Wednesday, June 17, 2009

'Death of Autotune' Inspired Grumbling on the Death of Formalism

So I was reading a great post a couple weeks ago on The House Next Door about auteurism and Howard Hawks's awful 1965 racing movie, Red Line 7000. Hawks is one of the five or so greatest directors of American cinema, and probably its most versatile. Among other things, he made the original Scarface, two of our finest comedies (Bringing Up Baby, Our Girl Friday), a brilliant noir (The Big Sleep), a take on Casablanca that improves on the original in every respect (To Have or Have Not), two of the best Westerns ever made (Red River, Rio Bravo), some classic war movies, a pioneering science fiction film, and even a pretty great Cinemascope ancient historical epic. He made Cary Grant's best movies and John Wayne's best movies. To be great at one's a wonderful accomplishment, but to have a knack for both is truly mind-boggling. Imagine if Martin Scorsese, on top of everything he has done, were also the best director of comedies of the last thirty years, and you get an idea of the improbability of Hawks's achievement. Nevertheless, he also made some crap, especially towards the end of his career, and Red Line is a case in point, as you can probably imagine just from looking at the poster. Critics being critics though, some Hawks devotees, among them a very respected critic, Robin Wood, have taken to claiming it's a terribly underrated film, one that recapitulates various Hawksian themes and motifs (such as male bonding, hot women in passenger seats who speak in deep voices, etc.). Which may be true, but in order to convince themselves the thing was actually a good movie, they had to ignore all sorts of gaping aesthetic holes in the film:

Red Line 7000 is a fascinating train wreck of a film. It is stiff, angry, wayward, filled with random product placements and littered with stilted, uncertain acting. The film’s mostly young, unknown actors are so inept, in fact, that Red Line got more laughs from the BAM audience than most comedies do. In his Hawks book, Wood once again sees a platonic essence of this movie and doesn’t seem at all phased by the poor playing of most of the cast (it must be said that a young James Caan and the frankly libidinal Marianna Hill do what they can with their roles). Nor does Wood comment on the awkward editing, or the moth-eaten, lazy clich├ęs that stand in for the psychology of the six main characters. Not even the atrocious talked-through musical number “Wild Cat Jones” phases Wood; according to him, every last moment of this film has been thought-out, judged and made perfectly clear, but the only thing that’s clear is that Wood has thought it out and made it infinitely better in his mind.

The upshot of the post is that auteurist theory - which holds, in its more extreme versions, that the most minor works of the great directors (AKA, the auteurs) are more interesting than unusually brilliant work from otherwise undistinguished hacks - can go too far. I was reminded of this post the other day by The Assimilated Negro's college try at defending 'Death of Autotune,' along with his bizarrely bad Gawker hitjob on Jody Rosen of Slate for having the temerity to point out what I thought we all knew, that Jay can't rap anymore and isn't much of a lyricist anymore either.

First, my own thoughts on the record. I'm not one of those people who thinks that autotune has had such a pernicious effect on urban radio that it needs to go ASAP. Surely, most autotune shit is pretty bland and generic, and even autotune's crowning achievements (among which I'd personally place 'I'm Sprung,' 'Buy You a Drank,' 'Shawty Is The Shit,' 'Pop Champagne,' 'Hair Braider,' 'Robocop' before Kanye ruined it, and begrudgingly, 'Lollipop') are pretty limited. Nevertheless, I don't hate the trend and generally think that autotune-is-killing-rap talk is pretty silly. That said, a well executed autotuner-diss could have been a great song, in the same way that, say, Jeru Da Damaja's jeremiads against Bad Boy are great rap in spite of how wrong he was on the merits, or in the same way that Hip Hop Is Dead was a decent album in spite of the muddled message, simply because Nas was still a really good rapper. But 'Death of Autotune' isn't a well-executed diss, or even a mediocrely executed one. Putting aside Jay's total inability to rap anymore for just a second, this is a lyrically piss-poor song. We can argue over the individual quality of some of the lines, but two things are pretty undebatable.

1. First, this is barely a diss record. This is a song that claims to be a diss record. 80% of the song is spent proclaiming how good it is. For example:

This ain't a number one record
This is assault with a deadly weapon
I made this just for Flex and
Mr. Cee, I want people to feel threatened

And the whole song is like this. Jay spends all his time proclaiming his intentions for the record, but never makes good on any of them. He says that he wants - wants! - people to feel threatened, but doesn't provide anyone the slightest reason for feeling so. There eventually is something of an actual attack on rappers who use autotune, but only in the most sketchy, uncreative and uncutting of ways. He rails against tight jeans and says "you rappers singing too much, get back to rap, you T-Pain'n too much." Could you pen a worse autotune diss if you tried? And this is the part T.A.N. calls a "strong, quotable couplet"! "Get back to rap," strong and quotable! Yeah, I'll be quoting that. He really got them with that T-Pain'n wordplay. Damn. The "na na na na, hey hey, goodbye" part, though, is the real kicker of this stunningly impotent record. So plainly Jay's attempt to do his own version of the Billy Joel interpolation on 'The Bridge Is Over,' it feels more like a middle-aged father's pathetic attempt to tell a cool joke.

2. The whole song is suffused with this horribly strained effort to come off as transgressive, i.e., "this ain't politically correct/this might offend my political connects." On what you'd think would be a pretty obvious level to a smart fellow like Jay, you can't really play the "I'm a dangerous black guy who offends his corporate partners with his subversive music" card at the same time that you're making a song trashing the music of choice of America's youth. It's a patently absurd position to take. My political connects are offended... because I'm hating on the music their kids like. Nonsense. Now, Jay tries to square this circle with a pretty boring "manly and street"/"effeminate, corporate autotune-user" dichotomy. But what does this make the kids who listen to this stuff? (And what does this make his political connects - Lil Wayne fans?) And how can Jay, the richest rapper alive, the only rapper who has political connects, a guy who hangs out with Bill Gates and dates a superstar who performed at the Inaugural Ball, pull off this bullshit? He can't, of course. Which doesn't stop him from saying that he just might rob somebody because he's so Brooklyn. How full of shit can you get?

But even if this were a lyrically great record, it would still suck, for the very simple reason that Jay can no longer rap any better than you or I. As Cam said in the middle of his own death spiral into obsolescence, Jay is Jordan on the Wizards. Actually, Willie Mays on the 1973 Mets would have been a more apt comparison. Jay didn't go from being stellar to average; he's gone from stellar to Prodigy territory. Ask yourself this: if you were an A&R and a kid came into your office with Jay's flow, wheezing over his lines, punctuating the bad ones he liked with weird self-congratulatory "ahhhh!" noises, dragging out the end of every bar ("assault with a deadly weaponnnnnnn"), occasionally breaking out into senile drunken song, would you (a) sign him, (b) give it even a moment's thought, or (c) buy him an inhaler? C, of course.

Nevertheless, a lot of people like this shit, and when probed, their arguments boil down to the arguments made for Red Line 7000. Put aside his flow, and the clunkers, and how generic every word of the song is, because it's Jay, just as Red Line was Hawks, however bad, and even bad Jay matters, especially when he's doing anything that can be parsed as returning to his roots. The key passage in T.A.N.'s original piece is this:

Wrong, this ain’t politically correct (AHH)
This might offend my political connects (AHH)

a line like this is somewhat generic, but holds real weight cause it's Jay. the rule is: if your shit-talk is real talk, you earn points. this holds true across the board, i think. for example: all y'all dudes looking rolie polie (AHH), while i stay with my polie in Jolie (AHH). now if that's fake, it's wack. but if it's real, it's hot. Brad Pitt can say it, TAN can't. Even if my voice is hotter.

Leave aside the fact that the logical conclusion of this argument is that TAN would enjoy hearing Bill Gates rap about being a billionaire, or that Jay could say "I have a big house" and it would hold real weight because Jay really does have a big house, while "google earth Nas, got cribs on other continents" is not such a good line because Nas doesn't really have cribs on other continents. The notion that Jay can make the generic magical, that we should applaud Jay anytime he makes a generic allusion to the street, because it's JAY BACK ON HIS STREET SHIT, is flat-out wrong. It's true that 5-6 years ago, Jay could make a hot song just by reading the names in the phonebook. (He actually did have a great verse on 'Diamonds' largely just by reciting the names of the artists he'd soon drop from his label.) It's also true that back then it was a huge event when Jay dropped the Sinatra act for a minute and did a street record. But this isn't because there was something intrinsically interesting about the fact of Shawn Carter making a street record, reading the phonebook. It was because Shawn Carter did something interesting when he made the street record or read off the names of his tax write-offs on 'Diamonds.' Jay was the epitome of charisma in those days. Like he said on Izzo, he had the flow of the century. That's hardly the case anymore.

Where it gets, if you'll pardon the hideous Soderbergism, a little ugly is TAN's baffling Gawker hitjob on Jody Rosen. Apparently, not only is TAN convinced that this fart of a record is actually good, he thinks there's something a little suspect about anyone who disagrees. Now, Jody Rosen is not the smartest rap critic; today he wrote that jokes about white rappers aren't funny anymore, because there are lots of good white rappers these days (who??), including - Andy Samberg? Huh? Yeah, he said that. But Rosen's pretty on the money on 'Death of Autotune.' "Notably slack and witless recitation of would-be zinger couplets" - check. "Jay-Z... is playing the curmudgeonly hip-hop purist" - check. He even zeroes in on some of the song's worst lines! Shockingly good performance for a critic from a publication like Slate if you ask me. So what does TAN take Rosen to task for - or, to use his wacky conceit, what did Negropedia Brown see in the post? (TAN, for the purposes of this post, fancies himself as a black Encyclopedia Brown who solves media mysteries resulting from ethnocultural dissonance, AKA, from underinformed white people commenting on that which they don't know shit about.) Apparently, a guy who wrote a book on 'White Christmas,' as Rosen has, has no right to be knocking curmudgeonly purism. Of course, this makes absolutely no sense. 'White Christmas' is one of the greatest pop songs ever written, and is no more the stuff of curmudgeonly purism than 'Jingle Bells'; how does liking it preclude a healthy disdain for lazy, washed-up wannabe backpackers? I have no idea. Somewhat more to the point, TAN points out that Rosen wrote a piece bashing Akon. Well no shit, of all the artists who use autotune on a regular basis, Akon's the worst, hands down. He made 'Locked Up,' sang the hook on 'Soul Survivor,' and then fell into a masturbatory booty-obsessed wormhole. Besides, as we've been over, see above, there's a difference between a good autotune diss and an unbelievably sucky one. TAN also notes that, in Rosen's pan of Kingdom Come, he said Jay had made 11 solo albums when the real count was only 8. See, he doesn't know his hip-hop! (Isn't it obvious that Rosen counted Streets Is Watching and the two Best of Both Worlds? Are you really this petty?) And, Rosen once credited 50 Cent with the invention of beef as a post-modern media marketing strategy, which, though probably wrong, is at least a defensible position, depending on how narrowly you define media marketing strategy. Finally, his biggest complaint is with Rosen claiming that Jay called out iTunes when he said "this song ain't for iTunes." True, it's not exactly an attack on iTunes so much as it's a vague statement that could mean that the song isn't commercial, or isn't intended for the average iTunes user, but it is of a piece with the autotune bashing, tight jeans bashing, ringtone bashing. In any event, it's hardly a point on which Rosen's critique rests, and Rosen's hardly clearly wrong.

But what's really dismaying about the piece, besides the weakness of its arguments, are the sneaky insinuations that there's something racially amiss with Rosen's blurb. Of course, as TAN more or less admits, in the piece* and back at his own blog,** he's too scared of Slate to call Rosen a racist, but he implies that Rosen's failing to get the song is the result of a "culture gap," of "ethnocultural dissonance," and, when writing that there's something "amiss" with Rosen's piece, links to a comment on the original Slate post faulting Rosen for making an insensitive reference to cotton gins. Now I don't really know how racial dissonance might lead a white guy like myself to underrate Jay's song, but I could imagine some reasons, one that I think TAN hints at, namely that whites are purists about their own literature and music, and take it very seriously, but when it comes to rap, a primarily black medium, fetishize youthful elan over and above the purism and wisdom of older heads. And admittedly, I've never heard a rapper over the age of 35, with the surprising recent exception of Kurupt,*** who I didn't think had fallen the fuck off, so maybe there's some truth to that in the abstract. (Or maybe I'm just right.) But if you're going to pull the race card, however sneakily and subtly, please do it over someone worth fighting for. Don't do it on behalf of Jay-Z's rotting corpse.

* "Slate was one of the bigger media bullies on the block, nobody wanted to pick a beef with them unless they had their facts straight."

** "In my case, you keep it real and start too much beef with "bosses" and you might end up a window wiper."

*** Of course there are many other exceptions; Doom's 38, The Grind Date was a good album, etc.


bding7 said...

"Hairbrader," what a song.

I read that original post by TAN a couple days ago; it confused the hell out of me, too. I stopped reading around the part he defended the "AHH" ad-libs. Also, he claimed there's no real space on the internet for breaking down rap lyrics, which struck me as absurd.

"Where it gets, if you'll pardon the hideous Soderbergism, a little ugly is TAN's baffling Gawker hitjob on Jody Rosen."

Why not use a word like "bizarre?" Also, he tends to use that when referring to "ugly" realities/truths/etc. Sort of like when Breihan used to write "synth gurgles."

tray said...

You know, I thought the ugly was almost appropriate here because it's not so much bizarre as it is a little sinister. Like here's some mainstream pop critic in his 40s who doesn't know much about rap but is really doing the best he can, and for the crime of pointing out that some awful song is a really awful song, he gets this really cowardly "something amiss" bullshit thrown at him. You expect that kind of crap on stupid message boards - "you're white, you don't know what you're talking about" - but from an established blogger, it's a little disturbing, and very, you know, 90s Ivy League English department. Life's hard as a white rap fan already without having to worry about someone hinting that you're a little bigoted because you don't like Gucci Mane...

T.A.N. said...

thanks for the read.

of course there's some stuff here I disagree with; mostly tethered to not finding a compromise between "jay's still very good" and "jay can't rap". but i'll keep it moving and concede, I guess, that I did come out too strong on DOA.

I caveat because I wasn't trying to champion the song as a success -- my conclusions on the lyric post don't gush -- it was reaching for different ways to access lyric deconstruction, in a populist format.

the attempt ended up being a bit flailing and "college-y", i guess, but i do think a collegiate-minded approach to lyric deconstruction is missing to my internet knowledge. i only know it to be done anecdotally, like this post/comments.

but with this post, for example, i think we're glossing over the idea of "can rap" too much here. expertise, experience, context do matter in an evaluation of skills.

with Negropedia Brown the piece was undercooked. thrust was to not defend the song, but jay. i got stuck between a critique of rosen's catalog of hip hop-related writings, and using the autotune review to explore that.

i have more grist for the former, but the story was about the latter.

we'll try and do better next time

tray said...

By "college try," I didn't mean it was collegiate or sophomoric or whatever; that's just an idiom for, like, a manful effort to defend the indefensible. Certainly line-by-line analysis of some rap is very rewarding; used to do some great stuff in this regard with old Mobb Deep. But then, old Mobb Deep actually bears that kind of scrutiny out. As for putting too much weight on "can rap," I mean, of course many a mediocre Jay album track gains some resonance from context. I like, for example, Cam's "Used To Get It In Ohio" a bit more than I should because, if you're as steeped in Cam as I am, you know that this narrative about his crack-selling days in Cincinnati has been running through his records for a while, so as a continuation of that storyline the song's more worthwhile than it would be in isolation. EPMD's latest album is quite a bit more interesting than it would be if these were just two so-so guys in their forties who had never put out umpteen classics. But there comes a point when the well runs dry. I trust you wouldn't want to hear a Shook Ones Pt. III at this late date, stopped checking for KRS years ago, aren't looking forward to seeing Woody Allen's new movie, and were as grossed out as I was by Springsteen's halftime show at the Super Bowl. And I really would put Jay's newer stuff in that category. With some exceptions - he had a very affecting verse on the Saadiq album that managed to take advantage of his clumsy flow. There are others, some decent moments on American Gangster. But this sure isn't one.