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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Monday, May 14, 2007

No new thing under the sun

I didn't forget that I promised I'd post more pics from our getaway to Key West, but there's something pressing on my mind. And I had to write it down first. I'll post more pics this evening.

So when I was a kid and was compelled by well-intentioned parents to read my bible on a regular basis, though I'd rather have spent that time pulling my toe nails out by the roots, one of my favorite scriptures was Ecclesiastes Chapter 1, verse 9: "The thing that hath been is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun."

I thought of that now 'cause I just finished reading The Hot Kid, a novel by Elmore Leonard.
In a nut shell, the book is about a brash, young U.S. Marshal, who rises to fame in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri in the 1920s and '30s. It's also about the bad guys he pursues. The marshal is the hot kid, the up-and-comer in his federal agency. And in a way, he's competing for headlines with big name bank robbers like Clyde Barrow and Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd. And what the hot kid notices with each arrest he makes and each bad guy he shoots is that they become bigger legends in the news. Reporters trip over themselves to write about these crooks. L.A. Confidential-esque magazines offer flattering cover stories about the crooks and their "gun molls" AKA groupie girlfriends. They describe the hot outfits the girlfriends wear, the hot suits the crooks wear, and the hot cars they drive. "Fans" of the crooks and the molls dote on them and lavish them with praise and admiration.

I know this book is not off base in terms of how things really went down back in the day. I'm a news nerd. I've read old newspaper and magazine clips that were essentially press releases for the robbers. I've read quotes in those stories from "fans" of the robbers and their dames talking admiringly about them and their murderous exploits. I watched Bonnie and Clyde. I watched Little Caesar. Those movies were made in 1967 and 1931 respectively. There are more.

I loved all that stuff. It was and still is great entertainment. From the perspective of the crooks, those films explored their character flaws and inadvertently examined the attraction to the criminal lifestyle. A prude might even say that these films and others like them glorified the bank robber/gun moll lifestyle.

One question though: Does anyone reading this still want to give a pass to any public figure who suggests "rap music (a roughly 33-year-old genre) made me do it?"

That being said, I keep telling you guys that I am rap's biggest critic. I love parts of the genre but hate even more parts, because of how vile they've become. But the glorification of violence and crime in this country did not start with a handful of rappers. That sort of glorification predates these idiots by many decades. Gangsta rappers just happen to be "hosting" the latest episode, the latest manifestation of our love affair with the naughty.

And I still don't believe in censorship. Let all fools speak up, so we can identify them better and keep an eye on them. But if you really can't tolerate what you hear or see from a politician, a musician/actor, or an all-purpose media personality (like a talk show host), the fix is simple: vote them out of office, or stop watching/listening to them and stop buying the products of businesses who sponsor them. If you don't want to see yet another cycle of the glorification of bad behavior come along after rap, then break the cycle now. Or don't. Your choice.

Coming tomorrow: The fine line between challenging religious beliefs and being a bigot toward someone with a particular set of beliefs.



  • Such an interesting subject James. I agree, the current move to rid gangster rappers of their ways is just another part in the evolution of what IS. I wonder, what will come next? And, yes, I agree, turn it off, do not support them, then, they will have no funding to continue.
    Thing I hate from these clips I see is the way the women are spoken of in lyric, and the way they dress in the clip itself. I do not think these women have very hight standards of themselves for letting themselves be in the clip with such words being sung. Not a prude by any means...just saying

    By Blogger Cazzie!!!, at 7:44 PM  

  • Sorry I haven't been by in a while, but life gets complicated sometimes. The rap artist didn't start the songs glorifying crime. As soon as I read this I started thinking of the folk songs, that did the same, like the one about Jesse James, and Pretty Boy Floyd both made popular in the sixties and seventies by the likes of Joan Baze and Woodie Guthrie. I do love Ecceliastes, which is suppose to be written by the wisest man that ever lived or ever will live. Pete Seeger did a number called Turn, Turn, Turn, based on Chap 3: 1-8. Songs reflect our society. They do not create it.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 9:43 PM  

  • James, as you already know, I can hardly tolerate certain musicians, but stopping listening won't help because I don't listen to them to begin with.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 6:01 PM  

  • parents need to be the ones to control...

    I refused to allow my kids access to violent or sex-rated movies until I felt they were old enough to understand it

    the same goes for the darn music.
    Who are these parents who let their kids listen to those lyrics, play those video games, and watch those horrid flicks.

    they AREN'T Parenting... at all.

    By Blogger Pamela, at 1:28 AM  

  • JB,

    Your blog reminds me of a piece I wrote a few years back for the magazine WaxPoetics (if you haven't had a chance yet, check the mag out--it's the "National Geographic of Hip-Hop" and it's available at Borders). The piece I wrote was called called "Outlaw Nation" and in it I explored how America has a fascination with criminals and outlaws because we are a nation of criminals and outlaws. Young men bragging on their exploits are today's equivalent of Paul Revere's ride; had these raps been directed at the English in 1773-1780, they would be a part of the national lexicon like "Live Free or Die" or "Don't Tread on Me". During its time, the Boston Tea Party was a vicious act of terrorism. The "founding fathers" of the USA were are arch criminals and enemies of the British. Had they been captured or the revolution been unsuccessful, they would have died in obscurity. Why, the very first man to die in America's revolt against the British (Crispus Attucks) could have been a great gangsta rapper in his own right.

    My article went further to posit that this country loves its outlaws so much that we incorporated our distrust of government and protection of accused criminals into our organic government documents (US Constitution, 2nd Amendment, 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th Amendments). I also went into detail about how Americans favorite pastime seems to be romaticization of criminal activity like piracy (Johnny Depp, anyone), the "wild wild west" (High Plains Clint), bootleggers, bank robbers (like Bonnie and Clyde) and speakeasies. Add drug dealers and people smugglers for some South Florida flava (go see Cocaine Cowboys!)

    During its time, each of those activities were criminal and each has been glorified by following generations as being somehow noble and gutsy. Poems, essays, songs, plays, novels, and motion pictures have been produced ad infinitum in furtherance of our voyueristic lust for criminality. Our culture loves the underdog and the bad guy.
    We want Tony Soprano to get away with it so that our chance to get away with it may also be preserved.

    In light of our cultural history, why must rappers be expected to act any differently? Why are they the ones who are expected to bear the burden for our nation's insatiable desires for stories of bloodlust and revenge? It is their very vulnerability in society that leads them to rap in the first place. Should we now attack them because they don't speak well of their crappy circumstances? I mean outside of a few Gil Scott Herons, Umar Bin Hassans, Chuck D's and Parises (the rapper, not the Hilton) most rap artists are simply speaking to the people in their neighborhood about the people in their neighborhood. They didn't create their neighborhood.

    Every poor street kid yearns for a fast remedy to his or her poverty, especially when moms just finished smoking up dinner in a glass dick. While there are a few successful hip-hop artists who were not poor by American standards, the great majority were--do you realistically expect them to leave their visions and memories of poverty outside of their studio? Would you expect that of any artist? Should Chuck Palhuinik or Elmore James (The Hot Kid wasn't bad) or Quentin Tarantino or Scorsese or Picasso or Johnny "I shot a man in reno just to watch him die" Cash be required to self censor in the way you claim rap artists must?

    You know it could be worse--instead of talking about the dirt they did or seem to be encouraging others to do (which I've never heard--i only hear glorification of the artist's own exploits and treatment of the people with whom he comes in contact, not invitations to join him in his world), rappers could put down the mic and go back to a street lifestyle. Would you rather have the actors studio thug or the county hotel thug living next door?

    I've ranted enough--don't hate the player, hate the game. Some women give of their bodies freely. Some people use and sell drugs. If your kids think that's cool, its because it is. If you don't like it as a parent, don't buy that stuff for your kids or provide an outlet for them to receive it. But don't expect any of the conditions that give rise to gangsta rap to change just by you sitting your fat ass at night on your friggin' couch steady watching scantily clad women in videos you hate.

    By Anonymous Big Daddy, at 2:10 PM  

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