Thursday, May 8, 2008

My problem with rap

As I was walking over to a cafe in Brooklyn Heights called Tazza, where I'm writing this now, a car waiting at a stoplight was blaring a rap song whose refrain repeated the word "nigger" over and over. As is the norm for this kind of music, there was no attempt at subtlety on any level, just an angry hammering of bland, tuneless noises into the listeners' skulls. And as is so often the case, many of the listeners would surely prefer not to be assaulted with this drivel.

"Well, it's really close-minded to write off a whole genre -- you'd appreciate it more if you listened to more of it." Here's the problem. I have a finite amount of free time in my life for listening to new music. Like every other person in the world, I can't build up an encyclopedic familiarity with every music genre in existence, so the most I can do is thoroughly explore some of them while writing off others as not worth my time. That's a time-management strategy, not an objective judgment. I'm sure there's brilliant rap music that I'm missing out on. (I loved the Outkast song "Ms. Jackson" from a few years ago, for instance.) But I've heard enough from rappers about "bitches," "hos," and "niggers" to decide: my time would be better spent on music that might not make a single controversial statement about society but is challenging to the listener in more unexpected ways.

"Rap isn't all about 'bitches' and 'hos.'" It's no surprise that some rap songs avoid these words, at least for the sake of variety. That's setting the standard pretty low. You know what I'd like even more than a style of music that's not all about vicious epithets? A style of music that's not at all about vicious epithets.

"The music is just a reflection of society." This is the fail-safe defense of rap, since this line of thinking would justify any content, no matter how objectionable on its face. But you can't assume that the causation only works in one direction. That is, it's hard to believe that rap is just passively reflecting what already exists rather than inciting new feelings of machismo and prejudice in new generations.

You know, artists like Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield also perceived an ugly America around them. And yes, they even sparingly used the word "nigger." But they channeled the negativity and racism into music that was uplifting and inspiring even while being incisive. More importantly, it was music that sounded like it was made by people who've taken the trouble to master the subtle interplay of melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color, and expressiveness: Living for the City, Freddie's Dead, You Haven't Done Nothin', Superfly.*

* Unfortunately, the YouTube clips don't convey the elaborate basslines that are essential to the Curtis Mayfield songs. I highly recommend the album Superfly if you really want to hear them.

2 comments:

Ann Althouse said...

I was walking through Library Mall in Madison once and some students were playing loudly amplied rap music with the repeated lyric "Get out the way, bitch" (which presumably means "get out of the way, bitch"). This was blaring over a large area that many students would hear, which I thought was terrible. I generally disapprove of the hate speech regulations on campus, but to blanket the common square with loud repeated mysogynistic chants was, in my view, completely unacceptable, creating a hostile environment on campus.

As for people driving around in cars with this music... this "music"... pounding... well, it seems to me that it is a very common delusion that imposing music from your car is providing society with a benefit. I have this feeling myself. I know it's not true, but somehow you keep opening the windows and pouring out the sound. It's perfectly idiotic.

Trooper York said...

Dude, you are a little young to be a curmudgeon. I consult on a lot of bar openings and one of the things I caution the owners about is the music. You have to play the music that the young people who come out to drink want to hear. If it was up to me, we would be listening to Frank Sinatra, eating big steaks, drinking great wine and smoking cigars. That might be a great place, but it wouldn't fill it up with the hipster doufus crowd that dominates Brooklyn these days. When we updated the ipod for my wife's store, we put a lot of rap on for late night even though it is certainly not my cup of tea. But strangely enough, some of the old school soul I put on is very very popular. Curtis, Al Green, the Chi-lights, Bill Withers and the O'jays had everyone rockin'. Sweet.