Before we begin, let me make a small disclaimer right here at the start: This bonus blog post is actually my final project for a university course called Culture Wars that I’m attending for my North American Studies minor. However, the assignment for the final project did not come with an expectation of objectivity, and even the format was completely free for the students themselves to choose. One could even create an art project if they so wished. I chose to go with a blog post, as I enjoy writing them, and I conveniently already have a blog. That means that my own political leanings will come through in the text, and this text is not an attempt at some sort of objective, “above the petty squabbles of the politically inclined masses” -type of declaration. This text also does not represent the views of the lecturer of the course, or the University of Turku as a whole. It is just my personal text on my personal blog.
I fucking love rap music, and I’m going to advocate for its value against individuals seeking to disparage it in the interest of gaining points for their side in the culture wars. Hell, I might even go on a rant or two. And I’ll definitely curse. My blog, my rules.
With that being said, let’s get on with the topic itself.
New music sucks, classic rock was so much better!
It’s not uncommon to hear many people, especially older individuals, decry the state of what they call “modern music”, or “nowadays music”. In fact, this phenomenon seems to be about as old as music itself. However, in more recent times, from the 1980s and onwards, this argument has gained an even more insidious bent. Actually, I’ll clarify: That bent has always existed. The problem is that with the advent of methods of mass communication, that bent has slithered its way into the mainstream, and is now being spouted on TV and on the Youtube channels of right wing grifters as well. That argument goes something like this:
“Modern music is corrupting our youth, and in addition to that, it lacks in artistic merit as well!”
And the insidious bent that is being spouted by many right-wingers is this:
“Rap music is especially harmful and has absolutely NO artistic merit whatsoever!”
The articulation of that point of view is often accompanied by some not so subtle racially charged dog whistle terminology, like mentions of “thugs” or “hoodlums”.
There’s a lot to unpack in that second statement focusing on rap music. Let’s give it a shot!
The idea that music is corrupting the youth isn’t a new one. In fact, it’s been a core issue to the culture wars for a long time. A congressional hearing from September 19th, 1985, can be described as a central flashpoint event in the discourse. In that five hour long congressional hearing, which was called the First Session on Contents of Music and the Lyrics of Records, the PMRC, short for the Parents Music Resource Center, a conservative committee made up mostly of the wives of politicians argued vehemently against songs with explicit lyrics and subject matter, trying to paint themselves as taking some sort of objective moral high ground, as if one even existed.
A brilliant turning of the tables against the PMRC was performed by legendary singer-songwriter John Denver, who presented a statement during the hearing:
Discipline and self-restraint when practiced by an individual, a family, or a company, is an effective way to deal with this issue. The same thing, when forced on a people by their government, or worse, by a self-appointed watch dog of public morals, is suppression, and will not be tolerated in a democratic society.
The reason that argument is so incredibly brilliant is that it turns the classic rhetoric of conservatives that advocate for small government on its head. It in essence points out, to conservatives, that they can’t have their cake and eat it too. You can’t keep screaming and crying about free speech while also advocating for federal level music censorship.
In defense of rap music
So, these are the three main arguments of many right-wing culture war combatants.
- Rap music “corrupts” the youth
- Rap music is especially harmful, it’s somehow more harmful than many other types of music
- Rap music has no artistic merit, it can’t even be called music
Let’s go over them in order.
The first mistake that proponents of the rap music corrupts the youth -theorem make is that they paint the whole genre with a broad brush. They refuse, or are unable to, make a distinction between someone like Kendrick Lamar rapping about legitimate societal issues such as poverty driving people to crime, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nmV_HEIwXGs), and Pusha T rapping about his desire to return to drug dealing (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFYvRvw3VWM). I love both of those songs, but even I can admit that they look at criminal activities from two very different perspectives.
I truly enjoy listening to songs about dealing drugs. I’ll go even further: Most of the rap songs I listen to are about dealing drugs. And it’s my personal choice too, I specifically seek out rappers and songs that deal with that theme. I have no desire to either sell, buy, or consume hard drugs. What I do have a desire to, is to listen to incredibly lyrically talented rappers weave tales of their own personal histories into very narratively and sonically gripping songs. Listening to a good Pusha T, JAY-Z or Rick Ross song is like watching a really good mob movie. It’s entertainment, it’s a story. It’s not a life-coaching session. It’s art that tells stories. You probably shouldn’t copy your value system from a drug rap song as much as you shouldn’t copy your value system from your viewing session of Reservoir Dogs.
Here’s the thing though: I actually agree, to a certain extent, that rap songs that contain violent or explicit themes shouldn’t be consumed by children of a certain age, just like violent films, TV, and video games shouldn’t either. However, just because some rappers rap about drugs, sex, and violence, doesn’t mean one gets to paint the whole genre as consisting of just those themes. One also doesn’t get to paint the rappers that do rap about that so-called unholy trinity of subjects as societally destructive. Those rappers are making art and telling stories. Art should be able to deal with any subject it wishes.
It’s on the parent to shield their child from content they don’t want them to be exposed to. It isn’t an artist’s responsibility to make art that can be consumed in both kindergartens and retirement homes. They make the art they wish to make, and the responsibility falls on the potential consumers of that art to take the necessary precautions they wish in order to limit their exposure to that art, if they so desire.
Rap music is not inherently more harmful than any other type of music that sometimes deals with explicit subjects. This theory is so strange that I’d like to say, “I don’t even know why someone would think this”, but then I’d be selling myself short. I do actually have a hunch – it starts with the letter R and ends with -acism.
White people have been singing about sex and violence for hundreds of years, yet as soon as a predominantly black genre makes songs about those subjects, it’s somehow more destructive than the history of sexually charged songs that came before it. I’m not buying it.
English composer John Dunstable once came up with a motet called Quam Pulchra Est.
Its lyrics translated from Latin to English go like this:
How beautiful and fair you are, my beloved,
most sweet in your delights.
Your stature is like a palm-tree,
and your breasts are like fruit.
Your head is like Mount Carmel
and your neck is like a tower of ivory.
Come, my beloved, let us go into the fields
and see if the blossoms have borne fruit,
and if the pomegranates have flowered.
There will I give my breasts to you.
You know when that song was made? In the 1400s!
White people have been getting freaky in music for centuries! That’s why I don’t want to hear any more complaining about Cardi B’s WAP.
Same goes for violence in music. An idea so central to the lyrical history of country music that it’s almost a cliché today is the defense of stand your ground and the castle doctrine. If country musicians get to sing about the rifles stored in their pickup trucks, rappers get to rap about guns as well.
First of all, defining what music even is in the first place is one of the eternal questions of musicology that pertains not only to rap music but to all music. I’m a musicologist, and even I couldn’t tell you what music is! I could list some sounds that the majority of people think of as music, sure. But there is a long history of questioning the limits of music.
An all too common, yet ever relevant example is John Cages 4′33″, a composition from 1952. If you looked at the notes, you’d see nothing. Absolutely nothing. That’s because the composition is always different, because it consists of the ambient sounds of the place that it is being played, or, more accurately, not played in. The orchestra will walk up to the stage with their instruments and sit down. They will then proceed to do nothing for the next four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The music is made up of the coughs, breaths, silent whisperings, knocks, door-openings, and door-closings of the concert hall along with any other ambient noise present. That’s it, that’s the whole piece.
Another example would be the music of Merzbow and other harsh noise artists. Put your volume really, REALLY LOW, and go look up Merzbow – Pulse Demon. I personally think it’s music. Very, very strange music, but music, nonetheless.
I could write more and more pages about why I think it’s pretty clear that rap is music. Instead, in the interest of time, I’ll just link this fantastic takedown of prominent right-wing culture war combatant and terminal stage 4 Dunning-Kruger patient Ben Shapiro’s idea that rap isn’t music because it “has no harmony or melody”, performed by music critic Anthony Fantano: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GR5-rB1W47g
Final thoughts and summary
Before I summarize what I wrote on this blog, I’ll add one more very concrete example of the way the culture wars have been fought in the frontier of rap music.
My example comes from the 2016 song Drug Dealers Anonymous by Pusha T and JAY-Z. Before listening to that song, I urge the reader to watch this short video featuring conservative political commentator and fervent culture war combatant Tomi Lahren: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2O5MGpfKTc
Tomi Lahren is part of the conservative culture war content-making machinery. This video from 2016 was taken during her time at BlazeTV, where she worked alongside other prominent right-wing commentators, like Steven Crowder and Dave Rubin. Nowadays she works, unsurprisingly, for Fox, specifically making content for the streaming service Fox Nation.
Now, here is a link to the song Drug Dealers Anonymous: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPp7dNDe00U
At 1:33-1:38 you may hear something familiar. That soundbite is in fact a sample, taken from the video of Tomi Lahren mouthing off about Beyonce, specifically from 1:49-1:54.
Your husband was a drug dealer
For 14 years he sold crack cocaine
In the song I linked above, JAY-Z expertly reappropriates Lahren’s words as just another notch in his drug dealing belt, elegantly recontextualizing the words to just add to his already immense street cred, so to say.
14-year drug dealer and still counting
Who deserves the medal of freedom is my accountant
He been hula hooping through loopholes, working around shit
IRS should’ve had the townhouses surrounded
JAY-Z took the words of a conservative commentator, and turned them around, giving him credibility and adding to his myth and legend as an artist. Masterful work.
I’ll lastly summarize this now over 2000-word blog post. Basically, as rap music has ascended the ranks of musical genres to become the de facto most popular mainstream music genre, it has taken on the role that rock and metal music used to hold – the role of being the punching bag of the conservative right in the culture wars.
As societal norms have changed in a way that the scariest thing about Marilyn Manson is now his history of sexual assault instead of his music, he has moved away from the role of the musical boogieman that the pearl-clutching, family values-espousing Christian right made him out to be. That boogieman is now instead rap music in its various forms, be that Lil Nas X being comfortable in his own skin (https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/04/10/lil-nas-x-montero-satan-devil-politics-controversy-religion-480655), or various rappers rapping about drug dealing, even though the developing opioid epidemic affecting mostly white people was mainly caused by doctors overprescribing addictive painkillers. Weird how a segment of the population being addicted to drugs is suddenly a problem now, while the crack epidemic of the 1980s wasn’t even perceived to be a health crisis at the time. Gee whiz, I wonder why that could be?
Closing words: In this blog post I identified some of the ways rap music as a form of art has been attacked and weaponized in the culture wars, and I then attempted to counter those points. In a nutshell, rappers should be free to rap about what they wish and it’s on the parents to control the media their children consumer, rap is no more “harmful” to society than any other music genre, and yes, rap is indeed music, despite what some imbeciles might proclaim.