The Purpose and the Pop

A simple conversation about Asher Roth became a dissection of popular entertainment culture as we know it.
I really enjoy having the lovely and talented Nelson Blake II as a roommate. He’s incredibly intelligent, well-versed in pop culture, film, comics, sports and other things I enjoy. I can hear him snoring as I write this. Some of the thoughts below are his, I’m just not going to write this as a conversation. Last night he mentioned that Asher Roth was going to be on Jimmy Kimmel Live as the musical guest [Sidebar: I first heard about Roth via Bryan Hill, who I heard about/met via NB2]. We started talking about why he always gets compared to Eminem despite their incredibly different styles. They both happen to be white, both happen to rap, but beyond that there are not a ton of similarities. I can pretty much guarantee (with no evidence) that every mainstream review of his new album will compare him to Em. And that’s because mainstream music coverage compares Eminem to every other white rapper. Every Other White Rapper becomes a singular figure by which to measure Eminem against, and in turn the goal is to place every new white rapper into that mold unless he’s Eminem. It’s a cycle, and journalists should push themselves to go deeper, but don’t really need to. Roth is rapping about his life, enjoying college, drinking and girls, and a totally different life experience than where Eminem came from. Em’s story is much closer to ethnically black rappers who birthed the genre in the first place, and yet we’re making comparisons based on skin color. Roth is closer in style to Lupe Fiasco, who rhymes about skateboards and giant robots.
Eminem is not a superstar (pop star, if you prefer) because he’s white. Nor is it because he’s a white guy that raps. It’s because of the music. He’s making art with his music, because what he does is personal to him. If, for example, 50 Cent never comes along, someone else will make In the Club. It’s a club anthem, well-produced and with some decent stuff in it, but it’s nothing special or personal to 50. Anyone could have made it. How many guys could make Kim, off of the Marshall Mathers LP. That song still kind of scares me when I hear it. It’s a song by a dude with problems, made art and placed within the confines of hip-hop. That he and it happens to broach the pop culture bubble is actually something of an anomaly. There are a million guys who will take 50’s place. There’s not going to be another Eminem because he makes music that is personal to him.
There are certain things that work. Let’s call them formulas in the general sense of the term. Pop music especially, but also the broader pop entertainment, is comfort food. It’s easily digestible, familiar, and ultimately forgettable. It doesn’t really engage us on a level that speaks to anything beyond in-the-moment enjoyment. That’s not its goal; it is entertainment, plain and simple. I get why it works.
What I found curious and have been ruminating on since last night is why we exalt those who do what they do – Eminem, Lupe, Michel Gondry, Frank Miller, Bob Dylan, etc. – purely for following their heart and their passions. They make the most of what only they can deliver and we love it, except that in many instances they are not as successful as those delivering pap crap. We have some true artists and visionaries who do become superstars, but for the most part we as a culture seem content to place the fluff and filler ahead of the substance.
It all goes back to my mantra of DEMAND BETTER. I understand the financial realities of it. For every million American Idol contestant CDs sold, that means that the label can sign a handful of indie bands and give them a shot at success. The money has to come from somewhere. I know, I know. I just remain ever hopeful that things will improve, and quality will be both appreciated and successful in the years ahead. Quality is key. Striving is the only way to get there.
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