What hip-hop bling reveals about American status anxiety
American status anxiety — the fear of the gap between the past and the future — has been a source of unease for more than a century, yet, surprisingly, it still seems to be in the air.
At the height of the Cold War, young, ambitious hip-hop artists like Public Enemy and Eminem were creating work that challenged the conservative political consensus. They were breaking down walls and challenging established notions of masculinity by questioning the value of blackness, the value of female sexiness, the role of religious fundamentalism and the place of government in the life of the nation.
This was all part of a concerted, decade-long effort by young, ambitious hip-hop artists to bring their own perspective to the table; to say, for example, “The black male is not the only black person.” Or “I don’t believe in American exceptionalism, I believe Americans are exceptional.” Or to call out the absurdity of some black-male stereotypes.
What is it about hip-hop that has helped to preserve its own significance while also reminding us why we should all be more self-aware of our own identities?
I recently spoke to the music-business veteran John McClain, who has been writing about the rap genre for more than a decade. We talked about how hip-hop has helped to preserve its own status as an art form despite the fact that hip-hop has had such a negative impact on its long-term health, his relationship to Eminem’s “The Marshall Mathers LP” and his own experience as an outsider looking in.
“I think hip-hop’s survival has been a testament to its power of self-expression which is one of the most universal and fundamental of human characteristics. And at the same time, one of the least understood. And it’s in my experience that hip-hop transcends these polar opposites because, at its heart, what it’s doing is creating meaning and value. It is also creating space for other people to be in a meaningful way.
“It’s trying to make what it calls ‘the social experience’ meaningful. And hip-hop hasn’t had a real social life in the conventional sense for as long as I can remember. It’s only in recent years that you see hip