Do You Know the Lyrics to the Music?
I must have been a geek, perhaps a super-geek. No doubt by today’s standards, and probably even by the standards in which I grew up, I was about as “square” as they came. I am proud of it.
I used to lay in bed before I fell asleep listening to my Zenith short-wave radio. There was a radio station in New Jersey that broadcast Broadway show music during the entire day. I learned by heart the lyrics of the music from “Oklahoma,” and the other Rodgers & Hammerstein blockbusters. When I was older, I would sneak down to my father’s LP collection and play on his Pilot stereo the marshal music of Tchaikovsky. My favorite was Marche Slav. At times I was a bit embarrassed that I enjoyed the music so much.
The music and the lyrics made me happy. It was a fairly simple equation. The uplifting melodies and the clever, intriguing lyrics told great stories and brought an endless sense of calm.
Maybe I was wired for such pleasure. We had a relative who played in the pit orchestra of both “My Fair Lady” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” He retired from Broadway as first trumpeter. My Aunt Ethel sang in the Metropolitan Opera chorus. Ethel was discovered singing in a café by Rudolf Bing, the celebrated long-time General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera of New York City. One of my most cherished childhood memories is going with the family to listen to the Metropolitan Opera at Tanglewood. An extra was needed for one of the operas, but I was not chosen because I wore glasses. My sister got to dress up in costume and was told “look good and keep your mouth shut.” The rest of the family sweltered in the tent under the intense heat of a summer evening. The strains of operatic cacophony were never wasted on me.
My father was born and raised on Broadway, as were my grandfather and great-grandfather. My father was even Bar Mitzvahed at a Synagogue on 113th Street and Broadway, which probably no longer exists today.
When rap music became the rage, I compared it to the “talking songs” of “The Music Man.” We enjoyed “you gotta know the territory,” and the barbershop melodies that were precursors to the modern rap.
Imagine my shock when I decided to read the lyrics to the songs our young people listen to. The music was dominated by talk of death, sex, drugs, and degrading others. I tried to put out of my mind the worst of the lyrics, until I ran across Biggie Smalls and Tupac. The words are so shocking that they could not possibly be repeated in a newspaper. Check out a website such as Notorious B.I.G. lyrics, www.azlyrics.com/notorious.html. I cannot even repeat some of the titles of these so-called “songs.”
One young person told me that they admire and respect the rapper who made it from the ghetto to the big time. Neighborhood thugs, racist misogynists, outright bigots, and other assorted nasties have become multi-millionaires, driving fancy cars and living in big palaces simply by being crude, crass and unctuous in every way possible. Some of the most celebrated rappers are dead by murder or drugs. The real issue is, why do our kids listen to this, what do they get out of it, and what is the long-term implication of being part of the culture?
The language is racist and flat-out bigotry. Who wrote the rule that a member of a particular group cannot be a bigot against the same group to which he belongs? It should make no difference to us or our kids who uses the “n—a” word. It should make no difference who offends with crude epithets. I somehow missed the guideline to life that said it is okay to hate yourself. To lower the bar for what language or behavior is appropriate only encourages those who are already narrow-minded to offend and insult those they disapprove of. Why give safe harbor to racists, antisemites, bigots, and assorted other leeches on society?
Someone will need to explain to me why it is liberating and a good thing to elevate criminal talk into a form of art. No doubt, there are those who would like to ban such language, but America prizes the First Amendment and permits all kinds of abuses of free speech in the name of our democratic principles. Unfortunately those free speech precepts are abused and trampled upon by those who have absolutely no respect for democracy or freedom and simply use our constitutional rights as a shield for their bad behavior.
The only anecdote that I can think of is for parents to read the lyrics of the songs their kids are listening to. Read the stuff! Demand the right to check the playlist, regardless of the age of your kids. If you are supporting them, you have a right to know what they are listening to. Educate yourself. Think about your feelings and discuss with your kids what is wrong. Above all, try to expose your kids to a culture consistent with your own principles and values.
I am not advocating that the trash-rappers be jailed or silenced. We cannot do that under our system of laws or government, but we can and should be upset. These horrible hounds of horrendous counter-cultural racism only succeed because our kids pay for it. If nobody listened to or bought this so-called music, these characters would be back on the streets, doing all the things they talk about in their songs.
We must also seriously think about whether our nation and our culture encourage indolence and outrageous behavior. Perhaps we should divert some of the money we waste on the war against marijuana to requiring public service for our young people before they go to college? We pour billions of dollars into social programs that are a complete failure. As Bruno Bettelheim wrote in Children of the Dream, we are not going to change bad behavior until we change the matrix through which our kids pass. It is time seriously to rethink the requirement of public service before college. A year is too short, and 3 years may be too long; but we are not going to integrate our diverse culture in a way that enhances productivity and success unless and until we give our young people a stake in the very society that all of us have enjoyed abusing.
Rieders, Travis, Dohrmann, Mowrey, Humphrey & Waters
161 West Third Street
Williamsport, PA 17701
(570) 323-8711 (telephone)
(570) 323-4192 (facsimile)
Cliff Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.