Readings, Week 3: Pop Music

Welcome to Module 3, Pop Music. In this module, we cover several political and media literacy issues in the field of popular music. By the end of the module, it will be clear that something which, many years ago, began as a benign method of entertainment for a small group of privileged human beings, is now a multi-billion dollar industry. In the new pop music industry, a very small number of people make extraordinary amounts of money providing entertainment to billions of consumers. Pop music is big business, and predictably, along with any business comes a multitude of political issues.

  • Cultural appropriation
  • The history of popular music in Western culture
  • Romanticism: alive and well (in the ‘burbs…  but not in the hood)
  • A Brief History of Resistance Music
  • Classicism and Romanticism
  • Modern and Post-modern Romanticism
  • Product Placement
  • Adverse effects of videos and lyrics on children and on people of median (average) I.Q.
  • Rest in peace: the decline of the ideology of hip-hop
  • Related historic videos

 

Cultural appropriation

Last week, we learned about three different systems for analyzing your pop icons. Remember what they were? If not, take another look at Module 2, Analytic Tools. You’ll need to be fluent in all three analytic systems in order to write the tests and complete the essay.

The three systems we looked at were (1) Semiotics, (2) Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and (3) Marshall McLuhan’s (a) medium is the message, and his (b) extensions of man.

For now, then, I’d like you to put on your semiotician hat and view the following Youtube excerpt: click here

Semioticians, what is is the signifier or signifiers in this video?

Paul Simon

Paul Simon

If you said “Paul Simon,” you are getting ahead and naming the thing on level 2, the signified. While it is true that the video is of Paul Simon singing Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes, I’d still like you to describe the signifier. By that, semioticians mean describe exactly what you see, without any preconceived notions of what the thing is that you are observing.

Pure semiotics aside, to simplify this task, the video shows a stage filled with musicians who are people of colour, many of them dressed in exotic indigenous apparel. Apparently leading the group of musicians is a white man in a white T-shirt, playing a black guitar and singing lead vocals.

If you looked below at readings and sources for this week, you have already read this definition article about cultural appropriation.

“Cultural appropriation, also referred to as cultural theft by its detractors or as a subset of acculturation by others, is the adoption of elements of cultural expression of one societal group, such as forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or behavior, by an external group, without regard to the underlying aspects of what is being appropriating. It is possible for a minority to appropriate from the majority, and vice-versa.” (Global Oneness, cultural appropriation, 2013)

It seems that, in the 1980s, Paul Simon was widely accused, by critics, of engaging in cultural appropriation. Why? Because the styles of music he incorporated into his songwriting on the album Graceland, apart from American styles, were many examples of ‘township’ music of South Africa. So, he was borrowing from several African genres of music in order to create his own music, a new synthesis that music scholars would categorize under world music. Thus, there were major political issues, as well.

“In 1985, when Paul Simon went to South Africa to record his Graceland album, anti-apartheid protestors showed up and waved signs that said, ‘Paul Simon is a sellout,’ ‘Be Careful Paul. Our Blood Shall Not Spill in Vain,’ and ‘Yankee Go Home!’ At the time, South Africa was still implementing its vicious practice of racial separation, and Simon had violated a U.N.-supported boycott by traveling there to record with black musicians. Never mind that Graceland was giving those artists a chance to earn a viable living. Never mind that Graceland was promoting a cultural side of South Africa that humanized its black citizens. In the eyes of his harshest critics, Simon, a privileged white American, was badly betraying the unified front against apartheid.” (Curiel, 2012).

Both Ferdinand de Saussure and Marshall McLuhan encourage us to avoid being judgmental, at least at first, when we observe any cultural phenomena. Being critical, rather than neutral or balanced, on first observation tends to get in the way of an holistic understanding of cultural phenomena.

Let us, then, consider that there are both positive and negative aspects in acts of cultural appropriation. It is a fact that, if Paul Simon hadn’t used his white privilege to present a multitude of African musicians and styles of music on his blockbuster album, entire generations of Western culture might never have been exposed to acts like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, or Ladysmith Black Mombazo.  These musicians wholeheartedly proclaimed that the exposure afforded to them by superstar Paul Simon was the greatest thing that happened to their careers.

In addition, on the positive side, it is essential to note that the new synthesized styles that Simon created would never have been heard if he had not engaged in this conspicuous instance of cultural appropriation.

Furthermore, Paul Simon’s blatantly political usage of these kinds of music helped to draw attention, both in the West and in South Africa itself, to the political injustice known as Apartheid. Simon’s music may well have served as an important catalyst for eliminating certain barriers to understanding found in the racist policies of the region.

So, there are at least three points strongly in favour of Paul Simon’s cultural appropriation of township music.

What is the downside of cultural appropriation? In the case of Paul Simon, his decontextalization of the meanings of township music, replaced by his own poetry, actually strips the borrowed music of its initial political impact, according to many critics. Indeed, it is possible to listen to most of Graceland without learning anything at all about Apartheid.

Returning to our semiotic analysis, we saw a stage filled with men-of-colour, being led by a white man. Is there a negative racial power dynamic at work in this image? According to many anti-racist educators and critics, yes, there is.

And then, there’s the issue of credit.

“Did the veteran singer unfairly appropriate the music of South Africa to boost his career? The cover of the original album makes no mention of the scores of South African musicians who formed the musical foundation of Graceland. The back of the album also short-shrifts the musicians while giving official credit to the album’s producer and to the album’s engineer. It’s as if guitarist Ray Phiri, drummer Isaac Mtshali, accordionist Forere Motloheloa and the other stellar South Africans on Graceland were second-class citizens.” (Curiel, 2012).

In addition to this, Simon made tens of millions from the recording and considerably more for the long Graceland tour, while the members of the band received little more than scale pay for the album and tour.

Ray Phiri

Ray Phiri

All of this being said, we are reminded that the musicians themselves have nothing but good things to say about the experience of Graceland.

“They, on the other hand, have nothing but praise for Simon, and they tell Berlinger they think of Simon as a ‘brother,’ as someone who not only brought their music to a worldwide audience but changed how they thought of white people. They love Simon. And he loves them. Their reunion in South Africa is a meeting of equals.” (Curiel, 2012)

Thus, cultural appropriation is a two-edged sword, both (1) exposing us to types of music from around the world that we never would have heard, and (2) borrowing, usually without permission, the art of another culture. More importantly, when the artforms of another culture are borrowed without offering explanation of that culture or providing the history of the artform, then any attempts by the synthesis to make political statements might be lost.

The history of popular music in Western culture

Picking on Paul Simon for one album utilizing township music may seem unfair in light of the greater observation that a major part of popular music of the twentieth century is, in some manner, appropriated from the music of African-Americans. Famous examples of musicians who engaged in some form of cultural appropriation include Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison, Michael Bolton, Sting, and many more.

View the following attached page, a roster of many genres from the 19th and 20th centuries.

According to most experts on American pop culture, the beginnings of most forms form of American popular music, from blues to jazz to Broadway to rock to hip hop forms, are found in the field hollers and work songs of African-American slaves in the American south.

After musicologists note that most genres of pop music were derived in some way from the music of African-Americans, it becomes clear that almost any non-African-American musician (not just Paul Simon) you can name has engaged in some level of cultural appropriation.

When Elvis Presley or Jerry Lee Lewis came on the scene and were proclaimed inventors or “Kings” of rock n’ roll… (see Youtube of Jerry Lee Lewis)

Jerry Lee Lewis, “Whole Lotta Shakin'” (1957)

…They were really borrowing musical styles from the real King of rock n’ roll, Little Richard Penniman (see Youtube of Little Richard).

“Little Richard” Penniman [the real King of Rock n’ Roll], “Long Tall Sally” (1956)

PBS.org prints the following general statement about 20th century music:

“The most important influence on 20th century music? African Americans and the musical culture they brought to this country – developed within the bonds of slavery.” (PBS.org, 2011)

  • Read the following PBS page on 20th Century Music, where the above statement is supported in detail.

Frere-Jones writes:

“In 1960, on a train between Dartford and London, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, then teen-agers, bonded over a shared affinity for obscure blues records. (Jagger lent Richards an LP by Muddy Waters.) “Twist and Shout,” a song that will forever be associated with the Beatles, is in fact a fairly faithful rendition of a 1962 R. & B. cover by the Isley Brothers. In sum, as has been widely noted, the music that inspired some of the most commercially successful rock bands of the sixties and seventies—among them Led Zeppelin, Cream, and Grand Funk Railroad—was American blues and soul.” (Frere-Jones, 2007).

As with the idea of cultural appropriation itself, there are both positive and negative takes on the issue. While some musicologists hail the 20th century hybrids that have emerged from this forced merging of African-American music into white culture, other critics see this kind of cultural appropriation as a virulent, albeit covert, form of racism. Benzon suggests this racism is rooted in the fact that these musical appropriations link the release or expression of repressed emotions, sexuality, and aggression to more uninhibited African-American artforms.

“European-American racism has used African America as a screen on which to project repressed emotion, particularly sex and aggression. One aspect of this projection is that whites are attracted to black music as a means of expressing aspects of themselves they cannot adequately express through music from European roots. Thus 20th century expressive culture in the United States has been dominated by an evolving socio-cultural system in which blacks create musical forms and whites imitate them. It happened first with jazz, and then with rock and roll.” (Benzon, 1997).

Romanticism: alive and well (in the ‘burbs…  but not in the hood)

Who are the chief consumers of African-American cultural forms today? What is the main demographic of the person who listens to hip hop music, for example?

Russell Simmons, the music producer cum media mogul cum patriarch of establishment hip hop culture allows that since 80% of hip hop listeners are white, the Hip Hop Generation applies to all those who ‘sympathize with the plight of the poor.’ (Hoyle, 2004)

While Davey D contests this stat, alleging it is a statistical myth formulated for sales purposes by corporations seeking a white demographic, few contest that the proportion of hip hop listeners who are white, young men is, nevertheless, a very high majority.

The huge profusion of white-American listeners who adopt African-American styles of music, dress, and even speech idioms is a reminder to musicologists and cultural historians that Romanticism is alive and well. Russell Simmons‘ assertion that the Hip Hop generation applies to all those who sympathize with the plight of the poor is precisely within our framework for the understanding of Romanticism.

Copy of Beethoven Free CROPPED

Ludwig van Beethoven

To trace the beginnings of Romanticism in music, we must go back in time to the beginning of the 19th century, and the work of Ludwig van Beethoven. To truly understand it, however, we must go back even further. Prior to the Classical and Romantic eras of art, mainstream music was largely in the hands of the Church and the wealthy consumer. There were very few forms through which music could be consumed by the poor and less privileged classes.

A Brief History of Resistance Music

To understand Romanticism, an age of art and music that began at the beginning of the nineteenth century, we must appreciate that it was a truly resistant music, a radical form of music in the spirit of rock n’ roll.

A thousand years ago, music was almost exclusively in the hands of the Church, and most music was written about spiritual subject matter and performed in liturgical settings. Music about everyday things, like love, or music about other non-religious subject matters, was practically unheard of during this era. Indeed, it would have been deemed sacrilegious.

  • Listen to this Youtube of the style of music known as Gregorian chant, the church music of about 800 years ago.

Thus, music was an artform that was the domain of the Church and only of a few privileged citizens. Small musical groups were hired almost exclusively by the wealthy, to perform in their castles and courts. It was not until early troubadours and minstrels performed songs about love and lust that music by the people, for the people, came to be played in village squares and street corners.

A medieval troubadour at a Renaissance fair

A medieval troubadour at a Renaissance fair

In a way, since troubadour music was music about desire and love, it can be said that it was an early ancestor of rhythm and blues and rock and roll forms of music, and had a very political motive in its adamant resistance to the status quo.  Troubadour music was certainly one of the first forms of popular music in Western culture. Thus, troubadours often took great risks, performing this controversial music that had risque subject matter, material that was disapproved of by the Church.

Troubadour and minstrel music had great longevity, reigning as the most popular form of music for at least two centuries.

During the late middle ages and the Renaissance, purely instrumental popular music became very popular in the public view. Yet, musicians had to make a living, and the best performers were still found in the employ of wealthy lords and barons.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII

Minstrel music of different forms remained in the mainstream, however. Popular songs paying tribute to beautiful women and sensuous experiences remained in the public eye. Yet, the greatest patronage of these musical forms still came from wealthy coffers. It is an apocryphal story, probably false, that even Henry VIII got in on the minstrel music craze. So the story goes, a court musician of Henry’s wrote the lovely minstrel ballad Greensleeves. Yet, when Henry heard the piece played in his court, he said, “That’s a lovely song I wrote, isn’t it?” When the young musician was about to correct the King, known for beheading almost anyone who got in his path, his fellow musician nudged him, and urged him to be silent. So, some claim that Henry VIII, a novice musician, wrote (or at least stole) the enduring ballad Greensleeves. The story is probably not true.

Around 1600 came the great explosion of knowledge and arts known as the Enlightenment.

“The Age of Enlightenment (or simply the Enlightenment or Age of Reason) was a cultural movement of intellectuals in the 17th and 18th centuries, which began first in Europe and later in the American colonies. Its purpose was to reform society away from irrationality; specifically, away from superstition, dogmatism of all kinds, unfounded intolerance of all kinds; and, gross abuses of power by both the Catholic Church and by despotic kings.” (Wiki, The Enlightenment)

During the Enlightenment, the Church fought back hard against popular attempts to make music by hiring renowned composers, like Handel, to create catchy works of great religiosity. The Enlightenment introduced to mainstream culture the music of the Baroque and Rococo art periods. Note the mathematical precision inherent in the following piece. This is characteristic of Enlightenment music, an era that celebrated science and mathematics, and increasingly less often, religious matters.

By the Baroque and Rococo periods, though, secular classical music was gaining great strides. It could no longer be said that orchestral and mainstream musics were the domain of the church. There were many secular composers, famous musicians writing music about nothing at all but music itself. The most notable of the secular composers of the Baroque period was Johann Sebastian Bach, many of whose pieces were about nothing more than pure mathematics, a realm which for him was as spiritual as any domain.

Classicism and Romanticism

Aristotle

Aristotle

The  Classical period came next, lasting throughout the 18th century. During the Classical period, artists, musicians, and architects alike went to great lengths to obliterate the ornate, flamboyant artforms of the Rococo age and return to the austere perfection of the Grecian classical age. During this time, artists and musicians made very strict rules, in the manner of Aristotle‘s Poetica, about how all art should be constructed. Music of a serious nature, for example, was written according to prescribed structures like sonata form.

Nevertheless, it may still be said of classical music that it usually had no non-musical content, and certainly no political or ‘resistance’ content. Although in the classical age, there is much of what we call program music (music that is about something; “a type of art music that attempts to musically render an extra-musical narrative“), most classical music is still instrumental music designed for listening or dancing. Notably, many pieces of classical music are also music-for-hire. Much classical music consists of pieces written for important events in the lives of rich people, who hired composers to write grand works to honour themselves and their family members, for weddings, knighthoods, and so on.

The following clip is an example of program music, music that the composer suggests is about something–in this case, it is four different pieces of music, each about one of the seasons of the year.

Still, most music written in the Classical period is about nothing at all, in a narrative sense. With titles like “Symphony #40 in G minor, K 550,” much Classical music is primarily about… music.

Mozart

Mozart

The most notable proponent of Classical music is one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a young man who, by most accounts, couldn’t be taken anywhere due to his inappropriate remarks, moodiness, and arrogance. At the very least, he was autistic (an “idiot savant“) and very possibly, he was bipolar. Nevertheless, with the best music teacher in Europe as his father, he grew up around music and musical games, ultimately becoming one of the greatest and most prolific composers of all time. A prodigious alcoholic and self-medicator, he died at age of thirty-five of a subdural hematoma, probably from having fallen down a set of stairs, dead drunk.

  • Listen to this Youtube of one of Mozart’s last symphonic works, the 40th symphony.

As great as Mozart was, however, his music, too, lacked non-musical thematic content, and lacked any political context upon which it was created. Many of Mozart’s works are pieces of dance music, no more thematically lofty or political than the works of the Bee Gees, in the disco age, or Macklemore, today.

It is not until the music of Ludwig van Beethoven that we see an epiphany in how music can represent political ideals, in the manner of authentic hip hop. Beethoven became disillusioned with the aristocracy and the corrupt leaders of his age after learning that Napoleon, the man of the people who promised political reform in Europe, became corrupted and declared himself to be Emperor of Europe. Napoleon had promised that once his revolution was over, he would step down and let each government be ruled by the people. When Beethoven learned of Napoleon’s deception and understood he was no different from other political leaders, he was furious and allegedly trashed his studio and piano. He changed the title of his piece Eroica, initially intended as a tribute to the great revolutionary Napoleon, to Eroica, “composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”  In Beethoven’s view, the hero who was Napoleon was now dead, at least to him.

Like early hip hop, much of Beethoven’s most important music, after Eroica, assumes a political position. Beethoven is considered one of the founders, in the musical realm, of the era and style known as Romanticism. It is essential to note here that Romantic artists were not, as the term “romantic” might suggest, concerned with the notions of romance as it denotes love and sexuality. Rather, Romantic artists were those who took a Romantic view of ordinary people, not nobles but people of the countryside, the poor, the farmers, and so on. It was a strong political stance, since it was a rejection of the grand musical dedications to the rich during the Classical age. One of Beethoven’s greatest symphonies is the Pastorale, or 6th Symphony, inspired by one of Beethoven’s many trips to the countryside.

The Romantic era and its music became so popular that the rich, as they did with troubadour music in the Renaissance era, became enamoured with the music and its meanings. Subsequently, they engaged in a form of cooptation, actually dressing up like ordinary people and country people, and going out into the country for picnics. With a small orchestra hidden behind a clump of trees, the rich of the Romantic era enjoyed “slumming it,” pretending, if only for a day, to be poor people.

Modern and Post-modern Romanticism

“…the Hip Hop Generation applies to all those who ‘sympathize with the plight of the poor.'” –Russell Simmons

Al Jolson in blackface

Al Jolson in blackface

Even a cursory observation of the wealthy music lovers of the Romantic age leads us to a profound conclusion bout Romanticism. As I have suggested for some years, Romanticism is alive and well and living in the suburbs. Throughout the last two centuries, we observe countless examples in popular culture of more privileged consumers identifying with and even emulating the less privileged. In the era of the Minstrel Show, white actors and singers put on blackface, a combination of burnt cork and charcoal, and impersonated African-Americans. Superstar Al Jolson did blackface routines as late as 1930.

In the Jazz Age, musicians played music that was almost universally African-American in origin. In another example of Romanticized cultural rituals, they used the jargon of drug addicts: hot, cool, etc.

In the 1950s, both artists and everyday people imitated the terminology and the attire of motorcycle hoods and outlaw bikers like the one depicted by Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Meanwhile, they listened to rock n’ roll, the modified electric blues music of African-Americans.

In the 1960s, affluent and middle-class white Americans known as hippies walked around in intentionally ripped blue jeans, with long, straggly hair and unkempt beards, imitating the attire of poor and marginalized people.

The list of Romantic emulations in popular culture goes on and on, right up until the present day. Clearly, the idea of Romanticism is alive and well, as evidenced in the phenomenon known as the “black wannabe,” a derogatory stereotype about which much has been written. The prime consumer of hip hop, an art and ideology movement initially based in the promotion of civil rights and justice for African-Americans, is now ironically a young white man.

Romanticism is alive and well, and living in the suburbs.

Product placement

Lady Gaga

Lady Gaga

It is no secret that the music industry has evolved from a group of relatively benign, sometimes political, artforms to a very complex system of advertisement and advocacy. Product placement in videos has become a common method for music stars to earn additional income, and many have allowed sponsors to display their wares in a very graphic manner within concept music videos, public appearances, and live shows.

Shayon writes:

“Fueled by the growing shift from TV to Web viewing of music videos, record labels are now bullish on product placement as a gimmick to draw brands to advertise and consumers to buy…. When music videos were primarily shown and viewed on television, product placement was called ‘integration’ and closely monitored by networks like MTV, whose ‘policy prohibited blatant plugs in videos, so the network would often blur brand labels or ask for a new version without the placement.’ (Remember how many hip-hop and rap videos blurred logos on t-shirts and baseball caps?) But as MTV turned to reality programming and stopped emphasizing music videos, the gap was quickly filled by labels and advertisers shilling on the web. ‘Before, video was definitely to showcase creativity and content. It was promotional, and today we look at video as another piece of pie and a way to generate venue,’ commented Jonathan Feldman, VP of brand partnerships for Atlantic Records. The pitch to advertisers today is to leverage the long tail of product placement through music videos, as opposed to an annoying pre-roll ad before the video which lasts for 15 seconds and then is gone. As this opportunity for additional revenue meets the creative fuel behind most music videos – the resultant artistic combustion has begun to integrate the brands more fully — as part of the gimmick.” (Shayon, 2010)

Record companies and artists alike claim that this kind of product placement has become essential, since consumers insist on file-sharing and piracy of online music content. And since online consumption of music is the major method by which consumers purchase music and music products, file sharing and piracy has put a huge dent in music industry profits over the past decade.

So, what is the problem? Some critics are concerned that a profusion of product placement has affected the integrity of content in the narratives of music videos.

Smith writes:

“…one of the primary complaints about increased product placement in media is a concern that integrations privilege the revenue-generating ad over the narrative function of the content.  But how does that argument work when applied to music videos which, although arguably narrative, are more about the music than the storytelling?  Does Gaga’s use of Diet Coke cans as hair rollers disrupt the “story” of “Telephone”?  It perhaps interrupts the story being told in the short film that serves as a music video in this case, but it certainly doesn’t disrupt the narrative of the song itself—only the visual experience of the video.” (Smith, 2011)

I would argue that music video has never been a pure, artistic medium. To seek some kind of pure art form in concept music videos, something free of advertising or advocacy, is a Utopian pipe dream. It has never, or at least rarely, existed.

Yet Smith offers the argument that we cannot afford to quibble about issues of art, narrative, or purity.

“Despite the concerns of some, perhaps product integrations in music videos are an acceptable consequence of the shifting economics of the music industry.  As Aymar Jean Christian explains, these integrations should be viewed as an industry’s desperate attempts to maintain its bottom line, not necessarily as a creative sacrifice.  Although admittedly eyeroll-inducing, watching Britney Spears hawk her own perfume in “Hold it Against Me” seems a small price to pay if it means the industry can survive to create more music.” (Smith, 2011).

Adverse effects of videos and lyrics on children and on people of median (average) I.Q.

I worked in the music industry for years. During the time I did music production work with artists like Eileen Twain (Shania Twain) in the 1980s, I watched a great change come about. With the advent of video and MTV in 1983, something very profound happened to a number of music genres and their media: the content of music became strikingly more violent than it was before.

Is it possible that the change came about directly as a result of the introduction of the  concept video as a promotional tool for music? Violence already attracted viewers to Hollywood blockbusters. Did it suddenly dawn on music promoters that they might attract more viewers through violent visual content?

Bonnie and Clyde, 1967 (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway)

Bonnie and Clyde, 1967 (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway)

It was observed, by many in the movie business, that movies became strikingly more violent in the era of the late 1960s, specifically with the release of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. Many film historians claim that the ante was significantly upped by this one motion picture. After that, directors scrambled to compete by releasing their own, equally bloody picture.

Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn’s 1967 blockbuster, launched America into a new age of film. The film introduced extreme and graphic violence into the culture of film, one thing that still prevails in American cinema today. The movie initially elicited extreme outrage over the gratuitous violence but now is commonly shown unedited on American television. Bonnie and Clyde was a groundbreaking film, and one of the most important films in American history.” (Mazzucco, 2012)

Many theorists suspect that, as with the advent of films like Bonnie and Clyde and its influence on the movie industry, the advent of MTV in 1983 marked a sudden explosion of screen violence in music video and in lyrical content. Violence in media is a very controversial subject, since people defend against assaults on their media like they are family members. We also do not wish to acknowledge that a media piece might have had any effect on us. I remind all listeners/viewers, including myself, of McLuhan’s assertion that “we know that at some point in time, someone discovered water. But we know it wasn’t a fish.”

Marshall McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan

The statement, referring to the hidden effects of media on consumers, means that it is impossible for anyone to know that they are immersed in pervasive environments. Because the fish lives in water, he is unable to know that he is in water. Water is all he knows. Thus, says McLuhan, none of us is capable of accurately assessing the effects, upon ourselves, of violence in media.

Read the following stats on the effects of concept music videos and their content on impressionable viewers.

Stone writes:

“…the average teenager listens to… [popular] music for up to six hours daily…. music often has a dangerous negative theme, with lyrics advocating aggressive and hostile rebellion, abuse of drugs and alcohol, irresponsible sexuality, violence, and suicide.”  (Stone, 1987).

Brown and Hendee write:

“Between the 7th and 12th grades, the average teenager listens to 10, 500 hours of rock and dance music, just slightly less than the entire number of hours spent in the classroom from kindergarten through high school.” (Brown & Hendee, 1989)

Donnerstein writes:

“Music videos may have a significant behavioural impact by desensitizing viewers to violence and making teenagers more likely to approve of premarital sex.  75% of concept music videos contain sexually suggestive material.  56% contain violence, which includes acts committed against women.  Women are portrayed frequently in a condescending manner that affects children’s attitudes about sex roles.   Attractive role models are the aggressors in more than 80% of music video violence (Different types of characters use violence on television. Studies show that viewers of all ages are more likely to emulate and learn from characters who are perceived as attractive. Thus, heroes and ‘good guys’ who act violently pose more risk to the audience than do villains.” (Donnerstein, 2006).

The AAP writes:

“Males are more than three times as likely to be the aggressors; blacks were overrepresented [as aggressors] and whites underrepresented. Music videos may reinforce false stereotypes. A detailed analysis of music videos raised concerns about its effects on adolescents’ normative expectations about conflict resolution, race and male-female relationships.   Music lyrics have become increasingly explicit, particularly with references to sex, drugs and violence. …. the potential negative impact of explicit music lyrics should put parents and paediatricians on guard – paediatricians should bring this up in anticipatory guidance discussions with teenagers and their parents.  At the very least, parents should take an active role in monitoring the music their children are exposed to.”    (AAP, 1996).

And finally, the National Institute of Mental Health asserted that “children do learn and form attitudes from what they see on television and in videos.”  (National Institute of Mental Health, 1982). 

Even a quick reading of the science articles linked at the bottom of the Sources page leads to one conclusion. Whether or not we agree, most peer-reviewed psychology articles on the subject since the time of Bandura have suggested that children do learn from and emulate behaviour from the media. Thus, music and mass media (which have grown increasingly violent since 1970) have probably had, at the very least, a contributing influence on the increase of violence in our society. In the 1970s, violence per capita increased by 100%. In the 1980s, it increased by another 100%.

When you consider this assertion, bear in mind that you, a college student, are not really in the mean demographic being considered in these findings. College and university students, by and large, by virtue of elevated intelligence levels, are able to maintain a healthy emotional distance from the media they consume. Smarter people can, in theory, watch extremely violent content and, through some mental effort, not have their levels of anxiety, depression, or aggression influenced by these media.

However, the average North American has an IQ of 100, just 10 IQ points higher than, say, Forrest Gump.  We are considering, in this group, highly impressionable people and small children who do emulate the behaviour of people they see in videos and on television.

With these stats in mind, we proceed to our conclusive topic.

Rest in peace: the decline of the ideology of hip-hop

Sadly, the ideology of hip hop is dying a gradual, embarrassingly painful death. Hip hop is a movement once based on the emancipation of African-Americans. Today, it has evolved into little more than a medium for blatant product placement and gratuitous violence, a money-making theme.

“The very first rap record — 1979′s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ by the Sugar Hill Gang — was a revelatory paean to fun and equality — with even a dash of patriotism. But here’s the new message of rap and hip-hop, courtesy of the top-selling artist Curtis Jackson, also known as 50 Cent: ‘I put a hole in a n—- for f—ing with me / Better watch how you talk, when you talk about me / ’cause I’ll come and take your life away’.” (Tapper & Nelson, 2005)

A well-known conspiracy theory that has, perhaps, the most proponents of all–even many artists in the business–is the notion that record executives of the major labels have, for years, intentionally recruited mainly artists whose content and themes were of a violent nature. This is particularly so in the hip hop music industry where, since the 1980s, rap has quite clearly taken a marked turn towards aggression and violence, choosing to document violence in urban communities above all other available poetic themes.

“‘We have allowed greedy corporate executives — especially those in the entertainment industry — to lead many of our young people to believe that it is OK to entertain themselves by destroying the culture of our people,’ [said] E. Faye Williams, chair of the National Congress of Black Women….” (MSNBC, 2007).

“Attorney Londell McMillan, who represents Lil’ Kim and many other hip-hop performers, says the record labels and radio stations push the artists toward a more violent image. ‘They all seek to do things that are extraordinary,’ he said, ‘unfortunately it’s been extraordinarily in the pain of a people. They are often encouraged to take a certain kind of approach to the art form’.” (Tapper & Nelson, 2005)

Because the social sciences have carefully demonstrated the multiple links between exposure to media and violent behaviour in impressionable young people of median intelligence (Anderson et al, 2003; Anderson & Dill, 2000; Bandura 2002, 1999, 1997, etc.; Huesmann & Eron, 1986; Huesmann et al., 2003; Huston et al., 1992; NIMH, 1982), many conspiracy theorists and mainstream artists alike have asserted a direct link between increased violence in America (eg. a figure that has doubled, per capita, each decade since 1970) and the obvious increase in violent media since the mid 1980s.

“The blueprint now is an image that promotes all of the worst aspects of violent and anti-social behavior,” said Source editor Mays. “It takes those real issues of violent life that occur in our inner cities, it takes them out of context.” (Tapper & Nelson, 2005)

The big picture allegation by conspiracy theorists is that, by playing into violent cultural stereotypes of African-Americans and by promoting rampant violence, as well as consumerism, in fact, a medium that began as an appropriately embittered outcry against oppression by the dominant culture has now been appropriated and diluted into a consumerist medium that not only sells records and merchandise for White American record executives, but also keeps African-Americans in a perpetual state of gang war and disempowerment, precisely the opposite of what hip hop was intended to do.

“Afrikaa Bambaata, one of the founders of hip hop explains its creative origins in an interview as does DJ Kool Herc. Hip Hop in the Bronx was an expression of former gang bangers like the Zulu Nation turning to culture to pull kids from gangs and violence. In Los Angeles, where gangs had institutionalized after the 1960s, rap’s origins lay in the gangster culture, not the opposition to gangs of Run-DMC, Afrikaa Bamaata, KRS-1, Queen Latifah and others. NWA was the first “gangsta rap” group and they were performers, not gangsters in real life. The graphic violence of NWA sold and the media companies were quick to pick up on a way to make big bucks off rap. The “thug life” of Tupac and other depictions of the “power of street knowledge” thus both express the frustration and anger of ghetto youth but also the seduction of rappers into performing outrageous, misogynist, violent lyrics in order to be promoted by major record labels. Like mainstream artists, many rappers sell out and ‘keep their mind on their money and their money on their mind.’ The most effective way to combat gangsta rap’s worship of violence is not censorship but through the original message of hip hop.” (see Hip Hop)

While there are a few conscientious hip hop artists still on the scene, usually promoted by rogue or independent distributors, the mainstream of hip hop music languishes in a moribund state. But for the few stalwarts who cling to the original philosophy of the important Hip hop movement, for all intents and purposes, to quote Nas, “hip hop is dead.”

Related historic videos

Definitions: Paul Simon, Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes, cultural appropriationGracelandtownship music, world music, white privilegeMiriam Makeba, Hugh MasekelaLadysmith Black Mombazo, Apartheid, Ray Phirigenre, African-American, field holler, work song, Slavery in the United StatesElvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Muddy Waters, Twist and Shout, Beatles, rhythm and blues, the Isley Brothers, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Grand Funk Railroad, racism, Russell Simmons, Hip hop, Romanticism, Beethoven, Gregorian chanttroubadour, Renaissance, GreensleevesEnlightenment, Baroque, RococoJohann Sebastian BachClassical period, Grecian Classical age, Aristotle, Poetica, sonata form, program musicAntonio VivaldiThe Four Seasons, Mozart, Savant syndrome, bipolar disorder, subdural hematoma, the Bee Gees, MacklemoreNapoleon, Eroica, Pastorale, or 6th SymphonyMinstrel Show, blackface, Al Jolson, Marlon Brando, The Wild One, hippieblack wannabe, product placement, MTVDiet CokeBritney SpearsHold It Against Meviolence, aggressionBonnie and Clyde, Albert BanduraSugarhill Gang, DJ Kool HercZulu NationRun-DMCQueen LatifahNWATupac ShakurmisogynyNas

Sources:

Shoe salesman Nelly

Scientific Background and Statistics relevant to Week 3’s discussion of Adverse effects of videos and music on children and on more vulnerable perceivers

Scientific studies regarding the effects of violent media on humans/children:

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