Thursday, August 2, 2007

Wizard of Id

Last weekend I drove down to Mt. Adams with an 18 year old friend who recently graduated from high school. It was his first time backpacking, and for it being his first time, he did very well: he made it over the 10,000 foot level before deciding he'd had enough. I continued on and summitted a few hours later. The weather was astonishing and clear, and counting the one I was standing on, I could see six glaciated peaks of the Cascades. I'd have some nice pictures to post here if it weren't for the fact that I was a serious dumb-ass and left my camera in the Cold Springs parking lot. Sigh.

Since I got back, though, what I've spent the most time thinking about isn't my summit (though that was nice), but the music we listened to on the five hour trip each way. I've known for a long time that most rap and hip-hop is pretty raunchy, but I've never sat down and actually listened to the music with someone who listens to it regularly. And although I couldn't understand most of the lyrics, what I could understand was fairly shocking. Nobody who listens to it would be surprised, but I guess I was.

Here's a sample of a given set of lyrics:

money, hoes, cars and clothes,
thats how all my niggas know
blowin dro on 24's,
thats how all my niggas roll

Or:

Girl, you looks good, won't you back that ass up
You'se a fine motherfucka, won't you back that ass up
Call me Big Daddy when you back that ass up
Hoe, who is you playin wit? Back that ass up

Or:

Nigga came at me wrong so we got him done
Fuckin' with the fam', I'ma give him some
Spent that co'ner, he didn't run
Sunday had a whole church singin' a song
"Why'd they have to send my baby home?"

My friend could tell I was a bit surprised by these songs, and asked me if I was offended. I wasn't really – it takes a lot to offend me – but I was certainly mystified.

One way to describe most of the songs that shocked previous generations is to say that they lacked a super-ego, e.g., they didn't exhibit any particular morality. When Prince sang about "Darling Nicky" masturbating with a magazine, he was certainly lacking a substantial moral sense, but he still (however passingly) was interested in a particular woman. And I believe that just being interested in a particular woman, for whatever reasons, has something of good in it, however short it falls of the sort of patient, giving love that has to be the foundation for marriage, family and indeed, society. "Darling Nicky" is a real person, is a person, and to that extent is good.

What's astonishing about these songs is that they lack not just a super-ego, but really, any hint even of "ego". They're not just missing out on patient, sacrificial, self-giving love: they're unaware even of the concept of "enlightened self-interest". They're not ego, let along super-ego: they're sheer, unadulterated id. They celebrate nothing recognizably human: at best a woman is a "girl", but more typically a "ho" or simply an "ass". These songs don't even celebrate casual sex: there's no celebration, no ego, only rage and anger, only id. Everywhere is a nihilistic despair, barely hidden, barely under the surface. No person living by these ideals could possibly be happy.

I should also note that these songs are ultimately self-contradictory. To take one almost innocent example, they celebrate the autonomy of the person who can afford large, flashy wheels on his car ("24's") – and fail to acknowledge that these wheels are symbols that have meaning only in the context of a particular society. In other words, the symbols of the individual's freedom from society are themselves dependent on that same society for meaning.

But most especially, as I think back on these songs, I feel sorry for my friend. He's grown up in a world where these songs could reasonably be understood to represent life as it should be lived. That's as sad as it is frightening.

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