24 August 2008

The state of modern American hip-hop: Part 1: Morality

With just two days left before The Last Year of High School, I'm desperately trying to spend time as dutifully as possible. I woke up this morning to watch Sunday morning news coverage of the upcoming Democratic National Convention and Barack Obama's pick of Joe Biden as VP. I later went to Barnes & Noble to buy Chris Matthews' book Hardball: How Politics Is Played--Told By One Who Knows the Game, which supposedly inspired his current cable TV news/talk show Hardball. I read a library copy of the book already and liked it; for AP U.S. Government & Politics class I'll be referencing that book. When I got home, I just watched the documentary California Schools: America's Future and later the movie Prom Night that I rented from Netflix. That film was one of the oddest films I've seen: a crime drama merged with high school story, as it's about a serial killer who wreaks havoc on a high school prom. It's odd how so many critics disliked it. Was it because that concept was too stupid? Maybe. I must be a maverick in thought...(and I love Brittany Snow, the lead actress of the film; I don't know why there aren't any girls as cute as her who go to my high school) In a striking conincidence, there was a character named "Howard K. Ramsey" who was murdered in Prom Night, while the man arrested for sending threatening letters to a John McCain campaign office in Denver was Marc Harold Ramsey.

Now to the main topic that I promised to my readers from Friday night's report: the Parents Television Council's The Rap on Rap, its April 2008 report on "adult content" on rap music videos shown during daytime hours on cable programs Sucker Free (MTV), Rap City (BET), and 106 & Park (BET). The Rev. Delman Coates, organizer of the Enough is Enough Campaign, requested that PTC organize this report. Among its core claims: those programs are so much raunchier than even the worst prime-time TV shows! Why? In their own words:
"The PTC documented 1,647 instances of offensive/adult content in the 27.5 hours of programming analyzed during the December 2007 study period, for an average of 59.9 instances per hour, or nearly one instance every minute.

"In March 2008, there were 1,342 instances of offensive/adult content in a mere 14 hours of programming, or 95.8 instances per hour, 1.6 instances per minute, or one instance of adult content every 38 seconds.

"To put this data in perspective, in the PTC’s most recent analysis of prime time broadcast TV Family Hour programming, the data revealed an average 12.5 instances of violent, profane and sexual content per hour. This is equivalent to one instance every 4.8 minutes."

Next, the press release drones on over the excess amounts of sex/violence/drugs/lack of morality just like Lois Griffin puts in on the theme song to Fox's cartoon sitcom Family Guy: "It seems to me that all you see is violence in movies and sex on TV..." But now here's some more amazing findings:
"All episodes of Sucker Free on MTV included in this analysis were rated TV-14. By contrast, almost every episode of 106 & Park and Rap City on BET carried only a TV-PG rating. An exception was found with one show that aired in December, which was rated TV-14 and included descriptors for suggestive dialogue, foul language, and sex.

"During the two-week December 2007 study period, children under 18 made up approximately 40% of the viewing audience for 106 & Park, 41% of the audience for Rap City and 39% of the audience for Sucker Free on MTV. Because all of these programs re-air throughout the day, study results underestimate the percentage of unique children who are exposed or have been exposed to these programs in total."

Oh noes! MTV and BET deliberately mis-rate their programs in an effort to brainwash our children into thug life! And their schemes have actually worked!

But let's get a bit more serious now. Again I shall emphasize that PTC asserts: "Because all of these programs re-air throughout the day, study results underestimate the percentage of unique children who are exposed or have been exposed to these programs in total." How does it back up this claim? For the time periods included in its study here were the timeslots of each program: (times are Eastern & Pacific time zones; adjust back one hour for everywhere else in the US)
- 106 & Park (BET) (TV-PG): Mon-Fri 11AM-12:30PM & 6PM-7:30PM; Saturdays 11AM-12:30PM
- Rap City (BET) (TV-PG): Mon-Sat 5-6PM (but for some reason PTC says that RC "airs each Saturday" on BET yet quickly points out there exists a weekday broadcast, without having asserted so previously)
- Sucker Free (MTV) (TV-14): Tues-Thu 8AM-8:30AM (an example of MTV's odd, arbitrary scheduling: This show used to be shown 7PM, then 3PM, 8AM, 4:30PM, then was pulled from the MTV schedule around early June but is still shown on MTV's [more competent] sister channel MTV2)
So given that PTC freely suggests that some of the shows were shown during school hours, "unique children who are exposed or have been exposed to these programs in total" might mean kids who cut class to watch these shows, who happen to be able to watch cable TV at school, or unsupervised kindergarteners who are flipping through their cable-equipped TV set before afternoon session.

As noted here, PTC has claimed to have found numerous dirty words in these programs - which would give a sailor a heart attack perhaps? But how honest is their ability to view things through the perspective of the average viewer of these programs? On page 8 of the PDF: (I had to type this out since the whole darn PDF apparantly was printed off a scanner rather than converted from something like Microsoft Office, so I can't cut & paste text)
"Each episode was viewed by a trained analyst who conducted a detailed analysis of both visual and verbal content. Programs were analyzed in their entirety...

"For all categories of offensive content the analysis was determined by what aired in the video. This is significant given many instances in which a song's lyrics are changed from what is heard on the album to what is heard on the music video. In the event of a muted profanity or reference, the word was verified either by reviewing lyrics from a third-party webpage or listening to an uncensored version of a song.

"Language was coded for specific words uttered throughout programming and certain related euphemisms - such as the word 'screw' when used as a euphemism for 'fuck.' Also coded were cases of bleeped and otherwise obscured language. This included words that were partially obscured but identifiable, as well as obscene gestures."

Wow...they freely admit that they had to look beyond the program just to uncover the sleaze with which BET and MTV are planning to indoctrinate the innocent children of America! This is getting ridiculous now; I've seen enough "edited" rap music videos in my adolescence to know that I, the hip-hop fan, need to do my own verification before I can know what Standards & Practices wanted to block from my ears. It's true that kids can go on the Internet and find out what got censored - but parents have the ability to filter kids' Internet access given all the filtering software out there, thus putting PTC's profanity argument into scrutiny. But next PTC claims that in March 2008 some expletives that were censored from Dec. 2007 were not censored. The words in question? (VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED) "ass" and "hell" Ironically PTC fails to point out that in March 2008 there were no unedited uses of (VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED) "bitch" while in December 2007 there were 5 logged uses of "bitch" on Rap City...making the network standards stricter than NBC Universal Television Distribution's standards for the Jerry Springer, Maury, and Steve Wilkos daytime tabloid talk shows (whose uncensored B-words outnumber those from the rap music shows by a truckload, based on my viewing experiences this summer, I'll get to those shows later). And in December 2007, PTC couldn't find any use of "hell" (censored or not), so their claim is pure puffery.

Off with the swear words now; other issues that PTC evaluated included illegal and sexual and violent activities, including the usual suspects as drugs & drinking. But I was surprised to find out that some rap videos promoted "underage drinking"...I thought that was the stuff of other of the PTC's "bete noire" shows The O.C. and Gossip Girl! I've never seen a rap video that promotes "u can drank b4 age 21"...indeed a lot of rap songs do promote drinking but I doubt that they promote blatantly underage drinking. Seems that PTC wants to argue that no media aimed towards minors should ever depict drinking in a positive light.

And finally there comes the list of videos that PTC used for the report, which also brings up insight about which videos were popular during 12/07 and 3/08. The top two "full-length" videos played (only Rap City plays full-length videos, according to the report) were "Superstar" by Lupe Fiasco and "Playas Rock" by Hurricane Chris. But third in line is "100 Million" by Birdman, one of the more "gangsta/edgier" types that Rev. Delman Coates (who was an advisor to the study) discussed on NPR back in May. And then is "Speedin'" by Rick Ross. Both videos play out like CSI: Miami, only told more from the criminals' (rappers') point of view. At least they show the "police" portion of the story as well but obscure them in a "Fuck tha Police" tone with all the cash-throwing and escapism. As I go down the list, I find that some videos that get a lot of "full-length" plays get few "excerpted" plays, and vice versa. Which means that a video like "Speedin'" or "100 Million" would've been played a lot on Rap City but few times on 106 or SF. So it can possibly assert that Rap City plays out videos for a certain amount of time, and voting on 106 & Park (which is BET's version of MTV's Total Request Live, a top-10 countdown show voted on by viewers) can increase airtime on television.

It should be noted that 106 and SF show both rap and R&B videos, while Rap City plays only rap videos (hence the title), something PTC won't point out, thus putting the report further into question. So that means that the R&B videos in the PTC's study could be seen only on BET if a viewer were to watch all three of the said programs habitually. Now I'm seeing that BET gave R&B videos "Just Fine" by Mary J. Blige and "Suffocate" by J. Holiday were shown only once in full length and about ten times in excerpt - apparantly I guess that is how 106 & Park makes a point when showing newer videos.

So this is ironic. Turns out that although the "cleaner" R&B videos are given more rotation than "dirty" rap videos, overall there are more rap videos in the "rap fan habitual pattern" that I shall refer a viewer who watches all three said programs.

Rap music, ever since the late 80s when some rappers like 2 Live Crew and N.W.A began using profanity and other explicit content in their lyrics than other rappers had, has always been controversial for that content. So have other genres of music: for example some 80s heavy metal music that came under criticism by the Parents Music Resource Center - which the PTC might as well be paying tribute to with The Rap on Rap. Indeed, it seems that the networks are taking PTC more seriously, as MTV isn't showing Sucker Free for the time being this summer (but still shows some rap videos within other general programs Friday Night MTV (FNMTV) and Total Request Live, and BET did rate the July 11 episode of 106 & Park "TV-PG-DLS". I've tried looking up specific, descriptor ratings for other BET programming but can't seem to find any. Finally, BET had this to say after NPR hosted Rev. Coates and PTC president Tim Winter:
"BET Networks takes our responsibility to our viewers seriously, and that's why we voluntarily established a standards process that reviews all the programming we air, including music videos. We routinely reject videos that do not meet our programming guidelines, and we have an ongoing dialogue with the labels and artists to find a balance between free and responsible expression. We encourage the Enough is Enough Campaign and the Parents Television Council to do the same."

So BET appears to accept that it's been accused of hurting our generation and gives a thumbs up to PTC.

As more people come to realize that "Enough is Enough" indeed, they'll probably stop accepting gratuitous sexual and "gangsta values" and start demanding more positive, competent hip-hop. I'm glad that at least BET chooses to side some more positive artists like Lupe Fiasco and Alicia Keys and Chris Brown besides the other junk and has approved PTC's complaints. Back before NWA/2 Live Crew most rap was less profane/vulgar than the PTC's worst nightmares; examples straight out of my MP3 player include Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth, LL Cool J (before 2000, his newer stuff sucks), Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West (who cares if he once said "George Bush doesn't care about black people?"), Eric B & Rakim, Talib Kweli, and Mos Def. Some of the mentioned artists fall under the "socially concious hip hop" banner. I hope that someday you'll join us and unite as one against excess sleaze - yes I admit I do listen to some gangsta rap but it's not to be enlisted in the vast corporate conspiracy, it's to open my mind to see "the other America".

Next time on "The state of modern American hip-hop", I'll look at how there's way too many cliches and "copyright infringement" in some of the newer rap songs...I thought that us music fans had more trouble for illegal downloading! Stay tuned...

22 August 2008

How will senior year go?

So today I picked up the revised version of my senior year schedule because of an error in class placement. I at least got into symphonic band rather than orchestra (I don't play string instruments; I play only piano and mallets) but did not get AP Computer Science. Which leaves my schedule as follows:
2nd - Teacher's assistant
3rd - AP Calculus BC
4th - Symphonic Band
5th - AP U.S. Government (1st sem.)/Economics (2nd sem.)
6th - English 4 (possibly might change to AP English Language if I can work something out with the counselors)
As far as this goes, it might be a lightly scheduled yet difficult senior year. Besides the complexity of the AP classes, there are other things I must deal with, including college apps, SAT's, and preparation for independent living. After having surfed CollegeBoard.com for the past two weeks, my college lookout so far aims at: San Jose State University, University of the Pacific, University of Washington (in Seattle, not DC), Reed College, Washington University (in St. Louis, again not Seattle or DC), UC Irvine, UC Riverside, and some others in certain areas of the US I'm eager to "temporarily" reside in.

Now that I'm lacking in AP Computer Science yet I still plan on majoring in a computer science/IT-related field in college, the question is: How will I be able to "prepare" myself for my major? I doubt that colleges would want a candidate for such a major who lacked any high school experience in the field. Luckily I still have other academic interests like business and mathematics (I got a 5 on the AP Calculus AB exam!) which I think I might as well advance my interests in in the time to come. This summer I've been exploring Java programming with the APCS homework (which the teacher recommended for ALL the potential APCS students) and the editing of Wikipedia.

Next year, I hope to be able to learn from the mistakes I made the past three years of high school and reverse them so that I can perform better this year, possibly even straight A's (something I so far haven't been able to get to in high school)! Luckily my "light" schedule will give me more time to practice for the SAT's and polish an impressive application - unintentionally increasing my acceptance chances. I've done many more practice problems for SAT thanks to the Princeton Review using a passcode provided in an SAT prep book I bought from Barnes & Noble. The same "learning from my mistakes" philosophy I shall use for SAT and everything else in life.

Anyways, after having picked up my schedule, I went home, had lunch, watched some Inuyasha, and practiced the piano.

And just a few minutes ago, I decided to revisit the Parents Television Council's April 2008 report The Rap on Rap that complained that the impressionable children watching the hip-hop video shows on BET and MTV are being corrupted by images of thug life, gratuitous images of women's body parts, foul language, and basically everything you dislike about rap music. This isn't a surprise given that rap music has always been controversial - even back in the late 80s/early 90s with N.W.A and 2 Live Crew. As a longtime fan of hip hop music I won't deny that a lot of it is morally incorrect. I certainly agree with the PTC's position that those programs are not "kid-friendly" and was quite surprised to notice that a sizable audience of kids age 2-11 watch such shows! But here's the thing: the PTC is an organization that many claim insist that TV be "politically correct" in the field of tradition values and accuse of dubious research, blatant deceit, and inflation of FCC complaint numbers. As I read through the PTC's report (which I've already done a few times) I also have some suspicions. Sure, I'd agree that the average viewer would be offended by much of the content on those shows, but the report doesn't note exactly which videos are "really" offensive and which aren't. The report also includes a table of videos included in the research, which ranged from gangsta rap ("100 Million" by Birdman, "Speedin'" by Rick Ross, "I'm So Hood" by DJ Khaled), rap "ballads" ("Fly Like Me" by Chingy, "Girl You Know" by Scarface, "I Won't Tell" by Fat Joe), R&B (various videos by Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown, etc.) among others. I've already gone on YouTube and previewed two of the "not-so-raunchy" choices: "Superstar" by Lupe Fiasco and "Independent" by Webbie, and I doubt that they'd match the PTC's fear-mongering impression of rap music. Furthermore, as pretty much all the videos shown on BET/MTV were edited for content, PTC freely admitted that its researchers referred to the "uncensored" versions to find out what got muted out - to get around the censors, maybe? As I have far much more to say afterwards, I'll continue this tomorrow.