Here’s a minor cultural product I’ve never been able to get used to: high-octane critical prose about hip-hop. I just can't get past the incongruity of it all. I’m reminded of my usual response by this piece by Jonah Weiner in Slate: “UTFO's fictional object of desire and scorn had roared improbably to life and spoken for herself.” “Boss wanted to reimagine the money-grubbing ho as a Machiavellian gangsta in her own right.” Maybe I’m immature, but sentences like that just make me giggle — even though Weiner is less pompous than many, especially my fellow academics, tend to be when writing about such topics.
This is hardly a new story: there’s a long history of somber, stentorian, academic, and theoretically-inflected discourse about jazz, blues, and rock too. And critical prose can’t and shouldn’t imitate musical lyrics — the genres are utterly different, and those differences need to be respected. But I think there needs to be a degree of fit between the style of the subject and the style of the critic. In his best writings about rock music, Greil Marcus manages that: his prose tends to go over the top, but hey, what’s rock-and-roll if not over the top? Stanley Crouch can be similarly apt in writing about jazz, and — to return to hip-hop — Michael Eric Dyson’s book on Tupac Shakur, Holler If You Hear Me, seems to me to get the tone and approach just right: colloquial and free but really smart, and not playing at a gangsta style. It’s a tough kind of writing to do well.
It’s interesting to think about other forms of journalistic critical writing along similar lines. One of these days I’m going to write a post on how James Agee simply invented modern film reviewing — he was the first person to find a style that matched the medium, and almost every good film critic since owes a significant debt to Agee, wittingly or unwittingly. (I say a little about that in this essay.)
Finally, and disturbingly: in any class of mine that includes poetry, I require students to memorize fifty lines or so and recite them to me. In the first meeting this semester of my Modern British Literature class I was explaining that requirement when one student’s hand shot up: “Can we rap it out?” he asked, eagerly. I said yes — at the moment I couldn't think of a reason to say no — and now I’m living in dread of the day when he comes into my office and lays into “The Waste Land” or “The Shield of Achilles” or “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Maybe he’ll bring in a friend with beatboxing skills to lay down the rhythm track for him. God help me.