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.