Night & Day: Cole Porter, Hip Hop, Their Shared Sensibilities and Their Teachable Moments
How might a music teacher remain culturally relevant to today’s adolescents? Each generation of teenagers would like to believe that they originated songs of love and lust and other topics deemed too vulgar for polite society, yet history tells us otherwise. While on the surface Cole Porter and hip-hop culture seem worlds away from each other, I propose that they have shared sensibilities that can result in teachable moments. Through the lens of what constitutes indecency in song, which would initially seem at odds with sound educational objectives, we as teachers can open a dialog on high and low culture, by exploring and comparing the contexts of Cole Porter vs. his hip-hop counterparts in particular, as well as the notion of how popular music in general has always pushed the boundaries of good taste and societal norms throughout the ages. One is urbane, the other urban, yet Cole Porter and his hip-hop brethren share many dimensions in common, in terms of rhyming schemes, double meanings, lists, social commentary, obsession with cultural icons and imagery as well as willfully attracting the censors. Each in their own way opens a window into the double standards that separate as well as unite the worlds of high art and popular culture.
In this paper “hip-hop culture” will refer to the manifestations of urban youth culture that includes Rap music, which consists of rhyming over a beat, DJ-ing/sampling, break dancing, which is the acrobatic dancing that developed over the rhythmic breaks created by the DJ’s, and graffiti. All of these styles began on the streets in the Bronx, NY in the 1970s as a homegrown art form by urban African American youth.1 Venise Berry suggests that Hip-Hop culture is a reflection of urban culture and that the aggressiveness of the music and lyrics is an expression of the anger and frustration of urban existence.2 In its early stage hip-hop parties were participatory events, but they became less so as the genre became more commercialized, moving from the neighborhoods into the recording studios.3
The Music Classroom and Cultural Relevancy
What is it we are hoping to teach our students when we include music reflective of students’ interests into the classroom, and by doing so, are we merely providing them with what I commonly refer to as “ear candy,” in the hope of gaining the students’ attention in the music class? How might teachers navigate the tensions that arise between their need to remain culturally relevant to today’s adolescents, and their need to provide what they have been trained to think of as a “quality music education,” one that is steeped in the traditions of Western Art Music? Add to that the discomfort many members of the music teaching establishment have with regard to teaching music that is either outside their own comfort zones or not what they have been formally taught to teach. This might lead moderately adventurous teachers to restrict their choices in popular music to only those genres of popular music they themselves listen to, all but ignoring or negating the music their students most identify with.
In considering the musical genres that appeal to certain teen populations such as Top 40, metal, alternative rock, funk, punk and R&B, it is rap/ hip-hop music which, as I have observed, seems to garner the most resistance from many educators, yet within the urban settings I have worked in, rap seems to cross socio-economic and ethnic lines and span a wide range of musical tastes and student sub-cultures. What began as an art form rooted in African music and oral storytelling traditions has now crossed over into the mainstream culture. It appeals to both suburban and urban youth, and aspects of the music have crossed over into mainstream pop music to become a major force in American pop culture, as suggested by Berry, Dimitriades, Powell and Smitherman.4
Rap is generally viewed as problematic in a school setting, pitting the music that teachers value against the music their students value. It is the tension between high art, as exemplified by the emphasis in most curricula on Western Art Music, which is highly valued in schools, vs. low or popular culture; which is not. McClary posits that Western Art Music’s preeminence as a beacon of “high culture” is based on the fact that it “transcends the body,” putting it above the fray of the sexuality that is intrinsic to popular music.5 As suggested by McClary and Walser, “The music plays, the body moves.”6 And move we did, as was the case with one of the more popular, scandalous, and erotic dances to come out of the eighteenth century; the waltz. Though the inherent musical qualities of the waltz seem rather benign, the fact that couples touched was seen as particularly problematic to a certain segment of polite society. Popular music in general has always pushed the boundaries of propriety throughout the ages, but rap seems to push the boundaries further, due to the often sexually explicit and misogynistic lyrics, profanity, and violence. That this music is often blamed for a great deal of society’s ills by the political and cultural right wing, and invokes calls for censorship among a variety of constituents on both sides of the political isle, does little to endear itself to many music educators.
When looking for relevant links connecting popular culture to academic disciplines, the literacy connection would seem to be an obvious entry point. With a focus on the rhyme schemes of rap one can easily make the connection to poetry and lyric writing, and then one can broaden the scope to social commentary and its role in the culture at large. An examination of Cole Porter’s lyrics,7 with his penchant for playing with words, his interesting and often untraditional rhyme schemes, lists, social commentary and double meanings, as well as the ways he pushed the limits of good taste in proper society, would be an interesting contrast with rap lyrics. Looking at the original lyrics for “Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love,”8 it would be easy to discuss the song with respect to its sexual themes and double entendres. Yet its overtly racist lyrics, using slang that was common in its day but patently offensive today, can open up a dialogue concerning societal norms and trace how they evolve from generation to generation through the lens of historical context. When I recently played an explicit version of a rap composition to a group of urban high school students, they listened to it with total recognition and thought nothing unusual about the use of profanity. Yet when I played an early recording of “Let’s Do It,” as opposed to the more commonly heard Ella Fitzgerald version, they all flinched and were clearly uncomfortable.9 A very enlightening class discussion ensued with students who on the surface appeared to be generally unaffected by offensive lyrics.
Music and the Power to Provoke
Porter’s travels and experiences living in Europe after World War I as an affluent expatriate mingling with musicians and artists from all walks of life gave him a somewhat jaded perspective on life, love, high society and wealth, and this greatly influenced his songwriting.10 With his great sense of humor, his music contrasted high culture with low culture and refinement with vulgarity. His lyrics more often than not provoked the censors.11 At around the same time Porter was living in Europe, Calypso music was gaining prominence in Trinidad and Tobago as a means for the West Indian working class to ridicule the ruling class, as well as point out the double standards existing in their society through mockery and humor. The satire, humor, word-play, social commentary and sexual innuendo is not unlike that expressed by Porter, and the Calypso lyrics more often than not provoked censorship as well. There are many stylistic similarities, both musical and textual, between Porter’s music and the Calypso music of the 1930s, however, Calypso is rooted in African oral traditions, with many of the verbal contests and techniques employed by the master Calypso singers of the time clearly in evidence in the techniques used by rap artists today.12 As suggested by Rohlehr, African societies have always linked their struggles for freedom to their musical celebrations. The underlying political context of dissatisfaction and alienation within their communities forms the basis for the lyrics of both the Calypsonian and the rapper.
While today the music and lyrics of Cole Porter would appear to be on different ends of the “cultural spectrum” from Calypso and rap, they do share some common ground. The major themes of sex, drugs, alcohol, money and lifestyle excesses, social commentary, politics and double entendres have existed through the ages, in both high art and low. Rap music does not appear to hold a monopoly on music’s power to provoke the establishment. According to Mark Berger, “Plato condemned certain scales for their sensual qualities: complex rhythms and melodies would lead to depression and disorder, and should be banned.”13 As just one example, there are the demonic associations that have come to define the tritone, such as the Devil’s chord in Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre. Berger goes on to state that “Calvin likewise warned listeners against the musical dangers of chaos, voluptuousness and effeminacy and Descartes feared music because it so powerfully excites the imagination.”14 Should we delve a bit into the composers who are generally considered to be exemplars of high art, rappers, Calypsonians, and Cole Porter appear to indeed be in good company. Just to name a few in terms of political and social commentary of their times, there is Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, which is critical of the social and class conventions of its period,15 there are the Verdi operas designed to instigate political action through music, Britten’s denunciation of war in his War Requiem, as well as the many sexual conflicts at the center of a considerable number of operas.16
Though it may be difficult for our students to comprehend the impact that music without lyrics would have on censors, history provides many critics from Plato through our present day.17 Excessive emphasis on rhythm has generally been deemed problematic due to the music’s ability to encourage our more primal urges. With regard to the sensuality of certain rhythms and suggestions of what was deemed “primal culture,’ the riots in Paris in 1913 at the first performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring could make some interesting discussion points. Years later Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk which was first hailed as a masterpiece of socialist construction was later denounced as “primitive and vulgar” by Pravda.18 Even within the parameters of “high culture” we can see society was not shielded from music’s subversive elements, implied sensuality and sexually explicit lyric content.
Rap in the Classroom: The Musical Objections
It is not uncommon at the beginning of a discussion or presentation regarding the legitimacy of including rap music in the curriculum for someone to argue that rap is not music. This actually did occur at the CMS conference in Salt Lake City in 2007. Yet this conversation has taken place equally as often at dinner parties with parents of young children who believe there is no positive value inherent in this so called “noise.” As suggested by Walser, “If music is missing from most discussions of rap, it is partly because so many people do not recognize rap as music.”19 Oddly enough, according to Walser, this is something both classical musicians and popular musicians can usually agree upon. In his view, musicians who don’t believe that rap is “music” have the following assumptions: music is based on melody and harmony; it depends on a laborious process of learning to sing or to use a “musical instrument.” Those who wish to keep hip hop at the margins of music believe that: it is not original; it is not melodious; it doesn’t require “musical” skills; it relies on sampling and sound manipulation; rappers don’t “sing” and the people who make it don’t play “musical instruments.”20
As to the argument concerning the lack of original material and the use of “sampling,” the musical quodlibet can be used as a counter-argument. The musical quodlibet, is a contrapuntal piece based on sixteenth- century practice involving two or more melodies and is generally a parody.21 In this fashion, composers quoted material from other sources, much like today’s hip-hop producers when they quote musical phrases and/or speech from other sources through sampling. In the last variation of the Goldberg Variations Bach employs a simultaneous technique, whereby he cites two folk tunes which are joined to the theme. Two contemporary examples would be Outkast’s quote of the Bach Double Violin Concerto in D Minor on Good Day, Good Sir, and Coolio’s quote of Pachelbel’s Canon on I'll C U When U Get There.22 A poetic quodlibet sometimes involved a catalogue technique, relying on lists of items loosely combined by a theme, which can be seen as a literary and historical precursor of the lyrical technique employed by Cole Porter, Calypso artists, and rappers.
As for the assumption that rappers don’t “sing,” one can look at the operatic recitative, or the German Sprechtstimme, as precursors to the rapper’s technique of talking over rhythms. With regard to the argument, that rappers don’t play instruments,, there are numerous examples of contemporary art music that use sampling such as in Different Trains by Steve Reich where voices and sound effects are looped and played along with traditional instruments, as well as compositions relying entirely on tape loops and natural sounds. There is a large body of contemporary art music where our traditional assumptions of what constitutes a melody or harmony are not fulfilled. It is quite possible that at the premier performances of these works there might have been some audience members who left wondering if what they heard was ‘music,’ so in that context the arguments involving lack of melody or harmony might appear to be counterintuitive.
What is considered “popular” in one era can change with each generation. As we can see there are both musical and extra musical connections to be made. What I am suggesting in this paper is just one of many possible entry points that would allow music teachers to connect their knowledge and interests to the cultural lives of their students. There seems to be little difference between our students’ automatic dismissals of Western Art music and our adult dismissal of rap. Both reactions stem from each group’s discomfort with the unknown as well as each group’s posturing to validate their own sense of what is for our students, their sense of cool and what is for the adults their authoritative stance. Should we make the attempt to meet our students half way, they might actually try to do the same, and perhaps we can each learn from each other.
Berger, M. “Hold That Tune: Banned Music.” The Economist November 26, 1998.
Berry, Venise. “Redeeming the Rap Music Experience.” In Adolescents and Their Music: If It’s Too Loud, You’re Too Old, edited by Jonathon S. Epstein, 165-88. New York: Garland, 1994.
Blecha, Peter. Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2004.
Dimitriadis, Greg. Performing Identity/Performing Culture: Hip Hop as Text, Pedagogy, and Lived Practice. Vol. 1: Intersections in Communication and Culture. New York: Peter Lang, 2001.
Kimball, Robert, ed., Cole Porter: Selected Lyrics. New York: The Library of America, 2006.
Lahr, John. “King Cole: The Not So Merry Soul of Cole Porter.” The New Yorker 80, no. 19 (July 12-19, 2004): 100-04.
McClary, Susan. Feminine Endings: Music, Gender and Sexuality. Minneapolis: Uni- versity of Minnesota Press, 1991.
McClary, Susan, and Robert Walser. “Start Making Sense! Musicology Wrestles with Rock.” In On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word, edited by Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin, 277-92. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Nettl, Bruno. Excursions in World Music. 5th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008.
Powell, Catherine T. “Rap Music: An Education with a Beat from the Street.” Journal of Negro Education 60, no. 3 (1991): 245-59.
Rohlehr, Gordon. “The Calypsonian as Artist: Freedom and Responsibility.” Small Axe 9 (2001): 1-26.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 6th ed. 20 vols. London: Macmillan, 1980.
Smith, Hope M. “Performing Gender in the Trinidad Calypso.” Latin American Music Review 25, no. 1 (2004): 32-36.
Smitherman, Geneva. “The Chains Remain the Same: Communicative Practices in the Hip Hop Nation.” Journal of Black Studies 28, no. 1 (1997): 3-25.
Walser, Robert. “Rhythm, Rhyme, and Rhetoric in the Music of Public Enemy.” Ethnomusicology 39, no. 2 (1995): 193-217.
22Outkast, an American Hip-Hop duo, Andre 3000 and Big Boi released Speakerboxxx/The Love Below from LaFace records in 2003. Artis Leon Ivey Jr., otherwise known as Coolio, released My Soul from Tommy Boy Records in 1997. C U When U Get There features the group 40 Thevz.
Gena R. Greher, Ed.D., is a Professor of Music and Music Education at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She developed a module with Jeanne Bamberger for the Herbie Hancock Institute’s STEAM Initiative https://mathsciencemusic.org and is co-author with Suzanne Burton of Creative Music Making at Your Fingertips: A Mobile Technology Guide for Music Educators. She has made numerous curriculum contributions to https://mathsciencemusic.org.