Crap Music

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‘Next, where the Sirens dwell, you plough the seas;
Their song is death, and makes destruction please.
Unblest the man, whom music wins to stay
Nigh the cursed shore and listen to the lay.
No more that wretch shall view the joys of life
His blooming offspring, or his beauteous wife!
In verdant meads they sport; and wide around
Lie human bones that whiten all the ground:
The ground polluted floats with human gore,
And human carnage taints the dreadful shore
Fly swift the dangerous coast: let every ear
Be stopp’d against the song! ’tis death to hear!
Firm to the mast with chains thyself be bound,
Nor trust thy virtue to the enchanting sound.’
— Homer’s Odyssey

During Odysseus’s long journey home from Troy, his ship passes an island rumored to be the home of the Sirens — half bird, half beauty — who shipwreck sailors by luring them to the island’s rocky shore. The clever hero, wanting to hear the Sirens’ song, has his men stuff their ears with wax but leave him tied firmly to the mast of the ship, ordering them to keep him tied there no matter how much he might beg them. The ship safely sails by the island, with Odysseus nearly foaming at the mouth, thrown into a fit of madness by the sound of the Sirens’ intoxicating melody.

Crap music, by which I mean hip-pop — not the kind of rap that’s meant to be “the CNN of the ghetto,” but the kind that’s merely candy for your ear — is a lot like the Sirens’ song, wrecking the souls of unwitting listeners on the jagged coast of corruption. All hip-pop music talks about is luxury, lust, and violence: designer clothes, foreign cars, expensive jewelry, hard drugs, guns, bloodstains, and cheap women rented out for the price of a purse. Hip-pop has listeners of all colors pursuing lives that can only end in their misery. And yet, tens of millions of people still tune in and tune out.

Hip-pop’s defenders continually offer the lie that “it’s just music.” Music is never just music. Music is the most powerful force of communication known to man and woman alike. Music is the greatest of all the arts, and probably the first. (I imagine cavemen were beating on logs with sticks long before they painted on walls.) Every country has its national anthem; every school, its fight song. Music is everywhere, and has been with us since we first came kicking and screaming into the world — and even before that: as babies in the womb, we sooth ourselves to the music of our mothers’ heartbeat, and the more bourgeois mothers-to-be make sure only the best music is filtered through their bellies.

Music, as an art, is a form of persuasion. The artist puts forth his vision of the world, either the way he sees it or the way he wants it to be, and he uses his artistic skill to convert others to his mindset. Depending on how pleasurable his art is for the audience, and how much of it they consume, the audience will begin to believe that what the artist deems good is good, what he deems beauty is beauty, what he deems love is love. In short, the artist tries to convince his audience that what he says is desirable is desirable — he teaches them his values.

The message contained in a song, or in any work of art, is like the pill inside a doggy treat: whether we detect it or not, we gobble the whole thing up. Listening to music with the same message over and over, especially when we’re young, is nothing less than indoctrination, the teaching of values through continued training.

We spend our childhood years listening to music that almost exclusively glorifies money and the spending of it, getting drunk or drugged out, constantly “fucking hos,” and killing people in different ways for different reasons, and we grow up to believe such things are the end-all and be-all of life. Hip-pop teaches us to be braggarts, to puff up our chests, but only if we have lots of money. The hip-pop rapper constantly ridicules people who have less than him. And, as with the religious teachings of our youth, even if and when we mature beyond such teachings, even if we become nonbelievers, what they hammered into our empty heads every Sunday still sticks with us: we still fear the flames of Hell and the wrath of God, at least a little — we can’t help it; they got us young, and over a long period of time.

So too with hip-pop: once we’re taught that money and violence are all that count, that bragging and belittling others is the way to be, completely ditching those beliefs takes a long time, if ever.

“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” Shelley writes at the end of his “Defence of Poetry.” He was right, only back when people still read poetry. But no one reads poetry anymore; the closest we get to poetry now is through music. (I still read poetry, but the poetry I’ve read is a pebble overshadowed by the mountain of music I’ve heard.) The vast majority of the music heard in America today is pop music, which is dominated by hip-pop. So we must face the reality that hip-pop music is a major influence on the morals and values of our society. It is the hip-pop rappers who are now the unacknowledged legislators of our world.

Notice how I don’t even feel the need to explain why hip-pop’s message, the gospel of wealth and violence its lyrics preach, is wrong. Who doesn’t know that the love of money is evil, that the lust for luxury is an empty pursuit, that sex is a base pleasure equal to eating and drinking, that women should be seen and treated as human beings, or that killing is wrong? Most decent people know these things; only a person steeped in tons of hip-pop, or under the spell of some other corrupting influence, might argue otherwise.

Plenty of decent people listen to hip-pop, of course. They realize the lyrics are shallow and spiritually corrupt, but they listen anyway, for the sheer enjoyment, as a momentary escape from the grind of their daily lives. To them a diversion is merely a diversion, relatively harmless, and having no bearing on who they are or who they’re becoming. Yet these same decent people would readily admit that sticking a heroin needle in one’s arm to escape the harshness of the world would be a terrible choice, or that playing video games is a waste of living. They believe in the power of mantras, that parents must control what their kids hear and see, that our culture is rotten; yet they don’t see what listening to morally corrupt lyrics does to the soul. If they do see it, then they admit they’re simply unwilling to give up those sweet beats — the music is just too damned pleasurable.

I don’t blame the rappers themselves for the existence of hip-pop or its wide consumption; they’re too young to know what they’re doing or how it affects the wider culture, and how the wider culture affects the future. Plus nearly all of them come from the most depressed sections of our society — the ghettoes of America’s inner cities, where, surrounded by poor schools and poor people, there is little opportunity for receiving an education, much less enlightenment. Rarely does a rose fully bloom in such concrete jungles, which is why these concrete jungles were built to begin with. Just as a rose needs the proper soil and environment to reach its full potential, human beings need a strong, healthy culture if they’re to become the best they can be.

Poetry glorifies its themes, whether it be nature, or love, or character. Good poetry glorifies truth — not the truth, but what is good and right. Hip-pop doesn’t glorify truth, because what can a young man or woman, raised in a gutted community, a hollowed-out culture, know about good and right? What can a young man or woman know other than what he or she has been shown? Considering our crumbling public education system and the ghettoization of the poor, is it any wonder why the inner cities are so ridden with crime and violence, why the ghettoes and the lyrics they produce are so spiritually bankrupt? There was never any investment in the souls of ghetto kids to begin with; in fact, there has only been disinvestment.

In his Republic, Plato infamously has Socrates propose the censorship of music and poetry, allowing only those works which uplift the listener. I’m not for censorship of any kind, but what I am for is adults taking responsibility for their society and its culture. Our culture is not something that fell from the sky, nor should it be shaped by the whims of the commercial market, which doesn’t care whether something is good or right, only whether it can be made cheaply and sold widely. Anything bad can be made cheaply and sold cheaply, but good quality will cost more; that goes for anything: toys, food, and even art.

Just because something is popular, doesn’t mean it’s good. And just because a certain song may sound good, doesn’t mean it is good. Some readers won’t understand what I mean be this. For some people, food that tastes good is good, whether it’s good for them (healthy) or not. How many people are addicted to soda or beer? How many people are addicted to TV or porn? How many people are addicted to shopping and social media? All of these things make us feel good in the moment, but they ultimately degrade us in different ways and to varying degrees, depending on how much we consume or engage in them. How can listening to spiritually corrupt music, no matter how good it sounds, be any different?

And yet, we still blast it from our speakers. We’re addicted, and, like true addicts, we don’t even realize we have a problem.

They say the word siren comes from a Greek word which loosely means “binder” or “entangler.” It’s a fitting name, for thus is society entangled by the siren songs of hip-pop music and, like a moth to a flame, lured to its destruction.

Hector is the editor of MANO. He's also the host of Latinish and Hits from the Brain. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's a former deputy editor of Latino Rebels, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He has contributed to RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, TIME and other outlets, and his writing was featured in Ricanstruction, a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. Hector studied history (for some reason) at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where his focus was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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