Instead of just tossing up a Friday Genius Ten, I want to make it up to you for not blogging some this week by writing about music and culture with a little more depth.
So there was some fussing when Barack Obama revealed to Jann Wenner that he has dipped his toe into listening to some Jay-Z, with a little Nas and Lil Wayne on the side. I thought the real story behind that was that it’s another example of the truce that’s being called in the concept of “kids these days”, as more people over 40 are rejecting the pressure to stop listening to new music and more young people are buying records from older, classic artists. I would say hip hop is the single greatest force in breaking down the idea that your age should define your tastes, since digging through the stacks is such a critical aspect of hip hop. And as a lot people who grew up after the 60s have such an appreciation for music before our time, as we get older, we’re less inclined to think of new music as after our time. Obama appears to be somewhat of this mindset. (Interesting, though, Wenner just wanted to talk about music from his time—Bob Dylan.)
Anyway, the fussing is chronicled by Adam Serwer here. Thomas Chatterton Williams, who wrote a book called Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture, is all over Obama for being a bad influence. He weighs his arguments up front by flipping out over Lil Wayne, but he tries to put that on Jay-Z, too, because his argument kind of falls apart if you don’t posit that hip hop is a monolithic beast that is universally opposed to books. My though: 15,000 books and you’ve never seen a single scholarly but highly readable history of hip hop?
Adam retorts by pointing out that James Earl Jones has performed a monologue from “Othello” at the White House, even though you could apply many of the arguments laid on hip hop on “Othello” for glamorizing domestic violence. This is an argument that I was first exposed to in the 7th grade, and it’s stuck with me.
When I was a wee youth wearing Keds in rural West Texas, hip hop hadn’t quite reached us yet in its march across the United States, though of course by the mid-90s, it was everywhere, including the CD players of some in Alpine. Oh, I had MTV by satellite dish and sometimes late at night my friends and I would peep at some Public Enemy videos, but back then, hip hop wasn’t on the radar. Subsequently, this intellectually bankrupt discussion centered not around hip hop but around rock music, which many churches in the area considered the devil. The radio station in town only played country western and “oldies”, mostly Frank Sinatra and Peggy Lee songs from the 40s and 50s. These kinds of music weren’t controversial in any way, but seen as responsible, non-devil music.
So, for reasons I still don’t understand, my 7th grade English teacher had us “debate” the evils of rock music in class. Some kids happily echoed the arguments of adult authority figures in their lives who feared that rock music was, to quote Williams talking about hip hop, “ignorant, misogynistic, casually criminal and often violent”. Fears that it encouraged sexual experimentation and drug use were also sewed up into this, as well as concerns that Satan-worshiping was involved. The teacher let the kids go on for awhile, and then asked about country-western music.
We were confused. Country-western was safe, wholesome, family values music, right? It was safe enough to have its own station! But as our teacher pointed out, a lot of country-western—especially the classics that we were all saturated in—was actually not so wholesome. Talk about music that, if you look at it in the right light, glamorizes drinking, violence, murder, and misogyny! The godfather of modern country music, Hank Williams, sang songs that excused stepping out on your wife and drinking to forget your troubles. Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson have songs that feature men just busting out and killing troublesome women. Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton both wrote super popular songs that normalized the idea of women suffering men’s infidelity without being able to do anything about it. I see a common thread between something like “Jolene” and Beyonce’s “Why Don’t You Love Me“, for instance, and I suppose the main way that makes me sad is that the image of the woman helpless to shake off a man that’s playing her still has so much resonance in our culture.
We kids didn’t know what to say to that. We weren’t yet old enough to understand the long cultural history that got us to this point, such as how rock music was considered a threat in its earliest days mainly because it was seen as promoting “race mixing”. We didn’t know that whining about the content of rock music was a cover for the real beef with rock music. We didn’t know the extent to which the Bible-thumpers had made it their life’s mission to resent huge seismic shifts in our culture towards desegregation, feminism, and sexual liberation. We didn’t see what those who’d lived through the 60s and hated every ounce of the counter-culture saw, and subsequently we didn’t understand fully yet why some adults saw everything from peace symbols to heavy metal records as a single mass of evil out to get them. We were 12 and 13-years-old.
But we saw hypocrisy. I would highly doubt that even a majority of the kids in that classroom really absorbed the point to its fullest. In a couple of years, hip hop would eclipse rock as the music that created the most anxiety amongst culture warriors, making rock music safe enough that “Christian rock” would really take off as a category. Country-western would still be treated by said culture warriors as some kind of gold standard of “family values” type music, which is why the whole incident where Kanye West was rude to Taylor Swift became such a big deal. And it’s still as stupid and intellectually bankrupt a debate—and still founded on hypocrisy that lays over uglier attitudes—as it ever was.
I want to point out that a lot of the problems that get laid at the feet of hip hop are also endemic to rural working class communities that are predominantly white, and yet no one complains about country western music. In rural white communities, you often see heavy drug use, lots of domestic and sexual violence, and casual criminal behavior of all sorts. Rural red states have higher rates of teen pregnancy and divorce that blue states. I’ve definitely seen the widespread alcohol abuse in your more redneck-y communities. And yet, I don’t see many fingers being pointed at country-western music, though it often deals in these themes. Is there any doubt that many a young man has gotten drunk and high at a honky tonk and then gone on to commit an act of violence, often against a female partner? It’s because they’re all hopped up on country-western. It’s truly the devil’s music.