Rap, Country Music and the Embrace of Capitalist Ideology

Rap is an irony unto itself that tosses a bling-encrusted monkey wrench into the world of pop music and the effect of class warfare upon it. While rap is certainly borne from class warfare of a most intense variety, all these songs about killing cops that are related to class division as well as racial division and the inherent tensions within turn out to be so much smokescreen.

Rap is not about rebellion so much as it about social mobility. The rappers may want to kill cops, but they do not want to eat the rich. No, instead they want to become the rich and seek the insulation that protects the very people they claim to be fighting against. The focus of shooting cops and looting and murdering in so much rap music contains an implicit message that law enforcement enacts violence against the lower classes in the name of protecting the rich. For every Bernie Madoff who gets to enjoy the luxury of being placed under house arrest in his million-dollar apartment, there are thousands of poor kids sitting in jail for allegedly committing a crime against less than one percent of the number of people whose lives Madoff ruined. There are two sets of laws in America, for sure, but rap seeks not to correct this situation, but rather to simply relocate the rap artist into the realm of the white collar criminal.

The entire rap music industry is a parody of such lower-middle-class or lower-class rock precursors as folk rock and punk. That is not to say that those genres did not also seek out money and good times. However, as a movement, folk of the 60s led the way in protesting middle class values that had produced the widespread acceptance of the Vietnam War. Punk rock sought to destroy all society by burning not just London, but everything; watching Johnny Rotten in any interview reveals that he wasn’t just posturing when he sang, “We meannnnnn it, mannnnnnnn!” The problem was that the record companies did not mean it and so transformed the pure anger and energy of genuine punk rock into the more palatable and radio-friendly form of New Wave. And what of Johnny Rotten? He learned that without the backing of the industry, by which I mean the business, you can’t change anything.

Which is why punk rock died out and rap has not, despite the fact that punk was an infinitely more creative endeavor. The reason that rap ascended to become the single most successful genre of pop music today is because the record companies love its message. No not the message of killing cops and objectifying women, but rather the primary message of rap: sell out and maintain the interest. The goal of rap’s biggest stars is hardly one committed to changing the landscape and leveling the economic playing field. The message of rap is one of assimilation into the phony American Dream of achieving happiness through upward social mobility. In a way that would instill terror into most listeners of rap if they were to believe these words, all the Ices and DJ’s and Lil’s and Daddy’s and rappers with severe spelling difficulties are really absolutely no different from Beaver Cleaver’s dad; or, at least like all those very real Big Daddy Cleavers who came back from the war and adopted their white bread middle class mission to emulate Ike Eisenhower and say goodbye to their Depression childhood by buying into the dream of a better life through the purchase of a great big color TV and an only slightly smaller DeSoto automobile. The color TV set and DeSoto were the 1950s version of a 72 inch flat screen TV and a Hummer. Kanye West? The Ozzie Nelson of the 21st century. (Kanye wishes!)

Clearly the idea of economic disenfranchisement as the catalyst for musical revolution is not what it once was. But rap is hardly alone in the annals of pop music when it comes to reproducing the ideological status quo. Again, those who look at rap as the centerpiece of social criticism in contemporary music will not appreciate what I am about to write, but if I have to experience the pain of rap’s deadening similarity thumping from every Escalade that drives up beside with me speakers the size of Rhode Island, then it’s only fair that rap fans should face their own painful truth.

The style of music that rap most clearly resembles from an ideological perspective is country music. Not country and western, mind you, which always sported a rebellious quality even within its own subculture, but Nashville-based country music centered around the denizens of the Grand Ole Opry. No musical genre in the history of America has been as committed to reproducing the economic ideological status quo as country music. Until rap music, that is. Country music from east of the Mississippi, in particular, has always taken upon itself the mission of promoting the form of free enterprise that lies at the heart of Madison Avenue, and there is a quality to this element of country music that is perverse at worst and paradoxical at best.

The fiery origin of country music lies in its Appalachian and hillbilly womb. In these original American ghettos, in which the residents make today’s urban ghetto dwellers look like the Bushes of Kennebunkport by comparison, there was literally nothing to do for entertainment besides incest other than picking up a battered old guitar,a banjo, and a washtub and making your own music. From this manner of simple enjoyment sprouted an entire industry. Now you would think that there would be an element of rebellion in this music that cried out for fairer treatment of these dispossessed people, but instead the musicians embraced the system of free enterprise and capitalism and the fans followed like lemmings or the future NASCAR fanatics most of them would become. The nurturing of this music by the Nashville record producers naturally exploited this ideological paradox for their own purposes; namely, to trick these uneducated and untrained musicians into signing away all their rights and turning over most of their money. Of course, 20% of $1000 seems like a fortune when your parents and eleven siblings are living in a one-room shack in the mountains on two dollars a day. It was incredibly easy to get early country music artists to embrace the economic status quo rather than see it as the root cause of their previous misery by showing how much life could change even on 20% of what they would have been earning. Like falling dominoes, each successive generation of country music lovers bought into the message of embracing free enterprise with no question.

All the dirty words, gold teeth, and ugly bling in the world can’t disguise the fact that rap music artists and fans are absolutely no different. It really makes a person miss the good old days of punk rock when class distinctions promoted rebellion rather than assimilation.