t White People Like meme was a good example of this delusion of superiority (disguised as self-deprecation).
Sean Padilla, who performs and writes music as The Cocker Spaniels, has probably had one too many of those moments. ‘The Only Black Guy at the Indie-Rock Show’ from Withstand the Whatnot, his first professionally released album on CD, is a cult hit among the Afro Punk crowd – a microcosm of the black experience in a whitewashed genre. It’s as self-effacing as the best of Weezer as it is real. Padilla summed up the reality of being the only black guy at the indie rock show best in one line; questioning whether a white guy at a Jay-Z show would receive the same treatment. He doesn’t.
Padilla is a master of the kind of music linked to bespectacled suburban white men – loser rock. Black music, possibly this way now due to hip hop’s innate braggadocious nature, doesn’t have much when it comes to the plight of losers. Ironic considering how much harder it is to grow up black than white in the States (which explains why rappers tend to show off more when they escaped poverty). So when someone likes Padilla sings about being turned down during job interviews, there’s a sad weight to it. Just listen to ‘The Overeducated Underclass’ (from sophomore Sometimes You’ve Gotta Fight to Get a Bit of Peace), his struggles comes with real classist and racial overtones – his rejection comes as much from his natural hair (‘Touch My Hair’). Not just purely due to perceived job market, or economic, difficulties.
There’s also less glorification of the loser vérité, Padilla doesn’t necessarily talk about being bad lucked for humorous purposes (as is with a lot of self-aware bands such as The Vaccines). There’s a sense that he truly lived an unfortunate life that nearly ruined him. Had you read his self-written bio on The Cocker Spaniels’ website, you’d know that Padilla was not only underemployed, but also faced multiple crises of familial, spiritual, and romantic nature. Because the obvious needs to be said; it’s more believable to hear someone who hasn’t quite made it sing about not making it.
Padilla’s music reminds us of Pigeon John’s later incarnation, had he went full indie rock and less (studio) polished in sound design. But his actual influences are much more meaningful than our own blinkered comparison there. Padilla decided to tell his story through music when he first heard hip hop in the ‘80s, then The Beatles convinced him to do it through rock, and Jimi Hendrix taught him it was cool for a black man to do that. Pavement made him realised he didn’t have to be flawless at it, and Guided By Voice imparted persistence in him. Then an array of different acts, Dilla, Oval, and My Bloody Valentine inspired sound diversity in his music before the saints of black music, John and Alice Coltrane, conveyed spirituality through music to Padilla.
Perhaps when, if ever, The Cocker Spaniels receives a wider audience, a kid similarly without privilege (regardless of because of skin tone or class) will be just as inspired by him as he was by his idols.