Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Collaborating for Capital
During the charity single "True Colors," there comes a moment when somebody raps a verse. The rap is not part of the original Cyndi Lauper version. Despite this, its appearance on the single is so utterly predictable that this must say something about the state of pop music in the twenty first century. The seemingly random, but carefully placed hip hop verse in pop songs has a history in music to the point where the verse is almost expected. Its inclusion in a pop song is indicative of wider trends in pop music. In this paper, I will argue that the hip hop verse is a coldly business transaction, a process by which both the pop artist and the rapper gain capital by collaboration. In order to do so, I will be drawing upon Theodor Adorno's theory of culture industry, Pierre Bourdieu's theory of social capital and a statistical methodology to examine select superlative examples.
The guest verse is currently a dominant trend within pop music. On the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, one out of three songs has a "featuring..." descriptor. The Billboard charts are not the ultimate measure of success for any performer or artist, but for the purposes of this argument, it is worth noting that "rank creates a status symbol for and of the performer" (Hakanen 104). The tool of the chart "easily define the art today as quantifiable, common, accessible, technological, digital, etc, rather than as quality, unique, obscure, artistry, analogy—a process of graphic simplicity" (108–09). For this argument, the reliance on the Billboard charts is to deploy the song as quantifiable commodity, which feeds into the logic of the song as actualization of social capital.
The verse has a long and storied history, and is culturally prevalent enough that the website TVTropes (meant to exhaustively catalog every possible cultural permutation) has an article on the guest verse called, "A Wild Rapper Appears" — the title of which refers to the seemingly random inclusion. However, this randomness is illusory. The inclusion of the guest verse is pointedly strategic, an effort to reach all possible consumers within a highly fractured but overlapping collection of markets. The various Billboard charts always share songs. Rarely does one song only rise up one particular discrete chart. This would, of course, speak to the globalization of pop and the culture industry.
According to Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, the culture industry is separate from mass culture in that in the logic of late capitalism, the profit motive is transferred to cultural forms so that artistic products are being turned into commodities, marketable and interchangeable like industrial products. There are various branches of the culture industry, and "the individual branches are similar in structure or at least fit into each other, ordering themselves into a system almost without a gap" (Adorno 12). In this framework, hip-hop and pop music can be understood as individual branches of the music industry — without a gap between them in order to facilitate greater amounts of profit.
Even before the guest verse, the crossover hit existed as a way to reach the maximum possibility of market penetration. For example, Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine were already popular in Latin music markets when they switched to English language songs with 1985's Primitive Love. "Conga", a Latin-infused breathlessly paced march of a song, charted within the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 and within the top twenty on the Club Music chart in 1985. The artist's conscious decision to record in English allowed for a greater, wider market penetration and thus, the profit motive was written "naked onto [the] cultural form" (Adorno 13). Now, the culture industry, as exemplified by the crossover hit, "is the direct and undisguised primacy of a precisely and thoroughly calculated efficacy" (13). The pop song's interest in the expression of feelings is no longer the first concern, but merely a secondary or even tertiary goal. Rather, the pop song is a commodity meant to accumulate capital through the circulation in multiple markets. Rather than an entire song being a crossover, the guest verse atomizes the crossover element and allows for increased marketability and, thus, profitability. Instead of alienating one audience, such as Gloria Estefan's Spanish-speaking audience, the guest verse allows for all audiences to participate in the consumption of the pop song.
At this point, it is worth introducing the idea that rap and hip hop culture were originally underground movements. Hip hop is predominantly a subculture developed from African American communities, traditionally not the wealthy white hegemony. Hip hop culture includes the method of vocal delivery called rapping, but hip hop songs do not necessarily need to include raps. Rather, hip hop culture refers to an entire set of practices, from DJing to rapping to dancing and to graffiti art. The 1980s are considered the golden age of hip hop due to the wide geographic and aesthetic expansion of the genre. Emblematic of this expansion is Public Enemy and their 1988 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Joshua Clover points to their song "Don't Believe the Hype" as an example of the widening of the genre. He writes, "communication must cross lines of class, race, and geography to exceed subcultural status" (Clover 32). For Public Enemy, the crossing of charts sustains the political aim of the song, which is fundamentally didactic. While "Don't Believe the Hype" and other songs charted well — not only in the hip hop chart but as well in the Club and Dance charts, this particular track did not enjoy the commercial success of Run–D.M.C.'s collaboration with Aerosmith called "Walk This Way".
"Walk This Way," a song from Aerosmith's 1975 album Toys in the Attic was remade by Run–D.M.C. with production from Rick Rubin. Run–D.M.C.'s version was released in 1986 and gained access to the top five slots on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It is a fortuitous collaboration in that both artists benefited from the song's success. "Walk This Way" was Run–D.M.C.'s first single to chart on the Hot 100 and opened the door for other singles to chart. For Aerosmith's appearance on the track, which charted on the Hip Hop Chart as well, they were rewarded with a string of successful albums and singles, starting with 1987's Permanent Vacation. Aerosmith's collaboration with Run–D.M.C. allowed for their introduction to a whole new market. While they never charted on the Hip Hop chart ever again, Aerosmith's second comeback (after their unsuccessful first comeback album in 1985) speaks to their accumulation of social capital from proximity to Run–D.M.C.
According to Pierre Bourdieu, capital is accumulated labor which, when appropriated by an agent, enables them to appropriate social energy in the form of living labor. That is to say that, through labor, capital exchanged for other forms of capital. This process of transubstantiation allows for the noneconomic immaterial form of social or cultural connections to be actualized. Bourdieu's third form of capital, social capitral, is defined as a network of institutionalized relationships which provides each member with the backing of the collectively owned capital. For Run–D.M.C. and Aerosmith, each brings to the table their individually owned capital. Aerosmith brings the pedigree of a successful rock group, and thus, chart success, while Run–D.M.C. brings the relatively underground social status of hip hop to Aerosmith. The actualization of the social capital comes not from the individual artists on the track, but rather, the power comes from the exchange. The volume of social capital possessed by the individual is correlated with the amount of social connections the individual can utilize. Of those social connections, the more they have, the greater the social capital being utilized by the individual. Thus, according to Bourdieu's theory, Run–D.M.C. is benefiting from the exchange embodied in the pop/hip hop crossover song "Walk This Way".
While not the first example of hip hop collaboration, "Walk This Way" opened the door to other collaborations until the culture industry unconsciously realized the potential of such social capital. The deregulation of markets in the 1980s allowed for record companies to consume, subsume and obliterate any and all competition in the free market (Harvey 7). Thus, the advent of neoliberalism had a distinct effect on the culture industry. In the late 1990s, the merger of most record labels into four major labels has created a homogeneity across the charts, which can be seen in the constant overlapping of charts. The prevalence of one hit wonders continues to decrease, as traditionally, these songs come from smaller record labels. One effect of the corporate mergers is the increased prevalence of the hip hop collaboration. Thus, "homogenization of music and corporate ownership and influence helped to cross hip-hop music over into the mainstream" (Myer 145). This vertical integration of corporate agents serves to control, from top to bottom, the production of the pop song, fitting neatly into Adorno's concept of the culture industry. Previously, when hip hop was underground, there was "a disincentive to the free collaboration among popular artists. A rapper does not want to help the record sales of his or her rival" (Smith 9) but with this trend of merging, this is no longer the case.
Even if the two artists come from different record labels, the exchange of social capital is beneficial to the discrete record labels. For example, Katy Perry's 2011 single, "E.T." comes from her album Teenage Dream on the Capitol label. The album version of the song was released as a single, and later, a remix featuring Kanye West, from the Def Jam label, on a guest verse was released and subsequently charted. The solo version of "E.T." charted on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 42. Later, when the song was remixed to include Kanye West, the song topped the chart. "E.T." also charted on the Billboard R&B/Hip Hop songs chart, coming in at number 83. For Katy Perry, the inclusion of Kanye West introduces her single into a chart she has yet to dominate as she has the other charts. Katy Perry's first single from the Teenage Dream album "California Gurls" features a guest verse from hip hop legend Snoop Dogg. Despite this, "California Gurls" did not chart on the hip hop chart. While it was successful on other charts, this particular actualization of collaborating with a rapper proved unsuccessful. This is due to the relative social capital of the two rappers in question. Kanye West is currently one of the highest selling artists, consistently charting high in the Billboard Hot 100. On the other hand, Snoop Dogg's success in the same time period is not quite as high. His only number one single on the Hot 100 was "Drop It Like It's Hot" whereas West has six singles in the top five. Thus, West has accumulated more social capital for Katy Perry to utilize. This would help explain "California Gurls" absence from the R&B/Hip hop chart.
This relationship between the three artists can be helpfully quantified. As Bourdieu notes, the point to social capital is the ability to exchange social connections for economic capital (Bourdieu 47). The whole purpose is the ability to convert Kanye's and Snoop's crossover appeal into dollars. Thus, "California Gurls" was certified a four times platinum record and "E.T." was certified five times platinum, putting them both in the higher echelons of record/digital sales for 2011. As predicted by the chart positions due to Kanye's superior social capital, "E.T." outsold "California Gurls". On Youtube, "California Gurls" has 59,432,746 views but "E.T." has 207,042,591 views. While Katy Perry seems to benefit the most from these sales, ultimately it is the Capitol Records label that actualizes the most profit.
While both songs are different tonally and sonically, their structure betrays their homogeneity. As with the "True Colors" charity single, along with a host of other pop songs, the guest verse uniformly appears at the same moment: after the second verse and the second chorus, and before the bridge of the song and the key change, segueing into the final refrain of the chorus. Only "E.T." has the rapper at the beginning — and at the predicted spot.
In other songs, including covers and remakes of rock songs, the guest verse is imminently predictable in its place within the song. In Alyssa Reid's song "Alone Again" reworks the first verse and chorus of Heart's "Alone". However, Reid's version deploys a hip hop verse at the predictable juncture from rapper P Reign. Not only does Reid benefit from the urban recognition in the form of P Reign's participation, but P Reign, an almost entirely unknown artist outside of Canadian hip hop (obviously not the dominant), benefits from the increased exposure. It is entirely irrelevant that the song is brutally bland and P Reign's verse is childlike in its rhymes. What matters is that the song charts higher because of P Reign's guest verse. "Alone Again" hit spot number 11 on the Canadian Hot 100 whereas her follow up single, "The Game" only managed to hit the 35th spot. If Alyssa Reid, or rather her record label, had mobilized another guest verse, no doubt the single would have fared much better.
In conclusion, the hip hop verse on the pop song works by increasing the economic capital of both parties by relying on each other's social capital. The pop song is fundamentally a commodity produced by the culture industry that wants to capitalize on the reputations and different market attraction of the individuals participating. While it seems obvious that the guest verse is designed to attract listeners previously unfamiliar with the artist, it is worth examining within the context of Adorno's culture industry and Bourdieu's social capital. After hearing pop song after pop song, and guest verse after guest verse, the songs are predictable in their structure and form. This is why the guest verse in "True Colors" is so utterly bland and exhausting.
Adorno, Theodor. "Culture Industry Reconsidered." New German Critique 6 (1975): 12-19. Print.
Bourdieu, Pierre. "Social Capital." Handbook of Theory of Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed. J. F. Richardson. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1986. 241-58. Print.
Clover, Joshua. 1989. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. Print.
Hakanen, Ernest A. "Counting Down to Number One: The Evolution of the Meeting of Popular Music Charts." Popular Music 17.1 (1998): 95–111.
Harvey, David. A Brief History of Neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.
Myer, Letrez & Kleck Christine. "From Independent to Corporate: A Political Economic Analysis of Rap Billboard Toppers." Popular Music and Society 30.2: 137-148. Print.
Smith, Reginald D. "The network of collaboration among rappers and its community structure." Journal of Statistical Mechanics: Theory and Experiment P02006 (2006) n. pag. Web. December 3, 2012.