Listening With Prejudice
One of the great things about my job is that every once in a while a box of free CDs magically appears in the office and I get to satiate my curiosity about acts I nurse a vague curiosity about but that I'd never actually seek out on my own. One of these acts is Big & Rich. For years I've heard vague murmurings that these flashy fellas were doing mildly interesting, semi-progressive, sorta kinda different things within the homogenous realm of mainstream country.
Of course it doesn't take much to be considered progressive in mainstream country. Even expressing an opinion as meek and measured as "Let's explore some of our diplomatic options before sticking a boot up Saddam's ass" is enough to get you pegged as a bomb-throwing Marxist firebrand (see Chicks, Dixie). Yet I'd read good things about Big & Rich's populist, black music-friendly brand of country so I gave their latest album, Between Raising Hell And Amazing Grace a listen. Singular. One listen.
I was hella unimpressed. It was kind of cool that it featured John Legend and Wyclef Jean, those wildly divisive pop music rebels (at this point does Wyclef even qualify as hip hop?) and a twangy cover of "You Shook Me All Night Long" but for the most part it was just slick, forgettable, radio-friendly pop music. It has subsequently come to my attention that Big & Rich are homophobic right-wing nutjobs, which makes me feel a little better about not liking their music.
It certainly could have been worse but it left me with little desire to listen to Big & Rich ever again. My mainstream country-listening experiment was over not long after it began. I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a tiny, obnoxious little part of me that felt awfully smug about being flexible enough to even listen to a mainstream country album. Me, a hip hop guy, listening to Big & Rich! Aren't I terribly open-minded in a close-minded, narrow, judgmental sort of way?
I found myself doing something I abhor in other people: judging an entire musical genre by a single CD. I get frustrated when readers buy an Outkast or Kanye West CD, are under whelmed and conclude "I guess hip hop has hit a dead end creatively. It's back to indie rock for me!" That kind of thinking is incredibly reductive and myopic but it's also completely understandable. Few people have the time, energy or money to purchase a broad cross-section of contemporary music spanning an infinite numbers of genres and styles. So we inevitably tend to gravitate towards the big, buzzed-about releases that end up standing in for entire sprawling, diverse multifaceted genres.
This of course puts undue pressure on artists. The Roots' new album should ideally be judged on its own merits. It shouldn't become a referendum on the vitality of hip hop. But if you only buy/listen to one hip hop CD that year it's going to assume a major greater significance in determining your opinion on hip hop than if you listened to a steady stream of hip hop releases.
This all ties in with something that's been debated throughout the site. At what point does trying to maintain a rich, well balanced, deep and diverse pop culture diet become drudgery instead of fun? Should I force myself to listen to twenty more mainstream country albums before even thinking about formulating an opinion about the genre? Or should I just throw up my hands and say "Eh, I can see why other people like it but it's just not my thing". What if the genre in question is hip hop?
On the message boards recently a commenter defined a hipster as someone who looks down on the tastes of people whose opinions he deems as inferior without doing the necessary research. Then a commenter replied that it's pop culture, dammit, research shouldn't be a prerequisite. I'm sympathetic to both views. I think knowing a great deal about movies or music or books can greatly enhance your enjoyment of those subjects. A Brian De Palma buff is going to get a lot more out of, say Femme Fatale than someone who has never seen a De Palma movie. What fans might hail as a master class on the director's lifelong obsessions and a virtuoso exercise in style could strike non-fans as a ridiculous uber-camp distinguished only by gratuitous nudity. Mmmm, gratuitous nudity.
Yet entertainment is supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to be homework. It's pop music. People buy Kanye West's albums cause they like his personality and his beats, not because they're working towards an advanced degree in hip hop theory. As a hip hop writer I wish everyone liked hip hop or at least had an open mind about it. I don't mind people saying that they don't like hip hop or can't relate to it or prefer other forms of music. But it angries up my blood when people listen to only the biggest new releases and declare hip hop a dead art form because Idlewild doesn't speak to them the way Low End Theory did when they were in college.
As someone who listens to no mainstream country I have no right to issue a blanket statement about its health or lack thereof. I think the cost of entry for making those kinds of judgments should be a certain level of engagement with the music and the culture. The same holds true for hip hop. Bill O'Reilly shouldn't be condemning hip hop because he obviously doesn't know jack shit about it. Heck, he can't even pronounce Nas' name correctly.
Still, do concepts like "cost of entry" even have any place in pop culture? If you have to do homework and preparation in order to "appreciate" something should it even qualify as entertainment? Alright, enough of me, my muddled thoughts and half-baked ideas. What do you think?