Herbert London: From Innocence To Cynicism

Jan 24, 2018

In 1959 I made a record, a song that reflected the virtues of bourgeois culture: “We’re Not Going Steady.” The lyrics were pure “bubblegum,” silly yet nostalgic. “We’re not going steady because we’re never alone, I can’t even love you, love you on the telephone.” I was reminded of my foray into the rock world as I watched Kendrick Lamar and the half time entertainment at the College Football Championship. All I could think is how culture has been debased in six decades.

During the 1940’s-50’s Sinatra sang “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage” and Lloyd Price sang, “I Want to Get Married.” At the height of the cynical sixties, a generation later, when middle class values were under attack, Dusty Springfield sang, “You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me” and Meat Loaf argued “I want you, I need you but I’m never goin’ to say I love you. Two out of three ain’t bad.” The tie between love and sex was severed.

Still it is hard to imagine how far down the proverbial rabbit hole we have gone. For rappers sex is raw. Women are objects, to be treated as ho’s. Deviancy has been defined down to kindergarteners who mouth vile lyrics as if they are the Gettysburg Address.

I recently found myself at a public high school when classes let out and listened to the exchanges among students. What you find is that the “f” word is a go to adjectival expression for everything from lunch to time. The impoverishment of language is palpable. Kindness, empathy, courtesy are antediluvian notions unknown to this generation of rap aficionados.

There was Lamar on stage holding his crotch as he performed, the exemplar of deviancy. Thousands jumped up and down in approval probably brow beaten into the view this that is what culture should be. Of course, they aren’t alone; Kendrick Lamar holds the record for the most invitations to the Obama White House. He and Jay Z and Beyoncé are rock royalty even though their real contributions lie in cultural debasement.

Business leaders in the music industry avert their gaze; they aren’t going to jeopardize a multi-billion-dollar industry. But for any dispassionate observer of the public scene the results are obvious. I-pod wires deliver poison directly to teenage brains. Instead of what could be uplifting, they are exposed to cultural filth several hours a day.

This is certainly not the first critique of rap music, nor will it be the last. Some contend this is a racist diatribe since rap is essentially an extension of a black subculture. However, it is precisely because rap has such an adverse effect on the ability of young people to communicate that I express my concern. Similarly, Black Lives Matter is the political manifestation of rap – a cri de coeur. While there are racial issues to discuss in this nation, putting them into the genre of rap is little more than a public scream.

The coarsening of culture doesn’t make it more authentic, an argument that is sometimes used to justify rap. If anything, it hardens a stance toward women. Imams around the globe use rap to depict American culture and democracy. How can you condemn us, they note, when you treat women more negatively than we do? They have a point.

Kendrick Lamar, who takes great pride in coming from the Compton ‘hood, is a multi-millionaire and the envy of many black youths. But his role in American life deserves a more thorough examination than it has received. One might start by asking him or his cohorts to read their lyrics to their respective grandmothers.

The era of “Take out the papers and the trash or you don’t get no petty cash” has gone the way of the hula hoop. But there is something to be said for that innocent age, particularly when we are caught in the era of cultural sewage. 

Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research,  a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org

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