Bad Raps: Music Rebels Revel in Their Thug Life

Article excerpt

Nothing in the culture wars makes a stronger argument for the defense of conservative values than rap music. Rap expresses the worst kind of images emanating from a postmodern society that has consigned a generation of young men and women to the darkest dramas of the desperately lost.

The megastars of this genre are not about to sing of "you and me and baby makes three." Their lyrics come from a world of broken families, absent fathers, illegitimate children and matriarchal dominance, often subsidized by welfare.

For the men who denigrate women as "bitches" and "ho's," this is not merely misogyny (though it is that), but alienation from common humanity and community. The lyrics employ vulgar street idioms because both the language and experience of poetry or romance are absent from the lives of the rappers and their audience as well.

Frank Sinatra grew up on the mean streets of New Jersey and he knew the Mafia well, but when he sang "You're the top, You're the Tower of Pisa.... You're the Mona Lisa" he aspired to sophistication and wanted others to see him as debonair. (Is there a rapper alive who knows the difference between the Tower of Pisa and a towering pizza?) When Frankie was bad, literally, he didn't want his fans to hear about it. He wasn't as innocent as his lyrics, but he cultivated that impression.

Rappers Sean "Puffy" Combs and Eminem, by contrast, must live like they sing. They're rich, but their attraction resides in perverse behavior on and off stage. When as adults they tap into adolescent rebellion, they dumb down both their emotions and their economic success.

Shelby Steele, a black scholar, has their number when he writes that to keep their audience they can't just sing about alienation -- they had better experience it as well, either with the audience or for the audience.

"The rappers and promoters themselves are pressured toward a thug life, simply to stay credible," Steele writes in the Wall Street Journal. "A rap promoter without an arrest record can start to look a lot like Dick Clark."

A rapper such as Eminem, who revels in affecting a white-trash identity, has defenders, too. They find irony, satire and poetic metaphor in his lyrics, but it's difficult to see how most of his fans take those lyrics as anything but straight. Lurking in them is a cruel depravity that seeks ways to go over the line by singing of macho brutality -- of raping women, holding gay men with a knife at their throats and helping a group of friends to take a little sister's virginity. …