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Don’t Give Rock a Bad Rap

In response to:

'Rude Ludicrous Lucrative' Rap from the January 13, 2011 issue

Letters_1-031011.jpg
Terry O’Neill/Getty Images
Chuck Berry with Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones in Saint Louis during 
the filming of the documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll, 1986

To the Editors:

I’m all for critics adopting the sensibility of the art form they’re writing about, but Dan Chiasson takes that game too far when, in “‘Rude Ludicrous Lucrative’ Rap” [NYR, January 13], he leaps into a feud that shouldn’t exist in the first place. I refer to his dissing (to disinter one of hip-hop’s now-archaic contributions to the vernacular) of allegedly wit-starved rock music to promote hip-hop as the soul of contemporary pop-cultural wit.

Chiasson writes that, with lyrics that are often indecipherable, rock submerges the verbal; this “makes wit, and wit’s primary vehicle, the surprising or inventive rhyme, largely absent from rock,” whose rhyming “behaves often as though some binding edict against wit were handed down at its founding…. Rap is more like the American Songbook in its primal appetite for rhyme.”

Only a professor of literature in the throes of advancing his thesis could display such an impoverished understanding of how musical wit functions. In fact, the edict handed down at rock’s founding was a benediction upon wit, since if rock were to install a single eminence as its founder, that person would be Chuck Berry, with Lieber & Stoller among his foremost courtiers. In following the edict of their true king, rock musicians are not only bidden to use lyrical invention in service of pithy, humorous storytelling (“As I was motorvating over the hill/I saw Maybelline in a Coupe de Ville…”), but to complement the verbal with a complex array of coequal musical elements that are witty in themselves.

Berry’s nonverbal devices include his ability as a singer to inject personality into lyrics and voiced sounds, magically producing a wink and a nod with his mouth alone; his fingers’ talent for making a guitar cackle, guffaw, and emit the driest sardonicism; and the accompaniment of a right-hand man, Johnnie Johnson, whose tap-dancing on the piano keys does for Chuck’s music what Fred Astaire did for Cole Porter’s.

The rock and pop heirs who have taken the Berry manifesto to heart are legion. Among them are Lou Reed—to Chiasson a singer of “mumbles and murmurs”—whose “I’m Waiting for the Man,” as performed by the Velvet Underground, fully inhabits and vivifies the Chuck Berry template. It seems to me that memorably encapsulating the comic plight of a heroin addict in need of a fix in a three-minute song is a fairly advanced example of wit. The storytelling and Reed’s sung-spoken role-playing are part of it. So is John Cale’s hammering piano rhythm, which is both an aural embodiment of the ineradicable urge described in the lyrics and, in a marvelous match of substance and structure, the driving mechanism of the music itself. So is the wheedling mockery in Reed’s and Sterling Morrison’s guitars.

In “Radio Free Europe” by R.E.M., a band that, as Chiasson notes, was distinguished early on by the unintelligibility of much of what Michael Stipe sang, the lyrics that can be heard combine with the music in a ringing manifesto for the then-aborning college/alternative rock movement. The song communicates a wealth of meaning—a call to arms, actually—while making unintelligibility its most immediately noticeable quality. That’s not witlessness, but sheer conceptual genius.

A large body of songs by the Kinks, Randy Newman, Richard Thompson, the Rolling Stones, and many others attests that wit in rock and pop music is not something to be read on the page, but that rises from the complete work-as-performance. If Chiasson wants to argue that these are exceptions rather than the rule, well, that’s true of all art forms, which deserve to be judged by their best achievements.

One more thing: while occupying two and a half pages of The New York Review on the subject of hip-hop, Chiasson omits any mention of rap’s omniverous sampling of recorded music, or the contributions of producers such as Russell Simmons, Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, and Dr. Dre. Without these musical adornments and imaginative sonic treatments, Chiasson’s essay, and the many books he cites, would probably never have been written, because it’s doubtful that rhyming and beats alone could have made hip-hop the force it became.

Mike Boehm
former pop music critic Los Angeles Times
Huntington Beach, California

Dan Chiasson replies:

As a “professor of literature,” I suppose it is not surprising that I am more interested in verbal wit than in the broader kinds of musical wit that Mike Boehm, a rock critic, describes in detail here. I don’t think anyone can dispute that there’s more verbal wit in Cole Porter than in Chuck Berry, and that’s really all I meant. Big generalizations of the kind I made are always very easy for specialists to unravel; and yet without them, life would be very colorless and boring.

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