Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Selling the Lie

I remember back in the 1980s when the line, "I want my MTV," was current and MTV actually played only, you know, music. At this time the big news was that Michael Jackson, the King of Pop, wasn't in the MTV video rotation. The question on America's lips was, "Would Jackson be the first artist to break MTV's color barrier? Would he be the Jackie Robinson of pop music?"

(This was the cute, black, talented Michael Jackson. The one who was stunning the world with his chart-smashing albums; not the sad, creepy, pedophile Michael Jackson currently hiding out in Bahrain.)

There was a news program at the time that profiled the programming directors of MTV as they decided what videos would make it into their playlist. The image of the programming team, the very heart of MTV, was stunning: it was a corporate boardroom filled with white guys (an two white women) in business suits, planning how they were going to sell their latest picks to their compliant teen viewership. They were listening to the latest hopefuls and deciding which ones fit their corporate image.

The irony of a multi-million-dollar media outlet having a corporate image of raw, working-class hero rebellion was a rich beyond words. But this is the music business; and this is how that business has been run from the beginning.

Jonah Goldberg makes this point in his syndicated column:
I am astounded by the naivete of young people -—- black and white --— who actually buy the canned rebelliousness not just of rap music but of most pop music.

[Kanye] West is simply the latest example of decades of hucksterism. Under the headline "The Passion of Kanye West," the rap star graces the cover of Rolling Stone posing as a bloodied Jesus with a crown of thorns. I particularly enjoy the publicity around the piece. Clearly borrowing from the same press release, publications across the country proclaim that the "outspoken rapper defends his brash attitude inside the magazine."

Ah, yes. It's about time. After all, it's so rare to find a rapper with a brash attitude. Normally they're shy, retiring types overflowing with modesty and humility. I was particularly enamored with the "aw, shucks" Andy Griffith personalities of Niggaz Wit Attitude and the late Tupac Shakur.


It'’s all such an obvious con game. We hear so much about how kids today are cynical, skeptical, media-savvy, and so forth. But if they're buying this hooey, they're idiots.

When asked by Rolling Stone if he's worried that his outspokenness might cost him a Grammy, Kanye replied, speaking in the third person: "Kanye is always opinionated and outspoken, and now that it's Grammy time he turns into a house nigga? Come on. That's not even realistic." Right, but the suggestion that the guy with eight Grammy nominations is a pariah, never mind suffering from Christlike persecution, is entirely plausible?

Obviously, none of this is unique to rap or "black" music (quotation marks necessary because white suburban kids are the biggest market for the stuff). Big corporations have been marketing "rebellion" since the 1950s. And the kids fall for it every time. In 1968, Columbia Records promised in an ad that "the man can't bust our music!" Madonna made her career glamorizing slattern chic and attacking bourgeois morality. Now she peddles children's books.

Today, there's a great cellphone commercial in which a corporate executive explains to his assistant that his new billing plan is his own private way of "sticking it to the man." His assistant replies, "But sir, you are the man." The boss says, with some dismay, "I know."

As far as the music industry goes, Kanye West is the man, but he won't admit it. Instead, he sells himself as a victim of a society that can't handle his truth. Four million records sold and saturation adulation in the media suggest that it can handle his truth just fine.

The problem is, it ain't the truth. It's just a scam for kids too stupid to recognize they're being played --— again.

Want to be a real rebel? Read a book.

As they say, read the whole thing.

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