I simply couldn't make it through the new Eminem video--you know the one where he waxes humorously about sex with Sarah Palin. Part of it is the fact that, skills aside, Eminem is a bully. Rap beefs are played, no doubt, but no one has picked weaker opponents than Eminem. Here is guy who feuded with Britney Spears and Christina Aguliera. Kim Kardashian? Come on killer, at least lick a few hot ones at Ray J.
But there's also a bigger issue that's been plaguing me about hip-hop. The music has always caught its share of criticism for misogyny/sexism. But I actually think that doesn't quite get at the problem. When you listen to hip-hop, even much of the golden-age stuff, you get the feeling that for all the pimp talk, for all the "I'm a player" posing, you get the feeling that you're listening to a group of dudes who don't know much about women, and--worse--don't know much about themselves.
One of the reasons I've always had a semi-beef with "One More Chance" (I say semi, because I will dance if it's played at a party) is because it's basically a battle rap, in which women are the objects. There's this weird dissonance--you've got this laid-back track, perfect for setting the mood (cool, cool), you've got Big playing the Lothario role (tell em how you do it, Big), but then you listen to the lyrics and you realize that what you're hearing is not a dude spitting game at a honey, but a dude talking to another dude.
Hip-hop, it seems, is music for dudes--even when it's not. There's a lot of hip-hop that communicates being into girls, because it impresses your friends, but not as much that communicates being into girls because, uhm, you're heterosexual. I think that's because the expression of want, the communication of deeply felt need, implies vulnerability. It implies the possibility of failure, of disappointment. Hip-Hop is at its best when it gives in to that vulnerability, but that's never been the norm.
This isn't about not being sexist, or being respectful, or gentlemanly, or even nice--it's about being in touch with yourself. (That phrasing is unfortunate, but perhaps too true.) I first got this while thinking on my favorite TV On The Radio joints--"Wolf Like Me," "Lover's Day," "Poppy" etc. Music aside, "Wolf Like Me" and "Lover's Day" perfectly describe the filthy, impolite thoughts that flood men daily, and simply overrun them when they see that girl:
Charge me your day rate,
I'll turn you round in kind.
When the moon is round and fool,
Gonna teach you tricks that'll blow your mongrel mind
Oh but the longing is terrible,
Once a heart under attack
I want to love you, all the way off,
I wanna to break your back.
It feels pornographic to even write this, but that "I wanna break your back" line is so key. It really describes how it really feels--not polite, not debonair, not chivalrous--but incredibly visceral, and borderline violent. Moreover, the "want" is so important, as it describes desire, not ability. In a rapper's hands that line would be "I'm going to break you back."
It's true hip-hop has a problem respecting women, but this is a symptom of deeper truth--the music doesn't respect men. It doesn't respect that essentially male moment, when standing at the bus stop, when sitting in English class, when in that sales meeting, a dime-piece floats past, and cognition stops. It doesn't respect the exhilarating terror of being attracted to a woman. To cop to that violates the pimp ethos. One can't be out of control, and be the player president.
There are, obviously, exceptions--Outkast being the most significant. There's also the obvious caveat that hip-hop's audience has always been young boys. But I've felt this way since I was 13 puzzling over "A Bitch Is A Bitch." The music very much described the mask I adopted to walk the streets. But it never described how felt about females, or even the mask I adopted to try to talk to them. Maybe that was the problem. But somehow, I doubt it.
We talked last week about bigotry as heaping your insecurities on to someone else. That's what hip-hop's women issues ultimately come down. Instead of making art from that honest place of admitting your vulnerability rappers, like a lot of dude's, run from it. It's a shame. We could use more Outkast.