23 October 2009

"You Listen to What?"

I am often bothered by the fact that certain “groups” of people predominately listen to certain “genres” of music. It is as if there is tacit agreement between music marketers and listening audiences that African Americans will listen to hip-hop and R&B, gay men will listen to Madonna and other danceable divas, and, in recent years, Hispanic youth are expected to embrace the rising genres of music, like reggaeton, that combine elements of traditional Latin/Caribbean music with contemporary hip-hop. Women are more likely to listen to ballads, men to music with a driving beat. White college aged students, it is expected, will listen to more indie artists that challenge the normal convention. And the list can go on and on and on, especially with new genres like “adult alternative.” And I do not mean to say that these trends are absolute, but nonetheless they are conspicuously present. This leads to a question that beckons to be answered: are these trends intrinsic, emanating from something that is naturally inside of people, or are they extrinsic, forced onto an audience as part of a social contract? I think that this question is an important one to ask; in my experience, I have seen the expectations of what people listen to and the reaction of others when they do not “fit” the mold they are expected to. It is because of these expectations that people should ask, “Am I listening to this because I really like it, or because I learned to like it?”

Let’s take on the case of hip-hop first. John H. McWhorter, in The City Journal (Summer 2003) (link) points out something that traditionally goes unrecognized: “The venom that suffuses rap had little place in black popular culture – indeed, in black attitudes – before the 1960s. The hip-hop ethos can trace its genealogy to the emergence in that decade of a black ideology that equated black strength and authentic black identity with a militantly adversarial stance toward American society.” And why not? After generations of stereotypes and oppression, it was only normal that a form of conscious rebellion would seep into all art forms, including music. Years of being type-cast in movies, marginalized in the world of music to specific genres, and not even being given credit for the predominate Anglo-American genre of music (rock was created by black southerners, like Little Richard), the backlash to this “blaxploitation” would eventually be inevitable. But, as McWhorter continues to write, “…rap took a dark turn in the early 1980s as this “bubble gum” music gave way to a “gansgsta” style that picked up where blaxploitation left off. Now top rappers began to write edgy lyrics celebrating street warfare or drugs and promiscuity.” In essence, instead of fighting the negative stereotypes, rappers embraced and glorified these stereotypes. This can easily be seen in Grandmaster Flash’s classic, “White Lines” (from the Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five MySpace video page).

White Lines

Grandmaster Flash | MySpace Video

A major hit, appropriate for the 80s, when urban, working class culture (regardless of race) was riddled by drug infested neighborhoods. But in the 1980s, the song could easily be “read” as a mediation of social problems, recognition of the social reality, the first step towards action – the second step to eradicate the problem has never occurred in mainstream hip-hop culture. Time would continue to tick away, and the socio-political field would change and the possibilities for all minorities have increased. And even if you have taken a good look at the Supreme Court and the White House lately, there does still continue to be racial inequality. But why haven’t the attitude of “pop” hip-hop changed as well? Why does there continue to be a glorification of partying culture, of violence, and the misrepresentation of women? And why is this continually marketed to youth? Is representing a dreary “reality” more important than taking up action against it? I dare say that Muse’s “Uprising” speaks more to the living conditions of all working class citizens, including African American youths, than rap does these days: “The paranoia is in bloom, the PR transmissions will resume, they’ll try to push drugs, keep us all dumb down and hope that we will never see the truth around…. Interchanging mind control, come let the revolution take its toll… it’s time that the fat cats had a heart attack…” So instead of marketing music that questions and mobilizes against the plight of the dispossessed, like urban black youths, why does there continue to be a glorification of the stereotypes of partying and violence?

Gay men are no better off. Throughout gay history, gay men’s primary locale for social interaction has been bars/clubs. It is not as if even nowadays gay men can walk anywhere in public, together, smooching, and not garner negative attention, unless they are in a gay ghetto like Chelsea or Castro. And, what is played at most bars/clubs? Music that is danceable. And I would imagine that if you were in the middle of Nashville, you would become acclimated to listening to country music, just as if you spend most of your social time in a club you would to dance music. So, inevitably, when a marketing genius like Madonna, who is an extremely talented artist and performer, would come along, and basically pillages the gay community for dance moves, beats, fashion, and back-up dancers, she would be exhorted to the highest position of pop icon. (The heir-apparent is Lady Gaga, who thanked “the gays” at the MTV Awards – a bit condescending consider that she did say “the gays” not “my gay fans.” Why would she think that all of “the gays” would support her?) But why don’t gay men honor and exhort gay musicians who often rely on Europe for pop/mainstream success, like Erasure’s openly gay Andy Bell or the Scissor Sisters? And how about the countless of gays in music, like rock band the B-52s or blues singer Jason Ricci? Why is it that gay men take comfort in listening to the love plights of straight women?

Similarities can be drawn with all groups. In a nation that urges “multiculturalism,” but still has occurrences of racism (I am not going to argue if they are endemic or systemic, have fun amongst yourselves), Hispanic youths are bombarded with music that incorporates a lot of Latin/Caribbean elements. Though Americans typically are xenophobic and distrust the other, especially if they happen to be “French,” Hispanic youths are expected to take on the mantle of the other. And yet, they are lambasted for not “completely assimilating” into American society. Sadly, Hispanic kids are rarely encouraged to listen to other Hispanics in music that are not part of traditional Hispanic music, like Al Jourgensen (Cuban born) of Ministry or Stefy (whose lead singer, Stephanie Rae Eustace, aka Stefy Rae, is Latina).

Check out Ministry’s “Lies Lies Lies” from their YouTube Channel: MINISTRYMUSIC.

Check out Stefy’s “Chelsea” from the StefyRaeOfficial YouTube Channel.

And is indie music always marketed to college students (heard all over college campus radio stations nationwide) because it is the belief that these guys and gals completing their liberal arts education are willing to listen to music that challenges the notions of genre, traditional record industry models, and are capable of appreciating either lyrics that are blatant or highly poetic? Well, it is all rubbish!

The music industry is just that, an industry, which is predicated on making profits. As I have said before (link), radio is predicated on playing what is safely marketable, and marketers have created marketing niches (and cultural rifts as a byproduct). Marketers continue to sell the ideology of hip-hop to dispossessed urban youths, especially African-American youths, because it is not marketable to attack the status quo and mobilize people into action. Marketers continue to sell danceable, socially acceptable music to gay men, sung by women, because at least they can take comfort in a song about a man, because the status quo is not ready to accept man-on-man music. Marketers continue to sell multiculturalism and the motherland traditions to Hispanic youths (most of which were born in the United States and have no clue what is like to cut sugarcane in Cuba or live in the real militia violence of parts of South America), because it is safer to create affinity to a “mystic” motherland than to rock the status quo and say this is now your land as much as any other person’s. And marketers continue to sell socially challenging music to college students, because it is the belief that older people are not willing to think about social, musical, and political issues outside of the box, and of course the status quo would never accept that. More and more, seen in the fact that we are becoming a nation of corporate franchises, marketers want homogenous markets and not free thinkers. It is what turns a profit.

Rocking the status quo would have a direct effect on profits. Therefore, it is easier to just continue a tradition that has worked before, and might very well work for another thousand years, than for marketers to do the socially responsible thing. Consider trying to revamp the entire infrastructure of media to create new outlets for greater exposure. First off, you would have culture shock and resistance from audiences – all of the sudden they would be bombarded with new sensory experiences and would have to reconfigure their own attitudes towards this. Secondly, returning to the point, some advertisers and other investors might see a loss of cash flow – the great American reality, the dollar. This would never be allowed! (And I am sure that this issue is not indigenous to the United States alone!)

People are not born with a predisposition or prejudice. No one has ever witnessed a baby not wanting to play with another baby because of its skin color. No baby picks out a toy because it is gender or culturally specific. No baby picks the music it dances and bobs around to. Babies are indoctrinated, at first by parents and then by schools and peers, and then finally by marketers. This is the normal way of things… this is how it has always been. People are told what to do and how to act, from the Torah to modern Internet marketers, someone somewhere is always influencing how we should think, what we should like, and how we should conduct ourselves. And as I have said, this is a normal facet of reality, of life. The shame is when the “you,” that intrinsic person, allow extrinsic forces to always act upon your “you.” The shame is when we are not given the opportunity to search for something new or do not allow ourselves to find that something new.

Rap is as dead as punk, and I sometimes wish mainstream house music would join that bandwagon. These great social ideologies have just been diminished to caricatures in our society, but underneath it all there are great artists (in all aforementioned genres) making great music. But not by playing by the same ole rulebook, but by reinventing it or discarding it, like the post-punks. And though everything has to change, as nothing is forever, it is a damn shame how marketers have strived to keep things the same. I am going to be called a communist now, but I think it was Karl Marx that said, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce,” and you have to admit the mainstream music scene is pretty funny. Talented musicians are cast aside for cookie-cutter, prepackaged, marketed music, that no one gives a second thought to but are willing to glorify it. As long as someone says it is good, then listeners will not search for something else or something that may even identify their own plights AND mobilization to address them.

As for this blog, if anything, I hope we have sometimes acted as a means to shed light on something different or a new point of view. But as everyone else, we are always checking our own preconceived notions about what we write about, because everyone falls victim to the same pattern. And, no, I do not think anyone should like everything we write about, because the honest fact is that there are six of us sharing opinions here and we do not always agree with one another on what we like. You should see the hissy fits that have come up amongst us! Nevertheless, I do encourage everyone to look beyond his or her horizons in terms of… well… everything. Not just music, but arts in general, politics, and life. Do not allow anyone to sell you on the notion that you must like this or that; continue to search out what you like and what you relate to – and do feel free to share with us here!

There is a beautiful world out there to see, but only if we want to see it and do not allow others to tell us what to see.


  1. I love the article and especially at the end where you encourage people to open there minds to a wide range of music and see what every genre has to offer...SO true about social life and up bringings influence what we listen to, thank God someone has written about this topic...it is about time.

  2. I believe this blog is really sheding light on the realities of how people act, what they do or what they listen to. It's true that from the moment someone is born they're immediately molded into what the people around them believe in, they don't even have a chance. Me being mostly African American is suppose to listen to black artists. However when i try to tap into my other roots such as latin, or carribbean people wonder why im listening to that type of music. In addition, once in a while i find it refreshing to step out of my box and listen to rock or some alternative type of music and i find it just as good or even better than what i originally listen to. So it basically goes to show that no matter what age or race, you can listen to any type of music that sounds good or has a certain sound that seems you. I think this is a very good article and that it can really inspire someone to be open-minded and try listening to something else for a change.

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  4. We music listeners really needed someone to vent what was on a lot of people's minds. Although a type of music may be dead, there can always be people to revive it or at least contribute positively towards it.

  5. Upon thinking about it maybe music really does mold your eternal outcome, what people choose to think of you in the end... yet if you prefer to think outside of the circle you have yet to realize that the world is full extremely intricate pieces that only certain things pursue to enfold and consume-alas music for most it soothes for other it destroys your ear drums. Yet if you are like me do you too listen to the meanings behind all music and search for the distance that leads that artist to make his masterpiece (or crap) for all people alike to listen to and enjoy it or is it only a certain type of music provoked to be the chosen stereotypical type that we all presume it to be?

  6. i also believe that the music we listen to molds us as to who we are and how we are looked at by other people, in most cases if not all, most black people are pre-judged that they all listen rap and hip hop, also all hispanics are viewd as reggaeton, bachata and e.t.c listeners, also all whites are viewd as rock listeners and screaming metal bands. but we all know that its all crap because more people are open minded and listen to different varieties of music than we all think.

  7. We're human, I guess it's only natural for us to molded into such condradictions, you know? We can't help but judge and try to want to fit in, because the world and society itself can be so harsh. If you like Metal, then forget about liking Hip hop, you know? Or else your just weird. It's always been like this, and I really hope people open up their minds. You shouldn't judge people for what music they listen to and niether should you judge some one by guessing what they listen to. I remember when I first entered high school, and people would ask me "who's your favorite artist?" And when I would answer, they would laugh and respond by either asking who the eff I was talking about, or tellig me I listened to suck ass music.
    It's sad, actually.
    Because we can only aspire to change, but many are not willing to due to stereotypes and because, well...it's just not "cool" enough, you know?
    In the end, you shouldn't listen to music for others, but for yourself, because no one really matters later on, but yourself.
    And I really like the fact that you posted this article up, some had to do it, because it is the harsh truth, that we hold self evident, but do nothing of, when in reality, we can.
    “Am I listening to this because I really like it, or because I learned to like it?”
    Don't listen to what others expect of you, especially when you can't even reach up to your own expectations, you know?
    And I can only imagine the hissy fits that you six get into, but once again, thanks for this simply ah-mazing article =]