Response to Ozersky

By Goldberg, Danny | Tikkun, September/October 2000 | Go to article overview

Response to Ozersky


Goldberg, Danny, Tikkun


Response to Ozersky

Danny Goldberg

Danny Goldberg is copublisher of TIKKUN.

I commend Joshua Ozersky for listening to rap, which is more than most members of the intellectual and political elite are willing to do, but his conclusions are disappointingly condescending and tone deaf to the emotions and aesthetics at the heart of both rap and rap's audience.

Norman Mailer's White Negro and Elvis Presley's career are interesting prisms through which to look at rap music, but they are scarcely the first American examples of whites emulating black culture. In the 1930s the biggest radio comedy was Amos 'n Andy in which white performers crudely imitated black accents. In the 1920s, Broadway's biggest star, Al Jolson, wore blackface referencing minstrel shows that dated back still further. Limited cultural archives in the pre-electronic era make it harder to document, but I think it's pretty likely that such cultural anomalies--like all other aspects of the agonizing American problem of race relations--date back to the obscene institution of slavery. It is absurd to talk about black and white cultural relationships outside of the historical context of general black and white relationships.

But Ozersky is not embarking on an even-handed analysis of black-white cultural interchange. In fact he's not really that interested in race. His main purpose is to condemn and belittle teenage culture. He writes that "hip-hop takes the pathological self-involvement which has waxed in America since the 1970s ... and makes it cool." Ozersky seems to be forgetting self-obsessed American cultural icons pre-1970s such as John Wayne, Babe Ruth, and Walter Winchell as well as cultural archetypes in non-American cultures such as Spanish bullfighters, British Shakespearean actors, French intellectuals, etc., who are not usually self-effacing and other directed. The truth is that artists and performers in all cultures and at all times have big egos and some handle it better than others without advantage of decade or nationality.

Ozersky exemplifies a compulsion among many adults to delegitimize the emotions and culture of teenagers. Perhaps it is anger at no longer being a teenager anymore, the loss of a time of unmade decisions, innocence, and open roads. Whatever the psychological origins of this syndrome, this kind of pernicious nostalgia masked as morality accomplishes nothing other than distancing and dehumanizing young people from adult society.

When I was a teenager I was consumed with self-doubt and a terrible feeling of inner weakness and invisibility. Somehow the angry, caustic voices of Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and John Lennon expressed some of my unarticulated feelings and made me feel less lonely and better able to forge an identity. It was not, by the way, because I literally identified with their lyrics. I didn't think it was literally cool for Janis Joplin to get a Mercedes Benz--in fact, I preferred to think she was being self-mocking in that lyric, and I certainly never wanted a woman, in the words of Mick Jagger, "under my thumb." To me the words were symbols, which when combined with the music and intonation became the best available metaphors for my emotions. Yes, I had teenage angst, and I assume that rap music plays the same role in the lives of its teenage fans today, and that they process ugly images symbolically and metaphorically, as I did. …

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