And hell, why not? ASHER ROTH IS TEH SUXXOR. ASHER ROTH IS A ROBERT HERRICK REINCARNATE.
First off, Jay “Made Of Win” Smooth did a great interview with Dan Charnas on whiteness and hip hop discussing how Asher Roth presents himself as separate from hip hop culture (and black people) as a whole, how he articulates this by emphasizing his whiteness, and what it means in this context to market his whiteness as a novelty. One of the more telling things is how Roth colors conspicuous consumption as a “black thing” or a “black rapper thing” as though materialism and excess and bloat isn’t a part of the music world in general, or of status-seeking American culture at large. Another one of the more interesting facets of this whole Asher Roth deal is how Roth presents himself as a suburban alternative to all this oogy urban ghetto rap that white kids supposedly can’t relate to (but buy a whole lot of, considering they “can’t relate” to it), completely missing that gangster rap is not the entire genre, that alternatives have always existed, and that suburban angst is a relatively common topic in hip hop. Which raises additional questions, like something Smooth says, about “what it means to be an alternative, and who is or isn’t seeking an alternative.”
Meanwhile, everyone is all, newsflash: black people live in the suburbs. A lot of black rappers come from the friggin’ suburbs.
I don’t know about this Asher Roth kid. He lacks the Big Picture. Maybe his ignorance is his persona. You’d almost think he’s trolling his own industry, except generally someone smart enough to market that kind of persona doesn’t say things like this.
But whatever. I’ve been reading about him, sampling his music, and I still don’t understand what his experience brings to the table. Still, one of the reasons I’m fascinated by the discussion is that I’m having these ongoing conversations with my nieces and nephews, and now my own son, about why they don’t like rap, and one of the reasons it confounds me is that their primary reason appears to be a general ambivalence toward a largely Black culture. I could be wrong in asserting this ambivalence, I could just be a pushy, presumptive aunt and mother, but our conversations usually devolve into rockist defenses of what “real music” is, with my young family members asserting that music isn’t music unless it’s made by (white) auteurs, i.e. sampling isn’t authentic music-making, and rapping is inferior to singing. Above all, they insist, it can’t be derivative. Which kills me, and breaks my heart a little — most all music, art, literature, whatever, is derivative, socially and artistically, and a big part of what makes engaging with and critiquing all kinds of art forms fun. But what these kids are essentially saying, and what breaks my heart, is that “white music” is art and “black music” is not only not-art, but not even worthy of critical consideration. Or, when white artists are derivative it’s genius, and when black artists are derivative it’s illegitimate. Or, black artists aren’t auteurs.
And part of their defense against rap is also what Asher Roth wrongly deduces — that hip hop is inherently about crime, money, drugs, and sex, like rap as a genre began and ended fifteen years ago with The Chronic. Like rock music doesn’t revolve around these same elements.
It feels like I’m arguing about the merits of hip hop with my grandpa.
In 2004, Kalefeh Sanneh wrote a great piece for the NYTimes on “rockism” as a racist, sexist, homophobic, pervasive phenomenon, and why it’s ruining music criticism, and how it affects audiences:
Rockism isn’t unrelated to older, more familiar prejudices – that’s part of why it’s so powerful, and so worth arguing about. The pop star, the disco diva, the lip-syncher, the “awesomely bad” hit maker: could it really be a coincidence that rockist complaints often pit straight white men against the rest of the world? Like the anti-disco backlash of 25 years ago, the current rockist consensus seems to reflect not just an idea of how music should be made but also an idea about who should be making it.
If you’re interested in – O.K., mildly obsessed with – rockism, you can find traces of it just about everywhere. Notice how those tributes to “Women Who Rock” sneakily transform “rock” from a genre to a verb to a catch-all term of praise. Ever wonder why OutKast and the Roots and Mos Def and the Beastie Boys get taken so much more seriously than other rappers? Maybe because rockist critics love it when hip-hop acts impersonate rock ‘n’ roll bands. (A recent Rolling Stone review praised the Beastie Boys for scruffily resisting “the gold-plated phooey currently passing for gangsta.”)
From punk-rock rags to handsomely illustrated journals, rockism permeates the way we think about music. This summer, the literary zine The Believer published a music issue devoted to almost nothing but indie-rock. Two weeks ago, in The New York Times Book Review, Sarah Vowell approvingly recalled Nirvana’s rise: “a group with loud guitars and louder drums knocking the whimpering Mariah Carey off the top of the charts.” Why did the changing of the guard sound so much like a sexual assault?
It’s a great essay, still relevant, highly recommended. It lends a more complex explanation to all the assholes I knew growing up who wrote off the female artists I loved as just chick artists who needed to quit it with the earnesty already and show us their tits. But it also explains why these damned kids — MY RELATIVES! — with their squeamish relationship to a largely black culture would write off hip hop en masse as “too flashy, too crass, too violent, too ridiculous, unlike those hard-working rock ‘n’ roll stars we used to have.” You say rockism, I say racism.
So why doesn’t my kid like hip hop? I don’t know. He’s nine years old. He thinks Kurt Cobain and Rivers Cuomo are the best thing since sliced bread. He loves Queen and Elton John, too. He loves his guitar. But I also know that today my child of color turns his nose up to most music that is not made by straight white men, and that raises all kinds of questions for me that I don’t know how to handle.
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