Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Idea of the Moral Imperative in Top 40 Radio


It feels good to be back in Philadelphia.  In my first 18 hours I was called at on the street three times, and about 10 of those hours I was asleep.  It is cold and gray and people look angry, but I know they are not, not really.  There are black people everywhere, the snow falls down white and lands gritty and brown, and the libraries are being closed and abandoned in favor of useless center city development.  And the radio blasts real Top 40 East Coast hits: last night A.W. and I drove {home} from New York galleries and friends and bobbed our heads to horn-blasting dancehall off of Hot 97 for two snowy hours.  It was an emotional ride back into the burning trash clouds of Philly.  I love that burning trash at night.  The fires blaze like stars against the blackness of the city as the white plumes float northwards, and we are all merge into the dystopic heaven of trash and magic and fire. 

Riding up to New York we listened to Philly radio and talked about the most recent public sex scandal at the local high school.  For some reason they kept playing Crime Mobb and T.I. and Lil Wayne, like nothing else is happening - which was fine with me.  And then every so often Jay Z's baritone would come booming over the speakers, reassuring us he was back, he hadn't gone anywhere.  Back where?  Back rapping over someone else's hooks and giving his trademark chuckle behind someone else's rhymes?  Ok, Jay, we're not worried.  It dawned on me that there is a severe problem with what passes for art and poetry in pop culture, and I was thinking of E-40 too, which is a West Coast thing.  (East Coast, get schooled.)  E-40 has a song where he just goes through the list of all the ways he gets fucked up: mostly alcohol and weed, but he elucidates on his favorite brands and strains, his favorite ways to die.  And here we are, listening to Lil Wayne's Lillipop for the third time, and it is very clear that something is wrong.  Lil Wayne, whose debut went double platinum before he was eighteen years old, is getting rich off of a song whose chorus goes
Shorty wanna thug
Bottles in the club
Shorty wanna hump 
You know I like to touch
Her lovely lady lumps
Really?  And did I hear him cough on one of those vocal tracks?  Is this just him being horny and wasted and rich enough to get into a studio with someone who is going to overproduce everything and not have the balls or the clout or the energy enough to say, "Hey... Weezy... Maybe you should consider upping the ante here.  I mean, you're not 20 anymore, and we all know you know how to rap.  Maybe you should just sober up a minute and think about what you really mean to say." 

Don't get me wrong.  Lil Wayne is a good rapper.  I know I'm not the only one that remembers Go DJ, released when Wayne was just a babe of 22.  That song shows up A Milli all over the place, dope as that track is, if only because it came out of nowhere when everyone thought they forgot about Hot Boys for a minute.  The point is, the man is not stupid.  But he is making stupid poetry.  And I mean 'stupid' in all senses of the word.  Lollipop is a good sing-a-long, but that's just the problem.  Phil Ochs is a good sing-a-long, too, and at least as shrewd as our boy Weezy, but there's a difference here.  What are you going to do, as a fifteen year old with fifteen year old hormones, reading your poetry on Top 40 radio, searching for someone who is speaking your language?  When I was fifteen I was listening to T. Rex and thinking He knows exactly how I'm feeling and I mean what the hell was I talking about?  If I internalized anything, it was lyrics like "Let's do it like we're friends," which is arguably a viable sex education.  Even our Top 40 had song titles like "Let's Talk About Sex" and lyrics like "You get me closer to God" and "She gives him loving that his body can handle, but all he can say is 'Baby, it's good to me.'"   The poetry was different, the imperative to get high and fuck and be fucked was not there.  (At least not in ninth grade.  Probably that trend was in something close to full swing by graduation, after I had stopped listening to the radio.)

Part of what has happened is pop collapsed into hip hop... or was it the other way around?  This was happening by the time I was a teen, but it didn't seem so ubiquitous until the 2000's.  Biggie died, rap became fully sanctified and safe, and the music industry liked the idea of exploiting everyone by marketing urban youth culture globally.  So it was necessary to make a "universal message" synonymous with this imagined singular culture.  Only a few white kids were really able to get behind 2Pac, and Snoop's desire to bomb honies and get rich with his hand on his gun is vaguely relatable but retains too much ghetto reality to be understood by suburban white youth and college student/gentrifiers.  But no one can mistake Big Pun when he says he just fucks a lot.  That is not a classed or racialized message: it is, as they say, what it is.  

And our friend Lil Wayne follows in his forecousin's steps.  He just wants to get rich, he just wants to get a blowjob from some guy's girlfriend while the guy jerks off in the chair (!gay!), and who can't get behind these things?  Certainly any 10th grader can.  Or imagines they can.  Even more powerful, I think, than the words themselves, are what they mean for emotional depth and communication.  It is okay to listen to the radio and not hear Hamlet, but - if we can conceptualize listening to Top 40 as analogous to reading text - we are not even hearing Jabberwocky.  We are not even hearing Ennui, by Langston Hughes, which consists of four simple lines:
It is such a 
Bore
Being always 
Poor.
I used to read those lines over and over as an adolescent in my parents living room, in their untouched collection of Poetry of Langston Hughes, searching for meaning, never going so far as to imagine the day I might be broke.  

The text that we - whether we are adults or youth  - are reading on Top 40 radio (and in 21+ clubs -- especially queer clubs) is more like a baby's vomit dribble.  It is garbled and almost meaningless, not clever, the base simplicity of existence, the distillation of everything into a simple action that no one could fail to understand.  This baby is sick and there is puke on the ground.  So what do you do?  You clean it up and heal the damn baby, before it grows into a vomiting adult. 

*One post script I would like to add is that I do not think all of Top 40 is headed down this vomitty slope.  The women of pop radio are banging it out like none other, questioning gender, sexuality, and solidarity in accessible ways, and, as we drove up the Turnpike yesterday morning, we did get the chance to hear some guy sing about "switching roles" in bed - but the DJ interrupted before we heard what she did to him!

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