Features | Awards

The Michele Bachmann Award for Transparent Attempts at Populism

By Joel Elliott | 15 December 2011

Jay-Z

Don’t get me wrong, I love Watch the Throne. Call it a morally convenient framework that I choose to see desperation or self-destruction in the line “I got the whole city / They about to go off,” rather than just an overstretched metaphor from two rappers who have long ceased to convincingly embody that sense of struggle which has often made even the most rocket fuel-powered rappers seem relatable. Like all pop detritus, half the fun is trying to reduce this massive, inscrutable excess to manageable chunks, with the recognition that it’s more of an exercise in the depths of interpretation than a reflection of artistic intent.

In that respect, every single re-cap of the album on year-end lists has gone to great lengths to try and justify it in the context of a worldwide movement inseparable from a basic sense of economic justice, which either says something positive about the reach of political consciousness in the world right now, or the inability of cultural critics to accept that maybe, holed up in Hawaii or wherever, a couple of uber-rich celebrities might actually be out of touch. I’d go with the latter, though it might also be why the album has such a weird appeal: solely by virtue of its contrast with the wider world, it feels like a way of life under siege, a relic of excess like Marie Antoinette holed up in her castle eating cake. After all, how long can you talk about your luxury goods before it looks like you’re wrapping your arms around them, leering waywardly in either direction?

Nothing’s at stake in any material way: a nation that can’t reverse the richest percentile’s tax rate to the pre-Reagan era isn’t going to make a dent in the fortunes of a guy who can make quick profits off the most seemingly un-co-optable movement in recent history. Though, maybe, hopefully, it might make him irrelevant. Because a trait that, on his records, has been insulated by the ambivalence of music and just his sheer unquestionable skill is left naked when Jigga tries to sell clothes. The “Occupy All Streets” t-shirts are a lot harder to ignore than, say, that time he name-dropped Che Guevera. With the “W” in “Wall Street” scratched out and an “s” added to the end, the most powerful rapper in the world wants you to know that he’s so subversive he’s even subverting the radicals.

It’s almost too obvious to mention but needs to be said continually anyway for the sake of some collective sanity: a man who is clearly part of the 1% and perfectly happy to be has no business going anywhere near the Occupy movement. “There is change to be made everywhere,” he declared, which is exactly as vague as you want it to be (“It is time to Occupy Rodeo Drive, because my wristwatch needs CHANGE”), a yawning, dark chasm that swallows meaning whole and is as haunting in its empty facade of real humanity as Halley Joel Osmond’s replica of dinnertime congeniality. Joke’s on us, for now.