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New American Songbook

New American Songbook: Hip Hop and Postmodernism


There’s a scene in the third Mad Max movie, ‘Beyond Thunderdome’, where Max, recently banished from Bartertown, wakes up surrounded by children convinced he’s their messiah, Captain Walker. As they relay their mythology, they make use of familiar objects, or rather they make mis-use of objects: records become prayer-wheels, picture frames now move across rock paintings to keep place in the story. All of their stuff is pre-apocalyptic, including the functions of it. Now, after the apocalypse, the artifacts have lost most of their original context and usefulness, leaving the children free to make new associations.

While our world might not be in a literal post-apocalypse, at the close of the last millennium a lot of theory sure felt that way. Postmodernism seemed to articulate this kind of Mad Max-ian ideology: the collapse of distance between high art and low brow, a desert of objects detached from meaning; the unifying concept driven by economist Francis Fukuyama’s famous line about ‘the end of history’.

Hip hop seemed a natural fit for postmodernism. Initially, its construction of forms seemed similar to the children in Mad Max: scraping together artifacts whose meanings had been zeroed out or forgotten, and using them to create new forms. But I’ve always wondered if there wasn’t something else going on. Postmodernism was, in popular culture, a celebration of the erasure of the oppressive forms of the past, but at the cost of genuine meaning. Hip hop has always been about holding on to meaning and identity in the face of often literal erasure. In a world at the end of history, hip hop used postmodernism’s frenetic eclecticism to resist the impulse towards amnesia, reconstructing the past in order to preserve it, and ultimately, to preserve ourselves.