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Popular culture is defined as the ordinary culture people make for themselves (McLeish, 1993). From the nineteenth century onward the term popular culture took on new meaning, referring to pop culture as somewhat beneath higher culture (1993). In other words, things that the common people enjoyed were looked down upon as opposed to say, opera, cricket or intellectual pursuits. Popular culture belonged to the common man whereas the higher forms of entertainment were enjoyed by the upper crust. High culture is what those with refined tastes like (1993). Popular culture includes things enjoyed by the masses (1993). Such pursuits might include bowling, baseball, rock music and movies.
Yankelovich Clancy Shulman says that most of today s pop culture reflects neotraditionalism or a synthesis of positive aspects of traditional values along with personal freedoms that came forth in the wake of the sexual revolution and women s rights movements (Huey, 1991). In order to understand pop culture one must understand the difference between culture and counterculture (1991). The dominant culture embraces normative behavior whereas a counterculture develops its own set of rules. Ordinarily, pop culture breaks barriers and springs from discontent; rap music emerged from the ghettos where life is tough (1991).
Rap music certainly falls into the category of popular culture but has quite a bit of significance. In fact, rap music or hip-hop, is a genre that originated in the seventies in New York City (Columbia, 1993). The term rap emanated from sixties lingo, the word rap meaning conversation (1993). In the sixties and seventies, people would have rap sessions as opposed to group counseling, for example. Rap music consists of chanted; street poetry that is often improvised (1993). The rap is accompanied by music in the disco or funk area (1993). While some admire the creativity that rapers employ, others criticize the genre for promoting violence and misogyny (1993). Rap music has found its way onto mainstream pop radio stations, as well as having its own shows on MTV.
Understanding the roots of rap music will help in understanding its significance. Part of the reason for delving into the history is because hip-hop and rap is generally associated with African Americans but the roots of the genre did not originate in the black community. Also, rap sprang from social discord but contained no where near the anger that it displays today when it first appeared on the music scene.
The definition of rap music places its origins in New York but the story of hip-hop begins in quite a unique way. Hip-hop began with street parties in the Bronx during the seventies (Forward, 1997). In the early eighties, a New York University student named Rick Rubin began to sell rap records (1997). At the same time, a New Yorker called Tom Silverman was selling Afrika Bambaattaa records (1997). Several years later, Rubin, along with Russell Simmons, helped to create the single most successful white rap group of all time, the Beastie Boys (1997). All of them were Jewish (1997).
Soon, a whole contingent of Jewish men, along with a few women, were drawn to that music (Forward, 1997). In fact, a Jewish rap group called Blood of Abraham soon surfaced (1997). During the very beginnings of rap, there was social significance. The music and lyrics held some promise as a medium that could shed light on race relations in the United States (1997). While the medium began as a part of the Jewish community, entities such as KRS-One, Public Enemy and Queen Latifah sprang up; each stressing the betterment of blacks (1997). The very beginnings of rap held music of social and political significance.
Rap music was not a quick fad like disco. It was in the early nineties that things began to change. It was at this time that Tupac Amaru Shakur was shot, although a review of his life would reveal that he did not live the typical gangsta lifestyle; at the same time, he did have a criminal record that included rape (Forward, 1997). What followed was a series of murders in the rap community. Christopher Wallace, also known as Biggie Smalls, and the Notorious BIG, were killed less than a year after the demise of Shakur (1997).
While rap music has been embraced by a predominantly black, gangster culture, some Jews continued to remain involved with the music (Forward, 1997). Others left. It should be said that some black groups, such as the Fugees, have adopted a peaceful attitude (1997). Yet, there is an obvious lack of success by the white rappers, as black groups seem to shine in the genre. Mr. Shecter, someone involved with the music since its beginnings, says “Now, it’s the black artist making money and the Jew behind the scenes making money as well. They’re partners” (1997).
In some respects, Jews and blacks have traditionally bonded as oppressed groups. At the same time, there have been difficulties. Lemrick Nelson was accused of the murder of Yankel Rosenbaum, an incident sparked in a strained New York community (Jewish Exponent, 1997). An accidental death of a black child sparked controversy about the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s motorcade and the preferential treatment given to Jews in the area, which resulted in rioting and the death of Rosenbaum (1997). This Crown Heights case demonstrates some of the tension between the two groups but that is certainly not typical. In fact, a 1992 poll taken showed that the overall anti-Semitism of blacks declined over a period of three years and a 1993 survey revealed that Jews held significantly fewer racist attitudes than whites in general (Ain, 1995).
Rap music did serve to bond, in some ways, two groups that have historically endured many prejudices by the dominant culture. The music, with its social and political messages, lashes out at the society. At the same time, fairly, the genre is not the first to do this. Most rock music has done so. While the grunge movement was typically whiny and apathetic, alternative music for example, contained angry voices such as Axl Rose and Alanis Morissette who were not afraid to expound on the problems inherent in society.
It is sometimes difficult to discern what is art and what is noise, particularly in the realm of music. Social messages aside, does rap have any redeeming artistic value? Author and Harvard educated director of the University of Alberta’s new Institute for Popular Music Krims, thinks so (Maclean’s, 1998). He suggests that rap music is more pervasive than classical and is arguably the best-selling genre in the world (1998). While it is true that the music is popular, that only means it is currently a large part of pop culture. Because fads come and go, it does not necessarily mean that rap is of significance in a historical context, for example. On the other hand, one would have to admit that it has endured several decades, which is somewhat longer than other musical movements.
Krims believes that the music reflects something important about the rapper s own alienation and lifestyles (Maclean’s, 1998). He answers the complaints about the music by saying that people should look at rap in a broad context, not just focusing on the sexism and violence that are contained in much of the lyrics (1998). He notes that “When Johnny Cash sings about killing a man, it’s edgy…. When an Afro-American rap artist does, Warner Bros. pulls the CD” (1998).
There does seem to be a sense of unfairness. Rap has been looked down upon by higher culture, for instance, where even traditional rock doesn t get that treatment. Camille Paglia, the outspoken feminist who claims not to be, says of popular culture There’s nothing to be ashamed of in America’s pop culture today…. It s healthy and fantastically creative. The rest of the world continues to envy us and tries to imitate us. But it’s hopeless. The French love our records but can’t produce a single good rock group. Italy, Spain, Japan, the same — hopeless. In Russia the best gift you can give a young person is a T-shirt with the logo of a U.S. rock band on it (Huey, 1991). Using that position one would be hard pressed to say that rap has no artistic significance. It must have some redeeming qualities in order for it to have been embraced by so many and to have endured for so long.
Yet, it has been bashed critically. P.J. O Rourke contends that the nineties is like a return to a mindless period similar to the fifties (Huey, 1991). He notes that pop culture actually means no more than it appears to on the surface (1991). Some creative forces claim they are turned off by the relationship between the artists and the corporate culture, suggesting that there is very little counterculture in the nineties (1991). It is true that mainstream culture embraces what ever is considered hip, something that had not happened in the past. Perhaps the critics are right when they suggest that it all boils down to money. The rap artists, for example, are so allied with their labels that the meanings of their messages are obscured, or at least mistrusted, only because of the commercialism.
Huey says that the use of pop music as a merchandising tool has become so rampant that signs of minor backlashes are emerging (Huey, 1991). Bands are beginning to speak out which has served to heighten their sales. The Black Crowes did it by bad mouthing commercialism; while they were excluded from a Miller Lite tour due to their outspokenness, they were rewarded by heightened popularity (1991). Pearl Jam s protest against Ticketmaster in the mid-nineties was well publicized as well. In some way, these mini protests serve to separate the creative from the commercial. The question of whether or not rap music deserves critical acclaim is debatable. Much will have to do with the endurance of the genre through time and how it is reviewed historically.
Rap music has become a catalyst for social change and integral to rap music is the music video. While these short films are played on BET and VH2, perhaps the most successful music television channel is MTV itself. Some researchers see music videos as persuasive argument; they contend that viewers report receiving salient messages in videos, and regard them as attempts to gain adherence to a dominant message (Walker, 1994). These arguments often contain discernible social or political messages, which are conveyed both visually and lyrically (1994). Viewers do see these snippets as an attempt to influence their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors (1994).
Of videos studied that were judged most argumentative, three involved rap music. Newsweek (Leland, 1992, cited in Walker, 1994) noted that popular music videos, with rap in particular, reflect deep changes in American society more than any other form and called it black America’s CNN. Viewers do see rap music as having socio-political persuasive discourse (1994). One wonders if music videos truly do affect the culture. Is it that the music reflects society, as the artists claim, or might it be that the dominant media culture has a significant effect on society?
What is most disturbing to critics of rap, is that it promotes rape, the abuse of women in general and violence to boot. MTV is seen as a force that drives rap music. One reason why MTV is so important is because it reaches so many in their teenage years. Those are the years when many changes take place; the target audience is extremely susceptible to overt and subliminal messages. Because so many teens tune in to MTV, music videos have the potential to affect youth more than any other popular medium today (Strouse, 1995).
One reason why music and music television can encourage violence is that music evokes very strong emotions and there are mood altering effects which make people more likely to exhibit changes in behavior and attitude (Rosenfeld, 1985 cited in Strouse, 1995). Thus, when music sets a particular mood, the messages of the lyrics in addition to the visual images have a more potent impact (1995). It is well known that a combined visual and audio presentation enhances learning and further, can effect attitudes and behavior than audio alone (see Rubin et al., 1986 cited in Strouse, 1995). While the visual imagery is significant in its effect, merely merely listening to the tunes even while not viewing television also experiences the reinforcement. Thus, there is likely an additional effect as the song is heard in other situations, such as at a party or in a store.
It is clear that MTV, and music videos in general, have a profound impact on youth. The implementation of violence in music videos, as seen in many rap productions, can then pose a problem. There has been recent research in the area which reveals that even a relatively short amount of exposure to music videos can result in a desensitization to violence (Rehman & Reilly, 1985 cited in Strouse, 1995). While a definite link is shown between the impact of violence in music videos and true violence, many of these early findings do not explain the conditions that make some youth susceptible to the messages, while others remain unaffected (Strouse, 1995).
The industry did not just decide to label the products. It was after intense criticism by parents and other interest groups that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) agreed to adopt the parental advisory logo whenever the music dealt with explicit sex or violence. Newton (1996) claims that even though the warning labels are on, the complaints about music have grown. Currently, the major complaints are about gangsta rap and hip-hop that often contain not only violent themes but themes that show a hatred for women (1996). In 1994, hearings were held on the subject in general, but primarily focused on the type of music that emanated from black ghettos.
At the hearings, Dionne Warwick spoke out against the new violent styles, and predictably producers defended the artists, saying that they were merely expressing themselves (Newton, 1996). The recording companies also cited the first amendment guarantees of free speech (1996). A young rapper, Yolanda Whitaker, also known as Yo Yo, said, violence didn t start with a cassette tape (1996, p.45). Of course, this has been the argument all along. The thinking and incidents as depicted in art forms to some extent reflect real life. Perhaps young black people can better identify with the rappers than, say some of the spoiled but weak voices of the many new white female vocals.
Rap has endured for several decades. But Celente (1997) is not optimistic about its longevity. He theorizes that just as rock and roll replaced swing and ragtime, a new genre will emerge and be upbeat, without the anger and despairs of today’s rock and rap. That remains to be seen. More likely than not whatever genre emerges in the future will reflect the state of the society. If there is strife, which there always is, it will be conveyed by the popular culture mediums.
The thing that most divides rap from the higher forms of art is that it is pop culture and therefore it belongs to the people. It is not a higher pursuit enjoyed just by the wealthy. But rather, the masses are saying that while their tastes may not be societally sanctioned, they don t care. It is their statement, their way of making a point. It is the lower and middle classes who use rap and other forms of pop culture as a voice. Taken away, the dominant culture makes points. But when 2 Live Crew is allowed to perform, pop culture supporters feel redeemed. Thus, it is not the lyrics that often matter. It is their right to say it.
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Huey, John (1991, Jun 17) WHAT POP CULTURE IS TELLING US. June Ed.,
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Strouse, Jeremiah S.; Buerkel-Rothfuss, Nancy; Long, Edgar C.J. (1995, Sep 1) Gender and family as moderators of the relationship between music video exposure and adolescent sexual permissiveness. Vol. 30, Adolescence, pp. 505(17).
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