People say jazz is the only art form invented by Americans, but they're wrong. Rap is another truly American art form. I'll never forget the first time I heard Sugarhill Gang's seminal work, "Rapper's Delight." It took a high-school trip to Paris to discover this American treasure. I was in a French kid's apartment, and he put on the new record while someone else rolled a huge, ice-cream-cone shaped joint. I was transformed by the poetry, the bravado, and the beat. Okay, and maybe a little by the contact high.
Back home I sought out rap and, later, hip-hop. When my kids were little I played rap --- old school, mostly --- for them. We listened for internal and slant rhymes. I pointed out the themes of boasting, rebellion, and materialism. Feminists and responsible parents everywhere, fear not: I also condemned the misogyny and coarse language.
Now they're older, and they hang out in their rooms listening to the radio. I'm not sure how this unsupervised hip-hop exposure will affect them as they turn from boys to men. The violence.The sexism.The violent sexism.
Take a song like "My Humps," by the Black Eyed Peas. My kids like the Peas because they played the Democratic Convention --- great musicians and Democrats! The first time I heard "My Humps" I was with my 9-year-old in the car. The ridiculous fanny-shaking lyrics delighted me --- I was sure the song was a delicious, over-the-top spoof of other sexist hip-hop songs. Then I heard it through my son's ears and snapped the damn radio right the hell off.
If you're unfamiliar with the song, allow me to sing a bit for you:
The guy asks: "What you gon' do with all that junk?
All that junk inside your trunk?"
And the chick, in a babyish squeal, sings: "I'm a get, get, get, get, you drunk,
Get you love drunk off my hump.
My hump, my hump, my hump, my hump, my hump,
My hump, my hump, my hump, my lovely little lumps."
First off, ewww. Second of all, it's one thing to tell a young son that it's not okay for men to treat women like sex toys, but when women do it themselves, what to say? And when women do it in the guise of being feminists --- taking control of their bodies --- as Ariel Levy, author of Raunch Culture points out, the twisted result is confusing at best and regressive at worst.
Someday my kids will view women as sexual beings, potential partners. Maybe they do already, God help me. That's when they'll learn that most males have some form of the Peas' question, "What you gon' do with all that ass, all that ass up in your jeans?" on their minds pretty much every second of every day. Forget hip-hop for a moment --- though if you're anything like my husband, you'd probably like to forget it forever --- and think about the enigmatic Mona Lisa. Her mysterious gaze has been tormenting men for 400 years.
Recently, a handful of researchers in Britain, using mood-recognition software, asked Mona Lisa their polite, British version of the Peas' question. No, she didn't reply, "I'm a make, make, make, make you scream/Make you scream, make you scream."
Instead, she revealed, according to the computer's calculations, that she felt 83 percent happy, 9 percent disgusted, 6 percent fearful, and 2 percent angry. About what, we may never know.
It's not just batty scientists who are trying to figure out women. Bats are, too. The tiny mammals are in an evolutionary struggle between having large testicles and small brains or big brains and small balls, a Syracuse professor recently revealed. He studied ball/brain ratios in more than 300 bats and learned that in species where female bats are promiscuous, larger balls --- and the extra sperm in them --- provide an evolutionary advantage.
I deduce from this that male bats don't spend a lot of time asking the female bats what they're gon' do with all that junk, all that junk inside that trunk. Nor do they construct elaborate software models to figure out the mood of a 400-year-old painting. They just blast away with their mighty sperm load and hope they win the evolution lottery. And more power to them.
The challenge as a parent is to raise children who neither talk like pimps nor spend hours in dark labs measuring bat balls. Although I wish I could defuse the bristling hypersexuality of the media that surrounds them, I can't. And if I really did wish that, I probably shouldn't have turned them on to rap in the first place. But what I am trying to do here is not cloister them from the world. I'm trying to help them sort through all the messages out there and find the ones that fit their (read: my) core values.
Plus I know I can still rely on my ability as a parent to beat the fun out of everything. So I will continue to analyze lyrics, emphasize musical appropriation and homages, and disparage misogyny in the hopes of keeping my kids' heads screwed on straight.
My parents were great buzzkills. Once, in Boston Common, when my brother and I were in the giggling-about-sex stage, we saw two people having sex in the bushes. Naked people! In the bushes! This was perhaps the greatest, ickiest, most exciting thing we'd ever seen. It was a cosmic gift: when I told this story at school, I'd finally be popular.
My mother, sensing our prurience, stopped us 20 yards away from the couple writhing under a gray blanket, and launched into the kind of "making love is a beautiful act when two people who love and respect each other blah, blah, blah" speech that only the Sexual Revolution could cook up. By the end, we were completely creeped out. We never spoke of it again.