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The Rap on Hip-Hop

John McWhorter listens to a beat that's going nowhere.

By 8.1.08

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All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America
By John McWhorter
(Gotham Books, 186 pages, $20)

For the past forty years and more, a fraud has been perpetrated on the Western world. Since at least the appearance of the first issue of Rolling Stone in 1967, it has been a common assumption that popular music, particularly rock and roll, is about social change. The story has become an Ur-text for any child growing up in America -- or England or the rest of the world for that matter. It is a pop culture creation myth: In the beginning the world was void, without sound, thought or feeling, when Elvis Presley descended, Prometheus-like, to bring eroticism, fun and rebellion to the dull gray world. And as the Church Fathers followed Jesus, others came to carry the message of social revolution forward: the Beatles, Rolling Stones, the Who, even the Grateful Dead.

The great fallacy at the center of this thesis is that the cultural explosion that occurred when rock began carried such a heady charge because it was about overturning societal norms. In fact, the music was reinforcing orthodoxies that are as old as mankind. Put simply, most rock and pop songs, from Chuck Berry through the Beatles and including the latest single from Coldplay or Justin Timberlake, are about love. Not polygamous, destructive, selfish love, but about love for another person, monogamous love, spiritual love that transcends the laws of nature -- "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "She Loves You," "My Love." Pop songs are about heavenly love and the attempt to attain such love on earth.

There are, of course, exceptions. There are rock songs that are about rebellion and revolution, but they rarely become popular. However, one genre of popular music, rap, is hugely popular while simultaneously boasting that it is about social change and revolution.

It is a claim that is demolished by John McWhorter in his new book All About the Beat: Why Hip Hop Can't Save Black America. McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is actually a fan of hip-hop music; thus his criticism of the form avoids the hysteria of some conservative condemnations of rap. He knows the music of Outcast, Ice Cube , Pete Rock and Public Enemy. The conclusion he draws is nuanced, but also blunt: Some hip-hop music is sonically clever and lyrically poetic. But none of it has anything to do with revolution.

Rap, in fact, is about -- to steal a line from Madonna -- striking a pose. It is a pose, as McWhorter notes, of "the upturned middle finger," the angry toe-to-toe facedown, the predatory bully. It has much more to do with 1960s street theater than with any kind of realistic social change. At one point McWhorter compares the lyrics to a song by rappers KRS-One and Marley Marl to the actual facts on the ground. The rappers claim that there is no employment, a charge that McWhorter calmly deconstructs with facts and references to welfare reform, faith-based initiatives, and a program by the evil Bush administration to help ex-convicts go back to work. But to rap about these things would mean losing one's "edgy street cred." This is essential to the self-image of many on the left, including Georgetown professor and rap champion Michael Eric Dyson, who comes in for a particular shellacking by McWhorter. McWhorter, a linguist, dissects a Dyson claim that rap "is neither sociological commentary nor political criticism, thought it may certainly function in these modes through the artist's lyrics." Here Dyson manages to have it both ways: rap is just pop music and doesn't serve as social criticism -- except when it does.

McWHORTER FALTERS in the later chapters, when he engages the meaning of rhythm. Quoting the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, McWhorter claims that there are two kinds of music, sensate music and ideational music. Sensate music is made to please the senses, ideational to serve a function. McWhorter claims that in ancient Greece, most music was ideational, but then moved to the sensate phase, growing more profane, sensual, "impure," complicated, and celebratory of "common themes." Yet a quick consideration of this dichotomy proves it to be false. As an example of ideational music, McWhorter cites Gregorian chant. But isn't Gregorian chant appealing to the senses as well, and focused on the common theme of humanity's aspiration to be with God? McWhorter labels rap sensate music, possibly forgetting that just a few sentences earlier he also put Mozart in that category. He also errs in calling sensate music more complicated than ideational music. What's more complicated -- "Satisfaction" or a Mozart symphony?

There is also a larger metaphysical point missed in All About the Beat. There is an element of healthy rebellion in many rock and roll songs, but it is a theological rebellion as old as man himself. In hearing the existential alienation in the music of a band like Radiohead, or the sadness of the blues, humans are reminded of their fallen nature and the brokenness of the world. Yet the same music, in the beauty of the sound created in those same songs, points to the beauty of the eternal. In the best of pop songs, it creates a sensation of experiencing a kind of holy sorrow -- sadness at the state of things yet a consciousness that there is truth and goodness and beauty beyond the world.

A great jazz critic once referred to the great black musical traditions as giving the audience the ability "to deal with adversity with grace." Rap teaches the very opposite, to deal with adversity with resentment, misogyny, and street theater left over from the 1960s. But it's probably here to stay, or at least as long as human beings are sinful creatures who hope for quick fixes and utopian solutions.

As McWhorter notes, "Something interesting about the Hip-hop revolution is that, like the uprising of the proletariat that Marxist predicted, it seems to be ever in the future. We move ever further into the future in real life, but never get any closer to that marvelous time when hip-hop becomes 'a political tool' and starts improving lives."

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About the Author

Mark Judge is a Washington writer and author of God and Man at Georgetown Prep, Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington's Only World Series, and other books.