I like First Things’ “On The Square” blog quite a bit. Even when I disagree with an article there, I still find it well-written, nuanced, and thought-provoking. But then I come across an article like Christopher Walker’s “Be Wary What You Listen To” and I just have to shake my head.
Walker, a secondary school teacher, asked his students to introduce him to songs that they “deemed worthy of appreciation” (an interesting exercise and one that I think more adults ought to do from time to time). Walker, a self-professed fan of “Mozart, monks, and medieval polyphony,” was shocked by his students’ submissions:
…I expected Christian rock artists, classic rock ‘n’ roll, and possibly some Indy Pop, but I was not prepared for the string of explicit rap artists that hit my desk, including Jay-Z, Kevin Rudolf, and Lil’ Wayne, along with heavy metal songs such as “Raining Blood” by Slayer.
I would be tempted to write this off as a successful class-wide prank to abuse my classically-trained ears and torture my soul, but our class discussions on music revealed a firm belief that the “skill, creativity, and cultural popularity” of this music made it worth listening to. All the students recognized that explicitly sexual, drug addicted rap artists should not be their models in life, but all were equally persuaded that they could listen to and enjoy such music without letting it impact their own lives.
Overall, Walker’s article reminded me of my experiences as a Christian and burgeoning music aficionado in the late ’80s and early ’90s. I spent hours listening to Bob Larson rail against secular rock’s demonic influences. I read much that detailed both the objectionable material in a number of secular bands’ songs as well as their morally dubious lifestyles. Finally, my youth group watched videos on the evils of rock and roll, videos that went to great lengths to expose even the Satanic details hidden in the bands’ album artwork. (Ironically, these things often had the opposite effect on me, making the bands in question more intriguing than appalling.)
In the cases of both Walker and my junior high/high school experiences, I see examples of Christians employing a most frustrating form of cultural analysis. And what is most frustrating about it is that its heart is in the right place, but then it goes all wrong.
No one will deny that there is music (as well as books, movies, video games, and so on) out there that many would consider offensive, objectionable, and even morally reprehensible. Nor would they deny the importance of becoming thoughtful, conscious consumers of said music, and of not making a steady, non-stop “diet” of such things. Furthermore, I think we can all agree that adults — beginning with parents and moving on to teachers such as Walker, educators, pastors, and so on — have a certain responsibility to the children in their care to help them learn how to think critically and thoughtfully about the culture around them.
But one doesn’t engender critical, thoughtful analysis by resorting to broad generalizations and cultural elitism, as Walker does in his article. To be fair, Walker does mention a couple of caveats, including:
Despite my temptation to condemn such music immediately for its ugly perversity, a moment’s reflection reveals that the issue is much more complex than declaring an entire genre off limits because the lives of its artists aren’t godly, or because many of the songs contain profanity. These standards would call into question a host of art, music, plays, and movies that I have enjoyed immensely. Thus, while I may not enjoy rap music, making the argument that Christians have a moral obligation to set rap music aside demands more than a quick dismissal.
I appreciate Walker’s attempts at making a distinction between the quality of an artist’s life, and the quality or value of the art they create. Unfortunately, that nuance gets downplayed, if not ditched outright, as the article continues. Near the end of his article, Walker makes a rather bold statement (emphasis mine):
I am concerned about the culture of rap music, including the music and the lyrics, because it is fundamentally opposed to the Biblical picture of a Christian life: a life guided by the Spirit, renewed in God’s image, and destined for a glorious future in God’s presence.
There’s no distinction allowed for subcategories, no attempt at nuance: put simply, rap music as a whole is “fundamentally opposed” to a Christian life.
Is there rap music that is vile, wicked, and abhorrent? Of course. But if we take man’s fallen nature seriously, then the same can be said for any musical genre — or any art form, for that matter. Do some rappers indulge in, and sing the praises of, a selfish, hedonistic, and destructive lifestyle? Of course. But who doesn’t live like that in one way or another? One need not be a rapper to extol the virtues of money, power, and sex — nor does it become more objectionable simply because a rapper does it.
As for cultural elitism – and I use “elitism” hesitantly because it has become such a loaded term in our culture — Walker reminds me of an art history professor of mine who proclaimed, in all seriousness on the first day of class, that all good art had ended with the Roman Empire.
In my “favorite” part of his article, Walker writes (again, emphasis mine):
Rappers add to this revolt by casting off the laws of language itself. Rap lyrics very literally bastardize the English language by ignoring grammar, pronunciation, or clarity in communication. Thus, rap music promotes a “sing what I want, talk how I want, do what I want” attitude in rejection of standards for right or wrong.
In addition to the lyrics, it is worth remembering that music itself is a means of communication. Music is not a neutral medium that becomes good or bad based on the words that accompany it; music is an art form that creates impressions, communicates to an audience, and presents its listeners with an interpretation of reality.
One doesn’t need to go read dissertations on the reactions of mice in mazes in order to recognize music’s power. Think about the natural reactions of the body to a Braham’s lullaby, a Sousa march, a U2 rock song, or a Lil’ Wayne rap. Although we might be able to curb our natural reactions, the body longs to sit and relax, to march in line, to jump and clap, or to grind and mosh based on the music it hears. Lyrics often become the only litmus test of acceptable music, but music itself impacts both the mind and the body by stirring up emotions in its listeners. Rap music undermines authority as its jolting beat assaults the standards of musical form.
Nevermind the fact that Shakespeare, as well as many other great writers, have bastardized the English language — as have countless musicians in many other musical genres. I find it particularly bothersome that Walker believes rap to be an inferior musical form simply because it doesn’t subscribe to the same “standards” that his “classically-trained ears” are accustomed to. Sadly, the implication seems to be that “Mozart, monks, and medieval polyphony” somehow represent the pinnacle of musical development and everything else is downhill from there.
When Walker writes “Rap music undermines authority as its jolting beat assaults the standards of musical form,” he raises a host of questions. Whose authority is being undermined? What standards are being assaulted? Why are those standards “standard”? And even if rap music assaults “the standards of musical form” — whatever those standards might be — so what? Does that automatically and necessarily make rap music immoral and “fundamentally opposed to the Biblical picture of a Christian life”? This isn’t the first time that I’ve heard Christians make this sort of argument, and it’s as presumptuous now as it was all of the other times.
(On a sidenote, if Walker is concerned about rap’s “jolting beat” assaulting musical standards, I wonder what he would think of mash-up artists like Girl Talk, The Kleptones, and DJ Earworm who treat music genres with gleeful irreverence. Or better yet, noise artists like Wolf Eyes, Yellow Swans, Black Dice, and Merzbow.)
In the end, Walker’s article feels less like an attempt at a thoughtful critique of rap music, and more like an elaborate and theologically loaded way of expounding upon his own admission that he simply doesn’t like the genre, and that he’s flabbergasted that “young people,” and especially young Christians, can and do.
I wonder if Walker’s opinion about rap’s damnable nature would ever be swayed by listening to rap and hip-hop artists considered more positive, upbeat, and socially conscious (e.g., The Roots, Jurassic Five, Blackalicious). Or, for that matter, artists more interested in the sonic possibilities of the genre (e.g., D.J. Shadow, RJD2, the various members of the Anticon Collective)? Or heck, if encounters with Christians in the scene — e.g., Lecrae, LA Symphony, Soul-Junk – might do something for his assessment of the genre’s value?
Finally, I wish Walker would learn a little something from his students, even as he seeks to instruct them. He seems dismissive of the notion that “skill, creativity, and cultural popularity” ought to be used to judge music’s worthiness. However, I strongly believe that Christians ought to hold all of these things in careful tension (with “tension” being the operative word).
I remember once talking to my wife about Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, one of the most influential rap albums of all time, and one that popularized the “gangsta rap” subgenre. I had recently rediscovered the album, and was disturbed by its casual celebration of brutality and misogyny even as I marveled at Dre’s considerable skills as a producer and arranger. But how to balance the two? It doesn’t seem healthy to downplay one because of the other, or to ignore one in favor of the other. But does the disturbing reality of the former negate the latter, or does praising the latter lend tacit approval to the former?
This is where gracious and thoughtful discernment and criticism becomes so crucial, but how can we practice such discernment unless we ignore the temptation to disregard outright and not listen? As Andy Whitman, one of my favorite music critics, writes:
There is no safe territory, no aesthetic Wonderland where I can simply turn off the need to be vigilant. That certainly applies to so-called “Christian” media as well. It’s all messy and fraught with danger. And some of it is astoundingly lovely and moving, and opens up new vistas of seeing the world, as I know you know. [Walker] is dismissive of what he doesn’t know and doesn’t understand. It’s an old, old story, but it’s still an unfortunate story. What he may have discovered, if he had tried, is that all hip-hop does not sound alike, that all hip-hop does not address the same issues or encompass the same worldview, that hip-hop has a history, that the music has evolved, and that there is as much variety in the genre as any other musical genre, including his beloved classical symphonies. He reminds me of those film critics whose purpose in life is to count cuss words and breast cameos in R-rated films. He’s missed the story. Hip-hop has many stories that are artfully told. But to hear them you have to stop counting.
Whitman hits the nail on the head, both with regards to Walker’s article as well as a healthy approach to music, and art in general. When we practice a reductionist and overly generalized form of cultural analysis, even if it’s done with noble intentions, I fear that it’s all too easy to end up with a view of culture that is ghetto-ized, short-sighted, deprived, and even self-righteous. I experienced that as a high schooler in the ’80s, where my church’s assessment of culture was based more on fear and skepticism than anything else, and I see something similar in Walker’s article.