Sunday, June 10, 2012

It may take a lot more historical perspective to know the full impact

Zombie has an utterly horrifying piece at PJ Media on a conversation he had with a cousin's stepdaughter at a family reunion.  She was sitting at a picnic table listening to her iPod and he asked her what music she was listening to.  She gave him her earbuds to let him check it out for himself.  He scrolled several tunes - it was all hip-hop from various points in the last 20 years - and was blown away by how frequently he heard the n-word, the term "bitch," and several crude references to male and female genitalia.

We're at a point in our culture where there is probably reaction to his piece and my telling you about it along the lines of "Big yawn.  It was ever thus.  Broadcasting standards people prevented Elvis Presley's pelvis from being shown in his early television appearances.  1920s blues songs are full of double entendres and references to marijuana and cocaine."  Matters of degree of explicitness and pervasiveness of any of it are of no interest to too many people now.

I read well into the comment thread to see if I could glean any kind of contour of consensus.  I did, and it was not encouraging.  Mind you, this was posted on a conservative website.  One commenter said - I paraphrase - "Boy, that does sound bad.  I guess I'm lucky that my teenage kid listens to the classic rock of several decades ago - The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Doors."  As if that was somehow the polar opposite of the rap.  Does this person not remember that several Who songs dealt with themes like masturbation ("Pictures of Lily"), parentally forced cross-dressing (I'm a Boy") or molestation ("Fiddle About"), or that Lynyrd Skynyrd songs frequently dealt with guns and drugs?  And need I remind anybody what happened on a Miami stage in the summer of 1969 at a Doors concert? Another commenter tried to juxtapose heavy metal as somehow elevated above hip-hop.  Oh, please. Metal gelled into a genre in the wake of the success of late-60s hard-rock bands and, once it did, devolved into ever-more juvenile indulgences of unchanneled male aggression.  The names of metal bands are silly, the lyrical themes are silly, and - contrary to what its fans say - the music itself is monotonous at best, but most often nerve-jarring.

As readers of this blog know from the "About Me" profile on the side of the home screen, I am an adjunct lecturer in the histories of jazz, blues and rock and roll at the local campus of one of our state universities.  My rationale is that the state government would pay someone to teach these subjects and it might as well be me rather than some subversive type who would fill the students' heads with all that "social-attitudes-of-the-youth" nonsense, and whose standards would be so eroded that he'd play the foulest of the musical offerings of the last fifty years.  (As I've said before, when I teach rock history, I always struggle with how to maintain my scholarly objectivity when we get to the point in the course where the ugly stuff comes along - The Velvet Underground, The Mothers of Invention, The Doors, The Stooges.)

The bottom line is that I blow hot and cold on whether rock and roll - in its broadest possible definition as a cultural force - has ever been a blessing to our society.  I mean all the way back to Johnny Otis and Sam Phillips.

Bear in mind that the very earliest R&B - the jump blues of Wynonie Harris ("Keep on Churnin'") and the doo-wop of Hank Ballard and the Midnighters ("Work with Me Annie") - was an embarrassment to middle-class black parents.  They tried to no avail to steer their kids to Billy Eckstine, Nat Cole and Lena Horne.

Johnny Otis's memoir Upside Your Head: Rhythm and Blues on Central Avenue is full of cultural contradictions. One that is particularly noteworthy is the account in one chapter of the shenanigans that occurred on the road when R&B revues would tour - drugs and easy sex.  Then a bit later he bemoans the provocative dress and stage antics of modern-day black singers (and this was in an early-90s book):  "If they had to start out now, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae . . . Dinah Washington . . . Etta James and Aretha Franklin would not make it to stardom in today's music world.  They would be required to shake their behinds and run all over the stage practically undressed or cheaply overdressed.  This anti-artistry behavior would be utterly alien to the great women of traditional Black Music."

Look, I like the music of Johnny Otis, Tiny Bradsahw, Big Jay McNeely.  I like The Beatles.  I like a lot of The Who's stuff on several levels.  The Yardbirds were a fantastic hard-rock band of undeniable cultural and musical importance.  The Grateful Dead approached the rock idiom with a laudibly intelligent and affectionate sense of heritage. What I must disclose, though, in the name of honesty, is that this makes me a conflicted cultural observer.  I am by no means convinced that we know the full extent or nature of the impact of all that on the health of our civilization.

Furthermore, what is to be done about any of it?  As Zombie says in his essay, censorship is off the table, not to mention unworkable.  I guess I find myself at the same juncture he does: I'm just sad.

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