Saturday, 28 April 2018

Noah Smith on capitalist lyrics in rap

Noah Smith wrote back in 2015:
The economics of rap lyrics would be an interesting subject for a pop econ book...
One interesting thing is how overwhelmingly capitalist this theme is. A number of (white) lefty humanities students I meet are quite enamored of rap, viewing it as a form of protest against the structural injustice of the capitalist system. But barely any of that has been popular for many years now. The overwhelming majority of the mainstream popular rap music from the last decade and a half has been about working hard, taking risks, reaping financial rewards, and enjoying a money-driven status-conscious consumerist lifestyle. In other words, a total and utter embrace of the capitalist dream. Of course, the successful business exploits of rappers themselves are now well-known; the capitalist dream goes way beyond music-making.
Modern rap also puts the lie to the idea, popular in right-wing media, that rap encourages a culture of poverty. That was true of gangsta rap - even if he amasses money and power, a gangster is expected to stay in his community and remain true to the lifestyle of the streets (much like the ideal of noble poverty in chivalric fiction). But modern capitalist rap is about hard work and risk-taking in the pursuit of prosperity - exactly the kind of values conservatives ostensibly want people to have. Ludacris, whose music O'Reilly has repeatedly failed to recognize for the satire that it is, even has a song advocating Randian selfishness...
I don't think I'm reading too much into these songs, either; rappers themselves are obviously acutely aware of the importance of good formal economic institutions.
The music industry, including rappers, is characterised by tournament effects. With tournament effects (which I have written about before in the context of CEOs and football players), a small group of highly successful people earn a lot, while many others accept low pay in exchange for the chance to become one of the highly successful few at some point in the future. We probably really on get to see or hear about the success stories, while the less successful fade into obscurity. And no economist would be surprised that the successful rappers are those that act like rational business owners trying to maximise their profits, which is what we expect from capitalists.

Still, I encourage you to read the whole of Noah's post. I'm not a fan of rap (rap rock like Hollywood Undead, on the other hand, is a different story). However, reading that blog post reminded me of the first verse of Forgot about Dre, and the silver Ferrari in the music video:

Capitalism writ large.

[HT: Marginal Revolution just this week, even though it was a 2015 Noah Smith post!]

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