Topic: Sports & Entertainment
Musical Ethics: Pimp Rap
It had to happen eventually: the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences picked a hip-hop song as Best Original Song in a motion picture. This is progress. In the past, the Oscars have been embarrassingly tardy in picking up on new musical styles. When the Beatles introduced the world to “And I Love Her”, “Can’t Buy Me Love”, “I Should Have Known Better”, “Tell Me Why”, “This Boy” and “A Hard Day’s Night” in the film of the same name in 1964, none of these pop classics were deemed worthy of a nomination. The winner that year? “Chim Chim Cher-ree” which wasn’t even the best song in the film it came from, “Mary Poppins.”
Still, the awarding of an Oscar to Three 6 Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” is being condemned on multiple fronts. Conservative groups see it as one more example of Hollywood glorifying corrupt values. Many in the black community, meanwhile, feel that the song reinforces negative stereotypes, and faults Hollywood for picking a song that represents the worst aspects of African American culture.
Both complaints are without merit.
“Mack the Knife” is about a serial killer and his prostitutes; this hasn’t stopped it from being one of the most recorded songs in popular music history. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” is about a whore; so is the “Lilly Marlene.” Classic Broadway hits like “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No” (From “Oklahoma”) and “Always True to You in My Fashion” (from “Kiss Me Kate”) explore promiscuity. “Little Tin Box” (from Fiorello!) celebrates political corruption. “A Little Bit of Priest,” the boffo Act I finale of Steven Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd,” is pro-cannibalism and murder. Who cares? They’re terrific songs, as are dozens of other classic songs with lyrics that are racy, violent, or unsavory. “I Shot the Sheriff.” “I’ll Be Watching You.” If we rejected songs on the basis of the purity of their subject matter, we’d forfeit some of the greatest tunes ever written.
As for the black pimp stereotype portrayed by the song, the only rational response can be: If you don’t like it, write a better song about something else. Various communist regimes have tried the tactic of only permitting art that furthers social goals, and all they ended up with was lousy art. Only one thing should have entered into the selection process for the Best Original Song Oscar: what was the best original song? “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” was so clearly the class of the nominees that any other decision would have been suspect, and probably condemned as racist. It is unfortunate that such a large body of popular African American music involves the gangsta lifestyle, violence and misogyny, but that’s an entirely different issue. The only issue the Academy had to consider was what was the best song, and it did its job well. The critics, on all sides, should back off.