If you want to critique culture, you better stay abreast of it, which is why I subject myself monthly to an hour of “Top 20 on 20” on the XM Radio, which plays a loop of the nation’s biggest hits of the moment. It’s an excellent crib sheet to remain aware of what’s selling, and like a good workout, it’s exceedingly painful with occasional rewards.
Before I say anything else, I’d just like to point out that I have rocked as hard as any other middle-class white kid. I moshed to the Clash when I was 15 at William & Mary, I threw toilet paper at Dinosaur Jr. in 1993 and I took ecstasy while watching a Japanese noise band play vacuum cleaners at a warehouse in New Orleans.
I also studied violin for twenty years, piano for twenty-three, and my tastes admittedly run in the high-harmony Brit pop clusters of the Beatles, Squeeze, XTC and the twisted orchestral pop of the Smiths and Cocteau Twins. Yet when I first heard “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash, I made my mom pull the car over so I could take it all in. In short, I feel like I’ve done the fucking work. I still look for those moments of epiphany. I am not some ninny-come-lately who thinks that all new music is crap; I long for decent new music, I breathe in it.
So it is with genuine innocence that I ask: what the blithering motherfuck is going on with current rap artists? No, I don’t mean Outkast or anyone doing something intelligent, I mean shit like “How We Do” by The Game Featuring 50 Cent. The music is terrible; it’s just a terrifically boring sample played over and over to a soulless synth beat, with these two guys talking, basically, about themselves.
This is what I don’t get: I love hip-hop/rap that is funny, is about subject matter like the universality of love, or even giant asses (“Baby Got Back”), political treatises (Public Enemy, The Roots) or something insanely catchy (Andre 3000 and Big Boi, De La Soul). Even if the song lacks all music, I’ll listen to any rapper expound upon anything external, but FUCK! All they’re really good at is yammering about their own solopsistic bullshit. What do today’s teens really see in these songs? Most of these tracks don’t even have a decent beat.
When Rashad McCants, star of our Carolina basketball team, makes a 3-pointer, he usually does the “diamond” symbol of Rockefella records (home to Jay-Z). What is Rashad really saying, that he believes in the ethic of Rockafella? And what does Jay-Z talk about, other than his own navel? I’m at a loss here. I just don’t get what there IS to these songs.
Yes, yes, I sound like an old fart. Too fucking bad. Someone has to ask the question. When our parents hated KISS in 1979, it was because they hated their style, their sentiment, their incredibly silly makeup, and it was just too darn loud. Our parents objected to what these bands were – I am not making the same mistake. I am wondering aloud what “How We Do” actually is, because I can’t see it even when I strain.
The rest of the Top 10 may be trite, but at least they’re trying. Green Day, despite their faux cockney accents and deep derivativeness, have excellent politics, and the songs actually have chords; they are trying to put forth an actual notion. “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” is just Em G D A (like about twelve other pop songs I could name, including, basically, “Wonderwall” by Oasis) but they are attempting something – and, I believe, succeeding.
But the ease with which rap artists can make a releasable track is indicative of how artistically shoddy these things are. There is a new number one song each week, and getting to number one is pathetically easy. It will soon get to the point where every artist will have one song, then disappear. You’ll have someone like Kelis release “Milkshake” and that will be it, every time. Rock and Roll Jeopardy will be insanely hard when covering this decade, unless each question can be answered “Who is Beyoncé?”
I’m all ears. Someone please tell me the appeal of “How We Do” and the like. The answers “you just don’t get it” or “the aural cortex of human beings has changed over the last 15 years” or “go back to listening to Erasure, ya ponce” will not be accepted.