Same Old Song: Controversy over Pop Music Is as Old as Elvis, but Now We're in a Cultural Arms Race

By Ali, Lorraine | Newsweek, October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

Same Old Song: Controversy over Pop Music Is as Old as Elvis, but Now We're in a Cultural Arms Race


Ali, Lorraine, Newsweek


All the controversy, criticism and praise surrounding Eminem's recent release "The Marshall Mathers LP" finally caused a fiftyish co-worker of mine to go out and buy the album to see what all the commotion was about. It's not as if he was treading on totally foreign terrain--he did, after all, love N.W.A's "Straight Outta Compton" when it came out a dozen years ago, and has avid interest in most anything that rubs people the wrong way. He just needed to know what the newest source of outrage was all about. He locked himself in his office and came out an hour later. "Wow," he said. "This sure isn't for adults."

He was right. And that's the point: pop music is an esthetic and consumer product targeted at kids between grade school and grad school, and often designed to irk their elders. It's been that way since young Frank Sinatra crooned to screaming girls in the 1940s, Little Richard camped and gyrated in the '50s, the Beatles championed free love in the '60s, the Sex Pistols spat on fans in the '70s and Public Enemy instilled fear of a black planet in 1990. Throughout each trend and era, parents have been deeply concerned and kids have done their best to keep them that way.

Things get ratcheted up a notch with every generation. You're not rebelling if you're listening to the same stuff your parents did; you're embarrassing yourself. Remember Jim Morrison's hammy Oedipal psychodrama in the Doors' "The End" (1967): "Father, I want to kill you! Mother, I want to... arrgh!" Eminem's cartoonish "Kill You" moves the ball forward by collapsing both parents into a single Bad Mommy to be raped and murdered. Those parental warning stickers may really be for parents, as if to say, "Hey, there's stuff in here your kid will understand and you won't."

There's a hitch. As every book about raising kids will tell you, children need limits--in part to protect them, and in part to give them boundaries to smash and trample. Generation after generation of iconoclasts, from Joyce and Picasso to Elvis and Marilyn to punks and gangstas, have gradually pushed the limits a little further. When N.W.A dropped "F--k Tha Police" in 1988, it was a shocking moment. When DMX conveys essentially the same sentiments, who really notices? Even N.W.A's raps about killing rivals "like it ain't no thang" weren't so far from Johnny Cash's in "Folsom Prison Blues," where he sang of shooting a man in Reno "just to watch him die."

But in some ways, it is different. Johnny may have sung about doing hard time--and other things you wouldn't want your mama to know about--but his fantasy seems tame compared with the sex-and-violence- saturated lyrics that proliferate and dominate the Billboard charts today. It's a change that hasn't gone unnoticed. With hip-hop's current debate over whether rap has gone too far, insiders are once again trying to decipher what the dividing line is between true artistic value and provocative schlock. The answers will come in retrospect, but in order for the genre to continue growing, it's an important debate that needs to start now.

At the moment, the new frontier of rebellion seems to be against political correctness--the well-intentioned fear of offending any person or "group." In the 1960s and '70s, the fashionably rebellious attitude was to celebrate differences, to elevate the condition of women, minorities and gays ("Come on people now, smile on your brother").

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