My original question was whether racism was a factor in why people were more outraged by murder in hip-hop songs versus pop or country songs which are more likely considered to be “black humor” or “venting” (like I’ve Got Rights by Hank Williams, Jr.)
My current answer is now “D’uh…of course it’s racism.” (at least some of it). More specifically, I would claim it’s an example of cultural “privilege.” Some musical genres are more socially acceptable than others, so people understand when performers are being “humorous.” Heavy metal and punk were also seen as dangerous (as was Elvis). Sometimes the young people are just yanking our chain.
I also remember objecting strongly to Cop Killer by rapper Ice-T. This was before I saw everything from Rodney King to George Floyd. Now I’m more disturbed by the Hank Williams song. But both are valid expressions of a point of view. Suppressing them only leads to something worse in the future. But really, can we talk?
If you’re over 15 and have been awake in the past decade, you know that many people object to the content of many “rap” (or hip-hong) songs. Most adults who object are concerned about the overt violence, sex and sometimes gender discrimination. It’s a concern that spans the mainstream political spectrum also – Both NPR and Fox News have had stories (many many stories) about this issue.
And I have to agree that in many cases that I do have the same gut reaction to many of these lyrics. I’m really not sure how comfortable I would be with my (hypothetical) teenagers listening to gangsta rap. Yet rap artists have defended themselves by appealing to “satire” in some cases and “lifestyle” in other cases.
For instance Nelson George defended Eminem’s negative portrayal of the gay community as an expression of “the unease a lot of young men have about their sexual identity”. Now, at first glance, it seems like a far stretch…but two recent songs have made me question this assumption.
Recently Carrie Underwood came up with a lovely country western ditty “Before He Cheats” (Second Life Version) about an angry girlfriend smashing the car of her cheating boyfriend. Of course this is nothing in comparison to Maroon 5’s “Wakeup Call” the epic of a man killing the man who’s been sleeping with his girlfriend. Interestingly, Maroon 5’s singer “does not feel so bad” for his dirty deed.
Now here we have to non-rap artists describing second degree murder in one case and destruction of personal property in another (surely not a healthy way to resolve relationship differences).
BUT WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE? My god people, Maroon 5 is talking about murder here. Why aren’t taking Maroon 5 and Carrie Underwood to task for these outrageous lyrics? And so, I now believe that those rap artists who have been complaining about discrimination may actually have a point. For some reason mainstream American is willing to categorize these two songs as “dark humor” while a song like “Cop Killer” will evoke total outrage. What is the reason for this?
I doubt I will have a good answer, but let me speculate anyway.
- One answer could be race, but I think that’s too simplistic. Eminem is white and still targeted by criticism. Similarly, many African Americans like Bill Cosby are as concerned about gangsta rap as others.
- Could it be that people associate violence with the inner city, but not with the country or the suburbs? That could be part of it – although it’s a foolish error on the part of society. I have done my time in rural America, and there’s plenty of crime and violence out there too (including a paid hit). It’s not that far a stretch to imagine a country girl being “inspired” to slash a tire or a suburban boy to kill his rival in love. And remember that Columbine was a crime of the suburbs.
Yet America still tends to think of places beyond the inner city as “safer”. This is, after all, the origin of “white flight” is citizens moving from the city to the suburbs or beyond. So though I don’t think there’s straightforward racial discrimination, I would go for inner city discrimination as part of the paradox.
- Could it just be the sound? Carrie Underwood has a charmingly sassy but melodic delivery for her song, and Maroon 5 is known for being rock, but not “too hard.” The lead singer still manages to croon more than growl.
I have noticed that pleasant or “off-track” musical delivery is a good way to send some seriously twisted messages through an unsuspecting audience. Few people in the 1980s realized that Springstein’s “Born in the USA” was a Vietnam protest song – it sounded too much like a good patriotic rocker!
I don’t think people are deceived by the lyrical content of Maroon 5 or Carrie Underwood, but at heart, they sound so melodic, that maybe we just can’t take it as seriously as say…gangsta rap. In addition, the video of “Wake Up Call” shows the perpetrator dying in the electric chair – there is supposed an ironic message here. Carrie Underwood really describes “innocent” would-be tramps hanging out in bars with perfect detail. You know EXACTLY the kind of girl her boyfriend is sleeping with.
On the other hand, gangsta rap is musically constructed with techno loops and rough, staccato prose delivery. How many times have we heard “that’s not music”? As a generalization, many people who listen to rap do NOT listen to Carrie Underwood and Maroon 5 (and vice-versa).
People who already hate the music will not be more tolerant of the lyrics. So in the end, it may also be about musical discrimination. The mainstream audience may be somewhat “frightened” aurally by rap music because of its menacing style – so adding content about sex and violence just ups the ante. Instead of interpreting lyrics as black humor (or puerile humor), the lyrics are interpreted as a 100% serious manifesto on death and destruction.
Which brings us back to the original question? Are any rap lyrics society dislike really “satire”? Actually….yes in some cases. I remember when Two Live Crew came up with the raunchiest lyrics ever (up to that point). But once I listened to the album, I ended up laughing. Did he really expect he would pick up girls with those lines? No, I think he was expressing young horniness in it’s most concentrated form (pee-ew). Plus, they had a great parody of the inane fraternity party song…that I bet was probably really popular at fraternities for a while.
A this point, I have to confess that many of Eminem’s and other rap videos have made me laugh…just like the Maroon 5 video, and I know Eminem does have songs of introspection. I also know Eminem has met would be “innocent” bar tramps, just like Carrie Underwood. Some “misogynist” lyrics are due to dumb girls being stupid (sorry ladies – I’m calling this like I see it).
Gangsta rap does rely on violence, but it also gave us the first inner city barbecue…with joints. It really may be a commentary on their lives. And if you don’t think rappers aren’t satiric, just read the ode to expensive sneakers on Nelly’s Air Force Ones
So, oddly, I do think some of what we’ve been complaining about could actually be genuine satire (or at least some social commentary).
On the other hand, some of Eminem’s lyrics about killing his wife will be VERY difficult to explain to his daughter when she grows up.