Tuesday, April 22, 2008

MTV Music Video Awards

When I first read Alan Blooms The Closing of the American Mind I agreed with most of what he said. But I thought his ideas on modern music silly. Bloom said that the thumping rhythm of modern rock and pop music is decidedly sexual and is not worthy of the moniker art. The boom, boom, boom of the base drum, he said, has the same rhythm as the up and down motion of coitus. So lets assume for a moment that Bloom is correct and that pop and rock music is sex. The MTV music awards are by definition a festival. So the MTV musical awards are a sexual festival. If we carry this further and suggest that the audience and the musicians are whipped into a frenzywhich they no doubt were--then we would have what the ancient Greeks would have called a Dionysian festival or fertility ritual. The average Greek college fraternity brother knows Dionysus, the Greek God of Wine, by his Latin name Bacchus. And college Greeks certainly know what is meant by a Bacchanalian celebration with Roman toga party enthusiasm, copious amounts of drink, bumping, grinding (Ashanti) music, and preening in front of the opposite sexthe college fraternity party is just another Dionysian festival.

But we cannot forget that Nietzsche famously said the Dionysian festival has a more profound significance than just the thump, thump, thump of its musicwhich we have already established as sexual in nature. Nietzsche said Dionysian festivals were the precursor to and foundation of the birth of Greek tragedy. So the earliest and certainly one of the most important events in the development of modern art sprung from decidedly sexual affairs.

To take stock of where we are, we have established, with Bloom and Nietzsche's help, that music is sex, that the MTV music awards are a Dionysian festival, and that art springs from this ritualistic orgy. So the MTV music awards are a form of art even if prima facie this might not be readily apparent.

What makes this situation absurd and perhaps profound is that the great majority of artists on that television show probably dont realize the import of the work they have put forth. If you regularly watch televisions other, more famous music awards show, the Grammys, you are struck by the differences between both the audience and musicians. The number one differentiating factor is their ages. Decidedly absent from the MTV video awards were seasoned musicians like U2. In their place we have the young people whose physical beauty makes them picture perfect participants in the visual art form known as the music video which is the raison d괲e of this awards show. It is the artists youth and beauty that helps them to sell their records. But it is their bare midriffs, bandaid-sized halter tops (Christina), and the lyrics themselves that emphasis the sexual overtone to their craft.

Shakespeare says time and again in his plays and poems that youth is beauty. This is indeed bad news to the aging spinster. The emcee of the MTV award showa young chap indeed--quipped that Michael Jackson looked good for someone who was 44 ancient years old. As a 41 year old I found that remark somewhat disturbing. But for the MTV generation that is indeed old age and was made evident by the absence of anyone older, say, 32. The exception to this rule was James Brown and Bruce Springsteen, ancient relics who the MTV producers wheeled out for the in-vogue significance of their older (Brown) and newer (Springsteen) offerings.

Where I am going with this argument is that the destiny and direction of popular music today is in the hands of the very young because their telegenic fa硤es play well on television. This is not necessarily bad because some of these youth are genuine artists with much to say about todays culture.

The singer with perhaps the greatest voice in todays top 40 is the Hip Hop and R&B artist Ja Rule. His decidedly sexual lyrics are the vocal backdrop to hits from Jennifer Lopez and Ashanti not to mention his own songs where he sings the lead. Ja Rule is important for two reasons. First, his wonderful deep baritone voice will be remembered with the other great crooners Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Secondly, his explicitly sexual lyrics are a shocking change in direction for the zeitgeist or cultural mores of our society. Al Gores prudish wife Tipper Gore remember she tried to force a ratings type warning label on record albums will be shocked by sentence fragments like all my niggers that be giving it up and finger fucking in the park. Well Tipper Gore is a silly old lady who is not relevant to the raging cultural debate that is the lyrics sung by up-and-coming artists like Ja Rule.

Elton John recently dismissed pop artists like Britney Speers as simply pretty faces who, like the much derided pinup Tennis pro Anna Kornikova are simply window dressing with no artistic import. That is certainly true for many of the MTV musicians who, unlike the older, more mature veterans of the Grammy television show, had absolutely nothing intelligent to say when they stood up to accept their awards. Certainly the women were stunning to gaze upon but the majority of young men who promenaded up to the podium to make speeches were just waning comics du jour whose melodious sounds will fade into the dustbin of musical history for they have nothing important to say and, consequently, no staying power.

Mareen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, says that women listen to the lyrics of music and men listen to the melody only. If this is true then this would suggest that music is popular only when it sounds good. That is certainly true for those many artists who write nothing of their own and simply mouth the words of others. But certain artists, like Shakira and Eminem, pen their own thoughts and explore complex, ancient themes in their music. For while the artists are young, their troubles are as old as man. Harold Bloom and other literary critics point out that no a priori experience is really new. There has not been a genuinely unique emotion or psychological point made since Shakespeare, Dante, or St. Augustine they say.

No one does a better job of exploring the anguish of youth and trouble of our times than Eminem. Perhaps he will nudge aside or at least sit on the same level as Bob Dylan when music scholars have time to distill the artistry and import of his words. Some people, especially older persons like myself, might dismiss Eminem as a foul mouthed rapper. But they should listen closer. His latest album has been criticized as a narcissistic rant. Yet its greatest song is one he sang at the awards show: Cleanin out my Closet. He sings a pleasant chorus I am sorry momma. I never meant to hurt you, but tonight I am cleaning out my closet. Yet the stanzas of his poetry contain more dark and poignant themes. He says to his mother she [your granddaughter] wont even be at your funeralremember when Ronny died and you said you wished it was me well guess what I am as dead to you as can be. This is powerful drama on the order of Robert Frosts poem Home Burial.

The point to Eminem and Ja Rule is that rap has gone mainstream regardless of the violence, misogyny, or whatever criticism we can find with their lyrics. Those Victorian prudes who are put off by all this sexual innuendo and talk of violence should reflect for a moment on the great works of literature that we require our kids to read in high school. Shakespeares King Lear had his eyes gouged out by his own children. Homers Achilles slayed Hector in battle and dragged the corpse along behind his chariot while his family pleaded for its return. And there is Dante whose Divine Comedy is a graphic account of what happens to adulterers, thieves, and pre-Christians who find themselves in Hell swimming in shit, boiling in oil, roasting in fire, all the while being jabbed at by horrific monsters. Given that, are Rap artists the first the speak words that upset or social mores Hardly not.

In sum, MTV-type music is decidedly sexual and it is without a doubt art even if some of it is drivel that will not last one season. The pretty girls and boys of MTV in their immature youth perhaps do not understand that their art form is much older than television or music videos. It is just the latest variation on time honored themes of love, sex, boy meets girl, et cetera. Taken together the discussion of these topics by either Aeschylus, Shakespeare, or Eminem is by definition art. Of course who has greater staying power and historical import will be decided by the cultural critics. For this years MTV music awards my vote goes to Ja Rule, Shakira, and Eminem. For the long haul, of course, others will decide whether their names should be listed along side the great dramatists of Greek, Latin, English cultures: the hodgepodge of peoples we collectively call Western Civilization. This is a malleable mix whose final form will evolve regardless of what the political correct, the clergy, or puritans might say.

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