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.


Comments:
If you were a woman or gay, you'd most likely have a different attitude towards this 'posturing.' Women don't find it amusing that they are expected to enjoy being "reduce[d] to quivering prisoners of desire." Gay people don't find it amusing to be ... um dead or at least assulated, which is what the aggressive 'posturing' of rap leads to in everyday life. I'm opposed to the French law, but let's not pretend these lyrics are just verbal games. They're not. Put yourself in the place of those who are the targets. (And no feeling like your dick is smaller than Jay Z's is not the same thing.)
 
If someone steps on your foot, obviously it hurts the same whether they did so accidentally or on purpose. But do you judge them simply on the pain you feel, or on the intent behind their action?

Also, how do you know what I'd think if I were a woman or a homosexual? Are you suggesting, anonymous, that all women and homosexuals think alike? That seems awfully like stereotyping to me...
 
So your point is that, when a rapper calls every woman without exception a 'ho,' he doesn't really mean it, so women should congratulate him on his bold 'posturing' even though black women do get treated as as if they're nothing but 'hos' every day? And Shaggy doesn't really want gays killed, so when gays do get beaten to death they should be happy that Shaggy was only kidding? Please. Also regarding stereotypes, see my use of the work "likely."
 
The problem here, anonymous, is that we're at complete cross-purposes. I'm trying to understand what fuels a cultural dynamic -- why rap is so full of potentially offensive language -- while you seem interested only in castigating rappers for crimes real and imagined. Arguing with you about it seems pointless, because you seem only interested in telling me that I'm wrong. OK, you told me. Paste a gold star on your forehead.

I would, btw, be very interested in news of rappers who apply the term "ho" to "every woman without exception" -- nuns, grandmas, toddlers, whatever. I would also point out that the word "ho" appears at no point in my original post. Likewise, at no point does the post mention gay-baiting in dancehall, and as such your suggestion that I would in any way excuse the murder of homosexuals is both unwarranted and repellent. If you want to object to what I've actually written, fine. But don't put words in my mouth and then scold me for them.
 
Ok, you've made your point -- this is your blog and you prefer to ridicule than to engage in discusssion. Sorry about taking the "comment" thing literally. Goodbye and good luck with your monologue.
 
Dale, Bushwick Bill once said he regards every woman as a Ho except his mother.
 
Well, that's not quite "without exception," but pretty close!
 
I too am opposed to the French law, but music writers are way too indulgent about rappers' misogyny. Shouldn't it at least be discouraged or remarked upon rather than simply accepted as a matter of course?
 
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