Here's a impossibly bold prediction: 2013 will be looked back upon as very big year the history of the Internet. The year when social media truly came alive and really took over: it’s the way that we experience the world now, from news to entertainment. It’s all in the Facebook feed, all in your Twitter timeline.
Everything fractured: what we knew as true, what we thought undeniable, came into question, over and over again. This was, of course, especially stark for those suits who’d previously lived blithely unknowing lives of privilege. But it wasn’t just the dudes from Duck Dynasty. No matter who you were, you were suddenly aware of the great multiplicity of perspectives. The universe split into fragments, and we became hyperaware of each other’s opinions—or at least those opinions we wanted each other to see.
And in music in 2013, there was a lot to have opinions about. Miley Cyrus’ new image and mass-popularization of twerking. Lil Wayne’s near-death experience. Justin Timberlake’s sudden return. Kanye West’s divisive Yeezus, and his subsequent run of controversial interviews and on-stage "rants." Gucci’s twitter breakdown. The Harlem Shake and the "Harlem Shake." Kendrick’s hip-hop shake-up with "Control." Drake’s ascension to hip-hop’s top tier. Jay Z’s Samsung deal. Robin Thicke’s "Blurred Lines" video and the subsequent controversy. Beyonce’s successful surprise. Etc., etc., etc.
It was quite a year.
While hip-hop, an art form created by marginalized communities and popularized throughout the world, continues to dominate pop culture in terms of notoriety and aesthetic influence, its actual space in the marketplace is shrinking.
And each time something happened, if you’re like the average reader of this site, your Facebook feed and your twitter were overrunneth: jokes and memes, outrage and defensiveness, cultural relativism and cultural imperialism. Thinkpieces and response pieces and comments-section soldiers deriding both. To a distorting affect.
The noise is viral headlines: those pangs of affirmation from articles that make us feel good about the world for a moment. The noise is an article filled with righteous energy taking a stand against an injustice, merely perceived or very, very real. The noise is false viral "news," like the enthusiastic twerker who set herself on fire that turned out to be a Jimmy Kimmel stunt. But most pernicious was the noise of our own myopia. The inability to recognize the extreme limitations of our Facebook feeds and eyeballs to capture the whole of reality. Many of the pieces shared were preaching to the choir: affirming our beliefs, letting people know how we wanted to be perceived.
In an important article published by BetaBeat, author Ryan Holiday observes the very real digital divides that have created a hierarchy of knowledge, even in the supposedly free information era of the Internet:
Yes, much of the Internet is free. But it takes time and energy to develop the skills and habits necessary to successfully derive value from today’s media. Knowing how to tell a troll from a serious thinker, spotting linkbait, understanding a meme, cross checking articles against each other, even posting a comment to disagree with something–these are skills. They might not feel like it, but they are. And they’re easier to acquire the higher your tax bracket.
The fact is, those of us who have the time to read online articles about music are privileged. This isn't just a "white hipsters" thing—anyone who is in college, or has an office job, or is liable to be at a computer for a decent portion of their day, has access to more information and has more time to learn the necessary skills to figure out what's what. Everyone else? Good luck navigating the increasingly byzantine ways information travels.
Of course, this is just another angle in the increasing wealth disparity across the country.
And while hip-hop, an art form created by marginalized communities and popularized throughout the world, continues to dominate pop culture in terms of notoriety and aesthetic influence, its actual space in the marketplace is shrinking. The increasing segregation of its audience along every possible fault line is stark. It's here, in Tressie McMillan Cottom's exploration of the reasoning behind impoverished people buying designer items.
It's evident in what Michelle Alexander, in her 2012 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, calls a racial "caste system." In essence, the prison system now incarcerates more black men than were enslaved in 1850. And it's largely a result of the drug war and an increasing incarceration state.
Even at its commercial peak, hip-hop was more clearly grounded in the realities of class and race than it is today. Rap's most popular formulations are increasingly middle class-friendly, even as they make up less and less real estate on the pop charts. We talk as if hip-hop is still the country's most popular music form, but is that really still the case? As a genre, on the charts, its become increasingly marginalized every year since the mid-2000s.
We talk as if hip-hop is still the country's most popular music form, but is that really still the case? As a genre, on the charts, its become increasingly marginalized every year since the mid-2000s.
Traditionalists still sound the alarm bells about the success of "mainstream" rap being sold to us by corporations. As right as they are to raise questions about the dangers of a genre representing itself as a non-stop drug party so wholly uncritical of conspicuous consumption, the complaints feel more and more out of touch with the present cultural reality. Ironically, give or take a few club hits, mainstream hip-hop's most popular artists—Macklemore, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye, Drake, J. Cole, etc.—are rappers whose background is more early-'00s independent hip-hop than the jiggy/crunk/street rap of the time, and whose relationship to club rap's eternal party is much more complicated that promotional.
The main exception is Rick Ross, who not only had an off-year, but almost seems to serve as a nostalgic stand-in for larger-than-life characters of millennial pop rap—they don't make 'em like that any more. (Never mind that his most successful MMG signee, Wale, fits in well with the former group.)
As a Chicagoan who witnessed the rapid rise of Chief Keef last year and Chance The Rapper this year, it's been interesting watching the city's promising rookie class capture the conflicted totality of its city's unmitigated multi-level segregation. Violence is supposedly down since the '90s, so why does violent music persist? A study by the University of Chicago's Daniel Hertz found that while overall crime declined, "the inequality of violence in Chicago has skyrocketed." Violent crime used to be more evenly distributed; now, a large amount of the burden of violence has been pushed unduly onto certain communities. And it shows in the music. Increasingly, the sound of hip-hop is driven by new divisions. In the wake of its complete crossover a decade ago, and with the advent of pure online engagement, the sound is no longer shaped primarily by geography. It's economic, social, the result of divides both IRL and digital.
The main exception is Rick Ross, who not only had an off-year, but almost seems to serve as a nostalgic stand-in for larger-than-life characters of millennial pop rap—they don't make 'em like that any more.
Earlier this year, The New Yorker published an article by Kelefa Sanneh entitled "Blockbuster." It took a look at the shifting nature of popular culture.
In an earlier generation, anxiety about popular culture usually referred to something different: a fear that our entertainment industry was somehow corrupt, and corrupting us. We were being manipulated, it seemed, by nefarious executives like Dannen’s hit men, who conspired with shady men in shiny cars to manipulate radio playlists.
This mentality was, of course, a common one in hip-hop. Remember the conspiracy theory of hip-hop's commercial gangster past: the "secret meeting that changed rap music and destroyed a generation." This concern with corporate overlords increasingly feels dated. Things have changed, Sanneh argues. Consumers "have grown intensely aware of what [The Long Tail author Chris] Anderson called the 'commercial weight' of our purchases." Where culture used to feel as if it were beamed to us, top-down, now we're intensely conscious of our vote. "Many connoisseurs have come to think of themselves as patrons, eager not just to consume culture but to support it—or, occasionally, to boycott it."
And we express these concerns and moral judgements through social media. It's the year that Rick Ross lost his Reebok deal, that the mainstream media became aware of the phenomenon of "Black Twitter." Sanneh is right to suggest that the dynamic has shifted. As the impact of the consumer becomes more and more significant in shaping the way music is heard, it will become increasingly important to recognize how many different ways there are of experiencing it.
As pop culture's corporate overlords are replaced by the crowd, which now frames and contextualizes what we see, it might seem like an improvement. And in some ways, it is. People who didn't have voices in previous years can more readily be heard.
But it's also important to recognize the shortcomings of this new order. Whose voices are we still not hearing? How easy is it to perceive the dynamic of our world, and not to recognize the one outside our range of vision? And what are the downsides to a popular mentality? From the Boston Bombing to KONY, the wisdom of the crowd isn't always what it's cut out to be.