Fox News’ latest jihad against the rapper Common is a creation of such spectacular idiocy that it really deserves a monument of some kind. Jon Stewart’s takedown of the whole thing — which Bill O’Reilly basically concedes, but then strives to cover up with a smug tone and some handwaving — is probably as good a one as any, but truly, when again will we witness such an obvious confluence of so many of the worst parts of the culture wars? Probably not in this generation. It’s like the Halley’s Comet of inane social cleavages. You’ve got new art/music vs. old art/music (I mean, kids these days!), young vs. old, cities vs. heartland, and probably some I’m missing, all against a background of black vs. white, and rolled up to drive home this central point:
Middle America: The Obamas Are Not Like You!
Who else but Fox News could carry this “story”? It was practically written to fit their business strategy of alternately scaring and soothing anyone threatened by the pace of cultural change. Listen to any anchor carrying the story, and you can practically hear Fox’s go-to rhetorical baseline: “get off my lawn!” Remarkable.
One point feels worth addressing: is Common specifically, and rap music generally, “poetry,” worthy of joining the White House’s poetry night? I don’t feel particularly equipped to answer the question. I actually don’t like rap a whole lot — ask my little sister about our epic battles over the radio — but maybe that makes me an even better judge. So, one response.
Most to ask this question don’t actually answer it. Instead, they respond to the question of whether rap is good poetry. But to steal from my chosen profession, doesn’t that go to weight, rather than admissibility? Art can be really quite bad while still remaining art; and it strikes me that, if rap speaks to a certain individual, no matter how slapdash the rhyme scheme, I don’t know who anyone else is to deny that power. Imagine for a moment the wide breadth of creative experiences that have moved you: for me that would involve the basics of paintings, sculptures, literature, music you would expect, but also music you would not expect, and things farther afield, like video games. No, not like MarioKart. Like the original Knights of the Old Republic — one of the best examples, I think, of a game’s ability to tell a compelling story — or more recently, Fallout 3. That’s a new thing for my generation, but it’s no less valid.
Patrons of art, like heads of state, are within their rights to use the position to endorse a particular type of art, and if the opposition doesn’t like it, well, maybe they should win more elections. More, I expect heads of state are free to endorse art without endorsing the underlying message, too. Unless we’re to presume President Nixon’s hearty endorsement of parties in the county jail.