Friday, October 8, 2010

You Are What You Eat - Or Are You?

There's plenty of valid reasons to criticize Barack Obama right now. But that hasn't stopped political pundits for finding entirely nonsensical reasons to pick on him. The latest fiasco involves Thomas Chatterton Williams, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, writing about what's on Obama's iPod.

Specifically, Lil Wayne is on Obama's iPod. Williams has a problem with this. He writes that:

Lil Wayne is emblematic of a hip-hop culture that is ignorant, misogynistic, casually criminal and often violent. A self-described gangster, he is a modern-day minstrel who embodies the most virulent racist stereotypes that generations of blacks have fought to overcome. His music is a vigorous endorsement of the pathologies that still haunt and cripple far too many in the black underclass.

Williams goes on to criticize another of Obama's choices, Jay-Z, and he concludes with:

The president is entitled to his friends and aesthetic tastes. But he undermines his own laudable message and example when he associates himself with a hip-hop culture that diminishes blacks.

The message of the article is clear - by listening to a certain kind of music, Obama is automatically associated with a specific culture. I'll leave the defense of the aesthetic value of rap to others, but I find it a little troubling that Williams assumes that, because Obama listens to this music, he automatically assumes all the traits carried within the lyrics of that music and supports all of it. In Williams' mind, there is no difference between rap as an art and some "rap culture" of misogyny and violence. One automatically comes with the other.

Obama aside, this happens a lot in our society. We like to think that being into a certain kind of art intrinsically means that we are part of some kind of culture. We like to look at our friends' bookshelves and iPods, learning about their tastes and judging them for it. What's worse than doing a little Facebook scouting on a crush only to discover that their favorite author is Stephenie Meyer or, even worse, the deplorable "I Don't Read Books"?

The general idea is that we're defined by the art we enjoy, and that if we like certain kinds of music (or movies, or books), then it follows that we must be a certain kind of person. The problem is, I don't think that's true. As I continue to explore popular music, one of the things I abhor is how different cultures try and monopolize the music. I want to listen to classic rock with being associated with the Woodstock Boomers who are convinced there's been no good music since 1971. I want to listen to rap without being associated with gangster culture, and indie music without being associated with hipsters. I play video games from time to time, but I don't consider myself a "gamer" because I loath the term and it carries all sorts of implications. Mainly, I want to enjoy art without necessarily accepting all the extra-artistic cultural statements (political ideology, fashion sense, age/race demographics) that go with it. 

I listen to classical music a lot, and got into it in high school. As a teenager, I was constantly upset that this music was associated generally with stodgy old people - it seemed strange to me that this art that I liked a lot was supposedly part of some completely different culture than my youth. I feel the same way when looking at Obama, a Harvard-educated policy wonk now being associated with the gangster culture of the streets. It's like assuming that someone supports violence because they watch a violent movie -  I think you can enjoy art without automatically accepting everything it represents.

That's not to say that what we enjoy says nothing about who we are. I think our tastes can say a lot about us, and there's certainly nothing better than starting a conversation with someone only to find that you share a favorite book, or like the same band. Art is one of those things that can help two complete strangers come a little closer.

But I think we often get it backwards. The art we enjoy doesn't define who we are as people, anymore than political preference does. I'm sure there's a lot of people out who like the same music I do and vote for the same politicians as me, yet with whom I am completely and utterly incompatible. Rather, I think that we define the art we enjoy, and this is the important thing. It's not so much what we like or don't like - it's our relationship with our likes.

Look at someone who lists Mad Men as their favorite show. There's a big difference between those people who watch Mad Men because "men were real men back then" and they're intoxicated with an idealized notion of the past, and those who watch Mad Men because it has some good characters and interesting things to say about gender relations in the 1960s. For both fans, Mad Men can be their favorite show, but each fan's relationship with the show is totally different. 

I have a lot of vivid memories associated with art - staying up past my bedtime in middle school to read the Wheel of Time books, or sneaking out of my house at night to go see The Two Towers at the midnight showing, or even listening to the crowd sing along as The National played a soft, acoustic version of "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks" at a concert last weekend. But for each one of these examples, the art does not define who I am; rather, who I am and what I did defines what this art means to me.

So, I guess I'm saying that we should be careful what assumptions we make based on a quick glance at your friend's bookshelf or iTunes library. Just because someone likes a specific kind of art doesn't mean that they conform to all the stereotypes of that culture. The real joy is not in reading a list of people's likes and dislikes, but slowly learning about what this art means to them over time.

Sports are a different story, though. Yankees fans still suck.