|The iPod in question.|
At a recent family reunion I fell into a conversation with a distant relative, a 14-year-old girl who is the stepdaughter of one of my cousins. She was sitting at a picnic table by herself, bored, and listening to an iPod. Since everyone was ignoring her, to be polite I sat down and asked what she was listening to. She took off her headphones and let me hear for myself.
I put the headphones on, and what little faith I had in humanity vanished.
The first word to assault my ears was “nigger,” and within the next 60 seconds “nigger” was repeated at least ten more times, along with a variety of other degrading and offensive terms.
It wasn’t some racist anthem; instead, it was a rap song by a black group, so use of the N-word was thereby “acceptable” I suppose, at least according to modern social standards.
(And I apologize for having to actually spell out the word “nigger” repeatedly in this post, but there’s no way to write an essay on this disturbing topic without confronting it head-on.)
I shouldn’t have been shocked; though I generally don’t listen to rap, I’ve heard snippets here and there and read a few things about it over the years, and know that “nigger” — or more commonly “nigga” — is not off-limits when it comes to lyrical content.
But I had naively assumed it was a rarity, perhaps to “push the envelope” or to show how badass the rapper in question was. Yet the song I was listening to seemed to be composed almost entirely of “nigger”s with just a few other words thrown in. I looked at the screen and saw that the song was called “B-Town’s Greatest” by a group named “The Pack.” Before I discuss the significance of all this, it’s essential that you listen for yourselves, which you can do thanks to the magic of YouTube:
For those too afraid to listen, here are the lyrics [inaudible parts in brackets]:
The Pack — B-Town’s Greatest
Nigger this for my boss niggers,
B-Town where they do, nigger.
SSB to the WSB, nigger.
Seventh Street, nigger.
Fuck all the ho’s
My niggers blow trees,
You already know, nigger.
B-Town boss up, bitch.
What do you mean?
You fuckin’ bitch.
Being in the gang blowing purple like a nigger,
On the scene bitch,
driving by, talking like I really wanna.
I don’t really give a fuck,
stretching out for [no stain kitty] ho’s.
[And lyin’] dressing nice, bitch,
you know you comin’ with me
Niggers [off a Sunday] grab a [rip]
Check your ass for you.
Make it so she do it right,
holding down the back four.
[Like it] in the town,
’cause niggers always crackin’ daily.
Nigger get your head bust,
niggers be packin’ daily.
Always on the [grind],
have a track meet for all the women,
’cause I stay hot,
eating food like it’s Thanksgiving.
Bust a couple [knots],
with my niggers purple […].
Smoking grapes every day,
purple boys is all I’m living.
If you wanna [ask a boy],
dick is all I’m gonna give ’em.
Get a new bitch every day,
just like a [stand] Christmas,
get a new broad every day,
just like I’m [saying wishes].
Nigger in the B-Town,
they say “Boy you’re pimping vicious.”
…and so on.
Thinking, hoping, that this song was just an anomaly, I scrolled down the playlist and clicked on another song at random, this one called “Spazz Out” by a rapper named Yo Gotti. Thanks again to the magic of YouTube, here’s an online version, followed by the lyrics:
Yo Gotti – Spazz Out
Hey, shout out to my Chicago niggers,
shout out to my Detroit niggers,
shout out to by Pittsburgh niggers,
Shout out to my VA niggers,
my New York niggers,
one time to my LA niggers,
man you know, my down south Alambama Mississippi Tennessee, God damn it,
my Carolina niggers,
my ATL niggers,
oh God damn it 1 2 3 4 5 6.
You know what I mean, I fuck with a lot of real niggers all over the world, my nigger, you know what I’m saying?
Been a lot of places, done a lot of shit these puss-ass niggers can’t do.
So salute all my real niggers,
salute all my bad bitches.
This is what I do it for, nigger.
Anything less than that, I don’t give a fuck.
Yeah, I said it, bitch.
I just talked to Boosey mama, she fucked up.
She know I’m playing for ya, dog —
keep your head up.
Now just called to the scene,
young niggers deal with it.
So this summer, it’s gon’ be a killing.
Plus I got the feeling
some pussy ass rapper gon’ try to play me,
and record label might not try to pay me.
Well fuck it, I’ma spazz out,
I think I’ma spazz out,
I’m going crazy.
I just talk to my lil homie, he say he asked that.
He got a chopper and I know he ’bout to spazz that.
He [put that white up for a minute] but they [graz] that.
I’m going [green] on ’em
My block a cash cow.
I put that [white up drop that black] and broke they man-sac.
These niggers still talking ig’nint
Im’a crash that.
I’m ’bout to crash out,
I’m ’bout to crash out.
A brand new Beemer, brand new phone
A nigger [ask that].
And if I have to shoot a nigger,
don’t take no bail out.
I kept scrolling and clicking on different songs — Stat Quo’s “Can’t Take The Ghetto Out Of Me,” then “Cemetery Pockets” by OJ Da Juiceman, then Lil B’s “Green Card” — but it was relentless. Every single song was a hailstorm of “niggers.” Before I handed the iPod back to her I sampled one more, “What’s Happenin'” by Webbie, and it briefly seemed like I had found at least one nigger-free song, but sadly after a slow start the song kicked into overdrive and eventually clocked in (as I later counted) with no fewer than 51 instances of “nigger” in the lyrics.
Now, throughout my entire life, not only have I never once enunciated the word “nigger,” for any reason, but I also can’t recall even having heard anyone else ever say it, aside from teenagers on the streets of Oakland using it as a sort of all-purpose greeting. I’ve certainly never heard it used as an insult or an epithet. Maybe I’ve been lucky, growing up in California neighborhoods where there was never any racial conflict or hostility. In my experience, the near-universal social ban on the grotesquely offensive word “nigger” had been entirely effective, since I had never encountered it used in anger or spoken by a non-black person.
And yet here I was at a picnic table having my brain repeatedly punched by one of the ugliest words in the English language.
After I returned the iPod to my young relative, I tried, as delicately as possible, to start a discussion with her about her taste in music. Why, I asked, do you choose to listen to this type of song? Confused, she asked what I meant. I tried to rephrase the question: What was appealing about this music, as opposed to other kinds of music? But she didn’t understand what I was talking about. “Other” kinds of music? As far as she knew, the music on her iPod was simply music; the music that existed. It was the music that “everyone at school” listened to, all her friends, her clique, everyone. She was, it turned out, completely unaware that there was any other kind of music. Well, not completely unaware, but aware enough to know that other kinds of music were designed for other audiences, and had nothing to do with her.
It’s hard to remember what it was like being 14, but one’s grasp of the whole wide world is still very limited. The stuff in one’s immediate vicinity takes on overarching significance; the big picture is not yet in focus. She explained, in her 14-year-old way, that she didn’t “choose” the songs on her iPod; they simply were all the songs that she was cognizant of, and/or that were trendy in her social circle. They were the soundtrack to her life.
Later that day, I asked her mother how the girl was doing, and the mother was quite proud and pleased: The girl was doing well in school, was not hanging out with the wrong crowd, and seemed to have no behavioral or social problems. Nor was she in a gang, nor was she a racist – in fact, you couldn’t ask for a better daughter.
As the reunion broke up, the girl came over to me and offered to let me borrow her iPod for a while if I wanted, since she has the same mp3s loaded on her iPhone too, and she could use that in the interim. I accepted.
And so I embarked on a bizarre masochistic quest: To listen to every single song on her iPod, just to prove to myself that my first impressions were accurate.
That was three weeks ago. I’ve been wearing these damn headphones almost constantly ever since, just starting at the beginning and letting the tracks play one after the other in a continuous stream. Turns out that she had 1,500 mp3s on her iPod, somewhere around 80 hours of music.
And it became 80 hours of pain, far worse than I had feared: Practically every song featured the word “nigger,” from as little as once or twice in the lyrics, to as many as 60 repetitions. I calculated a rough average of about 20 “niggers” per song, which meant that over the last three weeks I’ve heard the N-word 30,000 times.
And having heard all this, I can report back: The experience is soul-deadening.
But I’m an adult; I can take it. Yet I became very concerned for the sanity of not just of my 14-year-old step-cousin-once-removed, but of all children and teenagers raised on a diet of N-word lyrics. What would it do to your brain if you were informed that a certain thing was absolutely forbidden to say or think, and then that very thing was made ubiquitous in your environment? It seems to me like a form of psychic torture, a way to create a worldview based on cognitive dissonance.
Apologists say that the crisis is not nearly as bad as I’m making it out to be: the N-word is only forbidden in certain contexts. Sure, non-black people are never allowed to say it under any circumstances; and even most black people in most circumstances are not really allowed to say it; but if a gun-toting gang member accosts a fellow gun-toting gang member with the N-word, well then it’s perfectly OK. And since many rappers either are or pose as gang members, then they have a societal permission slip to use the word whenever they want. We all understand this, and it doesn’t bother us, the apologists say.
The situation becomes even more complicated when one realizes, as I did after weeks of hearing this stuff, that the word “nigger” is not just one word but serves many different syntactical roles, and has different meanings which can be either positive or negative.
For example, as in the lyrics above, “my niggers” is a term of affection. But “these niggers” or “some niggers” is usually an insult. “A nigger” often means simply “me” — as in the common rap lyric “Talk to a nigger,” which means “Talk to me.” Essentially, in the rap universe, “nigger” has been stripped of any irrevocable negative connotation, and instead just means “a black male,” and can be rendered positive, negative, or neutral, depending on the context.
One could argue that this is an attempt by African-Americans to “reclaim” the one-time insult and defuse its power by adopting it, celebrating it, and redefining it, just as homosexuals did with “gay” and “queer.” But this doesn’t always work; in a well-known recent example, gay sex columnist (and later anti-bullying bully) Dan Savage used to insist that his column’s readers always address written questions to him with the greeting “Hey faggot!”, but he dropped the practice after the conscious attempt to “reclaim” faggot fizzled, and his fans said it was no longer funny or effective.
Yet to be honest I don’t think the omnipresent usage of the N-word in modern “gangsta rap” is a conscious attempt at anything; it’s just people using their daily language in their music. And that daily language is daily seeping into the consciousness of “average” America through a generation of kids who listen to rap as a part of their daily routine. And most adults aren’t really aware of it. They may have some dim consciousness that rap violates taboos, but I think the typical person over, say, 30 years old really has no clue just how extreme and commonplace this taboo-violation has become.
And while it may have been horror at “nigger” lyrics which launched my masochistic voyage into a 14-year-old’s iPod, that horror was supplanted by an even greater horror as the hours ticked away.
Now, I’m fully aware that each generation of parents frets over the heightened sexual content of their kids’ music, and that this cycle has been going on since time immemorial, from the scandalous waltz through the immoral Charleston to Elvis and then Madonna. Cole Porter wrote “In olden days a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking, now heaven knows, anything goes” way back in 1934. And I know I’m going to sound like just another out-of-it old fogey fearful of the younger generation’s sexuality, but if you’d heard what I heard on that iPod, the blood would drain from your face. Our culture has reached what must be the end point of degraded obscenity, as each rapper tries to outdo his peers with absurd levels of sexual content that manages to be nauseating, juvenile and misogynistic in the extreme, all at once.
This, for example, was one of the songs on the iPod; imagine your 14-year-old daughter listening to songs like this:
Ain’t No Fun (If The Homies Can’t Have None) – Snoop Doggy Dogg (feat. Nate Dogg, Kurupt, and Warren G.)
You’re back now at the jack-off hour this is DJ Eazy Dick
On W-Balls, right now, somethin new, by Snoop Doggy Dogg
And this one goes out to the ladies, from all the guys
A big bow wow wow, cuz we gonna make it a little mystery
here tonight, this is DJ Eazy Dick, on the station that
slaps you across your fat ass, with a fat dick.
[Verse One: Nate Dogg]
When I met you last night baby
Before you opened up your gap
I had respect for ya lady
But now I take it all back
Cause you gave me all your pussy
And ya even licked my balls
Leave your number on the cabinet
And I promise baby, I’ll give ya a call
Next time I’m feelin kinda horny
You can come on over, and I’ll break you off
And if you can’t fuck that day, baby
Just lay back, and open your mouth
Cause I have never
met a girl
That I love
in the whole wide world
[Verse Two: Kurupt]
Well, if Kurupt gave a fuck about a bitch I’d always be broke
I’d never have no motherfuckin indo to smoke
I gets loced and looney, bitch you can’t do me
Do we like BBD, you hoochie groupie?
I have no love for hoes
That’s somethin I learned in the pound
So how the fuck am I supposed
to pay this hoe, just to lay this hoe
I know the pussy’s mine, I’ma fuck a couple more times
And then I’m through with it, there’s nothing else to do with it
Pass it to the homie, now you hit it
Cause she ain’t nuthin but a bitch to me
And y’all know, that bitches ain’t shit to me
I gives a fuck, why don’t y’all pay attention
Approach it with a different proposition, I’m Kurupt
Hoe you’ll never be my only one, trick ass beeeitch!
[Chorus: (repeat 4X)]
It ain’t no fun, if the homies can’t have none.
[Verse Three: Snoop Doggy Dogg]
Guess who back in the motherfuckin’ house
With a fat dick for your motherfuckin’ mouth
Hoes recognize, niggaz do too
Cuz when bitches get skanless and pull a voodoo
What you gon do? You really don’t know
So I’d advise you not to trust that hoe
Silly of me to fall in love with a bitch
Knowin’ damn well, I’m too caught up with my grip
Now as the sun rotates and my game grows bigger
How many bitches wanna fuck this nigger
named Snoop Doggy, I’m all the above
I’m too swift on my toes to get caught up with you hoes
But see, it ain’t no fun, if my homies can’t get a taste of it
Cause you know I don’t love ’em.
[Verse Four: Warren G]
Hey, now ya know, inhale, exhale with my flow
One for the money, two for the bitches
Three to get ready, and four to hit the switches
In my Chevy, six-fo’ Rad to be exact
With bitches on my side, and bitches on back
So back up bitch cuz i’m strugglin, so get
off your knees and then start jugglin’
these motherfuckin nuts in your mouth
It’s me, Warren G the nigga with the clout
“Start jugglin’ these motherfuckin nuts in your mouth” was just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of similar songs, such as Beat The Pussy Up by Love Rance featuring IAMSU ! & Skipper P and “Lets Talk About It” by Clipse and Jermaine Dupri were scattered throughout the iPod’s playlist. Most upsetting of all was what seemed to be the collected works of an artist named CoCo Brown, who singlehandedly proves that women rappers can be more obscene than the men. This is what America’s 14 year olds are listening to:
This is not a recent development. The Snoop Dogg track above is from 20 years ago. Woman-hating, anti-love lyrics have been par for the course ever since.
What does hearing all this do to the mind of the listener? Can music cause the degradation of the soul? Can a 14-year-old develop healthy attitudes about romance if she spends her childhood listening to lyrics like “And if you can’t fuck that day, baby, just lay back and open your mouth, ’cause I have never met a girl that I love in the whole wide world”? Is the capacity for romantic love an in-born human trait or just a cultural construct? Have we reached the end of the “Love Era” in human history?
I fully realize that not all kids listen to rap. It is only one genre among many competing for their attention. Top 100 lists also have country stars, pop divas, rock anthems, dance tracks, soul music, and so forth. The stats are hard to decipher and ever-changing, but as far as I can tell rap “only” accounts for somewhere around 15%-20% of all music sales. But much of those sales are to a younger audience, while country, soul, rock, dance and other genres are gaining their sales primarily from an adult demographic.
So, an off-the-cuff estimation is that perhaps one-third of American teenagers listen to rap. Though since not all rap is “gangsta,” we can round that down to maybe one-fourth of American teenagers growing up becoming accustomed to hearing the N-word and every other imaginable obscenity.
So, yes, while presumably there are other cliques of 14-year-old girls across the country who listen not to rap but to Christian music or rock ‘n’ roll, it’s safe to assume that a very significant percentage of those cliques are rap-centric, just as my relative’s is. It’s hard to quantify, but it is definitely not negligible. And remember that only a small percentage of teenagers in the ’60s were actual hippies, and yet in retrospect the hippies defined the era.
But genres are merging and fusing these days, and many songs not officially deemed “rap” nonetheless have rap elements and attributes.
This phenomenon is not limited to marginal or lesser-known groups. Many of even the most mainstream performers wallow in rap-derived vulgarity.
For example, the band LMFAO is arguably the most popular and successful mainstream musical group in the world at the moment. They performed during this year’s Super Bowl halftime show and on Dick Clark’s “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.” They have won innumerable mainstream awards, such as “Favorite Song of the Year” at the 2012 Kids’ Choice Awards and “Best Group” and “Top Song” at the 2012 Billboard Awards, to name just a few. They are marketed as a fun and harmless “party rock” band, and their stage act features a dancing zebra and a guy with a cardboard box on his head. As a result, they’re immensely popular with tweens and young teens, the modern equivalent of a kid-oriented bubblegum music act.
And yet…unlike actual 1960s bubblegum acts which relied at most on innuendo or double-entendre to sneak a racy lyric past parents, LMFAO is brutally blunt in its sexual content. For example, another track on the iPod, “Get Crazy,” one of the most popular songs by the most popular kiddie-themed group in the country, features these lyrics:
When I was a baby I was suckin’ on titties
Now that I’m older still suckin’ on titties
Different titties — but titties nonetheless
The first thing I do when a girl undress
Crazy girl spark my interest
If titties were a stock I’d invest in breast
Love the way you move I’m impressed
Lotta girls love us we the best I guess hey.
I got the goose alright ok
I’m feelin loose alright ok
She love the beats alright ok
We love them D’s alright ok
I got the goose alright ok
I’m feelin loose alright ok
She love the beat alright ok
We love them D’s
Get crazy get wild
Let’s party get loud
If you wanna have fun and do something crazy
flash yo titties
Get crazy get wild
Let’s party get loud
If you wanna have fun and do something crazy
flash yo titties
If you in the car flash yo titties
If you at the bar flash yo titties
If you at the beach flash yo titties
If you on the street flash yo titties
I said if you in the car flash yo titties
I said if you at the bar flash yo titties
If you at work flash yo titties
Even if you at church flash yo titties
In Europe they show t-titties all the time
But here in LA every titty a prize
So girl let me see what you tryin to hide
Has either of your titties ever touched the sky
Now if your shy (if your shy)
Just close your eyes (just close your eyes)
And pull your titties out like you part of tha African tribe
Lyrics like these are now commonplace, and in no way mark an artist as outré or extreme. Will.i.am, leader of the Black Eyed Peas, is about as respectable as you can get, guest-hosting on American Idol, appearing at President Obama’s inauguration and among his inner circle of fundraisers, and in general treated as a sage elder statesman in the music industry. . .and yet one of the iPod songs had these grotesque will.i.am lyrics:
My nigga, will.i.am in the house
I’m in the house an’ I ain’t movin’ out.
The girls keep more of my name in they mouth.
I like breasts best when they poppin’ out,
So girl, bring ’em out, bring ’em out, I make ’em bounce.
Keep, keep bouncin’, yeah, just keep them bouncin’,
Open up your mind an’ accept what I’m announcin’:
If we have a President’s Day an’ a Veteran’s Day,
Let’s have a Titty Holiday.
An’ lick on nipple everyday through the weekend.
I like tit like fish like sippin’,
Watchin’ boobies bounce is my favorite tradition,
When I’m up in the club just sittin’ an’ wishin’
Them boobies was bouncin’ on my head, my head,
Them boobies was bouncin’ on my head, my head,
Bouncin’, bouncin’ on my head, my head,
I want them boobies bouncin’ on my head, my head
If I wasn’t already numbed by our culture’s avalanche of vulgarity, I’d be speechless. A guy who sings songs like this gets to sit next to the president.
I’m strongly opposed to censorship. I’m just old enough to remember the Parents Music Resource Center hearings. I jeered at Tipper Gore and her army of blue-nosed prudes, and cheered Frank Zappa for opposing the censors. And I’d probably do the same today if the hearings were re-opened.
The PMRC hearings did have one long-term effect: the creation of “Parental Advisory” stickers which are still used today on records that the RIAA deems might offend some listeners. This actually was a reasonable compromise coming out of what were very contentious hearings: No recordings were ever actually “censored,” merely labeled as “adult content” though still available to everyone. I see no problem with that.
But in the modern world, the stickers are basically useless. First of all, vinyl records are already extinct, and CDs are quickly joining them. Most music is now obtained online, in a digital non-physical format, so there’s nothing to attach the stickers to. Yet if you try to buy any of the obscene songs mentioned above through iTunes or Amazon, you will encounter a little notice saying that they are “explicit” — but that’s as far as it goes. There is no age verification, and nothing prevents a child from buying the song anyway, warning or no warning.
Secondly, as was noted back in the Tipper Era, these notices only end up serving as tempting advertisements for which songs are taboo and thus the most intriguing to teenagers. So the stickers only ended up backfiring.
And lastly, most kids rarely buy music these days anyway. They trade and share mp3s amongst each other. My 14-year-old relative said she had not paid for any of the music on her iPod; it all came from friends. I suppose somewhere back at the beginning of the chain someone may have bought some of the songs, but for every purchase there are likely dozens of listeners, none of whom ever encounter any kind of sticker or warning.
If I’m philosophically opposed to nanny-state censorship, then what am I advocating as the solution to this problem? Well, I’m not advocating anything, actually: I’m just sad. Depressed that our culture is scraping bottom. The lyrics of 1985 that so shocked and outraged Tipper Gore now read like nursery rhymes compared to what came after.
“Dirty” lyrics have always been with us — I myself even own albums from the ’50s and ’60s by Rusty Warren and Rudy Ray Moore that were the ideological precursors to LMFAO and Snoop Dogg — but back then it was considered X-rated “comedy” rather than “music,” and these types of performers were always on the fringes of culture, far far from the mainstream. What has changed in recent years is not that a new style has emerged, but rather that a once obscure genre has come out of the shadows and seized center stage.
I have no desire to bring back the record-burning tent revivals of yesteryear in which teens tossed their Elvis albums and other “devil’s music” on the bonfire to shouts of “Hallelujah!” With freedom comes the risk of seeing and hearing things you don’t like. I can only sit here patiently and wait for the taboo-busting thrill of hearing “nigger” and “pussy” in every stanza to eventually wear off, and we can once again enjoy the subtleties of metaphor, pun and double-entendre.
Gwyneth Paltrow pleads “It’s the title of the song!” after getting trashed for tweeting the N-word. This sums up the situation in a nutshell: A famous black rapper can use the word “nigger” to title a song, but a white star is not allowed to even refer to the song by name, even to praise it.