We all have a personal sense of music. The knowledge that the artists of the day are speaking to your generation, issues you are familiar with, the things that make you happy, sad, etc. The reason we find the good stand up comedians good is their ability to reflect us back to us, but with such style and wit as to produce joy. Or at the very least a better dick joke. Back in the mid 90’s—the decade where I acquired my personal sense of music—things were changing in big ways. Not the radical upheaval of the 1960’s but the kind of artificial change propelled by a very tight cycle of rebellion and re-integration. Nirvana and NWA.
Dr. Dre, a member of the iconic gangsta rap group—perhaps the group that defined gangsta rap—NWA, is now a billionaire thanks to his music industry credentials in appliance form. Identity you can buy.
The Dre Beats headphones scream “I can afford a $300 pair of headphones, I have good music taste and can identify quality, even though my consumption of music is relegated to pop music and that one Taylor Swift video on youtube.”
NWA was the personification of rebellion. NWA Just Didn’t Give a Fuck. They rapped about things that were previously unheard of in popular music: liberal recreational drug use, misogyny, violence against the police, skill in manipulating women into bed, the bragging way with which they expressed how loveless it all was, and the acquisition and possession of luxury items such as expensive spirits, brand name watches, luxury cars and elaborate houses.
The best thing that you could be, in the eyes of the ‘rap game’ was a player. Someone who was ruthless, selfish and untrustworthy, but it was all done with style. Imagine my 15 year old head spinning hearing about the escapades of these artists. I hadn’t yet learned about the unreliable narrator. Obviously, this kind of worldview would attract critics. It’s considered rude to give your anonymous sex partner a sexually transmitted disease, and murder is generally frowned upon. But these guys were confident, and the world loves confidence.
The world is a simple place to the overconfident. There’s very little room for self-doubt, because if you know that you’re right, you miss out on the discovery process and rich wealth of knowledge and perspective gained from exploring the ways in which you may be incorrect. People with that kind of self assuredness can never fully appreciate the beauty of logic and the richness of humanity. If someone is Muslim, Catholic, female, old, gay, atheist or gaytheist, you don’t really see them as an equal unless you care. Care is the currency doubt.
The overconfident handily dispatch any criticism in the simplest of terms. If you disagree with modern American imperialism, you hate freedom. If you disagree with an artistic choice, it’s automatically an uninformed opinion. If you don’t love trucks then you’re just not enough of a man. If the winters are colder, global warming can’t possibly be happening. Don’t be a playa-hata.
Shortly after “playa” entered the rap lexicon, “playa-hata” was a natural edition. “Don’t hate the playa, hate the game (as if the game would exist without participants.)” Haters didn’t understand the things the Playa must go through on a day-to-day basis; the Playa works hard and has a code of Playa ethics, such as bros before hos. The Playa was born into a tough system that was sink or swim. He did what he had to do to get by. Heavy is the head that wears the feathered velvet purple hat.
Successful art requires bearing ones self. We admire those that take risks and then succeed. It’s the thrill of gambling on a much more noble scale. If we see someone of great raw talent and they never exceed the expectations placed on them, they’re seen in part as a failure. If a sports hero has superior genes, goes on to have a long career but it’s not marked by stories of greatness, we are somehow disappointed as spectators. That’s why The Phantom Menace was only Jake Lloyds favorite Star Wars film (and probably not even.) The person who we’re supposed to be cheering for has no real agency, handles himself with a super natural grace (because the force.) and even when he executes his finishing move, destroying the command center and disabling the bad guys’ robot army, it comes as a result of him just hitting random buttons. He risks nothing, gains the admiration of the princess, wins the war and exposes a conspiracy. His victory is the cinematic equivalent of winning a game of pin the tail on the donkey.
The characters we really root for—Rudy, Rocky, The entire cast of the Goonies, Thomas Beckett—willingly go beyond their comfort zone, or risk so much in order to achieve something that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. The whole Kennedy moon speech and what have you.
The importance of vulnerability as it relates to personal development and self acceptance has been extensively studied. In her book, Daring Greatly, Brenee Brown tells her own story of vulnerability and the things she found when she studied fear and shame. It’s a good read, and though you’ll find it in the self help section, it doesn’t read like a self help book. It doesn’t approach the reader as if they are this broken thing or a beautiful and unique snowflake that just needs the power of positive thinking in order to shine. Shame is a lifelong problem, and that’s why we as audience members continuously connect throughout our lives. Coping with adults that don’t understand is a very time-specific problem, but battling shame speaks to everyone. That’s how we can relate to Carl Fredrickson, the only octogenarian protagonist in a disney movie. Wall-E had a two word vocabulary, and yet he made for the best silent film I have ever seen. Silent for the most part. The movie has dialog only about 10% of the time, and most of that is exposition through pre-recorded messages.
Even films that feature a hardened professional humanize them in some way. The detective that spills coffee on himself in the opening scene, the cop whose ex wife is a real battle ax, (those in law enforcement need a lot of humanizing apparently) the young professional who can do it all yet has a secret crush or an ailing parent, the reluctant hero all help us connect. A movie where the main character was an ultra confident superhuman, or overcomes a challenge without changing in the end would be boring. That’s why no one would see a Donald Trump biopic.
When we see art that moves us, it’s not often art as artifact. Rare is the art patron who bursts into tears upon seeing an Egyptian sarcophagus, still, part of us marvels and says “that’s really brave to put yourself out there” upon seeing personal art that requires far less “skill.”
Hater style criticism
If Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy, being a player hater certainly is. To hate—in that sense of the word—is to risk nothing. The distaste that we feel is sudden and without nuance. It is something we feel in our gut. Our visceral reactions can be boiled down to a few explanations. The closer a sensation is to the seat of our emotions, the more we feel it physically. So on one hand we can often trust when something just ‘feels wrong.’ Our sense of empathy and altruism start early on and inform every subsequent stage of our development. Unfortunately we’re also taught arbitrary religious and societal rules. Since these values are taught while we are developmentally open—our foundational years—we very easily internalize artificial rules that we fall back on when we encounter something foreign. We often develop an overactive emotional immune system.
We react in very blunt ways all the time, but part of us realizes that unearned values are shortcuts. We play the role of hater all the time, but when that style of value is used on us, we can more readily see it for what it is. We very rarely know ourselves, and we ignore what seems so transparent in others.
It’s like that inner monologue that seems so reasoned, logical and heavy. When we try to explain ourselves to others however, it seems small, difficult to explain and often doesn’t make sense in the way we expect others to.
That’s why we have such appreciation for those that can articulate the things we feel in ways that are accessible, logical, funny, or incisive. The best standup comedians can take all of that. What we find funny are our experiences reflected back at us in a much more attractive package.
Rockstars, by definition are larger than life. The idea of the performer as persona was a pretty natural evolution. Artists of antiquity had patrons. Leonardo, Caravaggio, Vermeer and the like were able to work in part because of rich patrons. Looking at a piece of art, we tend to get a sense of the personality of the artist, whether or not that sense is correct. Back then, the only way someone could communicate a groundbreaking idea was to execute it in stone or on canvas. You executed a philosophy in practice and that was how you made your mark. Text was the playground of religious scholars, and their intention has always been to preserve and interpret, not to put forth new ideas as new ideas. Even when a concept was invented, like the trinity, it derives its authority from a preexisting authority. The Roman Catholic Church had to manufacture a bible that included the concept. If it were presented as a completely new idea, it would have no authority.
With the rise of capitalism and secularism, performers and artists became packages for consumption. There was only one Leonardo, but if you had enough money you could see great opera singers on stage, or plays performed by great actors. The posters of Toulouse Lautrec for the Moulin Rouge often featured well known performers and celebrities of the day.
Personification became even more concentrated as music became more of a product. Miles Davis is known just as much for his personality as he is for his music. The image of a musician became a shorthand for personality and the idea that they were selling. As this practice became second nature and the public became familiar with ideas like semiotics—the study of objects and their meanings on different levels—a persona became easier to digest because it was sold as persona.
When David Bowie invented Ziggy Stardust, we all knew that there was a performer named David Bowie and that he invented Ziggy. We know that it’s made up, he knows that we know that it’s made up, but we buy in anyway because the music is good, it’s new, and it makes us think about things we normally wouldn’t because of the way it’s presented. Almost like how science fiction (good science fiction) helps us look at modern problems by removing them from context.
There is a fine line between something perfectly summed up and an oversimplification of an idea.
Persona in Music
Every religion has a prophet, and music is no different. Out of all the artforms, music comes closest to the religious experience. We go to concerts the way we go to church. The rituals—the opener, the set break, the encore, the tshirt sales, in some sects we have the smashing of the guitar—are there in spades.
Just like in religion, its followers try to emulate their prophet. The danger comes from the genuine prophets. Bowie was a prophet, but he sold himself as a false prophet. Hank Williams, Woodie Guthrie, Johnny Cash, Slick Rick, on the other hand, were the real deal. People raised in poverty with real stories to tell, and an impulse to tell them that was greater than the need to sell. They were genuine prophets, but they spawned generations of people selling artifice as the genuine article.
Rap artists claim originality and superiority in matters musical monetary and sexual so often that its become ridiculous. Country music likewise makes a very big deal of not acting like those city folk, enjoying the taste of subpar beer and never miss an opportunity to extol the virtues of hunting and truck ownership.
Their most ardent fans have complete buy in. They’re the ultimate fans, like those that take professional wrestling seriously. There’s a ton of skill and showmanship involved in the ‘sport’ but anyone older than 12 that believes pro wrestling is the real deal needs a lesson in the Unreliable Narrator.
Taylor Swift is a musical anomaly. Her initial success came from country music, where the currency is authenticity, but has made her real money from rock world, where emotion is far more important. Rock artists trade in raw feeling, and the on-the-surface emotion. It doesn’t matter if your band consists of illustrated rapping primates or if you bite the heads off of chickens on stage. Using form to produce emotion is far more important than stoking up feelings of jingoism through a generic sound.
Taylor Swift sings with pride about how crazy she is, her tumultuous relationships and how people criticize her for being crazy and having tumultuous relationships. She is trying to combine rock artifice with country music artifice, and that’s a dangerous thing.
When we accept things at face value, it robs us of perspective and we settle for experiences lacking in richness and nuance. Even today, the best art and commentary has nuance as a common thread. The Colbert Report, Louis C.K., Ben Folds, Radiolab, all of the best art has a depth and self awareness that is diametrically opposed to the Taylor Swift mentality.
Jon Stewart responds to criticism with a montage of Fox News talking heads or a field piece illustrating the absurdity of ‘religious freedom’ laws whose only purpose is to deny equal rights to American citizens. All Miss Swift can muster is “Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.”
So while being hated on makes one feel a sense of persecution and therefore validated, the balls-out ‘I don’t care, that’s just me’ attitude must be tempered with a clever approach or we all suffer.
I want a 5 course masterpiece created by an expert chef, but the current trend is the equivalent of a microwave meal complete with dinosaur shaped chicken nuggets and yogurt you suck out of a tube. And I’m sure you do too.
In short, Hate on Haters.