Friday, April 20, 2012

Jay-Z, Kanye, and Us

I am not a music critic or a music expert, nor do I have any music training beyond childhood piano lessons. I enjoy music and like many different kinds. Rap is not one of them.

So why, last December, I found myself at a Jay-Z and Kanye West concert with my eleven year old son is something of a mystery. If you are thinking "wildly inappropriate," you are right. Read on. If you are thinking "who is that?" you better keep reading too.

We were the guests of some very generous friends who, inexplicably, like rap music and like to sit in very good seats close to the stage. I wasn't sure what to expect. I'm your average 40-something mom who is aware of Jay-Z and Kanye through my kids but I turn the radio station to something else when they come on. If my kids try to play it I ask them to use their earphones. Not my thing. But my son, who loves music, thinks they are awesome.

I had read that the concert got great reviews, so that, plus a little arm-twisting from my friend ("it will be fun!"), and I found myself at the concert. There were no other children in sight. I was fully aware that bringing a kid to this concert was wildly inappropriate, so I looked on it as an adventure for both of us. 

My son, who was beyond excited to go to this concert, was uncomfortable when we sat down. The smokiness bothered him, and it wasn't cigarette smoke. The place reeked of pot and I had to reassure my son that he was safe. All the concert-goers around us were conservatively well dressed, polite (and stoned) mellow people mostly in their twenties. There were few women.

My son and the dude next to us.
The stoned dude sitting next to us was clearly disdainful of the kid and mom sitting next to him and he tried to crowd into our space with his odd jerky dance moves. My son warily watched him for a bit and then decided he was harmless and crowded him back to his own space. He even eventually was able to engage him in a short conversation which resulted in a high five from him and a few of his friends sitting around him. I have no idea what was said, I couldn't hear anything but the music pounding in my ears. Later I learned that it had something to do with the dude's jacket, which had a logo for a custom auto shop in LA which my son recognized. The dude was so impressed that my son knew the shop. From then on we were tolerable neighbors during the show. Or my son was anyway.

When the concert started, I felt even more like a fish out of water. What the heck was I doing here? I didn't know any of the songs, and I couldn't understand any of the words except for the plentiful profanity. I was clearly not the target audience, and I brought my kid with me. I looked over at my friend, her son, her husband and their daughter. They appeared to be enjoying themselves. I looked at my son. He was trying to process it all.

So naturally I started taking notes. I know very few of my friends would attend such a concert, but they might be curious what its like. In fact I'd be willing to bet that most of my friends don't really know who Jay-Z and Kanye are other than when they appear in People Magazine.

videoFirst, before I start into my description of the imagery of the show, I'd like to share my son's impressions when it was over. He was no longer a fan of their music and he was disappointed because the two performers were "really angry and not having any fun." There was just one song he really liked (see video), and apparently they played it several times which I failed to recognize because it all sounded like noise to me.

The concert set-up was very dark and sparse. There were two giant cubes, or stages, with a single performer on each. The sides of the cubes showed still and moving images, along with another huge screen, the main background behind the performers. Any musicians or back up singers, if present, were hidden. The only thing to look at was the imagery, the limited movements of the performers, and their outfit changes.

The imagery was overtly masculine and aggressive. They showed a barking, snarling dog with teeth bared in slow motion, a shark, a roaring lion, a tiger, a cheetah hunting and killing something, a riot scene, and atom bomb explosion, police cars crashing, other car explosions, a growling bear, a black panther (the animal kind), a snarling wolf, a fighter jet, a flying eagle, people wearing gas masks, a little white boy in a KKK outfit, a little black girl getting baptized in a river, a slow motion rocket blasting off, MLK Jr. speaking. As far as the music goes, the lyrics are angry and have every swear word that exists and little else. The people around me, a mix of races, all seemed to know every word. The people in the front rows were all white and didn't seem to know all the words (I could see them pretty well from where I was sitting).

The artists themselves, to either balance or complement the imagery, I'm not sure which, choose clothing that seemed to either embrace a stereotype or fly in the face of a stereotype. Black leather miniskirt (yes on a guy). Jeans, a plaid shirt tied around the waist, a leather jacket, and a large pearl necklace, with a sequined and bedazzled scottish bag worn across the body. Later, all black, with a hoodie (this is before the hoody became a symbol of violence against youth), which was removed to reveal massive amounts of gold chains, while singing "bring me money c*nt," Louis Vuitton logo wear. Everything seemed to have a faintly feminine touch which was an interesting contrast to the overloaded testosterone imagery going on everywhere.

At one point, after loosing his way in a song several times, one of the artists talked about preventing suicide. My son leaned over to me and shouted "at least there is something educational!"

I thought there was a whole lot more that was educational going on. For example, while I found some aspects fascinating, I learned rap concerts are not my thing. And my son lost respect for these artists and learned they are not his thing either. Like he said, "at least there is something educational."

Thanks (I think) to TL and RL for inviting us and making us go. How about Andrea Bocelli next time?

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