"All the time I'm not writing I feel like a criminal." -Fran Lebowitz

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

A Middle-Aged Man Reviews an NPR Intern’s Review of Public Enemy’s “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back”

In 1991, when I was a senior in college (the Internet was lurking somewhere, but not visible to me - am I still allowed to tell the story?), I walked into my friend’s dorm room. My friend sat in his easy chair, fully reclined, enjoying Led Zeppelin’s "Over the Hills and Far Away" from their seminal album "Houses of the Holy". Being the urbane snot that I was, disdainful of “classic rock” and respectful only of the synthesizers of Depeche Mode and New Order (though they weren’t as good as the Joy Division from which they had spawned), or the fresh new sound of rappers such as Slick Rick and Whodini, I reared my head back, made a face, and said, “Led Zeppelin? Ugh.”
My friend looked up from his easy chair, smiled the slight smile of someone wiser than I, and said evenly, “You’ll learn.”
Apropos of nothing, on, Friday, July 13th posted a piece on its site written by an intern in its Music Department, Austin Cooper, entitled, "You've Never Heard Public Enemy's 'It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back'?!" The column was part of “You’ve Never Heard?”: “a recurring series in which we ask our unimaginably young interns to review classic albums they've never heard before.” I suppose NPR can’t call it “a recurring series wherein we deliberately troll the bulk of our demo, donation-paying audience,” as it would step on the bit, but that seems to be the sole purpose here (a previous entry in this same vein written by another intern was entitled, "I Never Owned Any Music To Begin With" and sought - apparently? - to justify the downloading of over 11,000 songs without payment to the artist as simply a pesky side-effect of progress).

Now. Let me be clear: I don’t blame the interns here.
I blame NPR.
Famously, George Bernard Shaw once said, "Youth is wasted on the young." To which an intern at NPR might respond, “Well, I guess Shaw was a pretty well-known and respected playwright back in the day, I mean, but that day was, like, two centuries ago, you know, so whatever. A lot of the alternative comedians I follow on Twitter just hit me a lot closer, y’know? And sure, Shaw wrote (quick Wikipedia search) Pygmalion, but Pretty Woman was a lot better and even Pretty Woman came out in, like, 1990, and She's All That is a lot better than even that.”
Now, that younger people aren’t aware of many things that came before them, and tend to dismiss the old for the new, is so moldy a notion that an NPR intern would more than likely claim to “not really get it.” I've certainly fallen victim to the same sin. I recall the day my father told me Graham Greene had died, and I replied, “The actor from Dances With Wolves?” (The look I received was withering, by the way.*) As mentioned, I have scoffed at my fair share of “old stuff” that came before me, and thus was irrelevant. There is nothing revelatory here.

*This is not to in any way impugn the career of Graham Greene, the actor, who is pretty awesome as well.
But what's the point of this series, then? Why is NPR, an institution that stands for reporting truth, that strives to get justice through the edification of America's masses, and that stands and strives for these things while reaching into America's fanny pack and taking its tax dollars, allowing its young, ambivalently-impressioned employees to expose their ignorance - and for no renumeration, besides? Surely this is not the National Public Radio mission. There are only two possibilities:
A)These interns know that by writing these columns, they’re confessing a gap in their cultural education. They know that by expressing ambivalence over a classic, groundbreaking piece of art, they’re admitting they're not really serious. They know they’re wrong, pretty much. They know they’re winking at us.
B)They don’t know.
Either possibility calls to question the wisdom of the series, and NPR as a whole. If it’s (A), why would NPR waste space with a cutsy, elbow in the ribs, muttered “We know these are just dumb kids,” trope? If it’s (B), NPR is deliberately embarrassing the youth in its charge, and needs to be held accountable.

And eliminated.
In his piece, Cooper claims that “Nation” “leaves me...perplexed.” He avers that “Chuck D’s unvarnished vocals sit front and center in the mix” that “sounds thin” with “guitar samples that, frankly, I find cartoonish.” Cooper feels “Chuck D’s legendary flow also comes across like a caricature,” and that “given the choice, I’m going to blast Drake’s infectiously triumphant mp3s every time.” Cooper’s “experience with hip-hop is definitely limited in scope,” but he’d “still call myself a fan,” and specifically, Drake’s “Over” is “incredible. His (Drake’s) hook over that yappy guitar, the service-academy beat that drops shortly afterwards, the bells on the top-end - it’s all so viscerally pleasing.”
Basically, Drake > Public Enemy.
Well, hey.

My first reaction was, "Maybe these right-wing nutjobs who want NPR’s funding pulled have a point. Sheesh, this kid works in the NPR Music Department? That seems equivalent to working for Major League Baseball but “not really understanding” Hank Aaron. It’s comparable to someone preferring a twenty-dollar bill to a hundred. Drake > Public Enemy strikes me as 4 > 3.16227766 squared. Why am I reading this, and how can I throw my computer across the room without damaging it?"
My second reaction was, "Wait. Put your computer down, hothead. This dude Cooper’s just an intern - he’s unpaid."
My third reaction was, "Well, then, NPR needs to re-evaluate the process by which they hire interns. But: leave the computer be."
My FOURTH reaction was, "Wait. Maybe I need to check out this Drake character."

PE’s “Nation” came out in 1988, just before I turned 19, and I was absolutely blown away by it, enraptured by the lyrics, by the brilliantly composed cacophony of it, and it changed my life, as it did millions of others, and everyone who listened immediately recognized that the album had changed the world like the introduction of fire to the cavemen or the day Ernest Hemingway decided to write about his wartime experience. I’ve listened to “Nation” approximately all the times you can listen to it. But just maybe, it wouldn’t hold up now. Despite the fact it’s regarded as one of the greatest albums ever (Ranked #48 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest), maybe “Nation” has grown stale. Maybe “Nation” had its time, and that time was over. Maybe Drake is better now.
Drake better than Public Enemy? An artist better than the rap group that pretty much changed everything? Damn; I’m in. I’d love to hear that.
So I downloaded Drake’s album “Thank Me Later”. Cooper references only the single “Over” as his favorite, so to economize the argument:

In this corner: Drake

In this corner: Public Enemy
My fifth reaction: "Mr. Cooper is, er, (coughs; sighs) misguided."
Again, the songs above are only one representative of each album. But. One song has Chuck D weaving, with barely contained ferocity, a compelling story with righteous political outrage over an aweomely fierce and dense musical structure. The other name-checks Jada Pinkett-Smith.

*This is not to in any way impugn the career of Jada Pinkett-Smith, the actor, who is pretty awesome as well.
This is already too long, but let me just say this: to call Chuck D’s flow “like a caricature” but make no reference to Drake’s auto-tune pretty much eliminates any chance at allowing one to keep a straight face.*
*For the record, I quite enjoyed “Thank Me Later” and I like Drake. His music is bouncy and intense at once and the lyrics are boastfully fun. But come on. Gimme a break, here.
Now, the crux of the review, the “one good reason” Cooper has “never listened to "Nation:
“The most recent of the bunch came out three years before I was even born!”
The exclamation point is used, I presume, to communicate not only the raising of voice but also the shaking of head and twisting of the mouth, incredulously, as if expecting someone to try to appreciate anything that came out before his birth is not only a fool’s errand but an affront. It’s as if Cooper can’t be bothered to consider that anything that came before him might be worthy. Anyone who asks is slightly ridiculous.

In fact, it is the recipients of this exclamation point who should be affronted.

But that's fine.
The vexing thing about appreciating art is, anyone’s opinion is not only valid, but somehow just by stating it, that opinion has credence. As much credence as anyone else’s opinion. And sure, in theory that’s fine. No one has to like “It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back” as much as “Thank Me Later”. Cooper is entitled to his opinion. But there are people out there that think The Godfather isn’t as good as Ghostbusters (for the record, I struggle with this one). There are those who think a Big Mac is as good as filet mignon. There are those who do think 4 > . 3.162277662. And these opinions are held to be totally, utterly, set in concrete, cannot be refuted, valid.
No. The only reason these opinions are valid is, these people are young. The answer is (B): they don't know.  
And this is where I blame NPR. I don’t blame Cooper. He is certainly entitled to his opinion. No, the villain here is NPR. It should know better. The people guiding the ship at NPR can’t possibly think “Black Steel In the Hour of Chaos” is as good as “Over”. That's ludicrous. That's ridiculous on its face. NPR knows that allowing its interns - young, fresh, so optimistic in their sardonic dismissal of anything created before 1998 - to basically write something that argues such is merely letting its audience hear it say, “Aw, look how cute! He’ll be so embarrassed later!” The basic conceit of the series is to have something that, years from now, these interns look back and cringe, as their respective significant other sips a glass of wine, smirks, and mutters, "You sure had good taste back then."
And that’s unacceptable. It's reckless.

NPR can secretly infect us with any ideology it wants, that’s fine, I get that (and I agree with most of it, shh, don’t tell). But I don’t give National Public Radio my hard-earned tax dollars to waste my time while humiliating interns in its music department. That’s cruel.
Unless NPR really is trying to self-sabotage itself to the point where America yanks its funding.

In which case (sixth reaction), it should do the decent thing, and pull its own plug.
My only message to Mr. Cooper is, “You’ll learn.” I did. Led Zeppelin and Graham Greene kick ass. As does Public Enemy.