I dislike rap. That, if anything, is an understatement. It’s not because I’m biased against the culture from which it comes, and it’s not because I’m an old curmudgeon — which I may well be — or because it’s “modern,” and I’m not up with the times. It’s because I do indeed understand both rap’s source, its structure, and its implications… and none of them represent the best in human culture.
First, rap does indeed represent modern society — the worst of it. Words are jammed into an insistent forced beat against a set of background sounds so close to monotone that they can scarcely be termed music. Any beauty the words might have is destroyed by the framework in which they are embedded. What rap does best is, in fact, the shock value, the ugly, the “in-your-face” confrontation. In a sense, it’s the musical equivalent of the worst excesses of Fox News on the right and CNN on the left, with a soundtrack having the artistic sense of a jackhammer during rush hour.
One of the key elements of music is something called a melody line, and it’s essential — except to rap and the atonal so-called modernist composers, whose work I dislike possibly even more than that of the rappers, because the modernists had a real education in music and should know better.
Some have called rap merely modern poetry, or the modern urban equivalent to bardic minstrels. I’m sorry; it’s not. In poetry, in comparison to rap, the use and choice of words determines the rhythm… or the metre requires the poet to choose particular words, but, in either approach, they’re fitted together, not forced into a structure with the jack-hammer of an electric bass and the sonic wire mesh of a full drum ensemble.
The fact that the recent Tony awards gave the “best new musical award” to what amounted to a “rap music showcase” in which there was little music, and where much of what were intended as lyrics were unintelligible, suggests that the artistic world has come to point where no one dares to suggest that “the emperor has no clothes,” but then, I doubt that many who voted for the award would even understand that allusion, much less what lies behind it.
As Kipling suggested in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” nearly a century ago, worshipping the “Gods of the Marketplace” and the current fad, whatever it may be, instead of striving for excellence based on experience, inevitably leads to disaster, as when “the lights had gone out in Rome.”
But who am I to stand against the thunderous applause for “music” that has no grace and no melody? Or to suggest that art should inspire men and women to strive for excellence, rather than graphically describe degradation in all its sordid forms?