MTV thrives on its image as America's leading connoisseur of cool, and in election years it tries to make a big show out of adding their coolness to youth voting. MTV's "Rock the Vote" effort has tried to register young voters for more than a decade, but it hasn't been a rousing success. Only 29 percent of 18-24-year-olds voted in the 2000 election, with their votes divided about evenly between Bush and Gore, something surely not pleasing to MTV.
In every presidential cycle, MTV airs a pile of "Choose or Lose" specials to match major candidates with typically embarrassing young questioners. The latest special came on March 30 with Democratic nominee John Kerry, who wowed liberal reporters and MTV fans by suggesting that he is hip enough to dig rap music. Yes, it's hard to imagine stolid, graying Kerry wearing a backward baseball cap and a throwback NBA jersey, peppering his speeches with "ho" and "mack daddy," but that's the image he wanted to convey: I'm not some fuddy-duddy dad who's going to send rappers to their room.
In full pandering mode, Kerry insisted to MTV news poseur Gideon Yago that he was down with the beat: "I'm fascinated by rap and hip-hop. I think there's a lot of poetry in it. There's a lot of anger. A lot of social energy in it. I think you better listen to it pretty carefully, 'cause it's important."
What does that mean? Is anger -- even rhyming anger -- the best kind of "social energy" for the country? More importantly, doesn't Kerry recognize what so much of rap music is today -- profane, sex-obsessed, selfish, greedy -- in sum, the opposite of public-spirited?
Look at the top of the pop charts today. Lil Jon & the Eastside Boyz rap all about "getting low" with women, with less-than-intellectual lyrics like "skeet skeet skeet motherf-----, skeet skeet skeet g--damn." ("Skeet" is slang for ejaculate.) Jay-Z is "feeling like a pimp nigga." Ludacris is rapping about how "you know how to mack a broad, she's on your sack and balls." J-Kwon is bummed because a woman wasn't enjoying his marijuana: "Smokin my blunt, sayin' she ain't havin' fun. B----, give it back, now you don't get none." Girls have "role models" like slutty Li'l Kim and foul-mouthed Missy Elliott.
The spirit of the hottest rap music today doesn't channel idealism or any positive "social energy." It thumps out of the radio selling a philosophy of get loaded, get sex, get some goodies, and get out of any loving commitments.
Since no one at MTV would say these lyrics were objectionable, Kerry added the old line about rap being the authentic voice of the inner city: "I'm still listening because I know that it's a reflection of the street and it's a reflection of life, and I understand all that. I'm not for the government censoring or stepping in. But I don't think it's inappropriate occasionally to talk about what you think is a standard or what you think is a value that is worth trying to live up to." Kerry didn't get very specific about standards, only mouthing the obvious line that rap about killing policemen isn't cool.
But parents today could use a prominent politician -- in either party or both -- offering a discouraging word to these MTV role models teaching children, black and white, that it is somehow cool to talk like a gangster, use and/or sell drugs, debase women, and generally act like a completely self-obsessed jerk.
For his part, George W. Bush has never said a single word about popular culture. He lets down his natural supporters by acting like a conscientious objector to the culture wars. His religious faith is touted, but he hides it under a bushel basket on our so-called entertainment. He won't dip a toe into the cultural wave created by "The Passion of the Christ," and he's certainly not going to say a word about the profane rap on the radio.
President Bush has made it a priority in his efforts to promote faith-based initiatives to meet black ministers in churches; to talk to single mothers who hug him and cry tears of joy about making it off welfare; and to see the children who are neglected by arrogant young men who get the sex but send no checks. Surely, he knows how the black community in particular could use more positive messages from its musical stars. Speaking out against the anti-social energy of the hottest rap music is custom-made compassionate conservatism.
So, George Bush, put your mouth where the children's record money is. John Kerry, cool it on the coolness. Someone in a leadership role in this country ought to speak up for that broad majority of parents and say: Mama, don't let your babies grow up to be nasty rappers.