Yesterday afternoon, I was doing the usual errands around town, Gwendolyn's Bose stereo cranked up to a reasonable level but no higher, with this disc in the slot. The fifth track was Billy Joel's "Only the Good Die Young," a song thirty years old which up to this point had never impressed me as anything more than a comparatively-bouncy manifestation of Joel's New York state of mind. The grocery-buying process, however, evidently drained most of my usual thought patterns, leaving me actually listening to the words, and Jesus, what is this guy trying to say?

They showed you a statue, told you to pray
They built you a temple and locked you away
But they never told you the price that you pay
For things that you might have done

Not that I have any special experience seducing Catholic girls, indeed any girls at all, but I'm not sure which is more terrible: the idea that someone would lay down a line like this to poor "Virginia" (ha!), or the idea that she might actually buy into it. It wasn't, as some said upon its release, anti-Catholic Joel was quoted as saying that it was "pro-lust" instead but it definitely doesn't sit well with my particular package of values.

And here's the kicker: while I wouldn't endorse any of the sentiments therein, I still like the song, at least well enough to keep it on that compilation disc and to keep from setting my copy of the LP on fire in protest. Nor is this the only song from my ill-spent youth (I was twenty-four in 1977) that expresses ideas I would never, ever espouse yet which I still enjoy and which I probably could, but almost certainly wouldn't, sing at Karaoke Night.

An exemplar of this particular phenomenon is the late John Lennon's "Imagine," a simplistic rehash of Sixties leftist tropes wrapped in a perfectly lovely piano tune. It doesn't bother me in the least that the official motto of Liverpool's John Lennon Airport is "Above us only sky," a line from "Imagine," nor do I assume that it's a declaration of atheism by the airport's owners, the Peel Group: it's simply a line from a song.

But here's where things get complicated. I'm well into my fifties, a decade during which I don't feel compelled to give much of a damn about anything; it causes me neither grief nor cognitive dissonance to appreciate lyrics with which I disagree. Could I have maintained this same stance half a life earlier? Or would I, having had far less real-life experience, have been more susceptible to their presumed subversive appeal?

And this, in turn, leads to another question. It is a seldom-questioned truism among social conservatives today that the hip-hop culture is a Bad Thing. La Shawn Barber writes:

Admittedly, music that young people like tends to be somewhat subversive to begin with, but gangsta rap broke the mold. It was dangerously subversive ... and nasty. One of its defining elements is the nihilistic, gotta-get-mine-don't-care-if-I-die, fu**-you, murder-you fixation on instant gratification and thuggishness in pursuit of "females," who are no more than sexual props, objects thugs use in the most degrading way to get off.

Not exactly socially acceptable. But is it slowly, or not so slowly, sinking into these young minds? Not necessarily, says Barber:

I'd say there's an important difference between listening to gangsta rap and becoming completely absorbed in the lifestyle. In other words, if suburban kids from intact families are listening to gangsta rap and are tempted to emulate the lifestyle, a father in the home and a strong community may serve as deterring and stabilizing influences.

And indeed, the genre may have been depleted for some time. Or maybe it's just growing up: last year, rapper Nas released a CD called Hip Hop Is Dead, the title song of which was set to a theme by Iron Butterfly (!). That track took a typically-aggressive stance toward those who might have "killed" it, but later on the disc, "Carry On Tradition" laid it on the line:

Hip-Hop been dead, we the reason it died
Wasn't Sylvia's fault or because MCs' skills are lost
It's because we can't see ourselves as the boss
Deep-rooted through slavery, self-hatred

Sylvia, I presume, is Sylvia Vanderpool Robinson, founder of Sugar Hill Records, the first vinyl outpost for New York rap. Perhaps she'd be perplexed by some of the children of "Rapper's Delight," which denounced nothing more heinous than bad food. But I suspect she'd defend them just the same. For that matter, I'd defend something as incendiary as N.W.A's "F*** tha Police," not so much because it's incendiary but because it strikes me as hilarious: you'll never persuade me that these guys, for all their bluster, weren't making fun of the same situations they were decrying, especially in view of Judge Dre's "verdict," which pronounces the presumably-white cop "guilty of being a redneck, white-bread, chicken..." but never mind, you get the idea.

So maybe it's not just me. And since at no point in my life could I have been considered remarkably mature for my age, I have to assume that there are rather a lot of folks who can treat a lyric as a lyric and not an Occasion of Sin or worse. It's not a condition you have to have grown up Catholic to appreciate, either.

The Vent

  9 September 2007

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 Copyright © 2007 by Charles G. Hill