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[whitespace] Blaming The Music

When Congress goes after hip-hop, common sense takes the rap

By Gina Arnold

THERE'S a lady in my baby group whose kid is named Marshall. No doubt it seemed a perfectly good name at the time, but unfortunately, her French in-laws hate the name because it reminds them of the Marshall Plan, while here in America, her friends all ask her if she named him after Eminem, whom he resembles, and keep calling him Slim Shady.

Come to think of it, though, many babies look a little like Eminem. Or maybe what I mean is, Eminem looks like a huge baby: petulant, shrill and as if he has a load in his pants.

Eminem's music has been under fire again, this time on Capitol Hill, where he was one of the only white artists to be vilified at a Senate hearing about entertainment ratings, chaired by Senator Joseph Lieberman. At this hearing, which took place at the end of July, the Committee on Governmental Affairs was presented with testimony from the Federal Trade Commission that looked at explicit content in 29 record albums, 22 of which were by black hip-hop artists.

The testimony was, needless to say, all negative, but near the end of the hearing, Russell Simmons, president of Def Jam Records, was (reluctantly) invited to make a statement. (That is, only after having been turned down when he requested an audience in a formal manner.)

Simmons tried to defend rap, reiterating his main points in a New York Times editorial. Those were that the government never asks artists to explain themselves artistically, preferring instead to "talk about these performers than with them" and that hip-hop is "an important art form ... and to condemn it without understanding it is irresponsible, to disregard its huge audience is arrogant [and] to deny its power and artistic merit in an attempt to silence it is downright dangerous."

Simmons' points are well taken, but there's a level of disingenuousness there, too, because the whole point of rap music's risqué content is that it's profitable. Simmons claims that many of the artists involved do feel responsible to the community and are addressing these issues themselves, but that's an opinion that I question.

Not only that, but telling people they can't judge art because they "don't get it" is the oldest trick in the book, going back to the days when noblemen looked at pictures of nudes in the guise of aesthetic elitism.

But you can't blame Simmons for his ire. After all, this is not the first time that rap and/or rock has been monitored and discussed by the government by a long shot, and it's always entirely unclear what they think they'll accomplish.

My theory is that whenever you see a government inquiry into rock lyrics or an initiative about flag burning, you can presume there's some important issue--like gas prices, environmental standards or the possible bombing of Iraq--that they're trying to divert our attention away from.

The Song Remains The Same

MEANWHILE, this month MTV turned 20. I can hardly believe it! I remember the days before MTV, when Solid Gold and Don Kirschner's Rock Concert were the only visual venues for us to see live rock. (Those and midnight movies at the Varsity Theater in Palo Alto: The Song Remains the Same and Ladies and Gentlemen, Introducing the Rolling Stones.)

For those too young to remember, Don Kirschner's Rock Concert was terrible; it always featured bands like April Wine and Head East, in between Earth Wind & Fire, Roxy Music and Bad Company. Everyone on it looked wildly outlandish, with fluffy hair and jumpsuits, but we liked it anyway. Being far too young to go to rock concerts, it was our one link to a world that seemed glamorous and dangerous and, oh, so far away.

I suppose Unplugged and Backstage Pass fill the same need today, as do all those MTV specials like Spring Break, Live From Woodstock 99 and The Tibetan Freedom Concert, or this month's special 20th Anniversary Party (currently in high rotation).

If you can't go to a rock concert because you're too young, too poor or too remotely located, MTV brings it all to you with an added measure of stagy glamour and fake spontaneity. But personally, when I see rock stars like the guy in Limp Bizkit or Sugar Ray palling around with Carson Daly, I am inevitably reminded of dwarfish court jesters with irons on their legs dancing like idiots for the king, because that's pretty much the dynamic now between rock bands and MTV: total thralldom.

But I could go on about the effect of MTV on society forever. I could analyze it from an economic or a social or a political point of view, talk in academese about the hegemonic influence on global culture, or in hip-hop--"It's dope!"

The MTV story has any number of angles, of which First Amendment issues are only the smallest part. But I do think, contrary to that hearing that blames it all on rap, that MTV is solely responsible for the supersexualization of rock, from Madonna and Britney and Lil' Kim to those Aerosmith videos that basically promote pederasty and incest. The subtext of everything MTV has done since Day One has been sexually charged.

As for violence, I believe MTV nominally tries to keep its videos violence-free, but on the other hand, it has deliberately made superstars of some of the most sexist, racist and homophobic artists of our time: Eminem, N.W.A., Guns N' Roses, Limp Bizkit and a host of others.

No doubt MTV would say--if asked--that We the People chose these representatives to be our heroes, and not the other way around, but I'm not so sure if the chicken didn't precede the egg. It doesn't take a genius to realize that MTV glorifies acts that glorify sex and violence because those things sell better than acts that don't.

No government hearing is ever going to stop that from being the case, so why waste everyone's time and money? Senator Lieberman would do better to investigate the effects of flag burning on young people's psyches; he'd get more done.

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From the August 16-22, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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