tag : bright yellow-green apples: sounds on undergrounds

"I see little point in persisting in a discussion with one so obstinate as you" Martin White

Thursday, December 01, 2005

sounds on undergrounds

figure 78.0. matters of taste and decency

Martin asked me a rather tricksy question the other night, which ran as follows:

"I recall that you took a very principled stand against Beenie Man when he was accused, rightly, of writing homophobic lyrics. Yet when hip-hop artists, including those you like, are accused, rightly, of writing misogynistic lyrics you seem to treat it as merely 'unfortunate'. How do you reconcile these two positions?"

I guess this revolves around my very public enjoyment of the single 99 Problems by Jay Z, which goes through the irritations of his life but then proclaims it alright with the chorus: "If you're havin' girl problems I feel bad for you son/I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one."

I had my original concerns about dancehall singers primarily because the music they made, brilliant as it was in musical terms, included lyrics that played up to a violent subculture in Jamaica – where homosexual people are regularly threatened, abused, or killed. In such a context, it’s wholly disturbing to find artists backing up prejudices with conviction (exhorting audiences to kill ‘battyman’) rather than challenging them. Beenie Man, Bounty Killa, et al have made no public contrition, and shame on them.

Now Jay Z’s song, in the context of his other material, is a lot less obviously regressive. He regularly makes tracks about how he’s into girls of all sorts (and lately his partner Byonce), and in the light of that I think it’s fair to say that 99 Problems is a teensy bit playful – trying to make light of those females who’ve done him wrong. The full lyrics bear that out. Indeed I think we can throw the greater charge at him of washing out any really sharp social comment (unlike Public Enemy et al) to sell more records, rather than bad vibes, in this instance. Not that we should assume anything like consistency, since he sings about not advertising clothes a few times then...lo and behold, he’s on adverts for trainers and suits! Reminds me of the disappointment I felt when I found John Peel had done a voiceover for a toothpaste advert. God bless him, but what a silly thing to do.

While I’m on music, there are some great singles out at the moment. Walk Away by Franz Ferdinand, Heard e’m Say by Kanye West, and Denial Twist by the White Stripes.


Blogger Martin said...


To distinguish on the basis of a link to subculture is pretty bizarre, Laurence. I think these might take issue with the idea that there is no subcultural link between misogynistic hip-hop lyrics and subculture.

Interesting you should mention Kanye West as well, given that in as far as I had any particular song in mind it was actually his Gold Digger I was thinking of rather than the Jay-Z one you cite! Now, how will you be arguing that that one is 'playful'?

(I should also stress that I don't believe you can straw-man question as one you 'guess' revolves around one particular song, since clearly the way prejudice manifests itself in a form of popular culture cannot be measured by an individual song. And I'm sure you can find Beenie Man songs that don't mention killing 'battymen' at all. But I find it interesting that your recommendation mentions the first name I would have mentioned in a list of misogynistic tracks!)

6:43 PM  
Blogger hatchris said...

Phew, that does sound Tricksy. Not going to attempt to dive in there!

But I will give you support on the singles you mentioned - all 3 better than the ones I mentioned on my blog.

Of those three, only Franz Ferdinand is played too often, and even that isn't played about 17 times a minute across the FM spectrum, like Madge!

I also like the new Gorillaz tune.

7:14 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

Not so keen on the FF single, but the Gorillaz one is good. Nice, unambiguous, couldn't-even-read-it-as-ambiguous-even-when-it's-a-teensy-bit-playful rapping from, er, 'Bootie Brown'...

(Your links are broken too)

8:27 PM  
Blogger postliberal said...

Martin -

I recommend that article to anyone – it’s very well written and intelligent.

I find it much harder to read the track you were thinking of, as the lingo occasionally springs beyond me. So I’m perhaps speaking from an uninformed position when I say I presumed it was, again, about some girl that’d done the rapper wrong (in this case about people who only marry for money). A further exposition is most welcome, of course.

It’s precisely because I don’t think one song can be the measure of someone that I take a ‘lax’ view of any apparent slip-ups with those two songs. I don’t like 50 Cent and that lot because of their rapping about guns in a relatively uncomplicated manner. But Kanye West and Jay Z make it pretty clear, through their various material, that they don’t hold such destructive views as the more nakedly violent artists I’ve mentioned.

I realise, of course, in saying this, that some might not take ambiguity too well – and even satire can occasionally be taken as affirmation of the very thing it’s messing with. I read the other day that Till Death us do Part is regarded as a pariah by some broadcasters, because it’s disputed as to how far it’s a reflection or critique of racism and misogyny.

3:42 PM  
Blogger postliberal said...

Chris –

The new Gorillaz single’s fantastic, too – though, as with pretty much everything here, I tend to listen to a lot of things on a purely abstract level. Lyrics come into it later, unless they’re very crisp and direct.

The links, they are now fixed.

3:46 PM  

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