Hustle and Flow
"I got no shame; I got my pride. Just trying to get along on the Upper West Side" (PDQ Bach, 1807-1742)
By Julie Jaffee Nagel, Ph.D.
What can a psychoanalyst who was also trained in piano performance and classical music at Juilliard say about rap? What does rap convey about the people and the themes portrayed in the film Hustle and Flow"? I've decided to address these questions first by zig-zagging through a selective music history time capsule. I will focus briefly on the ghetto setting of the late 1960s and early 1970s in South Bronx, New York City where Hip Hop culture and rap evolved and then offer a few comments about the musical/psychoanalytic environment in Vienna at the turn of the 20th Century where music played a prominent role in social revolution.
Hip Hop culture was comprised of American rap music, graffiti, break dancing, and dress codes which originated in the Bronx in New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1959 Parks Commissioner Robert Moses began building an expressway through the heart of the Bronx. Middle class Italian, German, Irish, and Jewish neighborhoods and businesses disappeared and were replaced by poor black and Hispanic families where crime, drug addiction, and unemployment were rampant. In 1968 the completion of a huge co-op apartment complex on the northern edge of the Bronx gave rise to landlords selling out to professional slumlords. Street gang activity overwhelmed the Bronx for many years. Many rappers in the Hip Hop subculture were gang members.
Rap spread from one major urban center to another. It's emphasis was a repetitive, hypnotic beat with words and affects expressing alienation, rage, and revolt projected by male rappers onto women-as- both- needed- and -devalued- objects. As I understand it, rap music expresses "ATTITUDE" and makes a bold, pulsating statement about the experience of oppression, disillusionment, anger, and shame. Rap is associated with affects, behaviors and defenses in response to ostracism, betrayal, hypocrisy, hopelessness, and rejection. Paradoxically and movingly, in "Hustle and Flow", DJay's rap was infused with hope.
Our time capsule now takes us back to the turn of the 20th Century in Vienna. A musical revolt occurred here during this time which was symbolized by the progressive break up of the harmonic theory system that had prevailed for over three hundred years in Western Europe. This was also the time of Freud's discovery of psychoanalysis (think: Interpretation of Dreams, 1900). This "rebellion against the fathers" or symbolically against musical tradition, provides grist for psychoanalytic and musical mills. So, too, does the defiant rap phenomena. For centuries, music had been tonal with dissonant harmonies resolving to consonant harmonies in the Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic periods (think: Bach Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms.... think: resolution of tension - a musical/aural "pleasure principal"); gradually, tonality became more chromatic and ambiguous (think Mahler, Scriabin, Wagner). With the music of Arnold Schoenberg in fin de Siecle Vienna, tonality completely broke with the theoretical and sonic traditions of its musical forefathers.
It is beyond the scope of my comments here to explore the (1) overdetermined implications of the "destruction" of tonality as a musical commentary about contemporary society in Vienna (think Schoenberg), (2) an inevitable stretching of existing musical expression and technique as a developmental phenomena in music history, and/or (3) as a composer's intrapsychic conflicts and defenses against them expressed in sound. Neither is it intended to imply that any musical style, including rap, is a "simple vehicle for expressing a meaning or emotion" (Rosen, 1996, p. 17). What is clear is that in Vienna Fin de Siècle, both Freud and Schoenberg were exploring, respectively, internal landscapes of mind and music that were deviations from psychological and musical norms. "Safe" and "pretty" mental and musical compromise formations were severely challenged. The public reacted.
In 1996, musicologist Charles Rosen reflected:
"... Much of the music and art of that period (fin de Siecle Vienna) is deliberately
provocative and expresses a defiance, even a profound horror, of the society in which the artists lived...the normally difficult relation between artist and public (became) a pathological one...The artist's answer to ideological pressure was one of deliberate provocation, while the public came to believe that a violent response to such provocation was a citizen's right and even a patriotic duty. " (1996, p. 8).
This comment does not sound dissimilar to responses by the "establishment" to rap music, even though there are vast differences in art forms. In Vienna and other major cities, strong affects were aroused that led to riots following performances of Schoenberg's music. Why did review after review worldwide vilify his music, including a comment in the London Daily Telegraph on January 24, 1914 :"the music of Schoenberg's Five Orchestral Pieces suggested feeding time at the zoo" (Slonimsky, 1953, p. 156)? One idea that circulated in the early 1980s was that some people "actually relish the slaughter of the main sacred cow" (p. 20) and that overthrow of the musical establishment, suggested, in psychoanalytic terms, not only Oedipal revolt but also pre Oedipal longings (think of the gang in "Officer Krupke" in West Side Story: "I didn't get the love that every child oughta get.....I ain't no delinquent, I'm misunderstood.. Deep down inside of us there is good").
The resistance toward Freud's theoretical and clinical discoveries about the mind in the early 20th Century found a musical counterpart - or counterpoint - in Schoenberg's compositional style. But was the revolt against Schoenberg and his followers- or against Freud - any more violent than that leveled at the "old" music when it, too, was contemporary? Consider a letter written in 1827 to the editor of the London Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, "It is not surprising that Beethoven should ...have mistaken noise for grandeur, extravagance for originality,...His great qualities are frequently alloyed by a morbid desire for novelty, by extravagance, and by a disdain of rule....the effect which the writings of Beethoven have had on the art must, I fear, be considered as injurious" (Slonimsky, 1953, p. 45-46).
During Fin De Siècle Vienna, the "peace of this world" (p. 285, S.E., XVI, 1916-1917) was disturbed with psychoanalysis and atonality both of which forever changed the future of music. Is rap an American minority creation which deserves more credit and recognition as an art form rather than as a fad which will fade away with time? This question leads to others about music and psychoanalysis, whether the musical focus is diatonic, atonal, serial, or rap. Can psychoanalysis offer or add anything to the understanding of music, and reciprocally- can music add anything to our understanding about psychoanalysis? I suggest that the answer is "yes". Stylistic features of music can shed light into the structure of the mind in general. For example, there are two fundamental concepts shared by music and psychoanalysis, i.e., feeling and meaning - or - affect and idea. Yet, simple explanations of music - and human motivation - are reductionistic. Multiple unconscious and overdetermined factors are assumed to be operative in the service of musical creation, performance, listening and responding.
My emphasis today has been to focus on music, and in the case of rap, on rhythm, as a nonverbal modality that evokes and expresses a wide range of emotions and mental processes as well as a response to one's socio-economic-cultural surround. In that respect, rap continues an aural tradition. In Hustle and Flow, DJay's gravitation to rap to try to overcome the internal and external forces that both motivate and imprison him do not result in a happily-ever-after ending. His humiliating, demeaning betrayal by Skinny Black dashes his hopes and pushes his pulsating shame beyond what his ego can integrate or rap can liberate. It is beyond the scope of these comments to explore why DJay would expect Skinny Black, a rapper embedded in the very culture DJay seeks to escape, could be his ticket out of his increasingly dystonic pimpdom.
I conclude my zig-zag comments with a tidbit of obscure music history by playing a short recording which is both "old" and "new". In the 17th and 18th centuries the name of the composer Bach indicated first-rate music. However, Johann Sebastian's" last and least offspring, P.D.Q. Bach (refer to PDQ Bach website), was not really a member of the Bach family--the implication being that he was illegitimate, or, even better, an imposter" (refer to PDQ Bach Website). The dates on his "first tombstone" (refer to PDQ Bach website) were inscribed "1807-1742". Irrespective of this inscription, by the mid 1770s, PDQ realized that writing music "would catapult him into obscurity" (refer to PDQ Bach Website). One of these compositions, Classical Rap, was written at some point in time (the actual date of the composition of Classical Rap is unclear and irrelevant!!). Classical Rap is pertinent to today's theme of socio-economic injustice, repression, oppression, and a search for musical and intrapsychic meaning. Similar to the location of Hip Hop culture in the Bronx ghetto, Classical Rap's roots are planted in the upper west side of New York City. I can now offer a partial reply to my opening question since Classical Rap helps consolidate my musical and psychoanalytic sensitivities; Classical Rap demonstrates - through music - the ubiquity of socioeconomic and intrapsychic turbulence throughout history, even during the time of a composer who died before he was born. PDQ Bach's insightful parody of both rap and classical music illustrates how complex affects and defenses involving shame and pride perennially coexist on the "upper upper upper West Side" of New York City - and elsewhere in the human psyche. Just listen!
PDQ Bach Website: www.schickelecom/pdqbio.htm
Rosen, C. 1996, Arnold Schoenberg. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Slonimsky, N. 1953. Lexicon of musical invective. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.
Presented at Michigan Psychoanalytic Institute/Association for Psychoanalytic
Feb. 18, 2007