The whole interview between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Harold Pollack in The Atlantic is worth reading but I especially liked this bit where they examine the anxiety we have about young people and the pop culture they consume. I am re-thinking some of my own ideas about feminist parenting at the moment, like I said in this article – I want to parent in the world I live in more than I want to shield my children from that world, and this discussion was very relevant to that. My children are quite young so their consumption of pop culture is still easily controlled by me but I hope I can avoid being too reactionary to their choices when they’re old enough to exercise them while also communicating my values to them.
Harold Pollack: What shall we make of the tougher edges of hip-hop and pop culture consumed by young people? One can over-react to this. Much of the raunchiness of hip-hop is a reflection rather than a cause of the tough conditions in urban life. Still, I do worry that American youth are fed some pretty toxic messages about gender, violence, and other matters. I’ve always thought that immigrants and outsiders enjoy a real advantage because they are a bit more insulated from the dreck of American youth culture.
It’s not crazy to worry that African-American and Latino youth are particularly harmed by this stuff. The youth workers I know are quite concerned, for example, when rappers such as Chief Keef clown around with guns on video.
As a parent and as a social commentator, how do you think about these issues? Are they overblown? Is there some sensible sense that avoids Tipper-Gore-style prudishness but that also avoids naïve cultural complacency?
Ta-Nehisi Coates: So glad you asked this question — especially given my full-throated endorsement of Kendrick Lamar. I don’t think they’re overblown, so much as I think they’re misunderstood. I can’t really vouch for Chief Keef. I haven’t given him a good listen. But one major mistake that I think people make with hip-hop — and perhaps with pop culture at large — is that they tend to think of it as promoting certain values. It’s easy to make that assumption given the actual lyrics which do involve exulting the life of the urban outlaw and all its attendant aspects. Mastering and dispensing violence is a large part of that. But I think it’s worth asking, “Why do kids listen to violent hip-hop?” I highly doubt the answer is “To find an applicable value system.” As someone who had NWA’s first album, and has fond memories of the Geto Boys, I would suggest that what the kids go there for — beyond the beat of the music — is fantasy.
I don’t think hip-hop so much reflects these violent neighborhoods, as it serves as therapy for the young boys who live in them. It offers a vicarious world where every puerile desire is instantly met. If you listen really closely to music, you will hear it pulsing with teenage insecurity and the angst of the youth. In hip-hop, young people are able to express sentiments and feelings, many of them negative, which they can’t really express elsewhere. Living, from the time you are born, with the threat of existential violence is stressful. Stress leads to anger and fear. We don’t generally express our anger and fear by saying, “I love the world” or “I pray for an end to world hunger.” Living around violence might make you say those things. But the stress of it more often will probably leave you with a string of curse words on your tongue. Moreover, it might even make you want to convert all of those negative feelings into a persona which can’t be killed by other males, which never feels rejection from females, and is generally free to engage all its hedonistic desires.
I think that’s right. Of course, much of the critique of hip-hop confuses effects for causes here. The nihilism in the music stems from the nihilistic real-world environment, not the other way around. There’s also certain troubling feedback loop, whereby the music you turn to for release and otherwise-forbidden expression of your reality may be psychically problematic. Adults figured out a long time ago that there’s a buck to be made on MTV or BET from calibrated excesses that hit the lowest common denominator in youth culture. You can make more money hawking sex and violence than you can by depicting what happens two years after the bullets go flying, when a shooter sits in an 8×12 cage, and the victim is left wearing a colostomy bag.
I have to say, I’m 37 now. And there’s certainly stuff I can’t listen to. But when I was in the target age rage I was boiling over with angst. Hip-hop was where I went to work it out. My son listens to a lot of bad music that does the same for him. I would never stop him from doing that. But I do try to engage him. I’ll tell you a story: When I was 14 I had an NWA album which included a song about oral sex which was really degrading to women. I was listening to it in my Walkman one day in the car, while my dad was driving. He asked what I was listening to and then told me to put it in the tape-deck. I reluctantly did this. We listened and then he gave me a long forceful talk about how women should be regarded. But more importantly, he handed the tape back to me. He left me with a choice and the choice wasn’t over where to get my values from, it was over what fantasies I would countenance and what fantasies I wouldn’t.
This is a great story, which underscores (among other things) the role of the actual adult human beings in kids’ lives. We’re the ones who ignore, moderate, or aggravate whatever broader influences reach our kids from other places. As I mentioned, I have two daughters, age 18 and age 16. I hate to think that their boyfriends and future marriage partners are learning about women from music videos or the Sports Illustrated bathing suit issue. Yet what really matters is what these young men hear and see among the adults around them.