How do music videos operate ideologically? Discuss within the bounds of a textual analysis on a particular musician or band and their representation of gender, ethnicity, class or sexuality in their videos.

There are very apparent ideologies projected in the hip-hop genre, and are undeniably evident in their music videos. Nas’s song Nasty is accompanied by a video that typifies the main ideologies of the hip hop scene, as well as marking a change from principles displayed in early hip-hop. The video opens with an introduction to a live Nas show from the stage perspective, looking into the audience. When the song begins we see shots of him in a recording booth. The main sequence begins with Nas in a limousine with two females, then he gets out on the street with an extensive gang of boys awaiting him. He walks through the ‘hood’, shaking hands with many of these young men, some of them children. He takes off his expensive-looking jacket to reveal a plain white vest. As he reaches the end of the street he turns and makes his way into the recording booth. This essay will explore how class and economics are presented as the main ideologies in many hip-hop videos, with the specific example of Nas’s Nasty video. I will be problematizing such a reading of music videos as signifiers of cultural ideologies with an ethnographic approach.

 

Hip-hop subculture has one of the most recognisable ideological leanings, with the rags-to-riches ideal being chiefly prominent. Nasty and other similar music videos adhere to this fundamental capitalist logic of meritocracy. However, it subverts the dominant American Dream ideology in place of an attainable dream for members of the subordinated classes and ethnicities. The video’s setting in the inner-city streets of New York denotes the importance of territoriality in hip-hop. Forman talks about how this territoriality represents capitalist ideologies that are driven by a market logic and customer base[1]. Indeed, both gang-affiliated and geographical spatiality show how this subculture revolves around a monetary mentality, which is also mirrored by the genre’s associations with the drug trade. This is exemplified in Nas’s video, as he displays his material prosperity with jewels, money, clothes and champagne. The fact that the young boys in the video evidently look up to Nas as they keenly look on when he arrives in his chauffeur-driven limousine depicts how economic capital is key to the definition of success. The video depicts an aspiration towards entrepreneurship outside the dominant culture; such an ideology projects anti-establishment sentiment, rejecting the importance of education and class and providing aspirations of alternative culture capital.

 

This emphasis on economic rather than class mobility is portrayed as authentic hip-hop ideology; preserving a working-class aesthetic with economic advancement shows Nas remaining in his class and staying true to his roots. When he strips off his expensive jacket to reveal a white vest, he demonstrates this adherence to the working-class aesthetic. He maintains his style, handshake, walk and typical hip-hop gestures. A semiotic analysis of this habitus shows how they act as signifiers for hip-hop authenticity and therefore its associated ideologies. Furthermore, the fact that he walks through the ‘hood’ provides a signification of spatiality. Forman speaks of ‘how the dynamics of space, place and race get taken up by rap artists as themes and topics’[2]. Certainly, through this setting, Nas is authenticating his place in the genre, and an adherence to the allied ideologies.

However, with the intertextual knowledge of Nas’s rise to fame and wealth, one may note ideological changes his earlier videos. He is now more part of Adorno and Horkheimer’s concept of the culture industry[3] than part of the subculture he represents. His old songs were about persevering to become successful, and his videos portrayed him spatially in his ‘hood’, in which he seemed to fit. The Nasty video places him in the same space, but with a very different relationship to this environment- as an ‘other’, although a revered other. This presents a limitation of the socio-economic ideologies of hip-hop, as there remains the dichotomy of remaining true to one’s roots but having to buy into the culture industry in order to rise ‘out of the ghetto’. This marks a change from early hip-hop, when economic imperatives were virtually non-existent due to the lack of long-term financial prospect of the genre, as well as the lack of career aspirations within this community- ‘getting out the ghetto’ was and is seen as a futile feat to many due to prejudices and class exclusivity. Now that in recent years the scene has shown colossal profitability, the ideologies have changed from voicing socio-political concerns to the display of wealth and a certain image of the tough, narcissistic, entrepreneurial pimp stereotype that is so prevalent in hip-hop. The occasional nod to humble beginnings, such as in this video, is evidently all that is needed to remain ‘authentic’ and to commodify the working-class aesthetic.    

Barthes’s concept of ‘myth’ describes ‘a peculiar system in that it is constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it’[4]. To this extent, our ideas of Nas are shaped by intertextual knowledge. This video also fits into a canon that makes up the wider ‘myth’ surrounding the African-American community of inner city New York- such mainstream hip-hop videos shapes how the mass market views the subculture.

 

This structuralist reliance on textual analysis limits the study of music videos as it disregards actual experience and reception. Nigel Thrift’s approach of non-representational theory[5] looks at the significance of the Deleuzian concept of affect[6] in such an analysis; that is, how the viewers personally respond to the video. Semiotic approach of analysis is problematic, as such music videos are mediated by dominant culture that controls media and therefore the production of hegemonic ideology. Certainly, popular hip-hop is presented to mainstream audience as an ‘exotic other’, as Edward Said would put it[7]; a socially constructed representation. Therefore, we must look to this embodied reaction for a truer reading of the video and the ideologies it imparts. Indeed, Anike writes that the ‘criteria of hip hop authenticity is rather complex and therefore a more appropriate way to describe it is a deep spiritual, emotional, or personal connection an individual feels towards a specific artist or performance’[8]. The ethnographic evidence found in the comments left on the video on YouTube depicts a drawn-out argument on who is the best hip-hop rapper of all time: ‘nas is the best storyteller and rakim best lyricist. Rakim is the god and nas is god´s son’[9]. This links to Fiske’s discussion of fan distinction and discrimination[10] and the theory that fandom is about a sense of belonging rather than explicit ideological implications. As Adorno and Horkheimer would see it, the viewers ‘seek novelty, but the strain and boredom associated with actual work leads to avoidance of effort in that leisure time which offers the only chance for really new experience. As a substitute, they crave a stimulant’[11]. Indeed, ideological readings are not necessarily directly taken from this type of video. Moreover, Nas is representing a minority subculture, while the majority of his consumers are from outside of it, passively indulging for the novelty of the aesthetic for an escape from the constraints of their own culture, or for the gaining of subcultural capital in place of the lack of dominant cultural capital. Sarah Thornton corroborates this idea, claiming that ‘fantasies of identity are key to pleasure’[12]. Undoubtedly, such a fantasy exists outside of reality and real-world issues of ideological debate. Thus, learned cultural responses to music videos may be subverted by a study of the pre-cognitive affect in which ideological issues are less considered than passive entertainment.

 

Evidently, the bourgeois idea of cognitive connection to culture is seemingly unfitting for a study of popular music; instead the focus is on pleasure, not critical analysis. As Andrew Britton explores the concept of Hollywood blockbusters, so too is popular music to be ‘consumed’ rather than ‘read’ with the postmodern logic of spectacle over content[13]. Nonetheless, music videos do operate ideologically; the Nasty video adds to the ‘myth’ of hip-hop ideology, particularly with regard to the economic goals and class authenticity.  It may therefore be concluded that, as Said claims, ‘the reader is a full participant in the production of meaning, being obliged as a moral thing to act, to produce some sense’[14], indicating that music videos operate ideologically only to the extent to which the viewer interpolates it.

 


[1] Murray Forman, ‘’Represent’: Race, Space and Place in Rap Music’ in Popular Music, vol.19, no.1, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), http://www.jstor.org/stable/853712 [accessed 20.05.13], p. 67.

[2] Murray Forman, ‘’Represent’: Race, Space and Place in Rap Music’ in Popular Music, vol.19, no.1, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), http://www.jstor.org/stable/853712 [accessed 20.05.13], p. 66.

[3] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Stanford University Press: 2002).

[4] Roland Barthes, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), p. 114.

[5] Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, (Oxon: Routledge, 2008).

[6] Gilles Deleuze, ‘Part III, Proposition 56: Spinoza, Benedictus de’, Ethics. Trans. by W.H. White and A.H. Stirling, (London: Wordsworth, 2001 [1677]). 

[7] Edward W. Said, Orientalism. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

[8] Stephanie Anike, Hip Hop’s Masked Authenticity, (Rutgers University) dialogues.rutgers.edu/all-journals/…/140-hip-hop-s-masked-authenticity‎, [accessed 01.06.13], p. 2.

[9] ado2700, YoutTube.com: Nasty by Nas, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wo97R0ib1CE [accessed 01.06.13].

[10] John Fiske, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 36.

[11] Theodor Adorno, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002), p. 459.

[12] Sarah Thornton, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), p. 91. 

[13] Andrew Britton, Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, edited by Barry Keith Grant, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009).

[14] Said, Edward The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983) p 41.

Bibliography

Adorno, Theodor and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment, (Stanford University Press: 2002).

Adorno, Theodor, Essays on Music: Theodor W. Adorno, (London: University of California Press, 2002).

Anike, Stephanie, Hip Hop’s Masked Authenticity, (Rutgers University) dialogues.rutgers.edu/all-journals/…/140-hip-hop-s-masked-authenticity‎, [accessed 01.06.13].

Barthes, Roland, Elements of Semiology, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1968 [1964].

Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972).

Britton, Andrew, Britton on Film: The Complete Film Criticism of Andrew Britton, edited by Barry Keith Grant, (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009).

Fiske, John, “The Cultural Economy of Fandom,” in The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, ed. Lisa A. Lewis, (New York: Routledge, 1992).

Forman, Murray, ‘’Represent’: Race, Space and Place in Rap Music’ in Popular Music, vol.19, no.1, (Cambridge University Press, 2000), http://www.jstor.org/stable/853712 [accessed 20.05.13].

Thornton, Sarah, Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996). 

Thrift, Nigel, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect, (Oxon: Routledge, 2008).

Said, Edward, The World, the Text and the Critic (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts 1983).

Said, Edward W., Orientalism. (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).

ado2700, YoutTube.com: Nasty by Nas, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wo97R0ib1CE [accessed 01.06.13].

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