Jun 29, 2010

Leaders of the New School?

This past Sunday night marked the 10th anniversary broadcast of the BET Awards.  Much has changed since the cable network broadcast their first award's show from Las Vegas back in 2000.  Since that time the broadcast has moved to Hollywood, spending several years in the same Kodak theater that hosts the Academy Awards. Now the annual awards show resides in the venerable Shrine Auditorium.  There was no Facebook or Twitter back in 2000 where people could openly voice their opinions about the program like they do these days. Black popular culture seemed so much more relevant back then too. 

Watching Sunday night's show left me underwhelmed.  I realize that Alicia Keyes and Swizz Beatz are no substitute for Jay and Beyonce, Jada without Will is kinda like cornflakes without the milk, and Kanye just ain't the same unless there's some white folks around for him to piss off, but still.  Yet, unlike so many others, I don't blame BET for this lack of energy.  Don't get me wrong, BET is far from what it could be, but you can't blame the cable network for the rather apathetic nature of contemporary black popular culture at the moment.

BET has long suffered from the unrealistic expectations that dog a community of people who were so blatantly misrepresented by the mainstream media for so long.  Though BET has seldom set the world on fire with its programming, it has always been unrealistic to expect that one network would appease the tastes of an entire race of people who are differentiated by issues of gender, class, age, sexual orientation, and location, among other factors.  The network's founder Robert Johnson decided to make monetary decisions as opposed to social ones during his tenure at the helm and such decisions have come to define BET's image in the public mind, though its been years since Johnson sold the network to Viacom.

It's not BET's fault that contemporary black culture has given them so little to showcase.  It's not BET's fault that mediocrity has come to define the world of black entertainment as of late.  You can't blame BET for the empty, derivative, drivel passing itself off as black music in 2010.   In some ways this reminds me of that famous line from Sunset Boulevard (1950) when Norma Desmond declares that her star remains large, it's the movies that have gotten smaller. In the case of the BET Awards, it's the culture that has seemingly gone small on us.

As far as awards shows go, the BET Awards is a big budget professional affair.  On a network that has often been criticized for failing to spend appropriate amounts of money on their productions, this is not the case when it comes to the awards show.  The production values are in keeping with other such shows of an awards nature.  In others words, unlike a lot of what appears on BET, this program does not look cheap.  I would be more concerned if I felt that the BET Awards looked like a swap meet version of an awards show, but it does not.  However, it is an awards show, and awards shows are pretty vapid in general.  Such shows are often popularity contests that say more about the current cultural politics of the moment than they do about any real artistic accomplishments on the part of the performers.  The awards themselves are as subjective as the network broadcasting the awards show.

What struck me while watching this year's broadcast was how uninteresting the so-called stars themselves are these days.  Perhaps "stars" is the wrong word even?  There is nothing star-like about Trey Songz, a non-singin' fool if ever there was one.  Nicki Minaj is like a knock-off of a knock-off in a jive-ass wig, or as MC Lyte might say, "paper thin."  And Chris Breezy's crocodile tears were so unconvincing that had he done the same at an acting audition, he would have been kicked out of the room.  Brown's tears make T.O.'s "that's my quarterback" tears seem Oscar-worthy by contrast. 

My point, this new generation of black pop stars leaves a lot to be desired.  All I see now are imitators and biters. Usher made his name as a MJ knock-off, and now Chris Brown is knocking off Usher?  You can only cut dope so much before you have more cut than dope! I mean, let's face it, it's not like Usher was ever all that in the first place.  Nicki Minaj puts on a colored wig, adds some ass pads, and then proceeds to act like it's not obvious who she's bitin'? There was a time when imitating someone else was considered a high crime of culture.  During this time, Nicki Minaj would have been arrested for impersonating a rapper. 

I am from a generation that would run a thousand miles in the other direction to avoid ever being accused of copying someone else.  What happened?  Is there no pride in being original anymore?

Maybe this is just the rant of an OG hip hop head who's getting old?  I was in 8th grade the first time I heard Prince's debut single "Soft and Wet" back in '78.  Seeing him receive a Lifetime Achievement Award ages one pretty quickly.  So I admit that maybe this current crop of stars is not intended to appeal to my generation.  But still, talent supersedes age.  I was annoyed that one of the few younger artists who actually sounds like he's got some real potential, J. Cole, was only afforded an abbreviated performance window before the show cut to a commercial. 

Here's the deal.  I am part of the generation that created hip hop, the most influential musical form to come along in many, many years.  A second generation came along and perfected what was started, while making it profitable along the way.  At some point in this evolution hip hop came to have a bigger influence on R & B than the black church and this would change the nature of rhythm and blues going forward.

It's time for this new generation to create something that doesn't already exist.  It's now time for these youngsters to create their own version of great works like, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Amerikkka's Most Wanted, Ready to Die, My Life, Brown Sugar, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.  It's time to do that which has not been done before.  In others words, it's time to get creative!  After watching many of these so-called stars the other night I came away quite depressed at the possibilities in this regard however.

The music industry itself is weak right now, so it stands to reason that shows awarding musical performance would also be weak.  I understand that.  But true creativity tends to transcend all such distractions.  If hip hop itself could emerge out of the cloud of crack smoke that defined much of the 80s and 90s, then certainly contemporary culture can create something meaningful too?  Or perhaps that's it, without a prolonged crisis like that of the crack cocaine era, creativity takes a vacation?

I would hate to think that we need another epidemic like crack to spur the creative juices.  Maybe though, when the man occupying the White House checks the same box on his census form that the letter "B" in BET represents it means that as a creative people we are no longer hungry?  Perhaps that tape worm was eradicated the night Lester Young defeated John McCain for the White House back in 2008?   Could be? Who knows?  We've never been here before.  I hope this is not the case, but it may indeed be?  If it is, I welcome the evolution to the seat of power, I just hope that the cost of this is not losing our creativity and individuality as a result.


Chandra Kamaria said...

Dr. B: They're not listening to people like you and me. As a matter of fact, we are looked upon as 'outdated' even. I've been accused of being a 'hater', to which, I had to admit because I genuinely loathe most of today's Black music and I give the side eye to damn near every one of these so-called 'artists'. They might as well have 'Made in China' stickers on their asses because they are imports trying to pass themselves off as authentic. It's like this entire Black culture legacy has been glossed over like it NEVER happened.

One thing though, I thought Chris Brown's tears were legit, cause he's NOT that good of an actor, ya dig? Tears were appropriate anyway. After beating the current prom queen Rihanna up and then almost getting the last 8 minutes of his 15 minutes of fame revoked, to get the opportunity to do a solo tribute to the late MiJac, that was definitely enough to choke the young chap up.

Chi Chi Thalken said...

I feel like it's a bit of a two way street here. Artists got to do something new, and major labels and BET gotta take a chance on someone every now and then. I mean, BET is the same channel that rejected a video by Little Brother because it claimed it was too smart for its audience. Its not like there's nothing good going on right now. Georgia Anne Muldrow is having a great year, but few are taking the time to listen, because her releases have been on smaller independent labels. Ten years ago, there was plenty of terrible hip hop and R&B on the radio, but there were also acts like Outkast and Erykah Badu (who also released a great album earlier this year) keeping things interesting. The Roots new album is pretty good, but they come from a different era, and I don't know if they'd be signed to a major right now if they were a new act. I'm not naive enough to expect someone like Dam-Funk or Psalm One are going to show up at the BET awards, but with accessibility to independent artists at an all time high, major labels and channels can't keep parading around retread acts like these and expect to hold an audience.

J said...

Man if 2001-2008 wasn't crisis enough to provoke some good music that's a shame. Oh wait. It wasn't. That's a shame.

The HighScience Project said...

Great points on the current state black music. One thing that bothers me though, as that with black genres like R&B,Rap/Hiphop, is that theres is always artistic "pressure" to create something new, or reinvent the wheel, where as with genres like Country, and Rock in all of its incarnations typically stick to the same musical basics as far as songwriting structure arrangement topic all of that. Ageism isnt soo prevelant in those genres though you could see Willie Nelson and Kid Rock on the same concert venue, but never would you see Keith Sweat and Usher? And its our fault as far as being a fickle audience that has a keep it real dream, with a pop mentality, because if everyone in rb hiphop is basically trying to cross over i.e go pop,then quality is diluted for mass consumption when Prince & MJ where coming up they benefited from soo many masters that where present as well as the great work of those who where before them.They did more of just continuing and building on the musical tradition, than to reinvent it, which what critics an fans expect todays black artist to do. NOT FAIR. We who buy and support the culture have to make a greater attempt at preserving and honoring our stars other than accepting the next pre-teen butt naked rapper the labels want to hit us with. The labels are just trying to flip some money, so they would sell baby music all day if it sells. Our responsibility to demand talent and substance over instant artist. Princes first 2 albums where not Purple Rain or even 1999 numbers his image was blurred a bit, and his singles werent big hits then, dude would have never made it in todays climate of one album artist.He benefited from a healthy music market that let artist develop, and most artist dont have that luxury today. Even artist that like Bilal have undeniable talent an respectable fan base are dropped from the majors if they cant make a BIG impact on mainstream/crossover music unit wise. And thats what its come too. And if we allow for our artist to be expendable then we make the music and culture expendable as well. Ive heard it all that hip hop,was a talentless fad an inferior genre etc etc and when we reinforce these criticisms when embrace this whole old vs new major vs indie way of thinking and we devalue the culture as well...Rock fans would never do that to Aerosmith, Paul McCartney or Elton John, they can always tour an release records because fans come out an support them they dont compare John Mayer to Paul McCartney or Kid Rock to Garth Brooks or Lady Gaga to Cher. They dont. Matter of fact they just stick to the script and again just continue on the tradition. Only thing thats being carried on in urban music is hate and insecurity of being different.Lets get Free...