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.
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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.
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That is all.