Tuesday, March 10, 2015

An Empire of Noise

One of the most popular programs on broadcast television today is Fox's "Empire," a prime-time drama about a hip-hop entertainment business, which has been gaining viewers every week for seven weeks, a surge in viewership that hasn't happened for a series since 1991, according to the Washington Post.
This is indicative, I suppose, of how hip-hop has ruined my civilization as its popularity - like "Empire"'s - has grown and grown with no signs of cresting.  Before hip-hop, it was understood that a sound had to have a melody, or at least be generated by instruments, to be called music.  Before hip-hop, no poet, not even Allen Ginsberg, ever wrote lines that were nothing but graphic obscenities (though Ginsberg occasionally came close, enough to convince George Will that he was a fraud).  Before hip-hop, you didn't hear rap-dance records on the piped-in music system in the supermarket (though you did hear a Muzak version of - I am not making this up! - Jethro Tull's "Living In the Past").  And before hip-hop, no news anchor or commentator ever interviewed an "artist" who called himself "T Dubb-O" (a St. Louis rapper/activist whose birth name is Antoine White).  Also, before hip-hop, there were no art exhibits in which pictures made of chicken bones were displayed among live body-painted models while "poets" read their "verse" in threatening vocal tones.  I had the misfortune of going to such an exhibit out of curiosity this time last year (March 2014), and the only reason I stayed for as long as I did - about 45 minutes - was because I was trying to keep an open mind (the young woman with the skeleton body paint who was the exhibit's official greeter more or less helped close it), and because I wanted to get my money's worth (twenty-five bucks to get in). 
And, before hip-hop, rock and roll ruled the earth.  Even in the disco age, when traditional rock and roll got relegated to the background somewhat, it wasn't hard to find a decent rock station on the radio, which allowed you to avoid and ignore dance music altogether.  No more, as I've noted in the not-too-distant past.  Rock and roll is so much out of style, that, while there is a country equivalent to "Empire" on ABC  - "Nashville" - there's no prime-time drama about a rock impresario and his business . . . and unless Matthew Weiner follows up "Mad Men" with a basic-cable seventies period drama about a rock tycoon based on Robert Stigwood or David Geffen, we're not likely to see one.  The only TV drama about rock in recent memory set in the present day was CBS's 2005-06 show mid-season replacement show "Love Monkey," featuring former "Ed" star Tom  Cavanagh as a rock journalist in New York looking for love in the big city.  It lasted three episodes.  Pity . . . I liked it.
I don't like what hip-hop is doing to the culture of These States, debasing and devaluing it.  Nor do I tolerate any exhortations to get with the program and understand the meaning, value, importance, and relevance of hip-hop.  One friend said it would "behoove" me to appreciate the business prowess of Shawn Carter (BeyoncĂ©'s husband).  I appreciate that his soundtrack for the latest film version of The Great Gatsby ruined the movie for me; isn't that enough?
Although hip-hop is endemic globally, it is still, at heart, a product of the United States, thanks to budget cuts in arts appreciation programs in the schools and disinvestment in our urban areas.  This unavoidable fact only serves to remind me that, due to its lack of history in comparison to European nations, America is too easily suckered into prizing any artistic medium deemed "new" and "fresh" at the expense of tradition and standards.  That said, it doesn't impress me that hip-hop is popular abroad and that non-Americans - even Canadians - are recording it, with their work being defended by critics as "poetic lyricism," as if they were folk-rock singer-songwriters.  Look, I never knew Nick Drake.  I never saw Nick Drake perform.  Nick Drake wasn't a friend of mine.  But I'm here to tell you . . . Drake is no Nick Drake.   

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