Monday, July 11, 2005

Placate and stupefy

When I'm looking for astute coverage of the hip-hop scene, I don't immediately think Wall Street Journal. But there was an interesting story last Wednesday about the Black Fatherhood Summit, at which most of the speakers were former rappers offering some pretty compelling critiques of the music industry and current state of rap. The article quotes Bill Stephney, a former member of Public Enemy, primarily, and he makes several provocative points. First, hip-hop glamorizes the absence of responsibility -- this has obvious ramifications for black men owning up to paternal duties, but not true of hip-hop alone. Most popular culture glamorizes the absence of consequences for actions, the suspension of cause and effect -- this is what makes it entertaining. Cause and effect analysis is replaced by formula, which simulates cause and effect while radically simplifying it and detaching it from any recognizable reality. Second, hip-hop redefines manhood as getting cash and getting sex by any means necessary. Again, hip-hop only reflects the larger materialistic biases of the culture and concentrates them for disenfranchised portions of the populace (teenagers, minorities). Our consumer culture cannot admit of non-material sources of joy and self-esteem -- that would undermine the chief selling points for most of the junk it drags to market. The more disenfranchised you are, the more susceptible you are to fantasy enactments of power and prestige, and the less nuance you want and realism you require. If you don't know how real power operates, you will be satisfied with absorbing cartoonish renderings of it, which has the additional effect of modelling only silly and ineffective ways of getting ahead. Complex entertainment occasionally models a useful way of comporting yourself in the world, mainstream entertainment rarely does. It's purpose is to placate and stupefy. Third, rap sexism is a reaction to a quasi-matriarchial culture that has arisen in worlds made up of fatherless families. Misogyny is a product, then, of male irresponsibility, and intensifies with displays of female competence. Misogyny is not a reaction to percieved weakness, as is often commonsensically thought, but a reaction to perceived strength. (This is the essential insight of the Backlash school of feminism).
Stephney points out that "unlike every other popular style of African American music, gangsta rap has lasted almost two decades without changing." This suggests that the cultural circumstances that give birth to the genre are stagnant. Stephney likens gangsta rap to heavy metal, which also varies very little over time: Both are "pure distillations of youthful male fantasies of power, aggression and lust." With the added taboo thrill of ethnic strangeness, gangsta rap dominates the white teenage market, which funds the genre and seems to ratify its ideology for those who make it.
All very interesting. Perhaps this week the Wall Street Journal will help me understand illbient chillout.

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