Those of you who are, as I am, regular listeners of the Need to Know with Mona Charen and Jay Nordlinger podcast will recently have heard Mark Steyn inveighing against rap music. “I do have a big problem with [rap], in that I think there’s an absence of human feeling in these songs,” Steyn said. “It’s not just that they’re explicit… the idea that rap is the authentic expression of black identity, which is what a lot of these people — the idea that Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald … the idea that any of these authentic black musicians would’ve thought that some guy doing some pneumatic laundry list of his hos is any kind of authentic expression of black culture or black identity is outrageous. Those guys wouldn’t have been on board for that.”
That may well be true, and for all I know, Mona’s right that rap portends the decline of Western civilization. (Whether it does or doesn’t, the certainty and regularity with which those kinds of sentiments are expressed by our side has inspired some commentary. Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, suggests that the refusal of many conservatives to engage with popular culture sufficiently to construct an informed opinion about it, while not hesitating to form an opinion anyway, will forever peg us as judgmental, out-of-touch sticks in the mud. But that’s a subject for another post.)
My question is more basic. Setting aside the problem of lyrical content, is rap or is rap not music?
Jay Nordlinger, who is an expert on classical music, seemed interested in the same question during the podcast. When Steyn first addressed the absence of human feeling in rap, Nordlinger said, “Of melody, of harmony? Of the fundamental elements of music…?” suggesting that to his mind, human feeling is conveyed by the mechanics of music as much as by the words that are spoken. (That argument would seem to be bolstered by an example like, say, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which I’d imagine even Snoop Dogg can’t listen to without emotion. It applies, indeed, to the vast universe of classical music and other music without lyrics.)
That’s not quite the question Steyn answered, though. He interpreted the question as referring not to those mechanics, but to fundamental emotions and terms of human interaction — the “fundamental things” that apply in As Time Goes By. Few would deny that those fundamentals are in short supply in most of the rap oeuvre. But the original question remains: is this stuff music or isn’t it? What is music anyway?
In the piece cited above, Friedersdorf links to an interesting comment made on the subject by Jason Lee Steorts of National Review. He writes,
I don’t know rap well, but I have heard harmonic progressions in it that are more complex than the arrangements of root-position I, II, IV, V, and VI on which so many pop and rock songs are built — not to mention raps that involve choruses, duets between the rapper and a singer, etc. I think resistance to calling it “music” is based mainly on the fact that rappers speak rather than sing; but we call Peter and the Wolf “music” despite its narrator, Wozzeck and Moses und Aron “music” despite their Sprechstimme, and so on.
Now we’re getting to it.
Musical Ricochetti, where do you come down on this? Factoring out the language and the woman-loathing, is there anything musically redeeming about rap? Is rap any more or less musical than, say, thrash metal, and is it more or less of an assault on the whole idea of music? Is it a denial of music? Are the rhythms in any way groundbreaking in musical terms? Is spoken music still music?
In short: is this stuff music or noise?