Monday, October 26, 2009

Default kneejerkism

Ben Mathis-Lilly, a New Yorker editor and an apparent hip hop fan, wrote a 2008 column in Slate pondering what happens When Good Rappers Collaborate with Lame Rock Bands.Admittedly the subject interests me hardly at all, but I was taken aback at what seems to be a default knee-jerk position; black musicians are cool regardless of the quality of their current product, and rock bands are vapid and mediocre.Period.Something is wrong when the article assumes that the rappers entering into a collaboration are first rate from the get-go and that the rockers are, to a guitar fret, lame. Whatever the relative merits of individual rappers, I haven't heard these guys and gals subjected to the kind of criticism rock musicians have taken over the last four decades, and I suspect much of this is a failure of nerve on the part of the critics. Rock bands are judged against a consensus as to what constitutes a good tune; the emphasis changes, of course, but there is a tangible standard that's applied when these guys come up for review. Most rock and roll bands are crap , pretentious and fake, but there is a tradition of arguing over the music in order to separate and distinguish the worthwhile from the dreck; there is even a subspecies of rock criticism where participants exchange views on the marginal, the commercial, the insipid aspects of the music. Reviewers of rap, though, seem victims of group think and extol their rhyme droppin' heros sans judgement regarding the material. No one seems willing to dissect the raps beyond the sociology ;art seems the last thing on anyone's mind here. Rap is a younger form, but in the thirty years plus that it and it's antecedents have been around there has been enough time for an aesthetic to developed and articulated. Eric Dyson is a brilliant commentator on hip hop, but will focus on artists he likes and defends. Stanley Crouch, though a critic I find much to admire in, is a curmudgeon on the matter and considers the lot of rappers to be fakes and opportunists. The judgement isn't reliable , say, to tell us what is actually in the music under review.That's fine, but there is a lack of on the part of daily reviewers to yell tripe when tripe is served. Thirty years of hip hop ought to give the writers an idea as to what is bogus and the vocabulary to tell their readers. The coterie of critics who began rock criticism--Jan Wenner, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Paul Williams, Ellen Willis, Robert Christgau--were in large measure Humanities undergraduates in the Sixties who started their own zines, ala Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Creem, in order to cover a music they loved. Their audience was small at first, but grew, and the influence of the critics grew as well. I don't doubt this small number of African American young men with backgrounds in literature and art and music theory couldn't start their own upstart vehicles to counter the hype and cant that protects hip hop releases from a rigorous , on going analysis, and I've no doubt that there are fans of the music who'd like to read something that wasn't apologetic hype who relish the opportunity to read critics who can step beyond the record company rhetoric and , to coin a phrase, speak truth to power.

Rap is massive, pervasive, and influential, and it's time it gets interrogated in ways novels, plays, poems, films and all the v visual arts do.Rock and roll spent a good twenty years being regarded by mainstream media as low brow and unsophisticated and completely lacking in any kind of merit; the music, as we know, changed as did the cultural currents that influenced younger musicians that began picking up guitars, and a bright and energetic writers wrote about the new music in terms that changed the way the larger culture addressed it.

Hip hop has evolved to no less a degree, and it is interesting that there hasn't developed a tradition of reviewers establishing a variety of criteria with which to judge how respective bodies of work measure up in terms of aesthetic worth; in all, there is a lack of discussion as to how rappers measure up, exceed, or lag in what they're trying to do. It seems like a form of protectionism to me, an institutionalized blind eye to real criticism that will cause the music to die of its own excess. The lack of discriminating taste in the hip hop press makes this scene seem more cluster-fuck than creative.

1 comment:

  1. Good points here, Ted, but there’s something I’d like you to expand upon. You mention that rap/hip-hop lacks a circle of critics on a par with the early rock commentators like Marcus, Christgau, et. al. Sure, those writers produced reviews and extended pieces of real merit – some of it could be called literature. But can you really make the case that what they wrote affected rock music substantially? Beyond helping the public explore the boundaries of pop aesthetics, I’d be hard-pressed to say that the golden years of rock criticism had any substantial impact upon the form, other than helping to publicize obscure artists. Basically, it didn’t really change anything – Grand Funk still sold millions and the New York Dolls bit the dust.
    Record companies and radio stations didn't make decisions according to what the critics wrote and the artists either considered a good review a stroke (not a learning experience) or shrugged the bad notices off. Am I wrong?

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