By Mark Steyn
(1242 words; posted Monday, July 1; to be composted Monday, July 8)
Just over a century ago, at 207 Grand Avenue, Milwaukee, a cocky teen-ager hung a shingle outside his door:
CHARLES K. HARRIS BANJOIST AND SONGWRITER SONGS WRITTEN TO ORDER And with those four stigmatic words, the music business was born. There’d been music before, but, with Harris, it’s the business that impresses. His first effort was the prototype pop hit “After The Ball,” which, 104 years later, you can still hear every night of the week in the current Broadway revival of Show Boat. Back then, it began earning him $25,000 per week almost immediately, and went on to sell 5 million copies of sheet music. This was 1892, remember, when 25,000 bucks was still 25,000 bucks, and you didn’t have to split it with accountants, managers, coke dealers, and any traumatized ex-catamite whose father has a smart lawyer.
We’ve come a long way since then: ragtime and radio, hillbilly and race records, big bands and showtoons, 45s and triple concept albums, MTV and CDs and horror-core. …
You’re not hep to horror-core? Let Ronin Ro, whose book, Gangsta, comes out next month, explain: “Horror-core,” he writes, “was to hip-hop what death metal is to Brahms or Mozart.” To be honest, I think Ro is indulging in a little rhetorical exaggeration here: I suspect horror-core is a lot closer to hip-hop than death metal is to Brahms or Mozart. Come to think of it, Brahms isn’t that close to Mozart. But pop music has always had a hazy grasp of perspective. As David Bowie said on the 1977 “Bing Crosby Christmas Show” when the host asked him if he liked any of the older songs: “Oh, sure, I love Harry Nilsson.”
But even rappers are getting into the nostalgia act these days. They’re on the new West Side Story recording where Salt-N-Pepa, Def Jef and others do “Gee, Officer Krupke,” and, between choruses, add their own machine-gun interpolations, beginning with:
Music by Bernstein! Lyrics by Sondheim!I’m talkin’ ‘bout West Side Story, it’s before my time!…So don’t criticize the way that I partyThis ain’t Broadway, we learned it the hard way!
It’s a cute joke, but the cockiness and special pleading remind us how things have changed: In 1957, the Sharks’ and Jets’ cool was parodic and laughable; in the ‘96 version, these gangs are cool for real. Their braggadocio is a cliché–even in Britain, where, according to record-industry statistics, Doris Day reissues outsell all American rap. You remember the old Weber and Fields joke?
“Who was that lady I saw you with last night?”“That was no lady, that was my wife.”
The British magazine Private Eye updated it for two gangsta rappers:
“Who was that ho I saw you with last night?”“That was no ho, that was my bitch.”
Which reworking of the protean vaudeville gag prompts a thought: Maybe, after a century’s rise and fall, rap is the final ebbing of commercial pop, back to its 1890s origins. Even as William Bennett and the National Political Congress of Black Women renew their assault on companies that profit from gangsta rap and claim that it marks a shameful new low in American pop culture, and even as its defenders assert (as Chuck D does) that it’s a counter-CNN for the disenfranchised, gangsta rap is merely the wheel coming full circle–back to Charles Harris and “After The Ball.” If the defense is that 1990s rap is documentary–“the authentic sound of the streets”–well, so were those verse-and-chorus ballads of the 1890s. These were the first songs of the American cities, cautionary tales of the vicissitudes of urban life: “Mother was a Lady,” “She is More to be Pitied Than Censured.” Harris’ hits were (as TV movies say) “based on a true story”–like his grisly ballad of an orphan girl asking the telephone operator to be put through to her dead mother, “Hello, Central, Give Me Heaven.” My personal favorite is a pop hit of 1898 by the black writer Gussie Lord Davis, about an overnight train full of passengers irritated by a sobbing infant and demanding to know where the mother is. As the child’s young father explains, mother is in a mahogany casket “In the Baggage Coach Ahead.”
If you think that sounds a little lurid, that’s the whole point: These were ripe metropolitan melodramas served up for the genteel piano parlors of the suburbs. Same with rap: For all it’s hailed as the voice of the urban poor, 70 percent of its sales are to suburban whites, for whom Public Enemy’s “911 is a Joke” or Niggaz Wit’ Attitude’s “Fuck tha Police” offer the delicious, voyeuristic frisson of life in Compton or the South Bronx without actually having to live there.
For most songwriters after “After The Ball,” for everyone from Irving Berlin to Carole King, lyric-writing was an exercise in compression. Rap returns us to the same sprawling prolixity as 1890s ballads–and 12-verse story songs, whether they’re lilting waltzes or numbingly hard-core, are rarely distinguished as music. Almost all turn-of-the-century blockbusters have the simplest of tonal structures. Similarly, rap is the logical consequence of pop’s 30-year promotion of street cred over music: the reduction of the tune to a banal pneumatic backing track, the debasement of lyric-writing to a formless laundry list of half-baked hoodlum exhibitionism. 1990s gangsta rap is rhythmically simple and harmonically negligible, 1890s ballads are melodically simple and harmonically negligible, but the effect is the same: Even as the subject matter in each case proclaims its modernity (railroads and telephone on the one hand, guns and crack on the other), in both cases, the music underneath belies it.
There is one major difference, of course. Charles K. Harris just opened the newspaper, found a suitable story and wrote it up. Gangsta rappers have eliminated the middleman: They are the stories in the papers. Half of ‘em wind up getting shot: Ol’ Dirty Bastard (liver blown away), Tupac Shakur (half of his groin blown away), Randy Weaver, producer of “Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z.” (everything blown away) The other half take pre-emptive action: Slick Rick recorded his last album while serving time for attempted murder; Snoop Doggy Dogg was acquitted on technical grounds. “Out here, it’s not just about making the records,” one rapper tells Ronin Ro in Gangsta. “It’s about staying alive after they’re released.” Rappers, says Ro, “battle over who drinks more 40s, kills more niggaz, jacks more cars, slaps more hos,” and all for the amusement of those white ‘burb kids in the reverse baseball caps.
Pop music is mostly minstrelsy: Following “After The Ball,” while black ragtime composers starved, white Tin Pan Alley hacks stuck “rag” in the titles of their novelty songs and sold millions. Today, we can see Michael Jackson’s ever more bleached complexion as a shorthand for pop’s history: He’s the first black singer to become his own white cover version–to start out as Little Richard and transmogrify into Pat Boone. But gangsta rap is something else: You’ll hear nothing of W.C. Handy or Ellington or Stevie Wonder in rap; it’s a negation of a century of black music. Instead, in its principles, in its forms, in its opportunism, in its willingness to pass off individual pain as mass entertainment, it returns us to the 1890s, to the whitest popular music we’ve known in this country. Gangsta rap is the whitest black music there is. At last: reverse minstrelsy.