Sunday, May 07, 2006

Rockist Cant

Two (opposing?) takes on some of the issues raised in my last post. First, Eppy's very interesting recent post on novelty in pop. He argues that "novelty models and creates pop" and then discusses the ways in which the new Ghostface Killah song, "Whip You With a Strap", exemplifies this:
That Ghostface is able to do this so successfully and so easily for something that's not even going to be a single (probably) points toward an explanation for why hip-hop has the amazing cultural energy it does right now: it's the best right not at turning novelty into pop. [...] Hip-hop's more partisan historians are careful to present its origins as rooted in social injustice and subcultural eruptions and all like that, but then there's the new LL Cool J song, which somehow manages to do the "sound like how the band makes you feel, not like the band itself" thing despite actually sampling Afrika Bambaataa; perhaps this is because it does duplicate the feeling of Bambaataa while actually sounding sorta like "Funky Cold Medina." And if this all doesn't sound like novelty to you...

All genres that take temporary posession of pop begin as novelty; it's just been to hip-hop's advantage that it depends on novelty for its continued existence, with samples and voices as fuel for that particular fire, and now that it's gotten so professional about its sounds, ironically enough it can actually assimilate things much more easily.
Then, trolling the music blogs while trying to find archived M.I.A.-related posts, I found this March post from Dave Morris' blog, Slap Dee Barnes, about the Wu-Tang Clan and the state of hip-hop, with a couple of lines in bold for emphasis: the Raekwon show at the Royal York last week, I got to thinking about hip-hop and pop, and the way hip-hop can be great pop, and more importantly, how it can be lousy pop too. The evening consisted of a bunch of Star Search-style contest winners, followed by some mid-level CanCon acts, followed by the Wu doing tha hitzzz. So in theory if I find the Wu more satisfying than any of them, it must be nostalgia right? Maybe. But for whatever reason, [...] when Killah Priest came on and started rapping about killing people and dragging bloody corpses through churches, it was a massive jolt to the system, like a cold beer after a long hot day.

Now the Wu is not exactly pop, but it's not *not* pop either. Indie hip-hop is anti-pop, using dissonance and intellectual capital as a big fuck you. [...] But the Wu are neither; their big solo albums went platinum, but they weren't pop rap in any sense, certainly not the palpable sense 50 is. (He's just a pop gangsta, as opposed to a gangsta who finds himself on the pop charts.)

What I'm saying is, much as it seems classically to say that hip-hop now isn't as good as it was, it really isn't, if it can't be as smart as the Wu and just as successfully appealing. Young Jeezy is charismatic, but he's not complicated; there's a very palpable sense of what he and his crack rap peers can and can't get away with. Rhymes about re-upping? Check. Rhymes about bleeding eyeballs and 5-percenter math? Uh uh, no sir. It'll never get on the radio, and he won't do anything that will never get on the radio. Maybe hip-hop will stage an internal revolt; in fact, it's not like it's the end of the world that Jeezy et al are at the top of the game. Jeezy's a charismatic and talented MC, and I don't feel at all like I'm settling by listening to "Go Crazy" and putting it at the top of a playlist. But certain doors have been closed off or are currently closed off in hip-hop's universe, and it's not necessarily rockism to say that it can't be as good as it was, or at least, not in the same way.

I think the whole poptimist thing comes in here. Is there always great stuff out there, as poptimists claim? Sure. I think so. But some of it will seem brilliantly foreign, like the Wu, and some of it will seem brilliantly familiar and entertaining, like Jeezy. History naturally rewards those who initiate style revolts and massive schisms, not those who make exceptional though conventional pop records. (Usually the latter get very rich, but stay largely uncanonized.) Music geeks are almost all de-facto history nerds. Only radical popists stay away from being history nerds, not least because they resist the whole rockist "making a narrative" thing, though even they like to create weird alternate histories. So even if a Jeezy or 50 record is great, it will never seem as important in retrospect as 36 Chambers, and at a show like the Royal York one, I'll always feel cheated by conventional pop acts, no matter how good they are, because frankly I get more excited by style revolts simply because there's more to get excited *about*. Playing around with history and where the Wu fits, and who they were drawing on, and who they were about to influence, and what strange and unlikely elements they were drawing together, will always be more interesting than rehabilitating acts who made great, highly generic pop. It's cool that Neneh Cherry, for example, made interesting pop songs; I needed to eradicate my irrational anti-pop prejudice against early '90s pop rap to enjoy her stuff, and I'm glad I did. But to my ears there's nothing weird about Raw Like Sushi except that I had a prejudice against it, and now that I don't, it's a great bubblegum album. I got over my prejudices against the Wu, and I *still* find them weird and exciting. I think the popist line that someone like Neneh Cherry can be as interesting as the Wu, or more to the point, Bob Dylan, is partly true; they can all make great pop songs. But to my mind, a great pop song is less inherently interesting than a great pop song that sparks a style revolt, that is somehow bigger than being just a great pop song.

Sounds like rockist cant, I know. But the point is, popism won. Now we (okay, I) believe that something produced by Max Martin can still be as strange and unlikely and thorny and worthy of study as a Bob Dylan song. But it still has to be all of those things to be worthy of all this attention, and I think that given the way hip-hop is working right now, Jeezy and 50 aren't making those worthy songs, and they aren't likely to either. They are cranking out great entertainments, which are fun in themselves and pack a dancefloor. And besides, I do believe/hope that hip-hop will once again produce something as odd and wonderful as the Wu. There's just no guarantees of that, and realizing that nobody on the stage at the Royal York could equal what the Wu did isn't just some form of nostalgia, or worse, knee-jerk rockism. It's the way things are.

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