Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Whenever I hear Obama give one of his Major Speeches, like in Tucson, I'm moved by the oratory and I feel really grateful that we have him. But a part of me always thinks, "this guy hasn't got a rock'n'roll bone in his body". I don’t think he has a hip hop bone in his body either. Apparently he likes to listen to Jay-Z, but I wonder why--just a purely technical appreciation of the formal skill involved? It can't be the content he gets off on. Obama's vision of how the world should be is modest--so decent, so sensible, so sane. It's how the world should be and how it needs to be, Desperately. And it's nothing to do with the world as proposed by rock'n'roll, or hip hop.

From very early on with rap--as early as 1986, when I made my first serious attempts to grapple with the music, in the piece "Nasty Boys", which is now in Bring the Noise--I realized there were some serious limitations to a left-wing analysis of hip hop. Or at least, a straightforwardly hopeful and uplifting reading of it, which was what so many critics then, especially in Britain, were trying to glom onto rap. It was around that time I started to develop this over-arching sense of pop culture as being as much on the side of the Devil as on the side of the angels, which David Stubbs and I wrote up as the thinkpiece "Indecency", which is in Blissed Out. Or to put that another way: everything that is wrong with the world, our society, Humanity, etc, is bubbling inside of rock/pop/rap etc, just as much as all that's hopeful and helpful. More often than not, there's a kind of perfect stand-off between the revolutionary and the counter-revolutionary going on in most forms of popular music.

Rock critics, almost always left-wing and liberal, invariably focus on the uplifting, constructive tendencies, and ignore or downplay the negativity, the selfishness. Academics, who tend to be even more left-wing and progressive-minded, and also overly rational and somewhat cautious and prim in their approach to life, are even worse when it comes to ignoring these aspects of rock and rap. They are always on the look-out for "socially redeeming value". But when I started to listen to rap really closely, in 1986, it seemed to me that you couldn’t understand, or even aesthetically and emotionally feel rap without taking into account that it is fundamentally about vanity, the lust for glory, about competitiveness and domination. Rapping is about lording it over vanquished foes, insulting and humiliating them stylishly. Style is a form of combat, a mean of self-assertion and self-distinction. Developing a unique style as an MC is a form of self-coronation. And a lot of subcultures, not just hip hop, are quests for aristocracy: it's the superiority complex of those who've raised themselves above their more ordinary counterparts in their own demographic through style and knowledge. The motor is profoundly inegalitarian. Not nice!

But this is precisely why rap, like the more aggressive forms of rock, or more grandiose and bombastic forms of spectacular showbiz pop, are so compelling. It's why we're mesmerised by them. It's like watching a boxing match, or a great athletic contest. You thrill to the will-to-power.

I say all this as a fan. If you really listen to what is being proposed in some of the greatest rock -- in the Stooges and the Sex Pistols, in certain glam and heavy metal songs-- it is a celebration of self-aggrandisement, wanton destruction.

Rock, especially punk and metal, and rap, especially gangsta rap (which is kinda like the black punk or the black metal, kinda, sorta), are rooted in adolescence, that ability teenagers have to only think about themselves, to not consider the consequences of their actions, to take risks and revel in recklessness. Even though I am grown up and have kids, I try to stay true to these anti-social and irresponsible energies in the music. Not by trying to live out those energies: I'm not in any position to, even if I wanted to, and I don't want to, because that's not any way a mature, healthy person should lead their lives. But I "stay true" by refusing to pretend that these obnoxious energies aren't a massive part of what fuels the music.

Sometimes pop culture seems to me like a lurid rash caused by a tropical disease. Its feverish energy is really morbid vitality: the expression of capitalist unrealism, the unsustainable extravagance and irrational mania of a culture organized around consumerism and celebrity.

1 comment:

  1. I think all of the above captures how I've felt about a lot of this for a long, long time -- that I recognized years ago, but never bothered to articulate or formulate in any sort of tangible or concrete manner. Very astute, and very brilliantly summed up.