Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Rap Music: When Comedy Meets Poignancy

There are a couple things you may not know. First, this is Hip Hop Appreciation Week. Yes, it’s an actual thing. And second, hip hop is my second favorite genre of music. It may be hard to believe, but it’s true. Second only to my love of instrumental motion picture scores is my love of rap.

In fact, I’ve played around with the possibility of writing and recording some of my own rap music. If I did, you could then call me by my hip hop name: Skittles. (M&M is already taken…sort of.)

Rap songs have the unique ability to contain boatloads of information, which, depending on how the format is utilized, can lend itself well to either serious and weighty meditation or outlandish humor. I love both uses. So, in honor of Hip Hop Appreciation Week, I wanted to share some of my favorite rap songs/videos with you. I don’t necessarily think these are the cream of the crop from an aesthetic standpoint—only that I myself enjoy them immensely. I’ve divided my list into two groups: humorous rap songs and serious rap songs. We’ll start with the humorous ones first.

Top 5 Humorous Rap Songs

5. “Yo Mama Battle (of Compliments)” (Rhett & Link)

It’s hard to pick a favorite of Rhett and Link’s hip hop songs, but I like this one because of the twist on a rap battle (i.e., compliments instead of insults) and the cleverness of the lyrics. (My wife likes the “Epic Rap Battle of Manliness” better.)


4. “White and Nerdy” (Weird Al)

Weird Al’s parody skills are exceptional, and this hip hop song is…well, no exception.


3. “Tears of a Rapper” (Flight of the Conchords)

This song comes from the Fight of the Conchords TV show. The lyrics this dynamic duo comes up with are often hilarious. Unfortunately, the song cannot be imbedded, so here is the link. (Warning: song contains some language.)













2. “See You on Monday” (Roman Johnson)

Slathered with delicious lyrics, this song about a man pining for Chick-fil-A on a Sunday (when the restaurant chain is closed) is a real treat.


1. “Swagger Wagon” (Toyota)

Created by Toyota (yep, the car company), this is a clever and slick piece of marketing. As a standalone song (and music video), it’s an intense and entertaining laugh-fest.


Top 5 Serious Rap Songs

5. “Can I Live?” (Nick Cannon)

This song wears its message on its sleeve, but I still love it for two reasons: 1) it’s a message I’m passionate about, and 2) the “twist” ending gives the piece a nice rhetorical boost.



4. “Atonement Q&A” (Shai Linne)

This is a theologian’s dream: a hip hop catechism. Through a series of questions and answers, Shai Linne explains the nature, extent, and beauty of Christ’s atonement.


3. “The Interview” (Timothy Brindle)

Although this could technically fit in the humorous category, it still deals with a serious topic: finding and rooting out the sin in one’s life. Arranged in the form of an interview, and filled with clever lyrics/banter, this song expertly sets up the rest of Brindle’s Killing Sin album. (Yes, I know the album’s artwork leaves much to be desired; just focus on the words of the song.)


2. “Far Away” (Lecrae)

Written as a source of encouragement to those experiencing suffering, Lecrae dedicated all royalties to this song toward relief work in Haiti after a 2010 earthquake killed hundreds of thousands of people.


1. “Rebel” (Lecrae)

Lecrae is my favorite rapper, so it’s hard to pick my top selection from him. At long last, I decided on this one simply because I listen to it more than just about any of his other songs. (This music video is not officially from Lecrae, but I found it more visually interesting than those with just words on the screen.)

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Why Don’t More Christians Like “Fifty Shades of Grey”?

Let me tell you about a film that’s garnered a lot of publicity. The story revolves around a wealthy and debonair businessman with serious control issues. His sexual tastes involve perverse fantasies, but he gets what he wants because he’s rich, powerful, and handsome. In telling this story, the movie doesn’t shy away from depictions of the sex act. The audience is inundated with sex, in fact. The debauchery is enough to make a lot of people sick, either with revulsion, pleasure, or a mixture of both.

Do you think I’m talking about Fifty Shades of Grey? Actually, I’m referring to The Wolf of Wall Street, which came out on DVD just last year.

Many prominent Christian critics loved WoWS, as I pointed out earlier. Fifty Shades of Grey, on the other hand, has been either ignored or condemned. And yet there are some glaring similarities in how both movies handle sex.

They both employ stylistic techniques that were labeled as hardcore porn just a few decades ago. These techniques involve the filming of partially and/or fully nude actors who are engaged in sexual behavior with one another.

Both films dehumanize the actors who star in them. For WoWS, this is especially true for actor Margot Robbie, who is treated like a piece of meat. For Fifty Shades, the objectification of Dakota Johnson took a toll on both of the main actors, as evidenced by several cast interviews. Consider the following snippet from Glamour:

JAMIE: There were times when Dakota was not wearing much, and I had to do stuff to her that I’d never choose to do to a woman.

DAKOTA: It’s stressful enough to be tied to a bed naked in a scene. But then they call cut, and you’re still tied to the bed, naked. Jamie would be the first one to throw a blanket over me.

JAMIE: I felt very protective and aware that it probably wasn’t easy for her to be put in those situations, and exposed. . . .

DAKOTA: Sometimes
I did walk off the set feeling a bit shell-shocked. The drive home from work always helped me snap out of it. And a big glass of wine.

Or consider this excerpt from Johnson in TIME:

It was emotionally taxing. At first I was like, “Oh my God, this is the worst thing ever,” and then I was like, “All right, let’s get on with it.”

Johnson’s psychological distress is a milder version of the sexual trauma actors experience in the world of porn.

Am I going out on a limb by comparing these films to pornography? Not in the least. Reviewers of The Wolf of Wall Street—including those who loved the film—refer to it as being sexually explicit in the extreme (something we’ve examined in detail before). When a movie is “replete with…acts of sexual depravity” and “borderline NC-17,” how can its pornographic overtones be denied?

Similarly, audiences and critics alike have associated Fifty Shades with porn. Mike McGranaghan writes, “At its core, this is a rape fantasy. . . . If you think rape is a turn-on, this is the film for you.” Movie reviewer Gary Wolcott says, “Fifty Shades of Grey is basically a beautifully filmed, expensive piece of soft core pornography. It gives you the most explicit sex, bondage and spanking you’ll see this side of an Internet porn site.”

But that’s not all. There are ways in which The Wolf of Wall Street is actually more problematic than Fifty Shades. For example, the former has more sexually explicit content than the latter. WoWS has somewhere close to 22 sex scenes, whereas Fifty Shades involves the main characters having sex less than ten times.

And what about the use of the male gaze (which influences most mainstream sex scenes)? The visual objectification of the female form plays a prominent role in WoWS. While still succumbing to the male gaze in many respects, Fifty Shades reveals several aesthetic choices that speak more to a female audience.

With these considerations, how can Christians call WoWS a “great and possibly terrific movie while rejecting Fifty Shades out of hand because “frankly, life is too short”?

There are several answers to this question, I’m sure, but the one I’ve heard most often goes something like this: the message of Fifty Shades is bad, but the message of WoWS is good. WoWS shows how carnal and corrupt the main character really is, while Fifty Shades puts a positive spin on sexual abuse and manipulation.

In response, it could be argued that the overall trajectory of the Fifty Shades trilogy is actually a story about true love. After all, the narrative acknowledges the detrimental nature of Christian Grey’s sexual excursions. His abusive ways are rooted in the abuse he himself received. His character arc involves going from a hardened cynic into a true romantic—all because of the transforming power of love.

Even if you think that explanation is hogwash, there is an even deeper problem with the Christian’s argument that WoWS is commendable and Fifty Shades is condemnable. It’s found, among other places, in a Christianity Today article on Fifty Shades. The film, it says, “has no real cogent moral or cultural point buried within.” The implicit idea here is that if we could discern a moral point (even without changing the pornographic elements of the film), the story would become worthy of our patronage.

That line of reasoning, however, is not credible. Since when does a code of Christian sexual ethics submit to the principle that the ends justify the means? We would never blatantly say all storytelling methods are fair game so long as the message of a story is a moral one.

And yet it seems as if we’re trying to smuggle a deadly principle into our Christianity—the idea that the right thing pursued through the wrong means actually isn’t that bad after all. In effect, we are saying that a filmmaker can borrow techniques from the world of porn and somehow not subvert a film’s moral message. We’d be shocked and ashamed to see religious retail stores market “Christian porn,” but we’re quick to patronize pornographic content—so long as it is labeled as mainstream and comes with a worthwhile moral/cultural point.

So, I’ll end this piece right back where it began: Why don’t more Christians like Fifty Shades of Grey?