20 April, 2008

Beck, Hip-Hop, and the Suburban Identity Crisis

As the days grow longer and the weather gets nicer, my music tastes have swung back to beat-heavy tunes well-suited for summer driving (Beck, G Love, RJD2, etc). But living on the Main Line and commuting to West Philadelphia has made me question the role of (pseudo-) hip-hop in urban and suburban culture. All too often I see small groups of white, middle-class teens clothed in ultra-baggy jeans, FUBU shirts, and oversized jewelry with 50 Cent blasting from their car stereos. Minutes later I’ll be cruising down the West Chester Pike seeing the “real” thing in West Philly.

There’s no question that well-to-do suburban youngsters have been transfixed (even obsessed) with hip-hop culture ever since The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” made its way onto the airwaves – but why has it been so difficult for them to break from the role of passive listeners to that of music makers and chart-topping rappers? Hip-hop’s use of spoken word and rhyming evolved from dub and dancehall’s practice of toasting, and was carried to New York from Jamaica by the likes of DJ Kool Herc and others. Over the years the lyrical themes have changed, but they never stray far from the problems, desperations, wants, needs, and desires of struggling low-income urban dwellers.

Middle and upper class suburbanites can appreciate the themes and origins of hip-hop in its current form, but they cannot fully identify with it. (For example, consider this.) When it comes to being regarded as a serious rapper many have tried, and many have failed. It’s no wonder why – when all you’re doing is mimicking another culture’s actions and words, you can’t help but come off as unauthentic and kitschy. The solution? Stop denying your own identity and surroundings, and start writing about it.

Beck is a perfect example. His lyrics contain imagery reflective of white working-class America. At times, his seemingly nonsensical rhymes mock the bogus rift between ghetto superstars and business-clad suburbanites with no rhythm. His tunes rely heavily on hip-hop staples: heavy backbeats, simple bass lines, and sampled voices and tracks. But he’s made the music his own, and he’s made it something he can relate to.

From "Elevator Music", The Information (2006):

Everybody workin' hard
'Til the yard is all clean
The dishes wash good
In the washin' machine
Now you brush your teeth
And you comb back your hair
You drive your vehicle
Like you just didn't care
And you walk into work
With the boys and the girls
And you're doin' it to death
It's the end of the world
Now there's everybody's sweatin'
Forgettin' what's on their mind
With your hand like a mirror
You can see what's inside

And I can't possibly pass up this post without mentioning this:


spencer said...

Nice post, higgy. You've just become our resident culture reporter.

I think the root of this is that (as I was recently discussing with our mutual friend thomas) members of our generation are obsessed with the search for experiences that seem authentic. (If it appears authentic, then it is, I suppose.) The things that we do from day to day don't meet our expectations that have been inflated by our parents' memories of the sixties and so we adopt features of other "more genuine" cultures to fill the void.

This is problematic for a number of reasons--not the least of which is the fetishization of the exotic or the Other--but as you point out, it is most important to realize that the experiences we have are authentic and genuine, by virtue of being part of life itself. It is only our expectations and worries that lead us toward viewing our lives as somehow unreal.

higgy said...

Yes, and the dissatisfaction with our own lives (and our perception of our daily experiences as being unauthentic) are fueled by the spread of ultra-suburban sub-division commuter lifestyles in the last 30 years.

I think your response relates quite a bit to the emergence in popularity of "indie" art forms (music, movies, etc), too.

spencer said...

Right, but I'd say that the "indy" art forms are not any more genuine than any other form of experience.

Elliot said...

I mostly agree with Spencer regarding our search for the authentic qua anything that is not us (spend any time with expatriates who are busy enjoying "real" culture and this becomes apparent.) I do have a couple questions/complications however:

1)Is this a malady of our generation only, or do we feel it particularly strongly? I would say no. I think there was always a strong fetishization for "authentic", "exotic" culture, but in the past it was much harder to actually take part in that culture (by traveling, or consuming its music, food, etc) and so the fetishization took place more on the fantasy level, through movies, books, etc about those other cultures. (Much of what Said studies in "Orientalism")

2) I would also question whether this is necessarily a bad thing, or, at least, if it doesn't respond to actual deficiencies in our culture. Just one example: sheesha. Having traveled in Egypt, I feel that sheesha culture represents something positive that is more or less missing in American culture - a socially recognized space for sitting and doing nothing but talking and interacting with your neighbors, friends, strangers, whoever. America has social institutions that try to fit this need - bars, coffee shops - but I think they work suboptimally most of the time. So in my own life and circle of friends I have tried to replicate that by having regular times where we do nothing but sit around the sheesha and talk about our lives and the world - not because we have unfulfilled expectations from our parents' generation, but because this other culture has provided us with something objectively better, and globalization allows that picking and choosing at a level never before seen.

I think its a similar dynamic exists with indie music. It seems its rise was more of a supply-side phenomenon than a demand-side one. By that I mean it didn't begin because consumers all of a sudden said to themselves "these mainstream producers are just feeding us crap" (although there was probably some of that). I happened, mostly, because producers of music and film ran up against the constraints that the music industry put on their creativity and autonomy. Once indy producers started to break away, they revealed the staleness of the mainstream producers - a staleness which I think, again, existed and exists in an objective sense, and that can be traced to the stifling setup that indy producers were rebelling against.

My point is this: while there is fetishization of the Other because of simple dissatisfaction with our ordinary, 9-5, apple pie and baseball existence, people are increasingly turning to other cultures and other forms of culture to meet specific social and artistic needs that are not met by the dominant culture. And that's a good thing - or, at least, an authentic (!) response to the spiritual deprivations of suburban culture.