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Stuck on the Realness

What matters is not the enclosure of the work within a harmonious figure, but the centrifugal force produced by it — a plurality of language as a guarantee of a truth that is not merely partial.”  (Italo Calvino)

Hip-hop is dead.  So say half the Internet heads who think the radio don’t play the shit they used to love.  You’re the one who’s dead, say the other half, who are dedicated to convincing the haters that they’ve found today’s realness.  What do they have in common?  They’re all badge-sporting, truncheon-wielding members of the Credibility Cops.  They’re dancing to a different tune these days, but they’ve been around since the first person divided art into two piles and awarded one pile a capital letter.  And they all share the same quality of pointing at the moon, and hoping your focus stays on their hand and not what’s up in the sky.

Authenticity — and its bratty little brother, credibility — has always been a dodge.  The who-did-it-first game has always benefited critics more than creators, who are usually long dead by the time the question gets asked, and even as a critical tool, it’s pretty sadly lacking.  Culture has always been a river, and while there’s infinite rewards to be had from tracing its tributaries along the way, the interesting part has always been where the waters come together and blend, and what they pick up along the way.  Tracing them back to where they came from can only lead you to the ocean and the sky; there’s very little to be learned, either culturally or aesthetically, from stopping ten feet shy of the source and saying “this is where it all began”.  We all have to swim in those same waters, but it muddies them rather than purifies them to get into tedious debates over where the tide is the strongest.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t genuine issues of credibility, authenticity, and sincerity to be raised; it’s just that they’re usually pretty obvious and easily sussed by anyone with more than a casual interested in the art form at hand.  If people were as concerned about things we could do something about (like the exploitation of artists by businesspeople) as they were about things that are essentially inevitable (such as the co-option of the aesthetic tendencies of in-groups by out-groups, or the divergence of experience by practitioners of an art form), then we might make real progress as a culture.  But that’s not the case, and the reason is pretty simple:  artists, who have absorbed, borrowed, swiped and stolen from other artists since time immemorial, are generally pretty unconcerned about the anxiety of influence.  It is readers and viewers, critics, and especially the degraded beef-stewers we might call ‘cultural commentators’ if we wanted to put a tux on Internet mudslinging, who find the authenticity dodge so appealing.

There are, of course, legitimate conversations to be had about issues of authenticity.  The creation and portrayal of characters in fiction that are not part of the author’s in-group; the crossing of class boundaries, especially in the making of radical or revolutionary art; the building of commercially successful art on a foundation of its not-so-successful predecessors:  these are issues worth discussing in any artistic medium.  Sticking strictly to hip-hop, we can learn a lot by having open and honest discussions of the racial, commercial, and demographic reasons that Eminem reached audiences that his forbears never did; the cultural meaning of the fact that hip-hop’s monetary base has shifted from black urbanites to white suburbanites; and the degree of abstraction and fetishization from the portrayal of street life in the culture and its reality in the world.  But those conversations aren’t really taking place, and worse still, where they are talking place is in the private and closed-off world of academia, instead of where it vitally needs to be heard, out in public in the working world.

Instead, what we get is endless evocations of the used-to-be and the ain’t-no-more, which is exactly as stultifying and unproductive as Stanley Crouch’s declaration that the likes of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman killed jazz by doing exactly what his own personal icons did — that is, not stop it in its tracks, but allow it to absorb and retain influences that helped it grow.  Critics and listeners rail against AutoTune, pop choruses, and superstar producers and long for a golden age that itself bore no resemblance to the earliest days of hip-hop, self-righteously ignorant of the fact that they sound exactly like the hinterland dolts who bitch about “crap rap” and how it’s not really music because it doesn’t have a melody or singing.  And if there’s anything more boring and enervating than listening to a room full of white guys arguing over which of them has the honkiest opinions and therefore should be disqualified from talking about hip-hop, I don’t know what it is.  (This is especially maddening to me, since I got into hip-hop at a time when the biggest risk from your peers was being called out for listening to “nigger music” instead of being deemed insufficiently street to have an opinion about Waka Flocka Flame.)

And so the conversation gets bogged down; we learn nearly nothing as the argument gets louder and more hostile.  It is the very definition of a faction fight:  it loses sight of the ultimate goal almost immediately, and the passion and venom behind the positions gets higher as the stakes get lower.  Big problems get worse because everyone is busy creating small problems.  Why?  Because the Credibility Cops aren’t really interested in defining, much less defending, a specific model of authenticity.  They’re just interested in putting forth the idea that one exists, and that they, through the music they choose to champion or attack, possess it, while their opponents do not.  You can almost always mark these debates by their absence of timeliness; they are almost always about what just happened instead of what’s happening, because the artists and the culture they create are too busy moving forward with the things they find interesting than trying to establish the realness of something they were interested in an hour or a media cycle or a lifetime ago.

The biggest tragedy of all this isn’t how fusty or out-of-touch it reveals otherwise intelligent critics to be, or how it causes real critical insight to stumble on a field of irrelevancies.   It’s not even how the Credibility Cops in every artform make you miss all that heavenly glory because they want your focus squarely on the ineffable beauty of their finger.  It’s that people who started doing what they’re doing out of love of an artform have gotten so distracted by what is essentially a Zhdanovite approach to aesthetics, a compulsion to collect it and curate it not on its artistic merits but on how well or how poorly it fits into an arbitrary worldview, that they’re condemned to chasing down political purity instead of the transcendent qualities of the art.  The Credibility Cops are enforcing laws that no longer serve the public, and are stuck on a realness that is entirely abstract.  The treachery in the hearts of men, as always, is jealousy’s best friend.

Mirrored from LEONARD PIERCE DOT COM.

Comments

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fengi
Jun. 15th, 2012 07:49 am (UTC)
I'm amused how in one sentence you go from calling street cred arguments boring to citing your own lengthy history as a listener. I expected you to question all pop revisionism about underground status by pointing out that by 1986 RunDMC's version of Walk This Way had charted higher than the original, but alas not.

It's odd the only black writer named in a hip hop essay is Stanley Crouch as an example of Doing It Wrong. Except "On the Corner: the Sellout of Miles Davis" is a more complex, if cranky, argument - the killing jazz thing an echo of something Davis said himself. Agree or not, isn't Crouch an example of your assertion good critics: "believe in something. They expect art to be a certain way, they demand a particular perspective"? Given Crouch's extensive jazz experience isn't trashing him based on a glib paraphrase of a single essay sort of what you're against?

You say Proper Conversations on Authenticity "aren’t really taking place, and worse still, where they are talking place is in the private and closed-off world of academia, instead of where it vitally needs to be heard, out in public in the working world." You know Racialicious exists. This sweeping declaration positions every discussion by black critics, journalists and the rappers themselves as either academic or part of those worthless Credibility Cops. Not even a nod to Ta-Nehisi Coates or Jay Smooth?

Asserting in an essay about hip hop that art and artists exists in a pure state beyond politics and specific worldviews is like saying Public Enemy and half the rap lyrics ever do not exist. The higher level seems like an incoherent abstraction, an ever shifting standard which conveniently allows most opinions to be deemed lacking the proper transcendence. For someone who claims to be a populist, you sure have contempt for The Peasant Masses.

People aren't having "legitimate conversations to be had about issues of authenticity"? Come on. The contradictions and complexities of authenticity and the intersection of race, class, gender, etc. have discussed cogently and endlessly in places other than the classroom since "Walk This Way" and The Beastie Boys. Prior to hip hop, they were an obsession of punk with many articles in MaximumRockNRoll decrying the authenticity trap. They came up during the British Invasion's plundering of the Blues. It came up in movie reviews of 8th Mile, songs from Pop Goes The Weasel to Hip Hop is Dead and with Kreayshawn led to an examination of the tension of class, gender and race, especially in responses to Toure's piece on white female rappers. Much was specifically questioning the Credibility Cop tendency. This has been the subject of humor since Fear of a Black Hat. When it's even been explored in a Lisa Kudrow flop, I don't think it's something They Won't Talk About. Unless all of this is merely People Doing It Wrong.

As for "If people were as concerned about things we could do something about (like the exploitation of artists by businesspeople)". Why yes, there's no concern about this beyond it being a regular topic of blogs, fiction, movies, songs, the surge of interest in Kickstarter, the arguments for and against music file sharing, etc. etc. This seems to be written from an alternate universe populated by only by the most inane online comment sections and a few enlightened souls.

Look I think you are a very smart and skilled writer on many different topics, and I think generalizations are a valid tool, but this "everyone is stupid about pop culture and art criticism save a select few which includes myself" theme employs generalizations so broad and insubstantial they repeat the very flaws being ranted about. It's like Harlan Ellison at his worst and I hope you know what I mean by that. The result is a rant against authenticity which proclaims most of humanity is to inauthentic to have a valid opinion.
ludickid
Jun. 15th, 2012 03:17 pm (UTC)
I'm amused how in one sentence you go from calling street cred arguments boring to citing your own lengthy history as a listener.

I mentioned my own history once, and then only to illustrate how absurdly combative and yet stakes-free the credibility argument has become.

It's odd the only black writer named in a hip hop essay is Stanley Crouch as an example of Doing It Wrong.

That’s partly because most of the hip-hop critics I’m talking about are white. If it would bolster my argument, I’d be happy to name more names, but I’m fairly sure you know who I’m talking about. More on that later.

Except "On the Corner: the Sellout of Miles Davis" is a more complex, if cranky, argument…

Crouch is certainly a smart critic with a definite perspective, for which I admire him – he’s absolutely better than the content-free reviewers I’ve been railing against here. That said, his argument is way beyond cranky (he’s essentially saying that jazz died in the late ‘60s, which is nonsense, and that it was the specific fault of a handful of avant-gardeists), and that’s not a glib paraphrase, nor has he said it merely in one essay. He’s repeated it endlessly in dozens of reviews and articles; it’s a central part of his appearance in Ken Burns’ Jazz; and I own two collections of his writings and he goes off on the subject in each of them.

You know Racialicious exists. This sweeping declaration positions every discussion by black critics, journalists and the rappers themselves as either academic or part of those worthless Credibility Cops. Not even a nod to Ta-Nehisi Coates or Jay Smooth?

How big is Racialicious’ readership as opposed to XXL’s? How many people know who Jay Smooth is outside of New York, and how many people have heard his TED talk against how many people have heard KRS-One railing about authenticity? And surely you know that plenty of people other than me cite Ta-Nehisi Coates as an exception to the lack of smart, thoughtful critics, rather than an example of how the world is flooded with them. You’re mistaking an observation of dominance for a statement of absolutism; of course there are good critics, there are smart essayists, there are interesting websites. But they are in the minority and getting smaller, while short-sighted, ignorant discourse is becoming more mainstream.

Asserting in an essay about hip hop that art and artists exists in a pure state beyond politics and specific worldviews is like saying Public Enemy and half the rap lyrics ever do not exist.

I shouldn’t be surprised, given that most of your recent responses to me consist of attacks on claims I did not make, but I never said anything remotely like this in the essay, and I challenge you to tell me where you got the notion that I believe anything of the sort.

As for "If people were as concerned about things we could do something about (like the exploitation of artists by businesspeople)". Why yes, there's no concern about this beyond it being a regular topic of blogs, fiction, movies, songs, the surge of interest in Kickstarter, the arguments for and against music file sharing, etc. etc.

The key, of course, was “as concerned”. It’s not, again, that no one has talked about these things; it’s that not enough people have, in places that matter, in ways that have any influence. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the crackdown against IP violations is stronger than ever; filesharing sites are still being shut down constantly; DRM is still a huge factor in the commerce in artistic production; there is a massive backlash against creator’s rights; and artists are still being exploited – arguably worse than ever in some quarters. Apparently all those blogs and fiction haven’t quite shifted the conversation. And Kickstarter, aside from being an example of how the system has failed artists, is at its most successful when used by people who need it the least. If the problem I’m talking about exists only in a handful of comments sections and ‘enlightened’ folks like me, then their combined power must be alarmingly great.
ludickid
Jun. 15th, 2012 03:17 pm (UTC)
Look I think you are a very smart and skilled writer on many different topics, and I think generalizations are a valid tool, but this "everyone is stupid about pop culture and art criticism save a select few which includes myself" theme employs generalizations so broad and insubstantial they repeat the very flaws being ranted about.

It’s good to know you think I’m smart and a good writer; I was beginning to lose hope, since you only seem to attack me anymore. I don’t think everyone is stupid; I just think stupid voices have been allowed to become privileged in our current cultural conversation. Overgeneralizations aren’t helpful, I agree; I spend a good deal of time pointing that out myself. But if you think the state of pop culture at this specific moment is an elevated one, and especially if you think that the art of criticism, at a time when the country’s biggest movie magazine has fired its lead critic on the grounds that they no longer find the position of film critic a necessary one to their operation, is thriving and rich at this moment, well, we’re just gonna have to agree to disagree on that one. I’d love to hear your response, but I’m not hopeful, especially since the last few times you’ve called me out, I’ve written lengthy responses (especially addressing your tendency to criticize me for statements I didn’t make) only to hear nothing from you. But, of course, you’re under no obligation to defend your argument. I think you're smart and a good writer too, which is why I find it so frustrating that you don't seem to read my posts for context, and you so often assail positions you only imagine that I've taken. I have a hard enough time defending my actual points without having to answer for statements I never made.

Edited at 2012-06-15 03:18 pm (UTC)
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ludickid
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Leonard Pierce is a freelance writer wandering around Texas with no sleep or sense of direction. If you give him money he will write something for you. If you are nice to him he may come to your house and get drunk.

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