Sunday, April 17, 2016

Rap Reviewed

Scott Alexander writes:

Suppose that rappers start with pre-existing differences from everyone else. Poor, male, non-white minority, lots of experience living in violent places, maybe a certain philosophical outlook towards their condition. Then they get a rallying flag: rap music. They meet one another, like one another. The culture undergoes further development: the lionization of famous rappers, the development of a vocabulary of shared references. They get all of the benefits of being in a tribe like increased trust, social networking, and a sense of pride and identity.

Now suppose some rich white people get into rap. Maybe they get into rap for innocuous reasons: rap is cool, they like the sound of it. Fine. But they don’t share the pre-existing differences, and they can’t be easily assimilated into the tribe. Maybe they develop different conventions, and start saying that instead of being about the struggles of living in severe poverty, rap should be about Founding Fathers. Maybe they start saying the original rappers are bad, and they should stop talking about violence and bitches because that ruins rap’s reputation. Since rich white people tend to be be good at gaining power and influence, maybe their opinions are overrepresented at the Annual Rap Awards, and all of a sudden you can’t win a rap award unless your rap is about the Founding Fathers and doesn’t mention violence (except Founding-Father-related duels).

When someone asked me, circa 1989, what kind of music I liked, my answer would have perhaps jumped around depending on the day, with this exception: I was confident that I hated rap music.

Last weekend, I watched the movie Straight Outta Compton, the N.W.A. biopic. I loved it. The movie's story line was compelling; it was well acted, with great performances by O'Shea Jackson and Jason Mitchell; and its dramatic pacing was almost perfect, even in the director's cut version that I watched on Blu-ray. Even the film's overt #blm political message had, in my view, enough artistic subtlety for someone otherwise hostile to it to come away with his own interpretation of the events it depicts, perhaps in spite of the creator's intent.

But what surprised me was the extent to which I found myself nodding and bouncing my foot to the beat of songs whose lyrics, even now, would never pass my lips.

What happened?

Some possibilities:

  • I hated rap without having listened to it. That's mostly true: I certainly never voluntarily consumed any rap media, nor did I attend venues or events where it was likely to be played, at least at volumes I wouldn't have found off-putting in themselves. But it's not entirely true: I can remember hearing it in passing, and finding it's appeal mostly incomprehensible.

  • The movie's rap music is inauthentic. I have no way of knowing whether the soundtrack's numbers are identical to what was recorded and played in the '80s and '90s, or whether they have been subtlely redone to appeal to a broader audience. But if this were the case, wouldn't we have heard about it?

  • We all have been acculturated to Rap. (Or to "hip-hop"; someone will need to explain if there is a difference.) Steve has pointed out in several posts that Rap is now and has been the domininant pop style for a couple of decades. On the other hand, my personal listening habits, to the extent I listen to pop music, incline me towards the acoustic- and piano-centric covers of Kurt Hugo Schneider and Tiffany Alvord. And I listen to exclusively classical music on my daily commutes. So while it is certainly possible that I became accustomed to the rap style without realizing it, I still think this is unlikely.

  • My perspective has changed. Then: an abstemious Christian NeoCon who read National Review and jogged. Now: an alt-Right neo-tribalist who lifts weights and reads . . . well, you know . . . .

    This isn't about a moral or rational choice. There is a scene in the movie where a couple of guys with pistols come to the band's hotel room looking for a cheating girlfriend; Easy E, Ice Cube, and Dr. Dre respond with AR-15s and a shotgun. So, first of all, not my tribe. Second, extraordinarily illegal and dangerous. But . . . yeah, I kind of get it. And I get it even knowing what the movie at its most enlightened seems to also know: that the kind of life of which N.W.A. purported to give an account, and thereby glorified, was unlikely to lead to positive outcomes for the people actually living it or forced to live next to it. As I discussed with my daughters: The N.W.A. life offered money, sex, and violence. When you're young and male, it's tough to understand how that can be bad." It's weird, but in middle age, I seem to understand that better than I once did.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

The Abortion Stumble

There are a couple of things that I would have expected to come up amongst all the press coverage of Donald Trump's abortion stumble this week:

“I am pro-life,” Trump said. Asked how a ban would actually work, Trump said, “Well, you go back to a position like they had where they would perhaps go to illegal places but we have to ban it,” Trump said.

[Chris]Matthews then pressed Trump on whether he believes there should be punishment for abortion if it were illegal.

“There has to be some form of punishment,” Trump said. “For the woman?” Matthews asked. “Yeah,” Trump said, nodding.

Trump said the punishment would “have to be determined.”

  • When I read this, the first thing I thought of was, "Oh, this is the same mistake George H. W. Bush made in 1988." From the transcript of the second debate against Dukakis:

    [ANN] GROER: [I]f abortions were to become illegal again, do you think that the women who defy the law and have them anyway, as they did before it was okayed by the Supreme Court, and the doctors who perform them should go to jail?

    BUSH: I haven't sorted out the penalties. But I do know, I do know that I oppose abortion.

    I'm not trying to read to much into this response, by the way. As in Trump's case, this was widely and immediately interpreted as favoring punishment for women who obtain elective abortions.* And as in Trump's case, Bush promptly walked it back.

    But here's the thing: I had a pretty strong memory for the details of this episode even before I looked it up, and I fully expected it to be brought up in the context of Trump making the same mistake (or "mistake"; more on this later). Yet despite googling various combinations of "Trump, Bush, 1988, abortion", I discovered not one single article that tied these two events together. That's . . . weird.

  • I have seen several articles that in various ways have tried to hang Trump's retracted statement around the Republican Party. Salon provides an example (Trigger Warning: Amanda Marcotte):

    [T]he official stance that Republicans are supposed to take is that women are victims of abortion and therefore cannot be held responsible for it. Yes, it’s true that women pick up the phone, make the appointment, talk through their decisions with medical professionals, sign paperwork and then either take a pill or let the doctor perform an abortion, but none of this should be taken, in conservative eyes, as evidence that women are the people responsible for the abortion happening. Women are regarded by conservatives as fundamentally incapable of making grown-up decisions. If they choose abortion (and by implication, if they choose sex), it’s because they poor dears were misled.

    Point taken. But . . . this is hardly Exhibit A in the female deprivation of moral agency. For that, we must turn to the war on prostitution, a.k.a. "sex trafficking (H.T.: Trumwill):

    The [Swedish 1999 anti-prostitution] legislation was built on the public consensus that the system of prostitution promotes violence against women by normalizing sexual exploitation. Thus, in a society that aspires to advance women’s equality, it is unacceptable for men to purchase women for sexual exploitation, whether rationalized as a sexual choice or as “sex work.”

    Sweden does not penalize the persons in prostitution but makes resources available to them. Instead it targets and exposes the anonymous perpetrators – the buyers, mostly men, who purchase mainly women and children in prostitution.

    Come to think of it, even statutory rape laws are also premised on one party to the crime claiming "victim" status, so much so that it now apparently customary to drop the "statutory" qualifier altogether when reporting on them. It is somewhat ironic that female teachers have lately had a determined go at defying our stereotypes in this regard, but either way, the law is hardly a stranger to designating certain classes of people as victims without regard to the facts of individual cases.

* I went looking for video of this moment and couldn't find it, but my recollection is that the reason Bush said "I do know" twice in the second sentence of the reply was that the crowd was audibly reacting to the first sentence.