jasonbwatson

March 18, 2016

Keeping Up With the Joneses

I should state right up front that I am not a fan of rap. In fact, I would consider myself whatever the opposite of “fan” is when it comes to rap. I have been known, on more than one occasion, to ask someone what kind of music they like and, upon receiving their response of “rap,” counter with, “I said music.” So opposed am I to rap that, despite enjoying Broadway shows and loving American history, I had zero interest in going to see Hamilton while I was in New York recently. Once I learned that the show’s lyrics are rapped, I knew it was not for me. And yes, I know that it is considered the hottest ticket in town…but then that leads to the real point I want to make here.

I do not watch the Grammy’s either. It is my understanding, though, that rapper Kendrick Lamar took home five Grammy awards out of eleven nominations at this year’s ceremony. Granted, I have never listened to so much as a single line of his rap, but an article by Arsenio Orteza back in January struck me when I read it and has been rolling around in my mind ever since. Orteza’s view of Lamar’s “music” is that “herd instinct can trump better judgment when music critics move in packs.” Orteza is clearly no fan of Lamar, writing the following about his most recent album (the one that won him five Grammay’s):

[T]he verbal component of [To Pimp a Butterfly] comprisesa dim self-awareness held together with innumerable “N-words,” “F-bombs,” and other expressions of an intelligence far too limited to be taken seriously.

So whether he’s promising a race war the next time cops shoot a black man or confusing a chrysalis with a cocoon while invoking his album’s title lepidopterous imagery, Lamar sounds like a clown.

Clearly, if he had a vote, Orteza would not be supporting Lamar for any Grammy’s. He was not alone in his evaluation of the album, though. Even those who apparently enjoy rap had less-than-glowing comments about this effort. Justin Charity, writing on complex.com in November, said, “In its entirety, To Pimp a Butterfly isn’t a conventionally enjoyable record; it is, essentially, the screams of an agonized man performing open-heart surgery on himself. … To Pimp a Butterfly is, undeniably, an important album. It’s also frustrating, painful, chaotic, and wildly derivative of so many black musical influences that Kendrick Lamar barely elevates.” Billboard gave the album 4.5 stars out of 5, but even praising the concept and deeper meaning of the album, Kris Ex said, “the music isn’t the most challenging thing about the album: the lyrics are pre-occupied with race and personal identity in ways that are decidedly uncomfortable to mixed company. Rolling Stone included it as one of the 50 Best Albums of 2105, but still said, “The pleasures and rewards of To Pimp a Butterfly aren’t easy.”

Now, I am not suggesting that uncomfortable or uneasy are necessarily bad things. There are many excellent pieces of literature, music or art that are neither comfortable nor easy but that are quite valuable and thought provoking. Indeed there is much in the Bible that is neither comfortable nor easy–and that is specifically because it is so personal and direct. (Have you read James lately?)

Lamar’s rap, however, seems to have far more going against it than for it. Those lyrics from To Pimp a Butterfly that I have read are littered with language that negates any significant point he may be trying to make. Frankly, reading just one line of some of the “songs” on the album is too much for me to handle–and I do not consider myself easily offended or “Puritanical.” Is it really possible to make a meaningful point or initiate thoughtful dialogue when everyone word but “you” in a sentence is profanity?

At the Grammy’s he performed three songs, including a new verse alluding to the death of Trayvon Martin and an untitled song that refers to Martin. The Guardian said the performance was “studded with strong allusions to racial inequality, the prison-industrial complex and black identity.” The lyrics, if you can stomach them, are studded with all manner of reference to violence, anger, crime…and confusion. Not long after these lyrical lines…

The reason why I’m by your house
You threw your briefcase all on the couch
I plan on creeping through your damn door and blowing out
Every piece of your brain
‘Til your spine drip to your arm
Cut off the engine then sped off in a Wraith

He says this…

Once upon a time, I go to church and talk to God
Now I’m thinking to myself
Hollow tips is all I got

And believe me, there is plenty more I am not quoting.
Following his Grammy’s performance the Twitter-sphere lit up with celebrities tripping all over themselves trying to praise Lamar’s performance. Piers Morgan tweeted, “This guy stole the show.” Mark Ballas said he was blown away the performance, saying Lamar had “so much heart.” Katy Perry tweeted, in all caps, “THAT WAS SO POWERFUL”. Kobe Bryant said “YES!” and Ellen DeGeneres tweeted, “@kendricklamar, you are brilliant.”
Don Cannon, though, topped them all when he said, “God bless @kendricklamar. For using your gifts to teach and inspire on such a huge platform.” Teach and inspire? What was he teaching? What did he inspire? Nothing, as best I can tell, that is socially acceptable or remotely helpful. Are African-Americans overrepresented in American prisons? Yes. Is there room for a legitimate and sincere debate about the treatment of African-Americans by law enforcement? Of course. But talking about blowing out someone’s brain until their spine drips onto their arm is not constructive and is certainly not the starting point for a meaningful or productive conversation.
So why in the world do we (the collective “we”–and far more than just the twittering glitterati of Hollywood) commend and celebrate such nonsense? Well, to go back to Arsenio Orteza, I think he hit the nail on the head in his column, which was written, by the way, before the Grammy’s performance. This observation is one of the more poignant and memorable ones I have seen in a long time:
So why do critics love him? The easiest answer is that, being mostly liberal, they consider nobly savage inarticulateness to be a sign of authentic “blackness,” not realizing that in so doing they’re perpetuating a negative stereotype at odds with their putative racial egalitarianism.
That is exactly right. Somehow we have all become like the advisers to the emperor. We can see that he is not wearing any clothes, but we are not willing to say so. We go along with everyone else, not wanting to stick out or draw undue attention to ourselves. It is easier to agree, to smile, to nod, to tweet some pithy congratulatory–and insanely stupid–commendation of words and antics that civilized people with their heads on straight would never condone.
This is true of far more than a rap performance at an awards show, of course. No doubt we have all found ourselves racing to keep up with the Joneses by wearing clothes we don’t even like because it is the “in” brand, of watching shows or movies we really do not enjoy because “everyone else is doing it.” There are innumerable examples of the ways in which we refuse to stand on our own two feet and proclaim that the emperor is naked. Years ago Ryan Dobson wrote a book entitled Be Intolerant…Because Some Things Are Just Stupid. To that I would say a hearty Amen!
We cannot expect our young people to resist peer pressure and say no to the crowd when we as adults are not willing to do so. There is nothing progressive or avant-garde, certainly nothing to be desired, in celebrating or commending that which is aimed squarely at the destruction of civilization. And it’s about time we say so. Kendrick Lamar’s rap may be a good place to start, but that is all it is…a starting point. We are paving the way to our own downfall with our expanding embrace of abortion, euthanasia, transgender identity, gay marriage, marijuana use…and on and on it goes. Somehow we do not realize, as Orteza wrote, that we are perpetuating beliefs, behaviors and positions that are actually quite at odds with our own survival as a civilized people.

 

 

January 30, 2014

Miley was just the beginning

Not all that long ago everyone was all riled up over the lewd performance of Miley Cyrus at MTV’s Video Music Awards. The outcry against the performance came from all sectors, including Cyrus’s peers and other industry insiders. The mother of Cyrus’s partner in that performance, Robin Thicke, called her performance “misbegotten” and “not beneficial.” Lance Bass said he suspected that Cyrus shocked a lot of her fans, and commented that he had not expected to have to warn his nieces and nephews who tuned in to watch him perform on the VMAs that Cyrus would be “naked and humping a finger.” Cyndi Lauper called the performance “so sad, so sad” and said that it was “really raunchy. It wasn’t even art. It was raunch.” Given that those were the comments from others in the industry, you can imagine the responses from conservative groups like the Parent’s Television Council.

The VMAs were in September, though, so why am I bringing this up again now? Simple. The Grammys were just a few days ago, and that ceremony was proof positive that what got everyone so worked up in September has since become more acceptable. The sad truth is that–as with so many other things in culture–what was initially shocking gradually becomes less so and soon what once shocked becomes common place.

On Sunday night the 56th annual Grammy Awards ceremony was held, ostensibly to recognize outstanding achievement in the music industry. As Melissa Locker noted in her column for TIME‘s Entertainment section, however, the show “has become less about the awards and more about the eclectic and outlandish performances.” I did not watch the Grammys, so I am using news reports as the basis for my comments here, but it would seem that “eclectic and outlandish” might be putting it mildly. Those reports make it all the more confusing that the Washington Post‘s Alexandra Petri would have started her Monday column (the day after the Grammys) with this statement: “The Grammys were remarkably incident free.”

Really?

To quote NFL officials after an instant replay look-see, “after review” the ruling by Petri has been overturned. The Grammys were actually incident-full. Kristen Andersen of LifeSiteNews, in her column appearing on MyChristianDaily.com apparently has a very different perspective on what qualifies as an incident. (That, of course, is actually part of the problem–so much of what would have been shocking and entirely unacceptable not all that long ago no longer even rises to the level of an “incident” in the minds of so many). Andersen begins her column like this: “Sunday night’s Grammy Awards show was all about shock value.” I do not know about you, but “incident free” and “shock value” are really not synonymous in my book. So to what was Andersen referring? She continues with this: “Scantily-clad singers, same-sex ‘marriages’ set to anti-Christian lyrics, simulated sex acts and a performance full of demonic imagery by pop star Katy Perry – who used to be Christian artist Katy Hudson – were just a few of the on-stage stunts that seemed custom-designed to offend Christian believers.” Not to put words in Andersen’s pen, but it would seem that such antics would likely offend more than just Christians.

During the Grammys each of the following occurred: Katy Perry’s performance of “Dark Horse” included her pole-dancing around an inverted broom while flames and demons danced around her; rap artist Macklemore performed a song entitled “Same Love” while thirty-three couples of all sexual orientations were legally married on stage in a ceremony officiated by Queen Latifah; husband and wife Jay-Z and Beyoncé gave a performance in which Beyoncé “wore little more than a thong leotard and simulated sex acts with a chair, her husband, and herself” (Andersen); and Pink “shock[ed] with a sexy performance outfit” consisting mostly of “a sexy, long-sleeved lace bodysuit that hugged her curves” (Hollywoodlife.com).

The UK’s Daily Mail apparently had a different take on the evening’s activities than did the Washington Post‘s Petri. It’s column on Monday ran under a headline snatched from the Twitter-sphere: “‘It’s a sad day when our kids can’t even watch the Grammys’: Beyoncé slammed by parents after VERY risqué performance.” The column began with the statement that many parents deemed Beyoncé’s performance “too explicit for children to watch.” The column went on to describe Beyoncé’s performance as “both seductive and risqué” and included “moves Miley Cyrus would have been proud of.” Based on the photos included in the Daily Mail column I would have to agree–there is no way to blast Cyrus’s performance as raunchy and inappropriate while also commending Beyoncé for hers.

The Daily Mail column included another interesting observation that provides further evidence of the contradictory responses to Cyrus and Beyoncé. First, the column states, “Beyoncé’s performance comes after she admitted in a recent mini-documentary that she is proud to embrace her sexuality. She said: ‘I don’t have any shame about being sexual. I’m not embarrassed about it. And I don’t feel like I have to protect that side of me.'” The column then went on to state that such “embracing” of her sexuality has not stopped President Barack Obama from praising Beyoncé as a role model for children. The column quoted Obama as saying recently, “Beyoncé could not be a better role model for my girls because she carries herself with such class and poise and has so much talent.'” She may have talent, but it is unfathomable to me that any father would encourage his daughters to model themselves after a woman who gave the performance the Beyoncé did on Sunday.

Part of the responsibility of Christians is to shine a light on the darkness in the world. Several Christian artists did that after (and during) the Grammys on Sunday. Natalie Grant tweeted, “We left the Grammys early. I’ve many thoughts, most of which are probably better left inside my head. But I’ll say this: I’ve never been more honored to sing about Jesus and for Jesus. And I’ve never been more sure of the path I’ve chosen.” Despite the fact that Grant did not identify any particular performance or indicate when she left the Grammys the backlash came swiftly, with many accusing her of hatred toward homosexuals. Responding on Facebook, Grant wrote that she would much prefer to use her platform to unite rather than divide, but “I do have my own personal convictions that I live by, and I will continue to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling before the Lord. (Philippians 2:12)”

Grant went to the show and left early. Mandisa opted to not even go–and she won two Grammys on Sunday. She won for “Best Christian Contemporary Music Album” and “Best Contemporary Christian Music Song” but she was not there when her name was announced. Explaining her absence via Facebook, Mandisa wrote, “Both times I have gone to the Grammys I have witnessed performances I wish I could erase from my memory, and yes, I fast forwarded through several performances this year; but my reason is not because of them, it’s because of me. I have been struggling with being in the world, not of it lately. I have fallen prey to the alluring pull of flesh, pride, and selfish desires quite a bit recently. … I knew that submerging myself into an environment that celebrates those things was risky for me at this time. … Perhaps being alone with [Jesus] as my name was announced was protecting myself from where my flesh would have tried to drag me had I been up on that stage.”

If I may, Mr. President, I would like to suggest that Mandisa would be a much better role model for your daughters than Beyoncé.

Bottom line, the performances at the Grammys on Sunday are likely only evidence of what will continue to be; I am afraid things will get worse rather than better. I will leave it to you to prayerfully consider what, if anything, you will do about that, but I would humbly suggest that you consider Ephesians 5:11, which reads, “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” That is what I am endeavoring to do here. My purpose is not to chastise or blame Pink, Beyonce, Katy Perry or Macklemore. My point is to expose what happened to expose the serious slide our nation is on away from any modicum of decency in the public arena. Miley was just the beginning….

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