Sunday, October 07, 2007

I ran across a discussion question on a classical music forum asking whether anyone passing though also really liked rap and hip-hop. From the wording it was clear that the person posing the question found such a thing unlikely and had no use for the stuff. I felt the urge to respond, and wrote what follows.

In the fifties rock and roll's ability to infuriate the elders was most of its appeal! Hip hop similarly knows whom it offends and is comfortable with that.

I can imagine hip hop that I can really enjoy - and there are rare instances in which a hip hop record's appeal makes it past my disinclination to the style, owing to the personality of the speaker or the potency of the message, or sometimes just the happy collage of sampled elements. Sometimes a real generosity of spirit emerges, sometimes a trenchant wit, or an obviously keen ear for sound or rhythm.

But most of the hip hop I hear is from a world I don't want to be in, a form of expression made of elements I avoid intuitively: boasting, threatening, brute force, gender tyranny. (I don't doubt they are integral to the artist's realm, as much as daffodils were in Wordsworth's.) Rapping came up as a competitive expression in a proscribed social order where I would not last a week. In this world, just as in that of the concert hall, stardom is subject to irrational and unfair accidents of weather and circumstance; musical distinction is but a tangential factor. (When I'm driving to a gig with bandmates and De La Soul comes up in the shuffle, the discomfort of my passengers is louder than even their disdain. I usually have to skip to the next track, out of pity.)

From my vantage point I sense that we are lucky there is any commercial music at all that we can really embrace. (If I saw an ad for it I'm bound to resist it.)

We like to think we have feelings and thoughts but I keep finding evidence that our thoughts and feelings have us! In high school I hated to hear the music bullies listened to ("Skynard!"), and the guys who wolf whistled my sister. If you think our musical tastes are primarily aesthetic I would suggest you're hiding from yourself.

Imagine what resentments the choral Ode To Joy might bring up in a kid from a tough neighborhood. What pictures do you think it conjures? Might it not evoke an authoritarian order bent on his oppression? Or at the very least a world in which he has no place and nothing to offer?

If I'd known before becoming a musician how rarely popular success results from a high level of musicality I would have skipped the trying-to-make-it phase entirely. The artist that succeeds in capturing the imagination of the public does so largely on the basis of emotional theater of some kind, not so much by concentrating on musicality. Emotional theater gives the non-musician a way to identify with the performance. A favorite singer, especially, lives for a fan more as an animus or an avatar than as a creator of expressive works. People bond with their ideas of the artists they follow, and the relationship is necessarily without much basis in reality. Verdad, it is so rarely about the music itself.

Please forgive my rambling! Thank God I ran out of words.