Monday, May 18, 2009

Rock, Race, Hip-hop, and Why I Like Music

There's an interesting post up on Feministe titled "Asher Roth, Hip Hop, and Rockism, Or Why Doesn’t My Kid Like Hip Hop?".

I'm not going to talk about Asher Roth anymore; he's just an idiot. I do want to talk about the other half of the article. So why doesn't her kid like Hip-Hop? And more importantly, what's all this about Rockism?

Rockism, of course, is simply one of the youngest names in the grand old tradition of Art snobism. I personally used to be a classicist - if it wasn't written either: A. before 1930 and/or B. In a conservatory, I didn't want to hear it. Vocalists who needed microphones to sing weren't real singers, and I found the electric guitar to be thoroughly disgusting. And the Great (and not incidentally always white and male) Masters had the last word on everything.

By this standard, Rockism looks downright tame!

I got better. Do note, though: I didn't stop being a classicist because I suddenly realized that my prior ideas were racist, sexist and wrong. I stopped because I actually listened to all that other music, and liked it. I'll come back to this.

But Rockism. The Times article liked in the Feministe post makes some good points, but it honestly doesn't go far enough. It's not that rock music is 'white' and hip-hop is 'black'. It's that Hip-Hop is 'new', and rock music is 'old'. Let me explain:

Around 110 years ago, all the kids were listening to a new kind of music called Ragtime. They played it in the bars and clubs, they danced to it, it was exciting and rebellious and their parents were scandalized. Critics mostly ignored it, preferring to focus on 'real music' like Opera. Note that the greatest rag composer was a Black man named Scott Joplin.

Now, mentally switch (Modern) Hip-Hop with Ragtime, Rock with Opera, and Eminem with Joplin. Not an exact analogy, but fairly close.

Fast forward to today. What has happened to Ragtime? Simply put, it has become classical music, right along with Mozart, Wagner and the rest. White Art snob culture has co-opted it, and it has become part of the 'Canon', if you will. It's just the same with Jazz. And it's happening to Rock now, too - enough now that Rock is seen as 'white', despite its history! (Bo Diddley, anyone?) The patriarchy likes very much to utilize the 'if you can't beat them, join them' strategy, and so always takes credit for the accomplishments of the less privileged. And why stop now? Perhaps Asher Roth is simply the beginning of the end for Hip-Hop. Black culture will move on to the next new genre, and the cycle will continue.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps we can stop making it about which sort of music is 'better', and actually get around to listening to it.

You see, here's my criteria for whether music is 'good': I listen to it. If I get a shiver down my spine, it's good music. If my body is enveloped by an orgasmic feeling of delight, it's great music. It's a visceral, almost purely physical reaction, and as far as I can tell, it's quite genre agnostic.

Which brings me to Lauren's son. None of the nine-year-olds I know have even heard of Kurt Cobain or Elton John, let alone want to listen to them; this makes me think he really likes it! (Then again, he could be rebelling against his parent's music choices!) Perhaps it is racial - but perhaps he just hasn't hear the right Hip-Hop yet. Or, perhaps he would like some of the Black rock stars (is Hendrix close enough to Cobain?) With any luck, he'll be able to really appreciate music.

Some people want to rebel. Some people want to be snobs. Some people (Rockists) want to be snobs about rebelling! But really, music should be about feelings, and about meaning, and about choices, and about people.

(Curious counter-argument to everything I just said: is my insistence on criticizing music separately from its surrounding culture an artifact of my Art snobbishness?)


Daisy Deadhead said...

I guess its a sign of being old, that I don't consider rock music "old"... let's see if it survives a whole century or not. We're about at the half-century mark.

I think a good sign of whether music is good, is whether people who have nothing in common with the maker(s) of the music, can relate and enjoy it. The only way we'll know this for sure is when us all of us old hippies die off and there are kids who still like it.

Nice post.

Anonymous said...

Can I be a "folksist"?

'"classical"? Pah!

It's not REAL music unless you stick one finger in your ear to sing it!'

Daisy: the first rock musicians were the ba-roque musicians!

(seriously, I think a lot of heavy metal is in essence baroque music arranged for guitars and drums)

I was trying to think of a genuinely all-white popular music form, and could only think of punk. But even there, a lot of punk bands and skinhead groups adopted the rhythms of ska and rock-steady into their music!