I READ IN THE WALL STREET JOURnal that 7-Eleven stores in British Columbia have hit upon a way to discourage teenagers from loitering: They play music. What sort of music? I hear you ask. Mantovani, I answer. That sort of thing. Sweet, saccharine music with many, too many, violins and a rhythm like the flow of an old river. The kids can't stand it and flee.
About a week later, a Florida judge, Jose A. Gonzalez Jr., banned the sale of an album by 2 Live Crew, "As Nasty as They Wanna Be." The judge said the music appealed to "dirty thoughts and loins," and so, naturally, in my role as a social critic -- and with the expense account of a journalist -- I went out and bought it. Boy, is it awful!
Except in matters of law, the judge was precisely right -- or, rather, approximately right. The album hardly appeals to the loins or to the thoughts, no matter how dirty the two may be. It is simply filthy, a parody of locker-room conversation put to an incessant beat. The group utters just about every obscene word known to any drill sergeant and refers to women in a hostile, nasty, hateful way. They are called "bitches" and serve only to be sexually degraded. This is rough stuff.
The immediate issue for many people was whether the judge had acted correctly: whether 1) "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" appeals to the loins (and, if so, so what?) and 2) whether in this day and age anything ought to be banned as obscene. To me, the answer was obvious: Ban nothing except, maybe, the silly opinions of silly judges. It's more interesting to ask why the album is so popular -- about 1.7 million sold. After all, we're talking about something that's not, arguably, obscene like an old (but also funny) Lenny Bruce routine and not something that's merely dirty, like an off-color joke. This is ugly stuff.
Now back to the Wall Street Journal article. I empathize with kids who flee from Mantovani. I can't stand that sort of music either -- kind of a musical version of chicken pot pie without the chicken. But neither Mantovani nor Ray Conniff (another artist used as teenager repellent) would make me flee. Their music is not like chalk scratching a blackboard or the retort of a jackhammer. Its obnoxious characteristic is excess -- an excess of violins that produces the shudder of a too-sweet after-dinner drink. It is more than sentimental. It's the essence of sentimentality.
"As Nasty as They Wanna Be," on the other hand, is totally devoid of sentiment -- of a Mantovani sort of sentiment, anyway. It's totally devoid of romance or affection, of tenderness or, even, seduction. Women are mere sex objects, to be loathed, degraded and then dismissed. 2 Live Crew's leader, Luther Campbell, said his group is not singing about all women, just some women, and only a fool can fail to tell the difference. That would be like singing about some blacks as lazy, but not all, or some Jews as greedy, but not, of course, all of them. No, I argue that Campbell is saying precisely what I or anyone else can hear. If there is a difference among listeners, it's this: I hated what I heard, and his fans didn't.
It is this lack of sentiment that I find so troubling. It's as if neither these young men nor their listeners connect at all with romance and love, tenderness and affection. They seem to think that cynicism is an adult characteristic when, as it turns out, it is really a characteristic of youth. The appeal of opera, of show tunes, of country-western music is to the romantic in us, to the recognition that no one, in a strict sense, is in control of his or her own life. It's as simple as this: Some enchanted evening, you may see a stranger across a crowded room. Look, it happens.
Before Ezio Pinza sang that song in "South Pacific," Frank Sinatra sang another that comes to mind: "Try a Little Tenderness." He sang it as a young man -- and he sang it to, among others, other young men and women. They all swooned, at least in the newsreels. This was a tough crowd. It had been through the Depression and World War II, and yet it was not so tough that it could not, at the same time, be romantic.
Not so, it seems, the kids of today. 2 Live Crew is an aberration, but not in its rejection of romanticism. The paradox is that as life gets softer for our children, the music gets harder, and their cynicism, so "unearned," seems to grow and grow. The same cynicism, the same hardness, can be seen in the movies, especially those favored by young men. The movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone do for the pain and suffering of war what pornography does for sex. They're unfeeling.
Maybe kids have always been cynics, or adopt that pose because they confuse it with urbanity. It's hard to know because it's only relatively recently that teenagers have had the affluence to form their own commercial culture. A cynical teenager in fin de sie`cle Vienna had no choice but to listen to waltzes, and I, growing up, was fed Patti Page. Trouble is, I liked her.
The various rap groups say they have come by their cynicism honestly. They claim paternity in the black ghetto, no place for tenderness. But their audience is not exclusively poor, and yet it too identifies. It seems that the poverty of the ghetto is matched elsewhere in outlook. City or suburb, it's a bleak landscape for kids. A relatively soft life has toughened them so that they reject sentiment, run from sentimentality and seek the blast of harsh music that will hurt their ears but not their feelings. Someone, or something, did that to them once, and they don't want it to happen again.