"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Response to "Immortal Technique"

In a comment to the previous blog, Anonymous recommends for our listening the “4th Branch” cut on the album called Immortal Technique. Having listened to it and to some of the other cuts on the same album, I have to say that my empathic response is negative.

First of all, the rapper is neither singing nor speaking but pounding his words at us with no distinction of emphasis or hierarchy of importance. As writing teachers often will say, all emphasis is no emphasis. Therefore, we can’t discern where we are intended to find significance, and we are left to conclude that the meaning lies in the medium itself, the pounding phrases, the angry tone, the bitterness. There is, of course, room for righteous anger in art. But to what end is it exhibited here?

Second, the images delivered in the words are piled on so thick and fast that we feel we are in the presence not of insight or illumination but of propaganda. It doesn’t even matter what opinions or attitudes the words are trying to sell us. What we feel is that we are being harangued, rhetorically beaten into submission. All our effort to comprehend and judge rightness or wrongness, agreement or disagreement, all our hope to be submerged in meaningfulness, is thwarted by the brutality of the delivery and the presumption that whatever the message may be, it is being forced down our throats whether we like it or not.

Third, no particular image in the driving list of complaints is either clear or illuminating. For example, to liken Condoleezza Rice to Sally Hemings is certainly suggestive, but of what? Is the artist saying that Dr. Rice is no more than a slave concubine to the President? Does he realize what a remarkable woman Sally Hemings was, how important she was to Thomas Jefferson and so to the early years of the nation, how complex are the meanings of her role in American History? What, precisely, has the artist got against Dr. Rice? Or perhaps the line is intended as a compliment. For what? Apparently we are supposed to know already, which implies that the song is really intended not to provide an experience of meaning but merely to reinforce already shared notions—i.e., propaganda.

Finally, the background rhythm and sound are visceral, repetitive, primitive, brutalizing.

If I think of a student of mine walking around the school or the mall or his home or the beach or sitting in his car listening to this kind of music hour after hour on an iPod, which effectively shuts out the rest of the world and give this music sole sovereignty over his consciousness for the time he or she is absorbed in it, I cannot help fearing the effects: a hardening of the feelings into unreflecting anger; a reinforcement of the sense of being forever wronged, forever a victim; an impoverishment of the imagination of what is possible in music and in poetry; and an increasingly grim Manichean belief in the eternal war of darkness (“them”) and light (“me”).

Not one of the four classical and three theological virtues that tradition holds up for our aspiration (justice, wisdom, temperance, courage, faith, hope, and love) seems to be promoted by this song. Neither of the two experiences that Aristotle identifies as the purposes of art, delight and instruction, are evoked by it. Instead, it treats us to an ongoing, hopeless, helpless, demoralizing brutalization of our senses meant to convey to the listener a vision of reality as ugly, vicious, dark, and unredeemable.

Now no artist who really believes that reality is only dark and unredeemable would bother to make a work of art. But this artist and his producers do believe in selling such a picture of reality, a picture whose sales will provide the real-world benefits they do believe in: fame, money, female groupies.

Only artists themselves in despair of meaning, who worship the idol of worldly pleasure, could be willing to benefit from this poisoning of their own future by the poisoning of the imaginations of the young. I cannot hear such music without seeing in it either willful or abysmally ignorant corruption of the youth, the trampling on their hope and aspiration, for the sake of worldly gain. Corruption is in the words, the music, the attitude, the purpose, the goal, and the effects.

Under “Additional Personnel” the album lists artists named Crayz Walz, Pumpkinhead, Loucipher, Tonedeff, Diabolic, and Poison Pen. The names say it all. Why don’t we take them at their word?

I would welcome a cogent refutation of this argument, anything that might offer a sliver of hope to counteract the despair in which such music soaks the listener.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Emo and Scene: More on Pop Music

Another classroom discussion of popular music has led to the request that I discuss the styles of teen music, dress, My Space postings, and self-image called "Emo" and "Scene."

After a little reading on Urban Dictionary.com, I realize that these styles are deeply uninteresting to one who has seen it all before in various incarnations. They are the newest clothing of the oldest of Romantic clichés: ironically lockstep uniformity in worship of the individual, of emotion for its own sake, and of rebellion against the villain "society."

Though the various styles of music sound different, nearly all the styles of teen-popular music at the moment are versions of the same thing: a mostly shallow and ignorant Romanticism driven by unexamined passions and prejudices expressed in music of painfully ear-piercing noise or lethe-like, spirit-dulling sentimentalism. My initial grown-up's response to nearly all of this music is "get real."

This is not surprising. Most music in any age is not much good. The great classical composers remain in our consciousness because of their greatness, but thousands of pieces of "classical" music are deservedly lost to us. Same with most jazz, most "classic rock," most anything. However, different ages too have their characteristic qualities, and it is not unheard of for the art of an entire age to be deservedly forgotten for its banality or dullness or shallow sensationalism. To me, we seem to be in the midst of such an age.

But I don't want merely to discount my student's attachments to their favorite songs and favorite artists. Their feelings matter to me and their attachments are real. But I also have a calling to help them see the meaning in their attachments. So I propose the following deal:

If anyone would like to persuade me of the seriouness, depth, value, beauty, or truth in his or her favorite songs or musicians, FIRST read my blog posting of Tuesday, March 14, 2006, called "Pop Music and Quality" and absorb its points. THEN contribute to the comment section of this posting (by clicking on the pencil icon at the end of the posting) one paragraph about why you honestly judge a piece of music to be valuable on grounds more than mere sentimental feeling. I will seek it out (or borrow it from you) and listen to it and then respond to your comment as honestly as I can.

Who knows? Maybe you'll convert me. But first, study "Pop Music and Quality."

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Footnote to Multitasking

Check out this website for some scientific information on multitasking.