Wednesday, December 15, 2004

What makes something worth critical appraisal?

...Or, in other words, why will I not be writing about Vanilla Ice?

As discussed in previous posts, the borders of hip-hop are cover wide and diverse territory. Some of this territory contributes more to the hip-hop nation than other parts of it. Regions such as Gangsta Rap may be in turmoil, but be quite productive from a critical point of view. Areas such as Eminem may be in constant upheaval, but contribute immeasurably to the whole. Yet some provinces of hip-hop remain fallow.

I am treading on thin ice here: the raison d'ĂȘtre of this site is to prove that hip-hop is worth critical investigation, so to say that some types of it are not may seem hipocritical. Yet just as literary critics would refuse to write about Mills&Boon romantic-pulp fiction, so will I refuse to write about certain sections of the music.

The criteria that must be used for deciding what to write about are different from those that make something successful. It is not that there is no overlap: frequently, what makes art worthy of examination also boosts its sales, but it is not so often true that what makes art a commercial success renders it worthy of critical investigation. One cannot write off Mills&Boon or indeed Vanilla Ice, En Vogue, or Cassidy in the world of hip-hop, because they are important; people listen to them. But they cannot stand up to the kind of analysis that I am intending to apply. Simply, the levels of meaning are too thin.

A perfect recent example is Cassidy's Hotel. The song has been played everywhere, is known by everyone, and is quite catchy and good to get down to. The lyrics are not bad, they're just not too deep. "If you wanna come to my hotel..." - OK, we get it, you want to do her. The album Split Personality, does not deepen the themes to any great extent. I listened to it once, but it didn't fascinate me with hidden meanings or provocative contradictions.

This is not to say that Cassidy is not worth writing about. If someone out there listens to it, and spots something that makes them want to get back and keep the CD locked in their player, then they should write about why, and send it to me! This is the whole point of criticism; this is why Aristotle first started writing about the drama of his day - because something in it fascinated him, and he wanted to find out what it was an explain why. Similarly, this is what drove the first film-studies professors to found their courses, because they realised that something in the films kept them coming back for more. This is why I am writing this blog.

So how then, can one make judgements at all. Isn't it all just a matter of taste? Well, yes. Certainly, anyone can find something interesting in anything. So why is Shakespeare still considered 'better' in some way both than other playwrights of his day, and than most modern culture. Partly, it is tradition - his position as our cultural touchstone is unassailably self-perpetuating. Moreover, however, it is that a large enough number of people agree that it is interesting and worth studying. This is why, subconsciously, we rate it well.

Similarly, as much as what I write about on this site will be a matter of personal taste, I hope that by pointing out what I have seen in and felt about this music, a large enough number of people will agree that there is something there worth discussing. In that sense, I am banking on finding 'something' quite inexact and indescribable - hitting on something that will interest enough people to make the music considered worthwhile.

As much as value judgements are responsible for people who should know better rejecting hip-hop as a valid art form, I am relying partly on these unfair and subjective value judgements to decide what to write about. I hope only that I apply more critical thinking before making such judgements than those critics who may reject the genre out-of-hand (see my introductory essay for more on 'thinking critically' vs 'being critical').

For a fascinating exposition of some of the issues surrounding 'the canon' and deciding what is 'worthy', indeed what is 'literature, see the first chapter of Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, where he explains the 'relative' and 'subjective' nature of what constitutes literature. A basic argument summary applicable to hip-hop literature would be as follows: the text itself contains no actual features that make it worthy Literature, and instead this judgement comes from the reader and his attendant set of personal-idealogical convictions; as such, 'Literature' does not exist, only an infinite number of personally selected sets of texts which the reader considers to be literature; yet, due to the communal aspects of much of the human experience, frequently, these personal sets are broadly similar across groups of people, especially those sharing certain biographical characteristics - in other words, a group of 20-25 year-old university students with a liberal arts education and a certain taste in music are more likely to share the conviction that hip-hop is literature than a group of 50-70 year-old professors of physics, although it is not impossible that some of this group may agree.

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cassidy is actually one of the best punch line rappers of all time. up there with big l and fabulous

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