So this post is a continuation of some observations about rap, but also, about the paradoxes of conservative pop-culture studies.
Now the first of those “paradox” posts discussed the fact that while Peter is right that the genre of the long-form mini-series has never been better, it remains undeniable that the overall effect of the boob-tube on our culture is a negative one. Peter’s call to “Watch more TV” might be a useful provocation for conservative intellectuals, but it can’t be a seriously offered recommendation for the masses. Right?
Libertarians, and libertarian-leaning conservatives (like Friedersdorf), don’t need to worry so much about pop culture, and how it should “matter” or not. The market decides what’s popular. What really matters is economics, and the politics behind it. Culture sorts itself out. So such libertarians and conservatives don’t need to worry about the possibility of pop culture being “filth,” as John Derbyshire memorably put it once. That is, they think they don’t.
But anyone whose conservatism embraces social conservatism, such as ours at Postmodern Conservative, cannot avoid that worry. What is more, any perceptive recognition of pop culture’s potential “filthiness,” which we might more precisely call a vice-aiding and civilization-eroding quality, has to go further than the teenage moralist’s tendency to react strongly against lust and greed as utterly beneath her (see Dr. Zhivago chapter 2, section 9) and much further than the curmudgeonly moralist’s tendency to simply dismiss pop culture as “trash,” “filth,” “barbarism,” etc.
That is, perceptive understanding of pop culture has to, at a minimum:
a) see that there are standards and levels of quality in pop culture itself, even in the more debased genres.
b) understand (and thus, perhaps, to even feel and be oneself tempted by) the attraction of any given genre, even at its lower levels.
c) be on the look-out for signs and expressions of humanity, whether these suggest “liberal” or “conservative” remedies, or none at all, at all levels and in all genres.
d) consider the overall trend, the “long march,” of the respective pop culture genre, and of pop culture in general.
What John Derbyshire meant, I think, by saying somewhere around 2003 that “pop culture is filth,” is that we had to admit that the whole kit-and-kaboodle had pretty much arrived at its true soft-porny mode it had always been destined to develop into, and that conservatives had to have the moral spine to keep looking down upon it.
A more honest expression of this, and additionally a more Christian one, would say: so much pop culture is filthy and trashy that you will necessarily expose yourself to a number of temptations if you attempt any perceptive appreciation of it (even of the degree of its moral threat) via a, b, c, d. So it’s better to just to dismiss it outright. Stop worrying about some gangsta rap connoisseur or BREAKING BAD devotee saying you don’t know your p’s and q’s about that which you’re refusing to engage with, and err on the side of protecting your soul.
Now Conor Friedersdorf raised the whole issue by criticizing Mark Steyn, Jay Nordingler, and Mona Charen for seeming to dismiss rap as not really music, or not even musical. (In fairness to them it was one those casual podcasts, and the most cultured of them, Nordlingler, really didn’t get to finish his point.) I’m with Friedersdorf and Judge in thinking that this simply won’t do, particularly since Steyn and Nordingler have established reputations of expertise, respectively, on Broadway shows and classical music.
For one thing, Nordlinger and Steyn are obviously not among those who take monastic, Puritan, or Shaker (’tis a joy to be simple, ‘tis a joy to be free) stances towards drama and music. Nor are they among those interpreting Plato, or virtue-cultivation generally, in a manner that binds themselves to the strictures like those in the Republic and the Laws against art that imitates the low, the vicious, or the anti-philosophic emotional dispositions. So since we rightly expect them to make the conservative case for what the good cultured life, necessarily a non-simple life, looks like, they in particular don’t get a pass to just dismiss whole swathes of pop music.
And of course, if we put our conservative strategy-caps on, it doesn’t help us make converts among the young or the “minority” to have conservative critics like them say curmudgeonly crude things about rap.
That makes sense, right? But a funny thing happened in the thread on Friedersdorf’s piece. He had chided conservatives by saying that “For now, liberals have a near monopoly on the rapping and the mainstream rap criticism too.” But a couple of commentators pointed out that the very rap that rap-critics most extolled, and especially the most lyrically uplifting, political, etc., wasn’t the kind that was particularly popular. Others said that that in itself was a crude characterization of the scene, that what was popular was more of a mixed bag, and that rap had become more stylistically diverse in the last decade.
1) To say anything truly expert and accurate about rap, one would have to listen to a whole lot of it. And to do that, one really must have to some extent surrendered oneself to its overall vibe. (Or have been raised on it.)
2) We could say the same thing about a finer genre, like classical music, or something lower than or as low as rap. The fan of reality TV shows, or to take it to a really preposterous level, the fan/user of pornography might demand the same sort of truly expert and accurate judgment of their “genre” of pop-culture.
3) It is not possible nor healthy to be expert in this way about many different and contrasting areas of culture: that is, our ideal of “becoming cultured” cannot be the man who can at one moment talk about classical the way Jay Nordlinger can, and then the next moment talk about rap with the knowledge Conor Friedersdorf is implicitly calling for.
4) It seems quite possible that when we appreciate the best in rap pop culture, 90% or nearly all of that “best rap” will be not be popular. It is pop culture in that it follows a pop form, but still. We find similar patterns with rock and pop music generally. I am not against the market’s impact on music per se—I haven’t bought that Frankfurt Marxist line—but I certainly won’t deny that in our day particularly, as Laura Jane of Knox Road demonstrates here, a strong case can be made that the pop music most bought, downloaded, and linked to, tends to be remarkably bad. The point here is that pop culture analysis, whether conservative or not, can put itself in the ridiculous position of arguing for pop-culture’s accomplishments, insights, and cultural significance on the basis of artists that aren’t actually popular.
5) Social conservatism in particular has to seriously consider the possibility that little should be said about the moral disposition or artistic worth of a particular pop genre on the basis of its not-very-characteristic artists. And less yet should be said on this basis about the overall cultural impact of the pop genre in question.
So, a broad case against rap as a genre might still be fairly convincing even were we to concede the quality of its best artists and moments.
A broad case against rap would zero in on its a) anger cultivation, b) bad model of manliness, and c) bad model of black identity. Whether such a case was friendly to hip-hop itself—which is the way I would make it, albeit with some criticisms towards the diminishment of melody going back to hip-hop’s funk roots—see my essay How to Think about Disco–, or only grudgingly accepted it as slight improvement over bad-enough disco, it would say that the unhealthy obsession with a, b, and c is what has made the act of rapping largely take-over and define the hip-hop genre. It would further say that is what has made the whole gangsta schtick so dominant within rapping itself. It would also note that the ongoing potency of that unhealthy set of obsessions has much to do with why rap has remained the main black youth-culture music for nearly thirty years now, whereas, for example, a genre like classic soul only had about a five-to-twelve year run.
You can tell I pretty much buy that broad case. And on that basis I can say to the likes of Derbyshire and sincere church-folk, “yeah, don’t bother with it—it is usually morally harmful, and thus your basic instinct is correct,” and to the likes of Steyn and Nordlinger, “please don’t say sweeping things about its lack of musicality unless you’ve really got the case to back this, but yes, it’s probably best if you just ignore it—so don’t try to become the rap-appreciating critic Friedersdorf is calling for, and if someone asks you about it, tell them you wouldn’t have put so much effort into your line of music criticism if you had thought rap was worthwhile.”
BTW: if one really does want to find moderate-to-conservative critical considerations of hip-hop, a good option would be exploring Booker Rising and especially its blog-roll. There is a site there called Hip-hop Republican that is interesting…where one of the more recent stories is titled “Gangsta Rappers Are Not Role Models.” And it shouldn’t surprise my regular readers to learn that I think Martha Bayles said most of what was needed to in her 1994 Hole in Our Soul anyhow. A report on her take next time.