we all knew we were headed for a Louie XVI moment

Sometimes my job is like shooting fish in a barrel. You’d have to have impairments with several of your senses to ignore the “coincidence” of these London riots (and Syrian unrest, plus Yemen, Chile and etc.) and simultaneous release of Watch the Throne. No, I’m not going to spin some conspiracy theory. The thread connecting them is real, and sociological: THE GREATEST WEALTH GAP IN HISTORY.

I am assuming that you can put together, rather quickly, that the riots in Birmingham, Manchester, Salford, London are characterized, in the main, by working class kids (mostly boys, it seems) attacking police and looting businesses. At least, this is what you see/hear on the news (and often, quite racist euphemisms for “young, working class kids” are being used, seemingly, unselfconsciously and even by news readers). But let’s take Bauman’s idea and call it what it really is: “riots of defective and disqualified consumers.” We have all become consumers–perhaps more than we are members of an occupation, or of a religion, or the many other social circles that define us. Bauman argues that,

From cradle to coffin we are trained and drilled to treat shops as pharmacies filled with drugs to cure or at least mitigate all illnesses and afflictions of our lives and lives in common. Shops and shopping acquire thereby a fully and truly eschatological dimension. Supermarkets, as George Ritzer famously put it, are our temples; and so, I may add, the shopping lists are our breviaries, while strolls along the shopping malls become our pilgrimages. Buying on impulse and getting rid of possessions no longer sufficiently attractive in order to put more attractive ones in their place are our most enthusing emotions. The fullness of consumer enjoyment means fullness of life. I shop, therefore I am.

The point may be a little overstated, but it isn’t false. We follow Thanksgiving in the U.S. with a new holiday, “Black Friday.” Girls and women are known especially to handle emotional distresses with some “retail therapy.” And we’ve internalized a sense of our location within marketing “demos,” otherwise, how would we know what new magazine subscription we should choose, or which news channel is best for “people like” us? (Bauman would also like you to remember that Bush called upon us to respond to the terrorist attacks of 2001 by going shopping.)

So, when we cannot shop as we would like we riot? Maybe. I’m not so sure I’m convinced there’s a direct causal link between our maximally consumerist culture and looting and rioting in London, but I do think there’s an underlying cause that explains the looting and rioting AND Watch the Throne. (And, to put a point on it, the shared cause is the primacy of our identity as consumers–we love as consumers, fight as consumers, are political consumers, etc.)

If you listen to the album’s lyrics, especially if you’re not a regular rap listener, you’re going to be struck by the relative familiarity of many of the references. Gone are the days of “posses” and “bad meaning good.” These rappers talk in the jargon of luxury: Louboutin, Mona Lisa, Larry Gagosian,Rolls Royce Corniche, Hennessey…I could be here all night. If you went to college and took an art history course, if you stay reasonably up-to-date with reading issues of your Vanity Fair subscription, you’ve got all the sub-cultural knowledge you need to understand the album’s “inside references.” White people, delight! In fact, the cover art on the digital edition looks like a gold plate or platter (maybe a mirror?). (Which Hua describes as “Givenchy designer Riccardo Tisci’s gilded, Transformer-at-rest album cover.”) Here is cool, served up on your favorite family heirloom, or hall mirror, or etc. rich-person-reference.

And perhaps the most bizarre thing about this is not that two millionaires released an album where they rap about their wealth, but that they treat it like they got over–that it is some kind of political triumph to have so much money. The implication is stunning–that all these poor folks in London are just some douchebags that don’t love their mothers? Look at how the lyrics address the topic:

The scales was lopsided, I’m just restoring order
Hold up, here comes grandma, what’s up Yiayia?
What’s that smell? Oh I’m just boiling some aqua
No papa, bad Santa
The streets raised me, pardon my bad manners
I got my liberty chopping grams up
Street justice, I pray God understand us

The lyric addresses systematic inequities that left black Americans bereft of the kinds of opportunities to lead to intergenerational mobility, but these guys went into the drug trade, made money and it launched them forward, eventually to successful careers as rappers and producers, and later as entrepreneurs in related industries.

But is the “street justice” of Kanye and Jay Z relatable on the streets of Birmingham? I’m sure the sales of the album are already through the roof, and for all I know, some kid in Nottingham is looting an electronics shop right now only to download the album onto a stolen MP3 player. But I hope not. I think we’ve had enough bullshit from powerful people. I think it is time to get angry about the gap between us and them. Obviously, looting and rioting is not the solution I’d advocate, but I certainly understand, sociologically, why there’s a riot going on out on the street, while Kanye’s worried about what’s going on inside Prive.

Postscript:

Hua Hsu, whom I hold in very high regard, has a compatible, but slightly different explanation. You should read the essay; in it he argues,

There is a broader context for Watch the Throne‘s nonviolent collisions of highbrow and low, opulence and shame, artiste Kanye with “business, man” Jay. Ours is an era of collaborative possibility, when anything from Dockers to a cellular phone pouch can seem desirable with the right synergistic pairing. This is how the business of buying and selling things continues to renew itself, in the endless permutation of new and old. There is something fresh and democratic about it, as the market divides itself up into thousands of little inlets, all the capsule collections and collaborations with Target and down-market bridge lines allowing all segments of the populace to luxuriate every now and then. As a result we’ve grown comfortable with unlikely juxtapositions and mutually beneficial alliances, all in the name of something greater, from “Marvel Comics X Williams-Sonoma” to Pusha of Clipse shouting out the “hipsters” and the “felons.”

You can see that his argument also depends on the inevitability of consumerism, of “monetizing” human activity, of the expansion of capital. I agree that it is curious that we’re constantly re-assigning the values of commodities (what is “high”/expensive is now “low”/cheap and the reverse…look at graffiti for an obvious example of this transition, in the opposite direction), but not as curious when you recognize that all the value is totally arbitrary. We want to insist that Target’s designer lines or H&M’s guest couture designers are creating “lower quality” garments for a mass consumer, but we say that because we’re unwilling to question the value of the expensive garment. How much is the labor time of a couturier “really” worth? How much “should” one cloth cost, or another? It isn’t that these differences aren’t real in their consequences–they are–but they are also clearly arbitrary in their foundations.

Hua–quite rightly, argues that the album:

captures two artists who no longer need dreams; art cannot possibly prophesy a better future for either of them. All of this — the luxury goods, the art collection, private compounds, the Oprah-level American Dream — is their reality. This isn’t to discount all the personal travails or the fantastic demons unimaginable to the nonfamous. But to speak passionately about contradiction offers narrative cover for the truth that one simply knows better, and the album’s anxieties feel like an hour-long quest for the authority to rule from above, a justification to luxuriate.

If nothing else, the album demonstrates a central flaw in an argument that hip hop heads have been making for years: that the music needs to change as the fortunes of its performers change. We’ve said for years that it is not “real” for a successful rapper to write songs about poverty–that isn’t sincere, not authentic. And rap is a world obsessed with authenticity. So, we had to draw the conclusion that as soon as some of us had made it–really and truly made it (i.e., produced intergenerational wealth, which is–interestingly–a lot of what the song “New Day” is about), that rappers would have to change their lyrical content.

Well, here are the fruits of that. Two fatuous, wealthy rappers celebrating their good fortune in the face of massive global inequality. Good on ya.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “we all knew we were headed for a Louie XVI moment

  1. Pingback: Riots of consumerism or a new kind of retail therapy « Florian Bieber

  2. Anonymous

    Thoughtful post. But out of curiosity, did you mean Louis XVI, who ruled until the French Revolution? Or is Louie XIV just more ‘chav-like?’

  3. Thoughtful post. But out of curiosity, did you mean Louis XVI, who ruled until the French Revolution? Or is Louie XIV just more ‘chav-like?’

  4. Jenn Lena

    Jess–corrected…thanks!

  5. Anonymous

    I think your critique’s about the album and the rapper are accurate–When it comes to talking about their riches, these guys are quite silly, e.g., like bank robbers laughing after pulling off a heist. Although, in there case the protagonist are two unlikely characters–two black boys, who have managed to out fox the biggest fox of them all–the capitalistic and racist American system itself. In the song Murder to Excellence, Kanye asks, “What’s the life expectancy for black guys? He pauses, to let you answer that question, and follows up by saying, “The system’s working effectively, that’s why!”
    They buy luxury items as if to remind you and others of the irony of their tenuous road from rags to riches. That is quintessentially Rap–an attempt to say, “F**k the man, I’m still getting mine”. On the same track, Jay-Z proclaims, “”And they say by 21 I was supposed to die. So I’m out here celebrating my post-demise”
    To enjoy this album, you must also appreciate the complexity of human thought. We all remember Kanye’s famous words, ” George Bush does not care about Black People”, only to presumably leave in his Lamborghini Countach, a symbol– that’s laughable to him, e.g., despite all odds, he drives off in his, “f**k the man, I’m still getting mine Countach”. Indeed, it’s laughable to me as well. Similarly, I suspect many black people see themselves winning in a system that wasn’t set up for them to win, but their symbols of winning are advanced degrees and employment at white institutions–equally laughable.
    When you say, “Two fatuous, wealthy rappers celebrating their good fortune in the face of massive global inequality”, I do think you are a bit misguided in the implicit assumption that rappers should care about a system of massive global inequalities–indeed, microcosms of places in which they were raised–Kanye in SouthSide of Chicago and Jay-Z in the Marcy Projects.
    If we examine the America slave plantation, a microcosm of inequality, one born out of hatred and the worse capitalism imaginable–from the lowliest black field negro to the white slave master himself. Even then, most slaves planning escapes, were not looking to conspire with other field negros to escape the plantation- According to John Hope Franklin’s book, Runaway Slaves, masters had a network of trusted slaves who were responsible for reporting on rumors of such escapes. If you were planning an escape you kept that to yourself, and when the right time came you ran as fast and far north as possible. Jay-Z has similar sentiments of paranoia:
    Am I my brother’s keeper? (Only if that nigga don’t creep up)
    Got a pistol under my pillow (I’ve never been a deep sleeper)
    P-p-p-paranoia (cause the nigga that said he’ll)
    Blast for ya (is now) blastin for ya, that’s an assassin for ya
    (These niggas got a shot they’ll shoot)

    To imply that these two guys are anything but artists/entertainers, is misguided. We have the Cornel West, Tavis Smily and other so called “black intellectual leaders” for that, pause. And yet Jay-Z offers his feelings of being black and successful:
    Now please, domino, domino
    Only spot a few blacks the higher I go
    What’s up to Will? Shout out to O
    That ain’t enough we gonna need a million more

    This sentiment is one that resonates with many successful Black Americans. While they celebrate their success, they understand how tenuous their own success stories have been, a sobering thought. Jay-Z continues by saying, “I’m all dressed up with nowhere to go”
    In Watch the Throne, if you listen carefully, Kanye and Jay-Z are telling you about the plan they had to escape, one legal, the other illegal–Street Justice. They tell you about their trials and tribulations. Their stories are honest–painful at times, but an insightful glimpse into their psyche. Finally, they tell you how they are traveling as fast and far away, presumably to the most exotic and remote corners of the world–to get as far away from this plantation, we call America and to remind you and others, “that they are still getting theirs”.

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