Making a point as well as trouble Pop music is often outrageous because its listeners feel outraged

November 01, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

If all you know about popular music is what you see on th news these days, odds are that you think today's rock and rap stars like nothing better than causing a stink.

For some time, it has seemed as if nearly all the news coming from the music community has been connected to some scandal or other. Occasionally, the bad news is barely more than gossip, like the stories of Jackson Browne's punch-up with Darryl Hannah, or the report in Vanity Fair about the heroin habits of Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain and his wife, singer Courtney Love.

More often than not, though, when pop music makes news, it makes headlines.

Just look at the Ice-T "Cop Killer" case, which found the rapper-turned-heavy-metal-singer condemned by everyone from sheriffs' associations to President George Bush for singing about how he'd like to "dust some cops off." Or take social activist-turned-rapper Sister Souljah, whose race-baiting remarks on the L.A. riots earned her the well-publicized scorn of Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton.

Guns N' Roses, whose frontman, Axl Rose, has been accused of racism, misogyny and homophobia (sometimes all because of the same song), is 14 months into a tour that has so far sparked riots in St. Louis and Montreal. Nor should we forget Sinead O'Connor, whose anti-papist antics on "Saturday Night Live" recently were just the latest in a string of well-publicized provocations.

Finally, there's Madonna, a veritable one-woman scandal machine, whose career of late seems built around such carefully calculated outrages as the banned-by-MTV antics of her video for "Justify My Love," or her current combo, the controversial "Erotica" (an album) and "Sex" (a picture-book).

It's as if hit-making were less important than troublemaking for some of these folks.

Granted, not every pop star is guilty of such shenanigans. Billy Ray Cyrus spent 17 weeks atop the Billboard albums chart without doing anything more scandalous than wiggling his hips. Even though Peter Gabriel has been politically active for years, the causes he champions -- like Amnesty International -- have earned admiration, not approbation. Likewise, the only arguments Bruce Springsteen's recent work has sparked have more to do with musical style than ideological content.

What about these others, though? Do they keep causing trouble because somebody told them it was an easy way to move albums? Or are they really saying something important to their audience?

Frankly, it's more often the latter than the former. Strange as it may seem, the reason these musicians can hold an audience despite their penchant for scandal isn't because people are amused by their outrageous acts -- it's because those acts reflect the outrage many in the audience feel.

This is, after all, popular music, and rarely is the voice of the people heard as clearly as in the sound of a controversial single.

Not the mainstream

It's worth noting, however, just whose voices are being heard in this music. Performers like Ice-T or Guns N' Roses or Madonna don't stand for the status quo; they don't speak for the establishment or represent the views of a mainstream majority. Instead, their work reflects the perspective of specific subcultures, articulating their anger and giving voice to feelings that wouldn't have a hearing otherwise.

Why? Because music is in many ways our culture's most immediate and accessible communications medium. Some of that has to do with the fact that recordings, unlike tracts and pamphlets, can entertain as they inform. Moreover, music is a far more social art, one that moves an audience with ease. (Ever try dancing to "Das Kapital"?) Finally, because taste in music tends to reflect a listener's cultural roots and social standing, it's easy for popular recordings to speak to and for specific communities and subcultures.

In some cases, what's said can be as simple as Sir Mix-a-Lot's assertion "I like big butts!" in the single "Baby Got Back." On the surface, it may seem that all he's doing is expressing an opinion, but there's more to it than Mix-a-Lot's personal preferences. At root, "Baby Got Back" challenges the dominant standard for physical beauty in our culture, a standard that stresses long legs, slim hips, small buttocks and has no room for women with wide hips or protuberant posteriors. And the fact that "Baby Got Back" spent five weeks at No. 1 suggests that there are millions who agree with his assessment.

News before it happens

In other cases, what we're hearing almost amounts to the news before it happens. Take, for example, the enmity expressed against Korean merchants in the Ice Cube rap "Black Korea." Late last year, when the recording was first released, Cube was castigated by critics for what they saw as fear-mongering in lines like "Pay respect to the black fist/ Or we'll burn your store right down to a crisp."

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