Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I Write the Songs

[posted by Callimachus]

Interesting AP piece about the backlash against rap and hip-hop from the genres' fan base:

[A]fter 30 years of growing popularity, rap music is now struggling with an alarming sales decline and growing criticism from within about the culture's negative effect on society.

... Though music sales are down overall, rap sales slid a whopping 21 percent from 2005 to 2006, and for the first time in 12 years no rap album was among the top 10 sellers of the year. A recent study by the Black Youth Project showed a majority of youth think rap has too many violent images. In a poll of black Americans by The Associated Press and AOL-Black Voices last year, 50 percent of respondents said hip-hop was a negative force in American society.

I'm in the wrong age category anyhow, but I never got the appeal here -- beyond the wordplay, which at its best is wicked clever and the closest thing going to Old Norse poetry.

None of this is really new, of course. Remember C. Dolores Tucker? Until her death, the black activist waged a lonely one-woman protest against hip-hop and its images of black women.

Her crusade was all the lonelier because her few allies were people like Bill Bennett, the "virtues" Republican. People who normally would listen to Tucker ran from her like a live hand grenade when they saw who was with her.

Now, of course, there's a change of heart:

In retrospect, "many of us weren't listening," says Tracy Denean Sharpley-Whiting, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the new book "Pimps Up, Ho's Down: Hip-Hop's Hold On Young Black Women."

"She was onto something, but most of us said, 'They're not calling me a bitch, they're not talking about me, they're talking about THOSE women.' But then it became clear that, you know what? Those women can be any women."

But that reversal of the usual flow of reality is what makes this an interesting social issue -- in addition to being perhaps a terrible self-inflicted social injustice. White conservatives attack popular consumerized entertainment; black activists defend minstrel show antics as authentic street culture.

The article interviews a rapper who goes by the name David Banner (like the Hulk's alter-ego), who makes a lot of sense defending rap from its swelling army of critics. His defense, though he doesn't say this in so many words to the AP: It's a free market, and that's the kind of music you want to hear.

"Look at the music that gets us popular — 'Like a Pimp,'," says Banner, naming his hit.

"What makes it so difficult is to know that we need to be doing other things. But the truth is at least us talking about what we're talking about, we can bring certain things to the light," he says. "They want (black artists) to shuck and jive, but they don't want us to tell the real story because they're connected to it."

... Banner says there's a reason why acts like KRS-One and Public Enemy don't sell anymore. He recalled that even his own fans rebuffed positive songs he made — like "Cadillac on 22s," about staying way from street life — in favor of songs like "Like a Pimp."

"The American public had an opportunity to pick what they wanted from David Banner," he says. "I wish America would just be honest. America is sick. ... America loves violence and sex."

Different strains of "conservative" can live peaceably in the same body for years, then suddenly react against one another and send the patient into a fever. How do you conserve the social norms in a free market society where what is most appealing to the libido is most likely to sell?

It's why true social conservatives like Russell Kirk were no fans of untrammeled free markets. Kirk believed that an objective universal moral order exists and that it ought to be defended from ideologues of the left and right. He disliked unbridled free-market capitalism, which fuels "the dream of avarice."

The weakness in "David Banner's" argument is that the market driving the success of one rap number or another is not equivalent to the segment of the population suffering from the alleged ill effects of the music style.

While the AP blandly characterizes rap's fans as "the youthful audience ... which was enraptured with genre that defined them as none [sic] other could," it elsewhere lets the reality slip into print:

While rap has been in essence pop music for years, and most rap consumers are white, some worry that the black community is suffering from hip-hop — from the way America perceives blacks to the attitudes and images being adopted by black youth.

Which seems to me as much a problem for all of us as the direct effect on black youth of being aswim in such dreadful role models.

Ezra Klein catches the Catch-22:

There's a frustrating correlation/causation issue with gangster rap sales. Studios have decided gunplay sells, so they put money, promotion, and killer beats behind rappers like 50-cent or Young Jeezy, and then we're all shocked when those albums sell and younger rhymers emulate their most obvious characteristics. But as the solo success of beat-smith Kanye West shows, you can rhyme about blood diamonds, dress preppy, and still go platinum. The music matters, much more so than the lyrics. It's just that we've senselessly wrapped up a certain street aesthetic with a particularly bumping bass line, a gruff, masculine delivery style, and the money to make the whole package work.

Reminds me of the '80s in Chester County, where the loveliest landscape in the East was being plowed under for tens of thousands of McMansions and plywood palaces. The developers all insisted "this is what people want," but since all the materials came pre-cut and colored to that style, so that building anything else would have been inordinately expensive, what alternative was there?

And is it "classism" or a fetish for social engineering to even yearn for something better?

One of the out-of-the-mainstream rappers mentioned, but not quoted, in the article was Talib Kweli. Sounds like he would have made an interesting interview:

Of course, BET – the people running things over there are very limited in what they feel appeals to black youth. They’re like, “The gangster stuff was popular, so anything that deviates from that must be unpopular and must not be worth giving a shot.” As far as mine, the particular song in question was a song I did with Mary J. Blige and Kanye West, called “I Try.” What I was told by my inside person was that it was just “too conscious." I couldn’t really care less whether BET plays my videos or not. I was more upset for people like Little Brother and De La Soul and any of those that have been told their stuff is too intelligent for BET. And the kids don’t even have a choice.

And yes, I wrote this whole piece for the sheer pleasure of putting pictures of David Banner and Russell Kirk in the same post under a title from Barry Manilow.

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