I think I’m even more fascinated by “Learning to Rap” and “Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop” than I was with the section on punk. With the latter—which I’ll get to in a minute, Greif is really trying to deconstruct a genre of music to its essence by means of one band. With the former, I found it much more of a critically personal, almost an analysis of self. What stood out for me is this guiltiness of sorts in regards to his liking and attempts and working out why it didn’t take for him the way punk did, in spite of his awareness that “I was scared by both, and knew that I wasn’t wanted in the world of either one”. And yet he turns to punk wholly, while still fascinated by rap. Is it purely about whiteness and feeling less intrusive in appropriating certain aspects of culture? He knows inherently that to immerse oneself as a white male in rap culture is somehow, if not wrong, unrealistic in a way that isn’t as visible in something like punk, no matter how awkward you might feel. I suppose it’s what we, as teenagers in Wisconsin knew deep down: why it was so funny when my neighbour, Brian—who was a very good white Christian private schoolboy—got in his dad’s battered old Toyota Corolla and drove around town, seated at a ridiculously laid-back angle, one arm resting on the top of the steering wheel with his baseball cap worn askew. Or why Vanilla Ice, for all his popularity, was shunned by anyone who liked the real thing. Spare a thought for the Canadians and Snow, their version, who might have been even more embarrassing—although I think he was more a dancehall hybrid.
Why The Beastie Boys had such legitimate longevity as a rap group probably had something to do with the fact that they rapped technically, but didn’t indulge in seriously pretending they came from a street-life background. They were clowns at first—the whole License to Ill album, then finessed that humour in Paul’s Boutique, probably their best. After that, they seemed to just do what they wanted, and everybody accepted it. They were rap, but they carved out their own particular, and more importantly, authentic, spot within the genre. That’s quite important. But you also had that branching out of straightforward, hardcore street rap into more refined versions: what Grief refers to “hippie rap”—probably more hip-hop anyway—like Arrested Development; witty groups like A Tribe Called Quest, and jazz-global music hybrids like Us3 and Digable Planets. And let’s not forget what RUN-DMC started with Aerosmith on the “Walk This Way” duet: in the 90s we got all those alternative/metal-rap duets. Remember Sonic Youth/Chuck D? Or Anthrax/Public Enemy? No? How about Dinosaur Jr./Del The Funky Homosapien? I’m dating myself badly here. But I will also point out that RZA/The Black Keys and anything by Handsome Boy Modelling School is pretty recent. While cynics may say these are all slides (selling out?) into the white marketability of rap/hip-hop, it was something else as well: (once) outsider genres finding each other and the commonality in musical otherness.
I suppose you can make the argument that rap blew up in such a huge way amongst white teenagers because they were being told about a culture that they didn’t know existed from positions of white privilege: parents in jail, dealing drugs to survive at a young age, knowing you had a high percentage of being killed in your neighbourhood. A lot of the time songs revolved around drugs, gangs, being treated like animals and not people by authority. In the way real punk must have seemed attractive because it was angry and dangerous (at least to their parents), rap showed these kids that it was the ultimate genre for that. And I think while not wishing to take away from the real roots of the music, it’s probably kind of universal that if you come from a safe, privileged background that risk and danger is going to appeal to your suburban ennui.
And while imitation is a form of flattery, there’s no doubt that kids imitating the form were bypassing the message: that these were real stories being told about lives so different to theirs that they just became fictions. Part of why, I think, that you have appropriation of culture—the person appropriating has no clue: this just is not real to them.
How do you address how these things were born, respectfully, while showing your unabashed fandom and having it construed as that only? It’s always going to be contentious, I think. Importantly, I think that’s why the question of using nigger/nigga when you have absolutely no concept of the weight of the words is so relevant. They aren’t being used in a Huckleberry Finn historical, contextual manner—you can’t reference them as such. In rap, they’re used as a direct conversation: How ‘I’, as the rapper, am perceived, how ‘we’, other rappers, refer to each other in the context of ongoing lives. The listener, without direct links to that history or life, can’t possibly utilise them. They are the ultimate in self-identification and ownership of a culture that says you can share in this music, but you’ll never grasp what it is to come from this place. The most you can do is try understand your position in relation to it. Rap schools the listener.
But now to Radiohead. I have to admire Greif trying to tackle this subject. For ‘known’ pop, he chose the most abstract band that suits what he’s trying to argue. As for myself, I’m an indifferent fan: I probably stopped seriously listening at Kid A, and have no idea of the discography. Sometimes J will put on some later Radiohead, and I like it, but in the way I am considering a John Cage sound installation or a particularly abstract concept piece of art at a museum. New Radiohead isn’t like old “Creep”-era Radiohead: they make you work to understand and like them. Maybe that’s a kind of snobbery, but not a lot different to the philosophical bent Greif gives the section: after all, if you were to talk about philosophers, there are always going to be some people to dismiss you right off as a pretentious bastard—why? Because—and this is the only reason I’ve ever been able to come up with—if A is a good enough answer, then saying Z is just a way of showing off excess knowledge. There are certainly enough people who can’t understand what Radiohead were doing after a certain point, and so dismissed them in the same way.
The further I read, the more I thought, old Radiohead=general maths, new Radiohead=symbolic logic. To oversimplify, you use mainly numbers and some alphabetic characters in the former, and at least as far as I got with the latter, that changes to all characters. While I was never great with maths, I found symbolic logic much more to my liking: it felt like a rhythm to me, working out these questions and problems, and less calculation. So when Greif says “Radiohead’s success lay in their ability to represent the feeling of our age . . .” through their new usage of electronica, that made sense. The breakdown of their lyrics aren’t logical in a standard pop way: they aren’t laid plainly out. Instead, you puzzle over them, and again, Greif notes this rhythm/detachment pattern rather than melody/directness: “Radiohead’s music reactivates the moods in which you once noticed you ought to refuse. It can abet an impersonal defiance”.
I do disagree with Greif when he analyses pop generally and says that it is effectively more complex than we think, “Pop is neither a mirror nor a Rorschach blot into which you look and see only yourself . . . it teaches something, but only by stimulating and preserving things that you must have had inaugurated elsewhere”. First, let’s assume that all pop is ‘manufactured’ to a certain extent. That said, I think pop has been become almost exclusively so, at least in what tends to make chart hits. There are models that are reused often in lyrics that differs slightly with pop sub-genres: first love, heartbreak/relationship dissatisfaction, parties, friends. Stimulation of existing knowledge seems quite a stretch. Stimulation as desire? That I believe—these pop formulae are designed to stoke that immediacy which translates to likewise immediate sales. What you have with Radiohead, Bjork, or even Madonna, to use a good example of universal appeal pop, is a thought process. The outcomes are different, but there’s a larger body of experience to draw on which give it a greater complexity. I think with a lot of new acts, you don’t have the experience (yet), and so your pool of knowledge/stimulation of the existing is quite shallow. I don’t mean that in the negative, necessarily, but I do mean that it just isn’t as complex as it is made out to be.
He goes on to say “there’s no logical sense in which pop music is revolutionary”, and yet, it “declares itself to be”. Fair point—but again, beneath the philosophy, I think there’s a huge primal element: music (pop or otherwise) stirs something within us emotionally. Psychologically, if you are in love or having some other sort of large emotional reaction, you tend to see and hear things that remind you of that event. If it happens with one person, it can happen en masse. Pop sometimes is simply at the right place, at the right time. It may not have anything in fact to do with the stimulation of existing knowledge, but you might connect the two permanently because physiologically, your body was at its peak to take in this particular stimulus and associate it with the event. What he does get very right here is that pop prepares you for defiance—perhaps especially when you haven’t yet had an abundance of life experience (In Enrique Vila-Matas’ Never Any End to Paris, he says much the same: although he refers to the Beatles as rock and roll, it was a step towards revolution that gave he and his friends a sense of identity). It’s a catalyst, just not necessarily quite a logical one. But then, I would say the logic of revolution is predicated on a lot of emotion, so really, that falls in line with what he says in the end.
I agree—I think these are the best sections that I’ve read so far. Sadly, reading your analysis of the marketability of hip-hop to white kids has sent me down a train of thought that ended in Limp Bizkit, but I’ll try to put that to one side (can we do a Minor Lits investigation into Juggalos? Ed: NO). Did you ever hear the theory that the success of Nirvana was down to the CIA, who covertly promoted them as a way to stop suburban kids listening to gangsta rap? I remember, as a young’un, the panic about the advent of hip-hop in the British press: there were questions asked in the House of Commons about the Beastie Boys in 1987, and similar levels of outrage about Snoop Dogg around ’92.
I approached these essays with a little trepidation—I’m always a bit dubious about applying literary techniques to the critique of music, just because writers don’t tend to understand the mechanics of how songs work, and records are made. I don’t think you have to be able to talk about harmonics and time signatures to write about pop, because we don’t normally appreciate the impact of music on that level, but some background knowledge helps. In Terry Eagleton’s LRB review of The God Delusion, he compared Richard Dawkins’ knowledge of theology to “someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds“; likewise, I’ve seen respected writers and philosophers talking about music, and spent the whole time thinking ‘but it doesn’t work like that’—you know, bands don’t all record in a room with a microphone hanging from the ceiling like a 1920s bluegrass act. Anyway, Mark Greif does seem to know what he’s talking about, so that was a relief.
I went quite method on this review, and started listening to “NY State of Mind” in the gym; I don’t know whether Mr Greif would approve of that or not. Reading about his fork in the road moment—Public Enemy or Minor Threat—made me think of the Beastie Boys again, actually, starting off in the hardcore punk scene before branching out. I think their clownishness is absolutely why they were able to survive, up to the point where they began to be respected for their abilities (even rapping with Nas, on one of the last albums). Their development from inflatable dicks and “girls to do the dishes / girls to clean up my room” to right-on elder statesmen is quite the journey, and shows the versatility of the genre, I guess.
On the use of nigga, I wasn’t aware that the word started being used in rap as recently as 1988. His point about it being a way of fighting cultural appropriation is an interesting one (and makes me think of the rules that hardcore punk imposed as a sort of pre-emptive strike against mainstream acceptance), but it kind of shows how amazingly resilient the culture industry is that this has become so normalised now.
There’s an essay by Varaidzo in The Good Immigrant, about being the only black kid at a party when Kanye West comes on, and everyone looking to you to see whether it’s OK to sing along to the n word: “by being in the room, I am the only reason why the rest of the party can’t say it. I’m a big red stop sign in the middle of the dance floor, a symbolic reminder of why they shouldn’t use such a word and who they will offend. Without me there, the word is just another rhyme in a lyric.” Varaidzo concludes that, for a person of colour bought up in Somerset, the word is doubly alienating, as “it becomes so glaringly obvious that this word doesn’t saunter so comfortably off of my tongue either”.
One thing that I found interesting in Greif’s discussion of hip hop is that he frequently refers to the “canon”, or “official rhymes”, in a way that’s quite striking for a writer tagged as a contrarian. I get a sense that he isn’t emotionally connected to the music, although he clearly does appreciate it. Rapping is a skill he ought to have, rather than something he was passionate about achieving—a new language he has to learn in order to better understand another part of a divided nation. Tying his newfound desire to rap in with Obama’s inauguration is significant, there, and he writes very well about that.
Reading these essays together, I was struck by a fundamental difference between the two worlds; while rap, at its most basic level, has an incredibly low barrier to entry—he talks about groups of kids gathering around a boombox—Radiohead’s “grand period” is predicated on masses of technology, synthesizers, sequencers and so on, which is both expensive to buy and complex to use. In a way, it’s as stark as the difference between ELP and The Sex Pistols—the big, alienating studio sound versus the back to basics, from the street approach. Interesting that both Radiohead and rap have annoyed Noel Gallagher though, for daring to not be “proper music”.
Anyway, I should say that I fucking hate Radiohead. I think they’re just too earnest. Reading this essay hasn’t made me appreciate them any more, but I did enjoy it regardless. On the complexity of pop, I strongly recommend reading The Manual by Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty, if you can track it down. Their advice for writing a number 1 single is basically “ask your mates for ideas”, “leave everything to the last minute”, and try to appeal to women who work on supermarket checkouts, who will be your primary audience. It’s the contradictory nature of pop music that it’s one of the few art forms designed to be consumed repeatedly, whilst also being one of the least technically and emotionally complex.
As for pop as rebellion, I think, at best, music can be a symptom of a wider cultural shift, or a gateway. People talk about The Beatles changing the way people thought during the Sixties, but I think that’s more down to the acid—The Beatles just reflected that. There are plenty of acts who have tried to use music as a Trojan horse for getting subversive ideas into the mainstream, but I think most wind up feeling pretty sullied and compromised by the whole experience in the end.
There is something primal about our response to music though, as you say, and that can break down barriers between people—whether it’s a communal experience like hugging strangers at a rave or chanting along to a band at a festival, or a more intimate, subcultural thing like spotting someone wearing a patch of leopard print in a bar, and guessing that you’ve got something in common. When I was having a really bad time with depression, I found listening to music was just too intense; Lenin said that he couldn’t listen to music too much because it stirred up emotions he couldn’t control. I’m not saying that I’m exactly like Lenin, but I can identify with that…
There was a piece in The Guardian a while ago, basically laughing at Britpop, and how silly it all was—it singled out Menswe@r in particular. But however naff these bands seem now, it’s important to remember that people loved them—they sold out Shepherd’s Bush Empire for fuck’s sake! There will have been people there who queued to get to the barrier, who sang along to every word, who reminisce about it being a great night out with a friend they don’t see enough anymore, or the time they got together with their partner. And there were five people on stage making all that happen. Even on a smaller level, playing in front of 50 people or so, there’s something uniquely immediate about pop, the two-way process of gratification between artist and audience, when it all goes well. You can blend dumb and serious in a really brilliant way, like the Manics or Nirvana. Or you can wank on about fake plastic trees, whatevs.
Anyway, I feel like I’m starting to drift off topic. I think we’re on the equivalent of our third bottle of wine now, so it’s not too surprising. We’ll read “Afternoon of the Sex Children” next, and discuss it in the taxi.
Mark Greif is a founder and Editor of the journal n+1. He lives and works in New York, where he is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at the New School. He is the highly acclaimed author of The Age of the Crisis of Man, and his criticism and journalism have appeared in publications including the London Review of Books, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and New Statesman.
In the kingdom of kitsch Thom Cuell would be a monster.
Tomoé Hill is an editor at minor literature[s]. Her reviews, essays, and non-fiction can also be found at Berfrois, 3:AM Magazine, and Numéro Cinq.
Against Everything is published by Verso Books. Author bio courtesy of the same.