Stuck on the Realness

What matters is not the enclosure of the work within a harmonious figure, but the centrifugal force produced by it — a plurality of language as a guarantee of a truth that is not merely partial.”  (Italo Calvino)

Hip-hop is dead.  So say half the Internet heads who think the radio don’t play the shit they used to love.  You’re the one who’s dead, say the other half, who are dedicated to convincing the haters that they’ve found today’s realness.  What do they have in common?  They’re all badge-sporting, truncheon-wielding members of the Credibility Cops.  They’re dancing to a different tune these days, but they’ve been around since the first person divided art into two piles and awarded one pile a capital letter.  And they all share the same quality of pointing at the moon, and hoping your focus stays on their hand and not what’s up in the sky.

Authenticity — and its bratty little brother, credibility — has always been a dodge.  The who-did-it-first game has always benefited critics more than creators, who are usually long dead by the time the question gets asked, and even as a critical tool, it’s pretty sadly lacking.  Culture has always been a river, and while there’s infinite rewards to be had from tracing its tributaries along the way, the interesting part has always been where the waters come together and blend, and what they pick up along the way.  Tracing them back to where they came from can only lead you to the ocean and the sky; there’s very little to be learned, either culturally or aesthetically, from stopping ten feet shy of the source and saying “this is where it all began”.  We all have to swim in those same waters, but it muddies them rather than purifies them to get into tedious debates over where the tide is the strongest.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t genuine issues of credibility, authenticity, and sincerity to be raised; it’s just that they’re usually pretty obvious and easily sussed by anyone with more than a casual interested in the art form at hand.  If people were as concerned about things we could do something about (like the exploitation of artists by businesspeople) as they were about things that are essentially inevitable (such as the co-option of the aesthetic tendencies of in-groups by out-groups, or the divergence of experience by practitioners of an art form), then we might make real progress as a culture.  But that’s not the case, and the reason is pretty simple:  artists, who have absorbed, borrowed, swiped and stolen from other artists since time immemorial, are generally pretty unconcerned about the anxiety of influence.  It is readers and viewers, critics, and especially the degraded beef-stewers we might call ‘cultural commentators’ if we wanted to put a tux on Internet mudslinging, who find the authenticity dodge so appealing.

There are, of course, legitimate conversations to be had about issues of authenticity.  The creation and portrayal of characters in fiction that are not part of the author’s in-group; the crossing of class boundaries, especially in the making of radical or revolutionary art; the building of commercially successful art on a foundation of its not-so-successful predecessors:  these are issues worth discussing in any artistic medium.  Sticking strictly to hip-hop, we can learn a lot by having open and honest discussions of the racial, commercial, and demographic reasons that Eminem reached audiences that his forbears never did; the cultural meaning of the fact that hip-hop’s monetary base has shifted from black urbanites to white suburbanites; and the degree of abstraction and fetishization from the portrayal of street life in the culture and its reality in the world.  But those conversations aren’t really taking place, and worse still, where they are talking place is in the private and closed-off world of academia, instead of where it vitally needs to be heard, out in public in the working world.

Instead, what we get is endless evocations of the used-to-be and the ain’t-no-more, which is exactly as stultifying and unproductive as Stanley Crouch’s declaration that the likes of Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman killed jazz by doing exactly what his own personal icons did — that is, not stop it in its tracks, but allow it to absorb and retain influences that helped it grow.  Critics and listeners rail against AutoTune, pop choruses, and superstar producers and long for a golden age that itself bore no resemblance to the earliest days of hip-hop, self-righteously ignorant of the fact that they sound exactly like the hinterland dolts who bitch about “crap rap” and how it’s not really music because it doesn’t have a melody or singing.  And if there’s anything more boring and enervating than listening to a room full of white guys arguing over which of them has the honkiest opinions and therefore should be disqualified from talking about hip-hop, I don’t know what it is.  (This is especially maddening to me, since I got into hip-hop at a time when the biggest risk from your peers was being called out for listening to “nigger music” instead of being deemed insufficiently street to have an opinion about Waka Flocka Flame.)

And so the conversation gets bogged down; we learn nearly nothing as the argument gets louder and more hostile.  It is the very definition of a faction fight:  it loses sight of the ultimate goal almost immediately, and the passion and venom behind the positions gets higher as the stakes get lower.  Big problems get worse because everyone is busy creating small problems.  Why?  Because the Credibility Cops aren’t really interested in defining, much less defending, a specific model of authenticity.  They’re just interested in putting forth the idea that one exists, and that they, through the music they choose to champion or attack, possess it, while their opponents do not.  You can almost always mark these debates by their absence of timeliness; they are almost always about what just happened instead of what’s happening, because the artists and the culture they create are too busy moving forward with the things they find interesting than trying to establish the realness of something they were interested in an hour or a media cycle or a lifetime ago.

The biggest tragedy of all this isn’t how fusty or out-of-touch it reveals otherwise intelligent critics to be, or how it causes real critical insight to stumble on a field of irrelevancies.   It’s not even how the Credibility Cops in every artform make you miss all that heavenly glory because they want your focus squarely on the ineffable beauty of their finger.  It’s that people who started doing what they’re doing out of love of an artform have gotten so distracted by what is essentially a Zhdanovite approach to aesthetics, a compulsion to collect it and curate it not on its artistic merits but on how well or how poorly it fits into an arbitrary worldview, that they’re condemned to chasing down political purity instead of the transcendent qualities of the art.  The Credibility Cops are enforcing laws that no longer serve the public, and are stuck on a realness that is entirely abstract.  The treachery in the hearts of men, as always, is jealousy’s best friend.

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