Monday, November 12, 2007

tokenizing hip hop in the media

My crack team of researchers has been working 'round the clock for the past five years on this project. We've burnt out a lotta grad students and ruined a few lives, but i think the results are worth it.

We've been studying how music lists (top singles of '07, best albums of 1992, most overrated artists of all time, hot new releases, whatever, any kind of list) so often tokenize hip hop, sometimes tokenizing black artists in general but definitely hip hop. From national magazines to college newspapers to blogs to alt-weeklies, the pattern is consistent on every level.

For any given list, you will have, on average:

~10 bands
~2 hip hop acts

We've been keeping track of every music list from every kind of publication (omitting, obviously, hip hop-oriented publications) and feeding numbers into the supercomputer for half-a-decade now, and the results don't lie. Even when the lists purport to be all-encompassing.

But the interesting side of this isn't the numbers, it's HOW the genre is tokenized and by WHOM. For example, our numbers show that for every "best new albums" or "best singles" list from the past year, here's how it broke down.

Small-time bloggers and smaller-town alt-weeklies tended to mention Brother Ali and Sage Francis, often relating how different these acts are from the "bling bling stuff on the radio." They used words like "conscious," "passionate," "political," and "actually talented."

Fashionable online sources and smaller-circulation print magazines, seeking to distance themselves from the perceived aesthetic elitism of the small-time bloggers, talked about Ghostface, Clipse and UGK. They allied themselves with a side of hip hop that is decidedly mainstream sonically and in terms of content, yet still not TOO widely known. They used words like "underappreciated," "real," "veteran," and "shabbletastic."

Major publications talked about Kanye and 50, because the Kanye/50 story this year was really EASY to write about. You don't have to understand the music to talk about Kanye and 50, good vs. evil, blah blah blah. They used words like "vitamin water" and "battle" and "controversial." Oh and Jay-Z too, because his album was tied to a movie.

So every sub-level of critic-dom has it's own "kind" of hip hop to tokenize. These hip hop acts are sprinkled in amidst a surging sea of Arcade Fire, Battles, White Stripes, TV on the Radio, Wilco, Radiohead, whatever. When the writing is in list format, the hip hop entries on the list are never #1, nor are they last; instead, they are tucked quietly in the second and fourth quarters of the list. I can send you a PDF of our equations if you want.


Okay okay okay.

Before i start getting nasty comments about how i just don't get it, i'll be serious. I understand WHY this happens. I'm not saying that some great injustice is taking place because hip hop doesn't get equal face-time with indie rock on critics' lists these days. Hell, look at country. Or metal. Or punk. Or hardcore. Or any number of marginalized genres. At least they throw a bone to hip hop, right?

I don't know... I used to get mad when a list would omit hip hop entirely, but i almost long for that time now. If a given writer likes indie-rock, shouldn't we should let him or her write about indie rock and not try to shoe-horn hip hop into their area of expertise? Too often, we get hip hop coverage from people who either don't understand the music or are flat-out using the music to gain some kind of indie-cred or not appear rockist or whatever. Yes, some of these writers are sincere and know what they're talking about-- i'm not saying that ALL rock-oriented writers are incapable of "understanding" hip hop. That's definitely not true. But there is some hackery going on.

And is it good or bad for the music? On one level, it's breaking artists to new audiences. Brother Ali wouldn't be where he is today if it wasn't for the support (both informed and uninformed) of rock-oriented blogs and publications. But is that worth the whole "he isn't like the MTV guys who just talk about guns and cars" talk that accompanies damn near every review and serves to negatively otherize (in a sense) hip hop as a whole? Is the ironic hipster-blog fetishization of coke-rap and southern aesthetics good for hip hop? Or does it just make the bloggers seem cool? Is the elevation of artists like Kanye and Eminem to "superstar-famous-but-not-just-for-music" status serving to build a stronger foundation for hip hop in American popular culture, or is it just by-the-books celebrity creation that ultimately cheapens the art? Would it be better for everyone if we segregated music criticism (hip hop journalism on this website, indie-rock coverage on that website, etc.)?

Are these questions rhetorical and possibly pretentious? Maybe. But i think they're worth thinking about, ESPECIALLY if you are a music writer struggling with this issue. I don't have any answers.


yeah right said...

"~10 bands
~2 hip hop acts"

Now tell me how Classical music is tokenized too.

Or how about Samba music?

Your study is seriously flawed and I doubt you burned out any grad students.

el guante said...

read the entire post.

Anonymous said...

Criticism has been taken over by simplistic good/bad endorsements of popular music. Maybe it's the concept of a best-of-the-year list--including a perfectly balanced one--that's flawed.