It was just a couple of weeks ago that Peter Rosenberg, a DJ for New York’s iconic Hot 97, caused a small wave in music culture by dissing Nicki Minaj’s song “Starships” by saying it wasn’t real hip hop. Minaj responded by withdrawing from her appearance at Hot 97’s Summer Jam. Although it may seem like that issue is dead and buried, the beef squashed and people moving on, rest assured that it will come back again, if not with Nicki Minaj, than with someone else. This argument is part of a cycle; it’s always going to come up. This is the battle to define a genre through one intangible that has many names: realness, street cred, artistic integrity – take your pick.
For evidence of this, one only needs to look to last year’s Lana Del Rey explosion and pushback, where the battleground was in indie culture. While it’s obvious now that Lana Del Rey belongs squarely in the pop genre, her debut was met with a little more flexible vagueness: she utilized a retro style in her persona, video and music (retromania being a modern indie hallmark), and she could have passed for a pure singer-songwriter if she stayed in this lo-fi, low budget space. The Pitchfork Best New Music review, which went a long way in establishing her in the indie culture, even compares her to Cat Power. So when it came to light that this was a rebooted career of Lizzy Grant, and perhaps this whole thing is just a major label sham and ham-fisted attempt at creating an indie crossover star, the blogosphere exploded with criticisms and counters.
These, and all arguments about realness and credibility, are merely efforts of people to define the genre they love when they feel it is slipping away from them. The only difference is in the players and pieces. Hip hop still has gatekeepers like major radio stations whose words and opinions can still cause some sort of sea change. Indie has abdicated their cultural guarding to the collective blogosphere, especially in the major news websites like Pitchfork and Stereogum. Funkmaster Flex rails against commercial rap that has “lost the streets”, and every blog big and small has something to say about Del Rey. The reason these things inspire so many urgent opinions and thinkpieces is that what’s at stake here is a genre: is it real, or is it corporate? Is it art, or is it the manipulations of capitalism? Is it for us, or is it for them?
The problem with this line of thought, while passionate and well-intentioned, is that genres can never be defined by something as vague and tenuous as realness. As soon as you take out the microscope to scrutinize the nature of credibility and integrity, it begins to fall apart. It begins to get into the complicated, head aches of determining the definition of truth – who’s to say someone’s emotional expression is fake just because a major publisher is backing it? Why can’t someone work in more than one genre? Do manipulations matter if they convince us completely? Have we already been manipulated?
Whenever this type of speech has been brought up, in any medium (real sci-fi, real street art) it has always been the same dynamic: purists of what was once a small, counter-cultural genre feeling the whole thing slipping away from them. It’s hard not to sympathize. We identify so strongly with our tastes that we start to feel ownership of the things we love, and that can be hard to accomplish when the door is kicked down and the Johnny-come-lately crowds rush in. But that’s not only how cultures expand, it’s also inevitable. In our consumerist culture, where marketability eventually absolves every subculture into its dark heart, it’s going to happen sooner or later, and it’s going to happen often. The important thing for enthusiasts and purists to remember is that genres are big tents, and they can let anyone in without ruining the structural integrity of indie, or hip hop, or folk. Because even when Bob Dylan went electric, folk music didn’t just change, it thrived. The simplest solution has always been to work on the parts you can control in the self: like what you like, and don’t what you don’t.