Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Degradation Uplifted / Then Set Right

Three 6 Mafia's Jordan Houston, left, and Paul Beauregard savor Oscars for Original Song in the film "Hustle & Flow," which stars Terrence Howard, right. Photo Credit: By Mario Anzuoni -- Reuters

During the Oscars last Sunday, one could not get through the broadcast without thinking ... What is this country and culture coming to?

Take the example of the catagory honoring the best original movie song of the year - in the Washington Post this morning, two articles appeared that contradicted each other. One titled "Picking Up the Lyric...But Missing the Beat" by Philip Kennicott, lambasted our culture for NOT GETTING IT.


At dinner, say a month from now, perhaps it will be your very unhip great aunt who says it. Someone skimps her on dessert, so she looks plaintively down the table, waits for a moment of silence and then delivers the line -- "It's hard out here for a pimp."

Witness the explosion of a new hip-hop meme into "white culture." Yes, it was a memorable Oscar moment when Three 6 Mafia won the best song for their musical contribution to "Hustle & Flow." And yes, the song has a catchy tag melody. But this is a cultural brush fire. Oscar host Jon Stewart seemed to know it, and started the jokes rolling.
Why this song? Why now? When "white" culture borrows from "black" culture, it doesn't necessarily borrow what it thinks it's borrowing. The real meaning of the song, its reference to pimps, its role within a movie documenting the often pathetic efforts at stardom of a pimp who also makes music, isn't particularly relevant. When a piece of cultural stuff makes the transition into the mainstream, it often does so on terms entirely different from what it originally meant.
And so "It's hard out here for a pimp" enters white culture, as so many black memes do, with a wink and a nod. Of course your great aunt sitting down the table complaining in an impeccably white way that it's not easy for a pimp isn't thinking about real pimps. She may not even know what real pimps do. But that doesn't matter. Black memes in "white culture" are vaguely scandalous, used with a wink and nod that say, "I know this is transgressive, but I'm not going to learn anything more about it."
Here, there. Inside, outside. The slip of the pen captures exactly how these things play out when appropriated across class and race lines. No one would ever say, and mean, "It's hard out there for a pimp," which would suggest actually sympathy for pimps, and for people out there, on the outside. But it's hard out here for a pimp, appropriated into white culture, becomes a way both to borrow the outsider's inherently cool status, while completely denying that any complaint from that place has value.
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In another piece in the Washington Post, titled "Oscar Winner Hits Angry Chord - 'Pimp' Song Denounced for Exploiting Negative Stereotypes" By Avis Thomas-Lester, a different and opposite point of view emerges.


When Christine Smith heard the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" announced as the Oscar winner for best original song on Sunday night's telecast, she almost fell off the sofa in her Arlington living room.

Deborah Veney Robinson of Silver Spring had pretty much the same reaction. So did Juaquin Jessup of Northwest Washington.

"It was just like during the time when all the blaxploitation films were coming out with African Americans being portrayed as pimps and hos and gangsters," said Jessup, 51.

"It was another example of how they pick the worst aspects of black life and reward that. There are more important things in our culture that need focus more than the hardships of a pimp," he said. "The only place many people see our culture is through movies and on television, and at the same time, this country is experiencing an influx of people coming over here from all over the world, and the only thing they see of black America through the media is . . . pimps and gangsters and all of that. It's always some low-down brother or some welfare mother.

"Particularly offensive to Robinson, 36, was the performance by hip-hop group Three 6 Mafia, featuring men dressed as pimps and women in the hot pants and rabbit furs of streetwalkers. "I have no problem with movies and songs being gritty," she said, "but I have a problem with something that falls just short of a minstrel show."
Erika Scott, 17, a Largo High School eleventh-grader, said she was a little shocked. "Growing up where I live, you see, all the time, people who are wanna-be pimps and aspire to be pimps," she said. "Knowing that there is a song that tells the world about what goes on with people like that was surprising, and I was surprised that it won. It made me wonder what the world has come to."
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Notice, it is a 17 year old eleventh-grader in the second article who probably had the best reaction to this whole issue.

Well, It's hard out here for a pimp but it is even harder out here for Hollywood to honor what is the best in our culture.

The biggest reason why this song won the Oscar is because the Academy only placed three songs in the catagory to be voted on. It comes down to creating an environment where bad is good and good is bad ... and that pretty much sums up one big reason why moviegoing is down and Muslim hatred for some of the freedoms and culture we enjoy is up.

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