Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Dysfunctional Families Key to Understanding Hip Hop Lyrics and Angst

I found a fascinating article which appealed to my own background in sociology and interest in both music and cultural trends. Fewer things are more certain in sociological studies these days than the direct negative causative impact of broken homes on crime and other anti-social activities. Sociologists tell us that a broken home / dysfunctional family is, in fact, the leading indicator of a life of crime or a disturbed, troubled life, for those who grew up in such an environment.

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Snoop Doggy Dogg

As usual, we "old-fashioned, backward, fuddy-dud" Christians have been claiming for years that one-parent families, divorce, and the current denigration of traditional marriage and "family values" would reap bitter fruit in society. We're now forty years and running into the vaunted Sexual Revolution. We see the results all around us. Who was it who warned about all these things wreaking havoc? Who has been saying all along that things like sexual immorality and divorce and abortion and premarital sex were wrong?: The Bible, the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox, and conservative Protestant denominations and individuals. But folks have to learn the hard way. This is the human condition.

Anyway, the article is Eminem is Right, by Mary Eberstadt, published in Policy Review online. It is an excerpt from her book, Home-Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes (2004). The negative remarks from a Washington Post review by Judith Warner, contained on the book's amazon page, are enough to make me a lifetime fan of this woman:
But Eberstadt, unfortunately, isn't just a concerned chronicler of today's mad social scene. She is an ideologue, a crusader against day care, working motherhood, divorce and child illegitimacy. (In earlier work, she passionately defended the "natural family" against such threats as "contraceptive sex.") As an ideologue, she doesn't show much interest in how real people live or think about their lives. And like countless other conservatives, she's willing to misconstrue the results of recent social science studies to underscore her arguments against day care.

Some excerpts (bolded emphases are mine), followed by corroborating data that I compiled from Wikipedia articles on famous rappers:

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The odd truth about contemporary teenage music - the characteristic that most separates it from what has gone before - is its compulsive insistence on the damage wrought by broken homes, family dysfunction, checked-out parents, and (especially) absent fathers. Papa Roach, Everclear, Blink-182, Good Charlotte, Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam, Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Eminem - these and other singers and bands, all of them award-winning top-40 performers who either are or were among the most popular icons in America, have their own generational answer to what ails the modern teenager. Surprising though it may be to some, that answer is: dysfunctional childhood. Moreover, and just as interesting, many bands and singers explicitly link the most deplored themes in music today - suicide, misogyny, and drugs - with that lack of a quasi-normal, intact-home personal past.

To put this perhaps unexpected point more broadly, during the same years in which progressive-minded and politically correct adults have been excoriating Ozzie and Harriet as an artifact of 1950s-style oppression, many millions of American teenagers have enshrined a new generation of music idols whose shared generational signature in song after song is to rage about what not having had a nuclear family has done to them. This is quite a fascinating puzzle of the times. The self-perceived emotional damage scrawled large across contemporary music may not be statistically quantifiable, but it is nonetheless among the most striking of all the unanticipated consequences of our home-alone world.

. . . Yet [Tupac] Shakur - who never knew his father and whose mother, a long time drug addict, was arrested for possession of crack when he was a child - is provocative in another, quite overlooked way: He is the author of some of the saddest lyrics in the hip-hop/gangsta-rap pantheon, which is saying quite a lot. To sophisticated readers familiar with the observations about the breakup of black families recorded several decades ago in the Moynihan Report and elsewhere, the fact that so many young black men grow up without fathers may seem so well established as to defy further comment. But evidently some young black men - Shakur being one - see things differently. In fact, it is hard to find a rapper who does not sooner or later invoke a dead or otherwise long-absent father, typically followed by the hope that he will not become such a man himself. Or there is the flip side of that unintended bow to the nuclear family, which is the hagiography in some rappers’ lyrics of their mothers.

In a song called "Papa'z Song Lyrics," Shakur opens with the narrator imagining his father showing up after a long absence, resulting in an expletive-laden tirade. The song then moves to a lacerating description of growing up fatherless that might help to explain why Shakur is an icon not only to many worse-off teenagers from the ghetto, but also to many better-off suburban ones. Here is a boy who "had to play catch by myself," who prays: "Please send me a pops before puberty."

The themes woven together in this song - anger, bitterness, longing for family, misogyny as the consequence of a world without fathers - make regular appearances in some other rappers' lyrics, too. One is Snoop Doggy Dogg, perhaps the preeminent rapper of the 1990s. Like Shakur and numerous other rappers, his personal details cause many a parent to shudder; since his childhood he has been arrested for a variety of crimes, including cocaine possession (which resulted in three years of jail service), accomplice to murder (for which he was acquitted), and, most recently, marijuana possession. ("It’s not my job to stop kids doing the wrong thing, it’s their parents' job," he once explained to a reporter.) In a song called "Mama Raised Me," sung with Soulja Slim, Snoop Doggy Dogg offers this explanation of how troubled pasts come to be: "It's probably pop's fault how I ended up / Gangbangin'; crack slangin' . . ."

Another black rapper who returned repeatedly to the theme of father abandonment is Jay-Z, also known as Shawn Carter, whose third and breakthrough album, Hard Knock Life, sold more than 500,000 copies. He also has a criminal history (he says he had been a cocaine dealer) and a troubled family history, which is reflected in his music. In an interview with about his latest album, the reporter explained: "Jay and his father had been estranged until earlier this year. [His father] left the household and his family's life (Jay has an older brother and two sisters) when Shawn was just 12 years old' . . .

. . . This remarkable market success, combined with the intense public criticism that his songs have generated, makes the phenomenon of Eminem particularly intriguing. Perhaps more than any other current musical icon, he returns repeatedly to the same themes that fuel other success stories in contemporary music: parental loss, abandonment, abuse, and subsequent child and adolescent anger, dysfunction, and violence (including self-violence). Both in his raunchy lyrics as well as in 8 Mile, Mathers's own personal story has been parlayed many times over: the absent father, the troubled mother living in a trailer park, the series of unwanted maternal boyfriends, the protective if impotent feelings toward a younger sibling (in the movie, a baby sister; in real life, a younger brother), and the fine line that a poor, ambitious, and unguided young man might walk between catastrophe and success. Mathers plumbs these and related themes with a verbal savagery that leaves most adults aghast.

Yet Eminem also repeatedly centers his songs on the crypto-traditional notion that children need parents and that not having them has made all hell break loose. In the song "8 Mile" from the movie soundtrack, for example, the narrator studies his little sister as she colors one picture after another of an imagined nuclear family, failing to understand that "mommas got a new man." "Wish I could be the daddy that neither one of us had," he comments. Such wistful lyrics juxtapose oddly and regularly with Eminem's violent other lines. Even in one of his most infamous songs, "Cleaning Out My Closet (Mama, I'm Sorry)," what drives the vulgar narrative is the insistence on seeing abandonment from a child's point of view.

. . . If some parents still don't get it - even as their teenagers elbow up for every new Eminem cd and memorize his lyrics with psalmist devotion - at least some critics observing the music scene have thought to comment on the ironies of all this. In discussing The Marshall Mathers lp in 2001 for Music Box, a daily online newsletter about music, reviewer John Metzger argued, "Instead of spewing the hate that he is so often criticized of doing, Eminem offers a cautionary tale that speaks to our civilization's growing depravity. Ironically, it's his teenage fans who understand this, and their all-knowing parents that miss the point." Metzger further specified "the utter lack of parenting due to the spendthrift necessity of the two-income family."

. . . Where parents and entertainers disagree is over who exactly bears responsibility for this moral chaos. Many adults want to blame the people who create and market today's music and videos. Entertainers, Eminem most prominently, blame the absent, absentee, and generally inattentive adults whose deprived and furious children (as they see it) have catapulted today's singers to fame. (As he puts the point in one more in-your-face response to parents: "Don’t blame me when lil' Eric jumps off of the terrace / You shoulda been watchin him - apparently you ain't parents.")

. . . there is no escaping the fact that today's songs are musically and lyrically unlike any before. What distinguishes them most clearly is a the fixation on having been abandoned personally by the adults supposedly in charge, with consequences ranging from bitterness to rage to bad, sick, and violent behavior.

And therein lies a painful truth about an advantage that many teenagers of yesterday enjoyed but their own children often do not. Baby boomers and their music rebelled against parents because they were parents - nurturing, attentive, and overly present (as those teenagers often saw it) authority figures. Today’s teenagers and their music rebel against parents because they are not parents - not nurturing, not attentive, and often not even there. This difference in generational experience may not lend itself to statistical measure, but it is as real as the platinum and gold records that continue to capture it.

Notorious B.I.G.: "His father, a small-time Jamaican politician named George Latore, left the family when Wallace was two years old. His mother, Voletta, worked two jobs while raising him. . . . He dropped out of high school at the age of 17, and soon began selling crack to support himself. He was arrested in North Carolina and spent nine months in jail."

Sean Combs (P. Diddy): "When P. Diddy was two, his father Melvin, was shot dead in his car on January 26, 1972 at age thirty-three in Manhattan park following a party he attended. Melvin was rumoured to be a drug dealer."

Dr. Dre: "Dre's parents divorced before he was born."

50 Cent: "Under poverty-stricken circumstances, his mother was murdered in her home in a failed drug deal which led to the rapper being raised by his grandparents. Immersed in the drug trade, the rapper began hustling his native neighborhood . . ."

Ice T: "His mother died of a myocardial infarction when he was in the third grade and his father died when he was in sixth grade. After his father died, he went to live with his paternal aunt in South Los Angeles' (more often referred to as South Central) Crenshaw district, he quickly became infatuated with the ways of "ghetto street life" and eventually even joined in with one of the many sets of the infamous street gang, the Crips, . . ."

LL Cool J: "Unfortunately, LL's parents had a troublesome, often violent, relationship. As a result, his mother left his father when LL was four and they moved in with her parents in St. Albans. The relationship turned bloody, when late one night in 1972, his father shot his mother after she returned home from work. According to LL Cool J, who recounted the event in the song "Father" from his Phenomenon album, the elder James was seeking revenge after being abandoned by his family. LL's father shot his mother as she ran into her parents' house for safety. She was hit in the legs and back. LL's grandfather was also shot in the stomach. Both survived the attack."

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