Greg Oguss on Pop Culture
Coming Soon to an Intarweb Near You
This month’s regular programming of Cash Rules has been preempted. Instead of the usual arrogant column on a selection of random shit you’ve grown accustomed to seeing in this space over the past several months, you’re in for a special treat. The following is a promotional tease for an anthology I’m editing on pop culture in the digital age entitled God Is Dead But That Ain’t What’s Givin’ Me the Blues. The anthology features fiction, essays, blog-style rants and poetry. Some of the contributors are Gloom Cupboard folks like novelist and columnist Richard Nesberg and our founding editor Richard Wink. Other participants include a jet-setting Peruvian blogger who rocks an iced-out silver neck-chain bearing the letters C-U-N-T, the founding editors of Slurve Magazine, and an alcoholic bass player from Houston who goes by the name DJ Jesus Christ. Without further ado, here’s a discarded draft of an introduction I wrote for the book, which will no doubt show up in the tenth anniversary Director’s Cut edition loaded with those fab extras that get the fanboys all hot and bothered.
I could give a fuck about theme.
That’s the only guidance I initially gave to the contributors of God Is Dead, an anthology I decided I wanted to compile about pop culture in the millennial era. I had a broad theme in mind. But I didn’t want to limit the topics that anyone might choose to write about. The one rule was that it had to be a field in which you’d had some practical experience. While mulling over ideas for this introduction, I started talking to my friend Nick, a former Manhattan-based architect who recently founded a mobile-to-mobile advertising firm called Xipto. Nick said he might contribute an essay he’d written on “What comes after capitalism?” My first response to Nick was that I wasn’t sure anything does. He and his firm are thinking about ways to offer an attractive “post-capitalist” business model to their clients. “Well, that goes back to the beginning of Hip Hop,” I told Nick when he explained his idea for an essay. Back in the early ‘80s, Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five released conscious rap hits like “The Message” and “White Lines” about struggles in the ‘hood. But their songs had “a good beat and you can dance to it,” as the kids used to say on American Bandstand, whenever they were asked to rate a new single’s chances for success.
“The Message” went gold in 1982. It is widely acknowledged as the first serious Hip Hop record. In the late 1980s, Public Enemy’s early records also became popular by offering danceable beats without sacrificing political content. When PE stopped making danceable records, people stopped tuning in to their message. Whatever side of the political aisle you’re on, if you want people to listen to what you’re saying, you have to find a way of holding their attention. This isn’t what Nick argues in his writing, but it is part of my take on the “post-capitalism” debate.
What comes after capitalism? The answer is a more morally neutral form it. So what does that mean precisely? In the 19th Century, Nietzsche wrote of a new form of human consciousness that he perceived on the horizon, a “Superman” who was “beyond good and evil.” That’s a useful phrase even if humans are still governed by their conscience or what Freud termed the “super-ego” at the dawn of the 20th Century.
These days, it’s the economy that’s “beyond good and evil” and questions of morality. One example is so-called green mutual funds. Such funds attempt to invest in socially conscious firms like Whole Foods (WFMI) and refuse to invest in certain so-called bad actors like Exxon Mobil (XOM). Over the last few years, if you’ve held shares in WFMI, you’ve gotten the shit kicked out of you. At the end of January 2007, WFMI was priced at $73.87 per share. When the market closed on January 31, 2008, thanks to a recent rally, WFMI had bounced back up to $39.44. Over a single year, that’s a drop of 47 percent. In contrast, XOM closed the month of January 2006 at $62.75. At the close of the market on January 31, 2008, despite a significant recent pull back in oil stocks, XOM sat at $84.70. Over a two-year period, that’s a gain of 35%. These two stocks are a random snapshot of green investing practices vs. a morally neutral investing approach. But it’s indicative of the failure of green mutual funds across the board. Nowadays, there are green hedge funds, too, although they’re doing about as well as those green mutual funds.
To move the discussion back to popular culture, the words of the always quotable Jay-Z are useful. On his soundtrack to American Gangster, Jay raps that the moralists of our time are apt to blame society’s ills on him for his use of the so-called n-word and all “the shit that I’m spittin’.” But he asks how anyone can argue that his rhymes are worse than “these celebutantes showin’ their kittens?” A non-exclusive of female celebs who’ve flashed their pussy for the cameras includes Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Christina Aguilera, Vanessa Hudgens and British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. None of their careers have been harmed by their crotch-flashing episodes. There has been increased talk about their supposed lack of talent after these incidents. But their behavior has kept their faces in the public eye, which is the point. More importantly, these maneuvers work because capitalism in the 21st century doesn’t care about good and evil. Jay-Z knows this and he’s laughing all the way to the bank. Some of those celebutantes might not be laughing as hard these days, but their earning power is largely unscathed. And their cultural significance is unquestioned. As ample evidence of this, there’s an I ♥ Vivienne Westwood fan page on Facebook which boasts a membership of five thousand or so fanboys and fangirls as well as a dozen more Westwood-themed fan pages on Facebook alone.
As the viewpoint of many of the contributions in God Is Dead illustrates, the meaning of words like gay, fag, bitch, slut, hoe, cunt, and nigga has shifted radically among Gen Xers, Gen Y and Millenial kids. But the meaning of ‘the n-word’ remains a little stickier given American’s history of racism. Racism doesn’t just belong to the past. Besides high-profile cases like the unequal justice doled out to the Jena Six down in Louisiana, an example drawn from pop culture is the warning label on Jay-Z’s 1996 debut Beyond a Reasonable Doubt. It might not seem surprising that his debut album bears a “Parental Advisory Explict Content” sticker. Also not surprising is the fact that title of the first hit single of Jay-Z’s career, “Ain’t No Nigga,” is obscured by asterisks on the back of the album so that it reads: “Ain’t No *****.” That same year, Arista Records re-released punk icon Patti Smith’s 1978 album Easter. It is probably Smith’s best-known album thanks to two songs, “Because the Night” and “Rock n’ Roll Nigger.” Smith’s “Rock n’ Roll Nigger” is an attempt to claim “oppressed minority status” for punk rockers due to punk’s “outside the mainstream” position in the 1970s. But the surprising thing about the 1996 release of Easter is that it doesn’t carry a PMRC warning label. And the title of the song “Rock n Roll Nigger” is printed on the back without asterisks obscuring the word “nigger.” By 1996, I guess it was cool for a washed-up punk icon to use the n-word as long as she’s using it in a self-aggrandizing manner and applying it to white folks. But Hova still gets the warning label and the asterisks. However, he’ll also sock away $500 million plus in the bank over the next decade. So that evens things up, I suppose.
In the fall of 2007, Jay-Z released the soundtrack to American Gangsteron Def Jam Records. A decade earlier, on his debut Beyond on a Reasonable Doubt, Def Jam’s future CEO boasted that you could find him down at a flick, “rootin’ for the villain.” In 2008, everybody is rooting for the villains. Jay-Z was a little ahead of his time. But that’s Hip Hop for you, a form of music which Chuck D of Public Enemy once termed “The Black People’s CNN.” These days, Hip Hop is everybody’s CNN.