Wednesday, July 18, 2012

It Takes a Nation of Indifference to Hold Us Back

Like Austin Cooper, I was 9 years old when I first heard Public Enemy.   I too was a bit of a hip-hop novice at the time.  The first “rap” (as we used to call it back in the day) song that mattered to me had come out two years previous, Run DMC’s cover of the “Ghostbusters” theme, but I largely ignored the genre after its gangsta phase became polarizing to my white suburban reflexes.    

Still, during this timeframe, I was able to conceive of an era three years before I was born.  It did seem distant, but the music of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Aerosmith, and later oddball eggheads like PIL, Throbbing Gristle, Brian Eno, and Joy Division often spoke to me in a language that seemed more palpably vibrant and understanding of the complexity of teenage disconnection than the angsty grunge and virulently macho gangsta of the time.

Though it was the merger of metal (which I loved) and hip-hop (with which I was only familiar) that brought me to that same collaboration track that Austin Cooper used as curated background noise for his Tony Hawke sessions (see above), it was the wailing atonal sirens of “Lost at Birth”, the righteous indignation and dread-filled creeping stagger  of “By the Time I Get to Arizona”,  and the both poetic and psychedelic mixture of news clips, chaotic dialogue, and black music history sound samples  that made Apocalypse 91 a game-changing event for me.   It was an album that sounded like a Riot Goin’ On, like the walls caving in.   It wasn’t music that clicked, but music that sounded like something was wrong, like the comfortable suburban world I had been raised in wasn’t the only one out there. 

When NPR threw Cooper out in front of the bus to publish a “them kids” review of Public Enemy and Cooper came back with a middling “not feeling it” determination, the internet predictably responded with disgust and vitriol.  I’m not here to join the stampede against poor Cooper, who is obviously in way over his head.  He’s obviously a victim of NPR’s pursuit to drive high traffic towards low-level content.   I do think however that it is important to respond to this retort in The Guardian by Alex Macpherson.

Macpherson’s argument is that Cooper is defying the albatross of the “canon” by his gleeful ignorance of it and we should all applaud anyone who has the ability to navigate the wild turf of the internether without the imparted judgment of received wisdom.  If this was the whole story, I’d certainly be on board.   No canon should be writ in stone and it’s important to issue punctual swipes at illegitimate authority when it rears its head from a high above altar. 

The problem is that Cooper’s article doesn’t follow this model at all.  Chuck D’s cited denunciation of the canon (“Elvis was a hero to most/ But he never meant shit to me”) carried with it the context of the history that followed, which allowed Elvis to prosper and the black artists he coopted to flounder or die penniless (“Straight up racist that sucka was”).  These same grounds for critique are open to Public Enemy as well, be it in their condoning of Terminator X’s anti-semitism, their homophobic branding of their militant noise in contrast to hip-house, or their fumbling perspective on the place of women in “the movement”.    Macpherson makes reference to this, but fails to see how simply sharing the viewpoint of someone who doesn’t like the same band isn’t the same thing as challenging popular perceptions.

Public Enemy themselves – angry, political, serious, masculine – have, as one of the token few hip-hop acts permitted within the rock canon, been used as a stick with which to beat the rest of the genre: the lyrics are too ignorant, the beats are too danceable, the hooks are too catchy and so on”, Macpherson says, which is a fine point, but Cooper adopts none of these vantages.    Instead, he reveals his own prejudices repeatedly, summed up aptly in the line “It's rough, rugged, built like a tank — and I'm coming at it expecting a Bentley.”

Cooper’s criticisms of the album- harsh, non-melodic, drill sergantish- are exactly what many found enthralling about the album when it emerged, but there’s no curiosity as to why these could be positive attributes.  Instead, they’re seen more as buzzkills, polar contrasts to the silky smooth “Bentley” hip-hop he has found in Drake, Hudson Mohawke, 808s-era Kanye, and Clams Casino.  His admission that the music goes against the grain of his listening habits is proof that this is not just about recontextualizing once challenging music whose edge has worn.  Macpherson hints at the crux of the problem though, perhaps unknowingly, in his own article:

Underlying the primacy of the canon is perhaps the most damaging, insidious assumption of all: the belief that an objective response to art is possible in the first place. It's a belief that stifles honesty: witness the widespread dismissal of Cooper as a troll rather than engaging with his piece as a reflection of how he actually responded to Public Enemy. And witness how many of the more paternalistic responses, such as Questlove's, emphasised the necessity of gaining "objective" knowledge about the context of the album – as though this has anything to do with the kind of music one is naturally drawn to” (emphasis mine).  

Leaving aside the assumption that anyone defending any single aspect of the canon is, by proxy or synecdoche, a loyalist for the entire old guard, Macpherson undermines his entire argument with the last sentence’s hypocritical essentialism.  It’s exactly this that was at the center of the response to the previous NPR intern controversy and which echoes in Cooper’s article; the notion that the self, as a superior model of rationale and logic, is the ultimate yardstick of a music’s value and/or worth.  Yes, surrendering completely from subjectivity is impossible, but to assume that one’s tastes alone, informed as they are the prevailing surround sound of circumscribing hegemony, is the only rubric needed to properly examine cultural artifacts is to surrender to those very forces of control that induce and perpetuate canons.   What makes criticism itself so valuable is that it forces examiners to look beyond the self, to engage with new or unknown energies to see if they can enhance, compliment, redirect, or overturn established and stagnant paths.    Cooper’s ultimate takeaway is “gee, music sure has changed”, which you don’t need an essay or an intern to figure out.   More interesting would have been an article on how and why music got better.

The NPR article is not proof that today’s kids are rejecting their parents’ music.  It’s evidence that they’re rejecting everything that’s outside of their iPod.   If it’s not on my timeline (3 years before I was even born!), it’s irrelevant to me.  Perceptions need not shifted routinely for the hell of it.  While relativism can raise interesting challenges to illegitimate authority, it can also kowtow to the fickle whims of marketization.  Furthermore, sometimes it’s imperative to have unique cultural signifiers (yes, commodity fetishes) that we can all understand or unite behind, particularly ones that give pause to our current station or which enlighten our understanding of bygone past.  Criticism- valid criticism/useful criticism- is not a soliloquy.  It’s a dialogue.  And ignoring the conversation altogether to focus on your personal feelings, particularly with the vast archive or music history and theory ever at your fingertips, is not criticism and it’s not challenging anything.