Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Profanity and the Big Theater

I've been fascinated for a long time with the similarities between hip hop and country music*.  Both are literally the only two major genres of modern music where you will hear people singing about the completely mundane aspects of ethnicity.  Both country singers and rappers will talk about types of cars, food, women, partying, etc.  The worlds they inhabit are explicitly ethnic, and the music is in many ways an all-inclusive soundtrack to a lifestyle. 

Unlike other forms such as R&B, rock, jazz, pop, classical, etc., when listening to a rap or country song, the experience is not just a feeling or vibe, or even some pensive poetic consideration.  You are actually transported to some abstract yet seemingly geographic location, populated with streets, buildings, people performing routine activities, as well as accurate descriptions of the performer or people they know, down to the jobs they hold and the clothes they wear.  Although in country you're going to find more horses and beer.  In hip hop definitely more subways and cocaine. 

(The only other music I can think of that might involve such ethnic provincialism would be ranchera or tejano.  Although I'm not familiar enough with the lyrical traditions of either to make a fair assessment, both have a similar sort of strongly ethnic flavor.  Yet still, although a strong current of ethnic identity runs through these Mexican-American forms, I'm not sure they ever reach the pure profanity of describing a particular brand of vehicle or dinner recipe.)

One wonders whether there is some level of group defensiveness, or solidarity at root.  Both rap and country have long represented blue collar, often disenfranchised communities.  To the extent that a cultural mythology transcends the pathos of life by highlighting the individual's connection to a larger and more meaningful narrative, this profanity can be seen as a source of strength in the face of socio-economic pressures. 

For the black community rap has provided a mythology for so many struggles, not the least of which is simply maintaining black ethnic identity in a larger society hostile to its existence.  But as issues of racism, poverty, crime, imprisonment, family dysfunction play out through the music, the added ethnic detail serves to strengthen this purpose as a sort of cleansing and liberating art-form.

Yet for rural whites, country music wouldn't need to overcome the same sort of minority tension or socioeconomic dysfunction.  After all, the white, christian, traditional ethnicity would in most cases be the dominant ethnic form.  So what then would the reason be for inserting such ethnic specificity into the lyrics? 

One reason might be the strong theme of blue-collar living.  By telling such detailed stories over and over of the trials and tribulations - and yet often the bittersweet joys - of underclass life, seemingly insignificant lives can be redeemed; again, the theme of transcendence.  Another reason might be the seeming encroachment of "modern" life into traditional rural norms.  This would be somewhat of a backlash against the cultural elites with their gender reversing, multiculturalism, and general subverting of dominant paradigms.  As Obama might say, a "clinging" to their cowboy hats and pick up trucks.

Yet just as with rap music, there is a danger here in ethnic identity becoming a false image of itself.  Just as not all young black men are not hustlers, all young rural men are not... "rustlers".  While there is an element of propaganda in all mythology by definition, much is lost when the rich cultural forms of ethnicity become well-polished caricatures.  Instead of just being, the ethnicity becomes something to be, and an inherent authoritarianism sets in. 

In the modern age, commodification isn't far off.  What was once a genuine cultural artifact arising organically out of social intermingling, becomes a list of categorical memes easily checked off a spreadsheet.  When this is then fed back into the social network, a feedback loop is created in which ethnicity has become pre-manufactured and hollow.  What was once transcendent has lost all buoyancy and is not up to the task of meaningful spiritual renewal.

Yet humans are wily, and always find a way to evolve.  Culture is a fundamentally relative and post-modern process.  Memes will peel away, fold back on themselves, and be reabsorbed into something that is altogether similar yet different than what came before.  We seem now to be entering an era where the old static tapestries can't be put up fast enough before they are already being taken down, plastered over, or penciled-in. 

Modern communications are making it more and more difficult for the old balkanizations to occur.  Those that already exist only remain as vestiges of past incarnations that were decades and centuries in the making.  But it is hard to imagine current forms taking root with the permanence they ever had before.

There is something utopian in this vision.  There is something self-satisfied and present-centric about this view, the "new new".  But fiber optics have truly revolutionized the ways in which we experience each other, whether that be our friend, family member, store clerk, politician or global citizen.  Our lives will still be as profane.  We will still require transcendence.  Yet it will have to come in new forms, not because the old forms do not exist, but because they are no longer as isolated and self-evident. 

The movie of our lives - to continue the modern metaphor - is less and less being seen in a single darkened movie theater, but in a vast multiplex of many vibrant screens, each bleeding out into our projection.  The difficulty will come not in determining what is real - because little of it ever was.  But in what is meaningful to us.  Where are we up there on that screen?   And if that is us, what does it mean?

*Apparently I'm not the only one to have noticed this.  My wife also recalls experiencing the same insight, roughly at about the same time as I.  Who actually originated the thought has been a longstanding feud between us.  However, as this is my blog, I reserve ownership. 

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