THREE 6 UNLEASH HELL STORM
you can hate them now
Perhaps I was naive but I am surprised by the intense response Three 6 Mafia's Oscar win on Sunday has brought out of people. Personally, I thought it was a great moment in the show - the group's surprise and joy at winning was palatable and gave an otherwise dull night a nice shot in the arm.
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Did I have reservations about the song they were singing and its content? Certainly. For starters...the song is wack. This isn't an anti-Three 6 sentiment: I know diehard fans of the group who think the song is terrible too. It's just really generic and boring (compare with "Stay Fly"). Second of all, like many, I'm wary of how pimping has become mainstream without a bat of an eye. I saw a baby onesie the other day that read - I swear to God, no joke - "Pimpin' Ain't Easy." It's enough to make you want to pimp-slap what idiot parent would actually buy that for their baby. Pimping, lest we forget, is about exploiting women for sexual labor. There's nothing particularly upstanding or worth celebrating about that: they're vultures by trade (well-dressed, charismatic perhaps, but still bottom-feeding parasites nonetheless).
On that level, I have sympathies with people who think the Three 6 performance was a bad look though I personally find calling it "a coon show" (as I've seen the term thrown around) is rather excessive. Let's just put this in perspective: on the grand scale of "objectionable content," "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" is kind of banal. You see far, far, far worse on BET every single day. The only difference, I suppose, is that many of the people who have their knickers in a twist are folks who don't ordinarily watch, say, "Rap City" but do happen to watch the Oscars and for them, Three 6 did something shocking and new which, to the rest of us, doesn't seem that outrageous. Hell, it was even mildly interesting given the interpretive dance number that went along with the song (hey, it was better than that song from Crash).
What this debate helps bring to the surface is the tension within the Black community (and others too, to be fair) over the power and politics of "positive vs. negative" images and believe me, this is an eternal debate within Asian American circles too. Personally, I think it's an important debate to have even if it does feel like the argument just goes in circles after a while. The current furor is merely an extension of what people like Spike Lee, Bill Cosby and Aaron McGruder have already put out into public consumption and conversation: they (and many more) are all sick over what they see as the moral paucity of today's hip-hop culture. You may not agree with their stance but I do think it's important to discuss the issue since I think both sides of this debate could stand to learn from the other.
What I think has been problematic though is this intense need to somehow hold Three 6 Mafia accountable. Personally, you may not like their music but unless you've actually bothered to listen to more than "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp," it seems presumptuous for anyone to pass judgment on the group as a whole. (Of course, if you do review their catalog, you'll find plenty of things far, far, far more objectionable than "It's Hard Out Here," assuming you find the latter objectionable to begin with.)
People want to blame Three 6 for doing something bad and from where I'm sitting: they were accorded an "honor" (feel free to debate whether that's actually true or not but hear me out) and they chose to perform their song to a national audience. Now, this is what's called in the music industry as a "no-brainer." You take the gig.
For those who think Three 6 shouldn't have, I have to ask: should Denzel Washington not have taken the role in Training Day that won him the Oscar? Should Halle have passed on the Monster's Ball role that she won an Oscar for? I've heard people criticize the Academy for only giving Awards to Black actors when they play "problematic" characters (which is an interesting argument but actually doesn't explain any of wins/nominatoins that have gone to Sidney Poitier, Morgan Freeman - "Driving Miss Daisy" excepted I suppose - Cuba Gooding Jr., Don Cheadle, or Sophie Okonedo). However, I've yet to hear a chorus of voices criticizing Denzel or Halle for taking the roles they did. It doesn't make sense to me then that Three 6 are suddenly the bad guys in this arrangement because they chose to write a song for a movie then perform it, even if the song in question rankles people. To me, this just smacks of an anti-hip-hop attitude; something not uncommon amongst both an older generation as well as holier-than-thou youngsters who think the only rap artists who should be allowed to record albums are Mos Def and Common.
Point two: I can't see why anyone cares if the Oscars is choosing to validate the song or not since caring actually gives the Oscars power as a cultural institution when it comes to hip-hop. I care about the Academy's taste in hip-hop as much as I care for the Grammies, which is to say: not at all. People are mad at the Oscars for not recognizing "real hip-hop" (which begs the question of "what's real?") as if we're supposed to EXPECT them to know good music. I can understand that people don't respect the institution yet respect its power but if you're expecting the Oscars to validate what is "good" hip-hop - to Middle America or anyone else - you're affording them far more power than they deserve.
Point three: Along the same lines, people are arguing, "why this Three 6 song? Why not 'Fight the Power?" On NPR the other day, someone was complaining that none of Diana Reeves songs from Good Night and Good Luck were nominated. Well, guess what? Her songs weren't eligible because none of them were original compositions. I don't know if Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" (which appeared in Do the Right Thing) was written expressly for that soundtrack which would have made it ineligible too. People need to get their facts right before making complaints. (This all said, I do have to agree: I can't believe they couldn't have found better songs to nominate. You mean there wasn't a Randy Newman/Disney joint up for consideration?)
Lastly, I thought this Washington Post article (thanks to the person who hepped me to it in the comments) makes an excellent argument, one that I'm much more sympathetic to:
- "And so "It's hard out here for a pimp" enters white culture, as so many black memes do, with a wink and a nod. Of course your great aunt sitting down the table complaining in an impeccably white way that it's not easy for a pimp isn't thinking about real pimps. She may not even know what real pimps do. But that doesn't matter. Black memes in "white culture" are vaguely scandalous, used with a wink and nod that say, "I know this is transgressive, but I'm not going to learn anything more about it."
There was actually a brilliant dissection of this trend in South Park episode a few years back where Chef (Isaac Hayes) complained that more outlandish the phrase, the more white people want to use it in order to display their ironic sense of hipness. No doubt, this can only mean that "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" will end up in an Adam Samberg/SNL skit soon.
I called it first.
UPDATE: Good god...this was sent in my Poplicks reader KH: Republican congressman, Jack Kingston tries to play off "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp" to tout - I cannot believe this - Republican welfare reform.
It's not even clever. The song title, let us remind people is, "It's hard out here for a pimp" but Kingston is trying to flip on it by saying, "It ain't hard out there to find a job." The insertion of "ain't" is particularly galling since it's Kingston's attempt to "ebonicize" his press release and make himself sound hipper. What a jackass.