In many ways, pop culture in 2012 is more sophisticated than ever. Hit TV shows and movies boast plots that are more twisty-turny than was once allowed; the general public's understanding of what Joni Mitchell once called "the star-maker machinery" seems pretty thorough by now; and there seems less faith put into the all-around ubermensch-ness of singers and actors. All in all, I'd say The State of the Masses is: [ding!] Good.
However, there is one glaring blind spot in our shared cultural conversation that came into view last week. It began when NPR published the second of its series of essays called "You've Never Heard?" which they assign to their "unimaginably young" interns. In the latest installment, 19-year-old Austin Cooper wrote about listening for the first time to Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. His impression? Cooper was nonplussed.
"When 'Don't Believe the Hype' comes on," Cooper writes, "I'm disoriented -- I know I'm listening to one of the most acclaimed rap records of all time, but nothing grabs me and sucks me in. Chuck D.'s unvarnished vocals sit front and center in the mix, accompanied only by percussion that, to me, sounds thin and funk guitar samples that, frankly, I find cartoonish."
Cue the Internet shit storm -- at the center of which we find that aforementioned blind spot within our cultural conversation.
Before we get into the reaction to Cooper's essay, let's put the opinion it expresses in perspective. Cooper spends the first third of his piece apologetically -- and bravely, I'd say -- coming clean for his lack of hip-hop credentials. He admits his introduction to Public Enemy came when he was 9, and "it wasn't exactly Public Enemy -- it was Anthrax and Chuck D.'s version of 'Bring The Noise.'" Oh, and he heard it on the soundtrack to a video game, not a cassingle (as I suppose would be the period-appropriate format for early P.E.).
Cooper goes on to say though his "experience with hip-hop is definitely limited in scope," he considers himself a fan, his big revelation within the genre being Drake's 2010 hit "Over." He quickly fell in love with Rick Ross, Kanye West, and The-Dream -- the "post-millenial strain of atmospheric, producer-driven hip-hop" that is the closest to a zeitgeist-defining sound we've enjoyed so far this century.
So by the time Cooper turns his attention to the Public Enemy album assigned to him, he's clearly established his lowly status as a casual hip-hop fan. More importantly -- and in a stroke of self-awareness unusual for any 19-year-old told to write about a famous album for a readership in the six-or-seven-figures -- Cooper knows he's a casual hip-hop fan. He sets himself up as soft target for music snobs.
And yet, this didn't stop commenters, music journalists, or even The Roots' Questlove from taking aim. As I write this, the comments at the bottom of the page number at 92. They range from BBoyCult's helpful "You should never speak of HipHop (culture/music)...again" to quite a few apparently less helpful comments removed by NPR because they "did not meet the NPR.org Community Discussion Rules." Sure, trolls will troll. But when even Chuck D chimes in via Twitter with a "WHO HIRES AT NPR?" it begs an even better question: Why so indignant, friends?
The debate around the NPR piece is amusing because it shows how rigid and absolute a lot of people's thinking becomes when the subject turns to taste. Taste is the religion of our online lives, the only belief system many people seem to be able to agree upon. The fact there are lots of listeners -- some of them professional music critics -- who simply won't believe that a 19-year-old NPR intern doesn't appreciate vintage Public Enemy is really instructive of how little we actually think about the mechanisms behind taste -- our own, our friends, and of taste in general.
Here's an example of how taste works: I recently went through a month-long obsession with a 1970s band called Wizzard. The tunes from their first album Wizzard Brew are great, but probably not much better than any one of several albums I discovered at about the same time. So why did 10 songs by Wizzard crowd out some mid-period Kinks records and the new Beach House album, music I also discovered last spring?
I wouldn't have been able to parse this then, but now I can tell I was surely seduced by the backdoor Wizzard Brew seemed to provide me into a strange moment in rock music, circa 1974, where glam and sex and lo-fi and and roller skates and the avant-garde and violence looked like they were about to converge -- and become very popular while doing so. I liked thinking about a world in which Wizzard was as influential as, say, the New York Dolls. I mean, how much more of a sense of humor about masculinity might we now have if Roy Wood was a rock icon on par with Iggy Pop or Mick Jagger? My taste for Wizzard was grounded in these considerations -- plus their relative obscurity, I confess. In other words, I had to know a fair amount about the historical context in which Wizzard's Brew was made for it to work on my imagination the way, say, Bloom (my favorite album of 2012) has yet to.
Pretty convoluted, right? It doesn't say too much about me, does it, besides that I've listened to a lot of music from the mid-'70s and maybe skimmed some sociology articles on Wikipedia? That's taste. Judge me if you like. But it's not a wholly natural thing. There's a lot of hopeful self-realization involved in our gravitation toward certain records; a lot of fortification of the identities we wish to possess and project -- a lot of wish fulfillment. I said it last week and I'll say it again: it's not just about the music, man. It rarely is.
If you want to glean knowledge about someone from their listening habits, it's always more edifying to find out what said listener's ear is drawn to in any piece of music -- the words, sonics, tune, etc. The genres and bands and songs we claim to like or dislike? We curate this information in our heads all the time. And you don't curate something unless you expect to eventually stagger a public with your fabulous choices. This is why, when I interview a musician, I almost always ask them what tends to grab their attention in a song (tune? lyrics? sonics?), rather than what bands influenced them. This is a more direct, less self-conscious pathway to the same essential answer.
Which leads me to the truly valuable aspect of our besieged intern's essay on Public Enemy. Cooper does something I think all critics should be forced to do: he names his biases upfront and explains the frame through which he listens to music; he states his expectations. In discussing what leaves him cold about Chuck D's delivery, he lays his musical prejudices and ignorance bare.
"To me, Chuck D.'s legendary flow also comes across like a caricature," Cooper writes. "His syncopation strikes me as strange, foreign -- and when he does reach for melody, like in the opening verses of 'Night of the Living Baseheads,' it ascends harshly like the bark of a drill sergeant. It's rough, rugged, built like a tank -- and I'm coming at it expecting a Bentley."
To state whether you agree with him or not is the least interesting possible response to that passage. It isn't a value system Cooper is elaborating here, it's a predisposition, a tendency, a proclivity. But it means nothing in and of itself. It's how he got there that's interesting. In most any other review, "rough, rugged," and "built like a tank" wouldn't be pejorative terms. And I'm not convinced they are here, either. They're simply the borderlines of one listener's threshold. And we all have 'em. Maybe we should spend less time reacting to others' tastes, whether it be to despise or fall in love with them, and instead retrace the checkerboard of our iTunes libraries to find out how we arrived at our own.
[The Upsetter is a weekly column exploring music news and pop history from a perspective that is both bewitched and bothered. Here, Andrew Stout will explode the old clichés of rock journalism to make room for some new ones.]