Friday, December 24, 2004

Eminem Never to Tour France?

In France, Parliament recently passed legislation that would levy stiff fines and jail terms of up to a year for anyone found guilty of insulting women or homosexuals. According to the Guardian, the new law would put sex-based slander on par with racist and anti-semitic remarks, and would apply to any form of public speech, including print, video or music. And the criteria are fairly broad, including both specific gay-bashing insults as well as remarks “of a more general nature tending to denigrate homosexuals as a whole.”

Oh, dear.

Although the Guardian report linked above focuses mainly on possible complications for religious groups, who may find themselves facing charges for arguing against same-sex marriage, the question which sprang immediately to my mind was: Is this the end of American hip-hop in France? Seriously, if the purpose of the act is to stamp out what one French feminist group described as “verbal violence,” how long could it be before Mr. Mathers — or DMX, or Too $hort, or even the estate of 2Pac — gets served with a complaint over the nature of their rap lyrics?

Over at Sasha Frere-Jones’ blog, Joshua Clover (under the moniker Felizitas) makes a series of propositions about the nature of rap, particularly the genre’s more transgressive traits. A lot of it has to do with parsing the relationship between social content and sonic form, and frankly, Clover/Felizitas is better at asking questions than providing answers (particularly when it comes to just what, exactly, is meant by “sonic form”). But one of the best questions has to do with the nature of hip-hop sexism/misogyny: “Is the use of terms like ‘bitch’ and ‘ho,’ and even dalliances with woman-beating, part of rap 2005's social content, or sonic form? Or sometimes one, sometimes the other?”

In other words, should such wordplay be taken at face-value, and thus reasonably be deemed insulting (and thus, presumably, actionable under the new French law)? Or should it be taken as part and parcel of sounding hard — that is, as the rhetorical equivalent of the beats and samples that also contribute to the music’s aggressive edge?

On one level, this leads fairly obviously to a chicken/egg question of words versus music, and while my understanding is that the backing track usually precedes the rhyme, the rapper isn’t simply reacting to the music — often, some of what gets rapped was written or thought about in advance. Not to mention the notion of personal style, and an overriding aesthetic that can influence both beats and rhymes. But this detour into hip-hop epistemology is mostly a dodge, as it dances around the deeper issue of how power manifests in music, and what we should make of it taking this particular form of sexual discourse.

Make no mistake — the central issue here is power, and how to wield it. Aggressive music is inherently assaultive, forcing itself on the listener through blunt assertion. That was true when Wagner doubled or tripled his brass sections in order to bend the ears of his audience back, and it’s still true today, regardless of whether we’re talking about the gut-rumbling bass of crunk, the eardrum-crushing roar of hardcore, or the speaker-shredding physicality of industrial. But simply seizing the listener’s attention by being too loud to ignore is an act of will without consequence; to make that racket matter it has to stand for something. Which is where the whole notion of social context comes in.

Carl Wilson, in the course of his own discussion of Clover’s propositions, wonders “why Public Enemy was once at the forefront of both sonics and politics, and in the past decade those two haven't coincided.” One answer (not the one he considers) is that he’s limiting his notion of politics, and thus misses the radical social critiques implicit in the thug capitalism of Suge Knight and P-Diddy, or the wealth of racial and class dialectic implicit in Eminem’s identity games. (It’s also possible to conclude that P.E.’s Farrakhan-inflected black nationalism was just as much a fad as the brief boom in Five Percent Nation rap acts such as Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian, and thus more anomaly than launch pad. But we try not to be quite that cynical.)

But — and this is where we cycle back to the French law — the real issue in this display of power is intent. Does the artist actually mean to lord it over others, to use language as a means to denigrate and demean? Personally, I’d say the answer most of the time would be a resounding “no.” When Led Zeppelin appropriated from the blues, they didn’t just borrow, they amplified and transformed, turning blues guitar licks into mighty mega-riffs and stroking aged double-entendres into pointedly tumescent choruses. (Squeeze my lemon, indeed.) And celebrating the glory of volume and the power of the penis is definitely not the same thing as attacking quiet or subjugating women — even if both are open to misinterpretation and abuse.

Hip-hop’s use of “bitch” is much trickier to parse, because while it sometimes is clearly intended as a less-than-complimentary synonym for “woman,” it also frequently carries the jail-yard meaning of “male inferior.” Now, Kate Millett would probably argue that two are part and parcel of the overall repression of women, and fair enough. But if the default position for any rapper is to assume alpha male status, it’s only natural that his rhetoric would seem demean and diminish all others. As Robert Plant taught us, you can’t have a big dick unless there are smaller dicks to compare against. Likewise, you can’t be the ultimate stud unless your mere existence reduces all women to quivering prisoners of desire. Et cetera, et cetera.

Point is, it’s all about posturing. Which, in turn, is about exaggeration. Which, in turn, is about wanting stand out, to make an impression, to be heard and not denied. To force a reaction, even if it’s just an angry shout of “shut up!” It’s a basic need in most, if not all, forms of art, and I don’t imagine even the French could figure out a way to legislate against it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004


Christmas is closing in, and Santa isn’t the only one making a list and checking it twice. Thanks to the magic of the interweb, not only are the magazine stands choked with Best of 2004 lists, but anybody with an ISP account and the ability to count to ten has also typed in their two cents’ worth.

Me, I got nothing against lists. (That they’re are beginning to surpass profiles as the leading form of music journalism is another issue, but we’ll deal with that some other time.) It’s the concept of “the Best of the Year” that bugs me, because I’m never sure how seriously any of the list-makers take the claim. After all, there’s a world of difference between recognizing the merit — indeed, the greatness — of a work and actually liking it.

Surely we all spent at least some time in University reading or otherwise appreciating masterworks that left us dazzled, enlightened, impressed or inspired, but which afforded no pleasure whatsoever. For some, that experience lasted whole semesters. Now, I’m not going to argue that because few people read Paradise Lost for pleasure, it is therefore not great literature. Don’t be daft. But it does suggest a need to consider the difference between Great Art and Greatly Enjoyed Art.

Consider the film Sideways. It is in many ways great cinema — sharply written, beautifully shot, wonderfully acted, vividly imagined. Using the usual criteria of artistic merit, I would have no problem calling it one of the Best Films I saw in 2004. At the same time, I would feel obliged to add that I didn’t much enjoy it. Well made as it was, I found the characters fundamentally unlikable, and as such got relatively little pleasure from watching the film. So even though it would easily make my Best Films list, it wouldn’t even place among my favourites of 2004.

Within the construct of “high art,” likability wouldn’t be an issue, because personal pleasure has never been very high on the list of cultural priorities. Pop culture, on the other hand, is all about pleasure — indeed, its eagerness to scratch that itch is one of the reasons high culture critics (particularly post-Adorno) so utterly disdain it. Obviously, there are many places where the criteria intersect, and we could all list works that mix the sensual and the sublime in ways that are illuminating and exhilarating, deeply resonant and utterly visceral. But just as we accept that there can be greatness without pleasure, we should also be willing to maintain a place for those things we enjoy that have no claim whatsoever to the status of Great Art.

To that end, I propose an end to best-of lists, and their immediate replacement with lists of the writer (or journal’s) favourites for the year. Not guilty pleasures — no cause for shame here — but a proud accounting of what gave the greatest and most consistent pleasure during the year in question. And if a given critic wants to augment their list of pleasures with a donnish nod to the year’s Great Works, fair enough. At least we’ll know that we’re not necessarily expected to enjoy ’em.

(And, yeah, I know: What about my faves for 2004? Patience, gentle reader. The year isn’t over yet.)

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Back in the U.S.A.

Sorry for the lack of content lately, but I was off on a short, pre-holiday visit to the States. Even though it’s only a two-hour drive from to the border, I don’t visit the homeland much (not owning a car may be a factor), and this recent trip was my first since April, when I drove to Baltimore to play a reunion show with my old new wave band.

This visit was also by rental car, and we spent most of the nine-hour drive in Red Voter chunks of New York and Pennsylvania. Not that it was obvious from the road, as the election seems sufficiently long ago that there was little Bush/Cheney signage left. Instead, we saw a diner in New York that advertised both hot dogs and tripe (the latter illustrated by a large, red steaming bowl), and were amused to note a Pennsylvania road sign warning against aggressive drivers that was immediately followed by another sign bearing the silhouette of a horse and buggy.

The most obvious reminder that we were back in the U.S.A. came at the supermarket. Now that I’m used to grocery shopping in Canada, the variety of goods in American supermarkets seems both dazzling and numbing. At the SuperFresh my mother shops, there were at least 60 varieties of canned soup, almost triple what can be found at my neighbourhood Loblaw’s. Such abundance is something I took for granted when living in the States, and while there are some products I can’t get here and miss — navy bean soup, for instance, does not seem to be a Canadian taste — I don’t particularly feel that my life is harder for not having so many items to not buy.

Having the LCBO become more like American liquor stores, on the other hand, would definitely be an improvement.

What most puzzled us, though, were all the yellow ribbon magnets we kept seeing. When did this phenomenon take root? And is Tony Orlando getting a cut?

Seriously, while publicly avowing “We Support Our Troops” is certainly more civil than jeering “Baby Killer!” at returning G.I.s, it’s more than a little disturbing, nonetheless. Proclaiming “I Support the War in Iraq” may be more controversial, but at least it’s honest. The yellow ribbon, on the other hand, seems disingenuous, even if taken as a sort of “love the soldier, hate the war” reaction. For one thing, the Iraq occupation is far from the clean, white-hat operation Donald Rumsfeld would have us imagine. Not only has Abu Ghraib sullied the U.S. forces’ good-guy image, but testimony at Jeremy Hinzman’s asylum hearing in Canada suggests that further atrocities — such as the killing of unarmed civilians — remains unreported and uninvestigated. Do the ribbon-bearers support those troops as well?

Feel-good patriotism is enough of an American tradition that I probably shouldn’t cavil at its current manifestations. Still, it bothers me to see so many Americans respond to the war so insipidly. If you really support U.S. troops, how about asking harder questions about American foreign policy? Or about staffing levels in Iraq? Or about the Pentagon’s refusal to honor contracts with reservists? Or about Bush administration cuts in military pay and benefits?

That’s real support. The rest is just the political equivalent of a Hallmark card.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The Good, the Bad and the Grammys

Because the Academy Awards broadcast was moved up a month, the Grammy show was also given an earlier-than-normal airdate for 2005. That’s why, instead getting our list of hopefuls in the dead of early January, the nominees for the 47th Annual Grammy Awards were announced on Tuesday.

According to the L.A. Times, retailers are pissed because the change of date deprives them of the usual post-New Year’s sales bump — as if the teens hoping to exchange Christmas cash for new CDs have somehow seen the Grammy voters as arbiters of hip. But the Grammy establishment is probably pretty pleased with the change, as for once their short-list arrives at the same time as the usual avalanche of Top 10 lists. No more Johnny Catch-Up for them, nossir.

Most of the news stories followed the numbers, and made much of Kanye West’s 10 nominations, Alicia Keys’ eight, and Loretta Lynn’s five. What almost no one pointed out was that none of the three can possibly that many Grammys. West is competing against himself in both Album of the Year (both as a producer on Keys’ album, and as artist on his own) and Best Rap/Sung Collaboration. Keys’ nods include two each in Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals and Best R&B Song, while Lynn wrestles against herself for Best Country Song (“Miss Being Mrs.” versus “Portland Oregon”).

But the biggest con is that despite a ballot littered with unexpectedly hip names — Cradle of Filth! Modest Mouse! Scissor Sisters! Franz Ferdinand! — the bulk is utterly predictable, tilted as ever to warhorses (Elvis Costello, Prince, U2, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Dolly Parton, Al Green), recent big winners (Keys, Nora Jones, Alison Kraus) and the deceased (Brother Ray). It doesn’t take a genius to figure out which group will end up as wheat, and which as chaff.

As always, it’s tempting to snipe at some of the more ludicrous choices (Queen Latifah is a jazz singer? Not on the album I got), but as it’s always better to be constructive than destructive, I’d prefer to suggest that the Grammy folk merely change the wording in their awards a bit. Instead of Record of the Year, why not Record of a Year? No need to specify which one, either. That way, the next time a recording that’s five or 10 years behind the curve is awarded one of those statuettes, viewers at home can entertain themselves by guessing what year, exactly, it represents. (“Anita Baker?? That’s so 1987!”)

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Weak Ends

The curse of domesticity is spending an entire weekend doing seemingly nothing and having it suddenly become Sunday night without your having accomplished anything. Well, hardly anything. There was rather a lovely meatloaf Saturday...

So in lieu of the deeper thoughts I'd intended to plumb, the gap is being plugged with a few odds and ends. First, in the post about Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs, I mentioned having voted but not being able to find my ballot. Well, I have, and find that I can plead only partially guilty to forming its consensus. Distressingly, neither of my top two songs -- "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," written by Ashford & Simpson but most notably recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, and Leonard Cohen's sublime "Hallelujah" -- placed, but the next seven did make the list (though none at higher than 80). And the tenth tune, Anna McGarrigle's "Heart Like a Wheel," also got ignored. In case anyone wanted to know.

Also, I was chagrined to notice that my link to Jeff Chang's blog, Can't Stop Won't Stop, inexcusably added an "e" to his surname. It's been fixed. Apologies for the name change!

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