When Conservatives Try to Talk About Rap

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A case study in the right sabotaging its own cultural criticism, starring National Review contributors

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Every so often, conservatives lament that the music, books, movies, television shows, and video games that shape social norms in the U.S. are overwhelmingly produced by cultural liberals. How to swell the number of creative workers who happen to be conservatives? No one knows or tries, so it never happens. When prominent conservatives like Andrew Breitbart avow that culture matters more than politics, what they end up producing and publishing isn't original cultural material -- it's derivative political criticism of the cultural products that liberals make. 

Criticism can be a powerful tool. Its importance is magnified when it's the primary way that you're trying to influence mainstream culture. As Kurt Schlichter argues in a Breitbart.com post urging his co-ideologues to watch Girls, "Conservatives need to be a part of big cultural events if they want to be a part of culture at large." Ironically, his tone and style guarantee that he'll be dismissed by the vast majority of non-conservatives. That needlessly abrasive approach plagues conservative cultural critics.

Everyone knows the stereotype pinned on them: They're cast as grumpy, close-minded reactionaries -- sometimes unfairly, but as often because they're guilty of those sins. If you're seeking intelligent criticism from a conservative author, Mark Steyn (a brilliant man who plays a buffoon on talk radio) has a personal archive that would be the envy of most writers. Here he is in The New Criterion, conveying the particular ways he thinks that Oscar Hammerstein is underrated. One needn't even know any Hammerstein to appreciate his skillful, nuanced argument.

Compare that treatment to the conversation on a recent podcast that featured Steyn along with Jay Nordlinger and Mona Charen of National Review. The subject of rap music is introduced. It's mainstream, Steyn says, noting that it's now popular even among white suburban kids:

MARK STEYN: I do have a big problem with that, in that I think there's an absence of human feeling in these songs. It's not just that they're explicit. When you talk to social conservatives, they get upset because there's all these bad words in there. It's beyond that, actually.

It's not just that there's this word or that word.

But it's the absence of human feeling.

JAY NORDLINGER: Of melody, of harmony? Of the fundamental elements of music except for (inaudible)

MARK STEYN: Well, you say fundamental. "The fundamental things apply as time goes by," as Dooley Wilson sang in Casablanca. And I used to think that in the end, everybody aspired to the condition of romantic love as expressed in "As Time Goes By." You know, or "The Way You Look Tonight" or "The Very Thought of You." And I'm a bit concerned these days that the fundamental things are not going to apply as time goes by. And that when 14-, 15-, 16-year-old girls, when they're listening to Ke$ha, listening to, there's a song I was listening to called "Sex Room." You can guess what it's about. And actually it's very difficult, in New York or California, it's murder trying to get a zoning permit to put a sex room in your house.

So it's also a big-government issue. It's a regulation issue.

MONA CHAREN: I'm sure they'll be subsidized soon.

MARK STEYN: And I was thinking, what is it like when that's the song you dance to at your first dance? And I'm not sure the fundamental things will apply as time goes by.

JAY NORDLINGER: If I could say two things, rap has been all downhill since Sir Mix-a-Lot and "Baby Got Back"... 

(Other topics briefly discussed.)
MARK STEYN: ... To go back to rap, the idea that rap is the authentic expression of black identity, which is what a lot of these people -- the idea that Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald ... the idea that any of these authentic black musicians would've thought that some guy doing some pneumatic laundry list of his hos is any kind of authentic expression of black culture or black identity is outrageous. Those guys wouldn't have been on board for that.

There isn't anything wrong with lamenting the effect songs like "Sex Room" might have on teens hearing it at their first dance. But how absurd to reduce rap to Ludacris and Sir Mix-a-Lot. And how impossibly, comically uninformed to assert that the entire genre is bereft of "human feeling." Did the right learn nothing from its panicked, reductive reaction to Elvis Presley and the Beatles?

Nearly every semi-young person today has a passing familiarity with hip-hop. 

Conservatives who talk that way don't just forfeit the chance to influence the social norms surrounding the genre. They reinforce the perception that their views are shaped by little more than cartoonish stereotypes. One needn't dig deep into obscure rap albums to find "human feeling." Multi-platinum singles will do. Try "December 4th" by Jay-Z or "Stan" by Eminem. All across America, kids are listening to rap lyrics that resonate with them more than anything else in their lives, capturing the way they feel about their absent father or the bliss of a long afternoon spent in the park with friends or how parenthood changed their perspective or the effect incarceration has on their community, or just about any other emotional situation people encounter. What do they think when a man capable of meticulously analyzing Hammerstein expends so little effort grappling with the genre that he doesn't even grant that it has human feeling?  

This lack of effort matters.

If you're worried about what the high-school freshman will sway to at her first dance, suggesting "As Time Goes By" won't get you very far. Acquiring the minimal sophistication necessary to distinguish "It Ain't No Fun" from "The Light" might, on the other hand, prove helpful.

Lazy, uninformed criticism has a way of spreading. After the podcast, Mona Charen posted about it at National Review Online:

The great Mark Steyn discussed rap "music" (a symbol of the decline of the West if ever there was one).

Said her colleague, Jason Lee Steorts, in retort:

Mona, I don't know rap well, but I have heard harmonic progressions in it that are more complex than the arrangements of root-position I, II, IV, V, and VI on which so many pop and rock songs are built -- not to mention raps that involve choruses, duets between the rapper and a singer, etc. I think resistance to calling it "music" is based mainly on the fact that rappers speak rather than sing; but we call Peter and the Wolf "music" despite its narrator, Wozzeck and Moses und Aron "music" despite their Sprechstimme, and so on.

The conversation ended there. So at best, the notion that rap does in fact qualify as music won the day. Suffice it to say that the cultural observers at conservatism's flagship magazine have a ways to go before their rap criticism is sophisticated enough to astutely interpret and even influence the genre*. For now, liberals have a near monopoly on the rapping and the mainstream rap criticism too.

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*Hint: Perhaps the crack epidemic, the unwed-teen birthrate, the dissolution of families, the epidemic crime, AIDS, and all sorts of other ills besides are better symbols of decline in the west than the subset of rap music that depicts those realities.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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