Wednesday, January 31, 2007


SINCE I SPENT THE GREATER PART OF THE MORNING slaving over this, I thought I'd get some extra use out of this longwinded comment on Jesse's THE SOUND OF YOUNG AMERICA BLOG.

FOR THE FULL STORY, start here. I don't know why I get so huffy about this. Yes I do.

A) I love public radio, and I think Jesse's critique is not only valid, but is motivated by his own love for the form.

B) I found the public radio reporter's insults of Jesse to be annoying.

C) I don't feel like doing my real work this morning, nor have I taken any photographs of PLAMOBILS for you.

As always, internet, MAKE OF THIS WHAT YOU WILL.



I think your letter, Jesse, was devastating and, to use some young-people's lingo, "right on."

Now having listened to the piece, I can't say I totally agree with your implication that Kalish didn't know what he was talking about. He clearly has been thinking about the subject for a while, and his curiosity and thoughtfulness in the piece are genuine.

But it would be disingenuous to suggest that the overall tone of the piece was not condescending, both toward the rap and the intelligence of the listener. The weekend edition intro to the piece actually borders on the contemptuous, though Kalish cannot really be held accountable for that.

But tone aside I just don't get what the story is here. Apparently there are street performers on the NYC subway! Yet Kalish does not do a story about the wacky, wild scene that goes down when guys come through the cars singing "FIRE NEXT TIME," or the car-to-car conga sessions sessions or breakdance circles that I've seen since moving to NYC in 1994.

Personally, I'd be furious if someone came into the C train and started cursing in front of my five year old. It actually happens all the time in NYC, but when it's a performer/captive audience situation, it gets more complicated and galling in equal measures. I think Kalish did well to challenge the performers on this, but he didn't exactly hold their feet to the fire on it either.

Finally, there is Kalish's gloss on the phenomenon as a return to hip hop's roots. I think that's an interesting point to make. But at the same time, it seemed to suggest that freestyling had somehow disappeared for several decades and is now just coming back. I'm not an expert by any means, but that can't be true, can it?

No--these points are all so under-explored that they feel like feints for what I can only conclude is Kalish's main story here: rap music "forced" on shocked subway riders. Some recoil in horror, some discover a new respect for this art form and their urban neighbors. Everyone turns off their radio happy.

A nice narrative cliche as it goes, but there's a problem: it doesn't seem to really be happening. The subway riders that Kalish turned to for the google-eyed-suburban-outrage reaction he seemed to expect basically offered instead a sane response: "that's life in NYC, and I kinda like it."

Yeah. Me too.

The only person who legitimately seemed agog in this situation was Kalish. So in this sense, I think it indeed works as a personal essay, charting one man's reaction to an interesting but hardly groundbreaking social phenomenon.

But even if we redefine the piece this way, it's still a personal essay about the boisterous invasion of an traditionally black music into the closed space of a subway car, where the boisterous, loud musicians quasi-literally hold captive an audience of (Kalish presumes) non-rap listeners.

Jesse is right: this is exoticism, and I share his offense. It's also, in my opinion, boring. I hear the cafeterial ladies rolled their eyes when the kids from Fame started dancing on the tables, too. Stop press.

Kalish is right to defend his record as a reporter and clarify its status as a freelance piece. He's certainly free to disagree with Jesse's assessment of the piece and NPR's cultural coverage in general.

But I think the fact that Kalish does not respond directly to Jesse, and indirectly does so only with insults, tells me just about everything I need to know: what a snob.

As an overweight 35 year old dad with hurty knees whose currency with rap basically ends at De La Soul is Dead, I'm not a pitchforky insider to this culture, nor am I by any definition a young podcasting lad. My own podcasting and blogging efforts are basically pathetic. And, like Jesse, I have done actual radio, including reported pieces (albeit not for NPR, but PRI).

So I have no suggestions for what sniffy bona fides Kalish should use to brush aside my own critique of his work. But I do think he owes Jesse an apology.

John Hodgman.


That is all.


Murray said...

bunch white dudes on public radio debating hip hop coverage on public radion! awesome!

BuddhistValkyrie said...

Huh, interesting. But, like you, I'm having a hard time finding the unusual in the scenario described. Or perhaps Kalish would just prefer that all the Subway entertainers be classical cello playing buskers, a la the ones I saw the last time I took the subway in from Brooklyn?

Narratives are interesting, especially for telling pointed stories - but often the most interesting thing you can glean from them is not what the author is saying, but the attitude of the author they themselves might not be exploring - in this case, the obvious orientalism/exoticism that is not at all acknowledged. There's this normative expectation of the occidental coming in to play that seems to be completely ignored.

Ahem. I'll stop now.

But, I must say - longwinded though your response might have been, it was nice to read something so composed. I don't suppose I've a chance in hell of having the request granted, but it would be nice to see more posts along those lines.

Glenn said...

I'm afraid I'm going to have to speak without irony on the subject of expertise here. I've noticed that people familiar with a certain topic will get outraged with how their topic of expertise is (mis)represented in the mieda. A friend of mine notes all the military history and weapon mistakes he sees; while I get the same reaction with Go and science. And in this case, it's New York and subways. Those who are familiar with it, know how true a story is. (Or is not.) If you know it's wrong, it's maddening. If you don't, you never notice. The disturbing thing is to realize how often it must be that we never notice.

For this particular story, I don't recall anything specifically bugging me, but it did seem kind of odd. Of course, I haven't been in a NYC subway since the first WTC bombing, so I'm pretty far out of date. It struck me more as an attempt at an inspirational piece. I didn't sound like he just wanted classic music, on the contrary, he sounded supportive of the performers (if maybe patronizing). ut I only heard it once, and wasn't paying close attention.

jean.westcott said...

This is why I definitely have a love/hate relationship with NPR. Just as I am sure that urban black kids groan when they hear that Busta Rhymes got busted, I groan when liberal, white, middle-aged persons are held up to be ignorant, gee whiz isn't this 'interesting', wine snobs when I listen to NPR.

Get outside y'all--read the internets--talk to people outside of yer own damn circle.

Love and peace,

JM said...

I agree with buddhistvalkyrie--interesting topic, and it *is* nice to read something so well composed.

Rickey Henderson said...
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capnjoy said...

john hodgman, while this "more composed" is indeed lovely, well-written and thought provoking, you're probably fairly busy with your television appearances, magazine editing, free-lance writing, and i believe you are also writing a book or two of fake trivia. for my part, i am happy enjoy your "more composed" efforts in those arenas and get the odd video of toothless men playing harmonica here. this is my opinion. thank you for all.

Annje said...

I'll try this again since my last post refused to post...

I can agree that it's hard to understand what a personal story is if there's no real point. Now, having never lived in New York and having never riden a subway. (I'm from Colorado.) I can imagine being on our Light Rail System and being witness to a show of urban youth performing Rap. Having said that, I can put myself in the people interviewed shoes and respond with "that's Denver for you." I've seen weirder things strolling down the 16th Street Mall here in Denver.

Now I would agree with you Mr. Hodgman that I wouldn't subject small children to rap and cussing by choice. I did not get a good grasp on whether the people on the subway had small children present or not and if they were angered by the performers or not.

Every city has it's own excentric individuals. What I find interesting is that radio would go the way of television and "dumb down" the topic so they get "the biggest amount of listeners/viewers." I find it quite demeaning to my intellect that I have to be talked down to. The response on the Young American Blog I is a good example. The journalists stance I found was demeaning to the author Jesse as well.

Ok, that's enough of me speaking..Thank you John Hodgman, for your eloquent response! I love reading your serious writing just as much as I do your fake trivia. I never tire of reading your serious work. Again, thank you!!


A.I. Kay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
A.I. Kay said...

I wholeheartedly agree with you: the choice of subject for the piece in question ought to raise suspicion. Why not, after all, the latin jazz sextet with FULL SIZED, DOUBLEBASS that hops on the train, only to disappear into the tunnels at the next stop. The fact is, that choices are not innocent: they reveal preference, and hence prejudice. It would be difficult not to consider the NPR piece and excercise in exoticism, although, I would suggest, it might be more charitibly described as renewed resistance to a long existing urban culture (although, this is only more charitible insofar as I have given him many more words than "exoticism.")

-A.I. Kay

Skribbl said...

I agree. That is all.