Wednesday, December 31, 2014

In Defense of Iggy Azalea

Lately the interwebs are clamoring with the din of self-styled culture critics bemoaning, dismissing and even denouncing Iggy Azalea, the callipygian blonde rapper from Down Under who, against the odds and to the consternation of many, dominated the summer music charts and won Best Rap Artist and Best Hip Hop Album at the American Music Awards last month.

This cacophony of disparagement has led me, in typical contrarian fashion, to give Iggy's work a much closer look than I would ordinarily bestow upon music that enjoys this much popularity, and after much study and consideration I've come to the conclusion that even though it's understandable that some people might not appreciate Iggy's sound, substance or style, you kind of have to marvel at the character and charisma that got her where she is today.

I know, I know, you're thinking, "But Amanda, I thought you hated popular music, and only listened to underappreciated musical geniuses like Buck 65 and Jim White!" It's true, I'm a snob. But I'm not ashamed to admit it—the reality is that Iggy Azalea's guts, passion and audacity won me over. I think she's sort of a miracle. Observing her career is a bit like watching a giraffe roller skating—the wonder isn't that she's actually pretty good, it's that she's rapping in the first place. It must have taken a stupendous amount of tenacity to get her where she is today. Can you even imagine how many times Iggy was told that her dream—to be a rapper like her hero 2Pac—was not only ridiculous, impossible and weird, but wrong, racist or downright immoral? Think how hard it must have been to be taken seriously in the intimidating, hyper-masculine world of Dirty South hip hop as a 16-year-old white girl from the other side of the world with nothing to ride on but a pretty face, a fat ass and a truckload of courage.

So I thought I'd address her detractors and break down their points one by one, because I basically disagree with everything they're saying. I'm not going to call out any of them by name, because giving them the attention they crave only feeds the beast. But if you're curious, it's easy enough to find a gaggle of mean girls, illiterate zealots, attention whores and holier-than-thou Authorities On All Things Black maligning Iggy on whatever social media platform you search.

First, and most damningly, we have the accusation of minstrelsy—that Iggy is making fun of black culture by donning a kind of "blackface" and prancing around pretending to be black. However, if you parse her lyrics and lifestyle, it's obvious that Iggy adores hip hop, and has been in love with it since the day she first heard 2Pac's "Baby Don't Cry (Keep Ya Head Up II)" at a friend's house at the age of 12. That moment was an epiphany for her, and she soon became obsessed with learning rap lyrics and dissecting their form and meaning. She was moved by 2Pac's complexity and intelligence, and her soul responded to the humanity and vulnerability in his lyrics. That was the spark that ignited the dream within her. Iggy says that when she was a kid, hearing rap music made her feel happy and strong and like she had "a friend that was music." By the time she was 14, she had started rapping herself, to much ridicule and discouragement from her peers.

This criticism seems to be based on the idea that somehow a white person doing "black things" makes a mockery of black people. That somehow Iggy's very whiteness and foreignness makes her ATL-inflected vocal delivery a caricature of everything true and fine in hip hop. But this isn't a case of a singer dancing around in a Native American headdress or geisha costume for our entertainment. Iggy has immersed herself in hip hop culture as deeply as any white girl from Australia could ever get. She loves it so much she identifies with it as her main source of emotional support and creative inspiration. In any other context, wouldn't the theory that it's insulting to admire someone so much that you want to grow up to be just like them be a bit strange? These purists insist that appreciation and emulation of traditionally black art forms—fundamental to the careers of artists like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones, not to mention Picasso and Gauguin—is racist.

But I'm sorry, that train left the station a long while back. Thirty-odd years ago, when I first saw a skinny white boy from the backwoods of Vermont acting like he grew up in the South Bronx, I was perplexed and a little weirded out. These days, it's not even worth a second glance. Today, hip hop is being practiced in every culture of the world. Is it racist when Tuvan throat singers or Cambodian ghetto kids rap while copping a black attitude? Is it racist when a Korean-American Angeleno like Dumbfoundead employs African-American slang and intonation in his music? Not to mention the glaringly obvious fact that three pasty Jewish boys are accepted and even lauded for being among the groundbreaking artists like Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy who finally got hip hop out to the masses via widespread radioplay. The truth is that this sort of self-segregation does the black community no favors. The connection hip hop has forged with every culture of the world is unifying and can only help people understand and appreciate black culture more as it ramifies farther, spreading its tendrils into every corner of the earth. No one is ever going to forget where hip hop came from, but it belongs to the world now.

Many black people seem to be incredulous that a white girl could uncynically love their music. This is a phenomenon I've encountered myself. I listen to a lot of hip hop—from 2Pac and Wu Tang to Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar—and when people happen to encounter one of my playlists in my car or at the gym, I get open-mouthed double-takes, as if there's something fantastically peculiar about a white woman enjoying black music. Even the legendary Q-Tip fell for this stereotype recently, when he felt the urge to very gently explain the history of hip hop to Iggy on Twitter, as if in her 13 years of being obsessed with the medium, she had never thought to look it up on Wikipedia. Well-meaning though it likely was, it's a bit patronizing to assume that someone in her position is both incurious and uneducated about her chosen field of endeavor.

There also seems to be a feeling that someone like Iggy can't understand what it's like to really suffer—seemingly a prerequisite for being a rapper—and that therefore she has nothing worth saying in her music. She hasn't been oppressed, so her passion for hip hop has no legitimacy. Pretty, privileged white girls like Iggy should concentrate on appropriate goals, like being a model or some famous person's girlfriend, rather than trying to be taken seriously for doing something difficult and possibly unseemly. While it's true that most white people don't experience hardships to compare with growing up black in America, everyone experiences their own suffering subjectively. Perhaps you can't compare the oppression of being a black youth in American society to growing up the way Iggy did—the ugly duckling in a backwater town where people like to crush your dreams—but each person's suffering feels real and legitimate to them personally. I grew up in a town like that, where everyone rejected the very essence of who you believe yourself to be, so I would never discount the pain that can cause in a person's heart.

These critics seem to feel that Iggy sprang out of nowhere like some dewy starlet from suburbia freshly minted on American Idol. But not only has Iggy been struggling to refine her skills and make it in the rap game for years—and she has mixtapes like Ignorant Art, Fever Pitch, TrapGold and Glory to prove it—she also grew up poor in a mud-brick house in the tiny outback town of Mullumbimby, raised by a single mother who supported the family cleaning houses after Iggy's mentally ill father abandoned them. "It's a two-street shithole, where I worked on the farm and looked after cows," Iggy explained. "Nobody wears high heels there. Rap focuses on excessive shit, but growing up, I'd get one pair of shoes for the entire year." Iggy recalls feeling overwhelmingly sad and alone as a teenager. "I was just miserable for a lot of different reasons," she said.  "Things seemed so hopeless where I was, and I needed something to change... I just needed to get away and escape everything."

At 15, Iggy dropped out of school so she could work full time cleaning houses and scrubbing hotel floors in order to earn enough money to escape the trap of small-town small-mindedness she was born into, and save up enough money to follow her dream to move to America to become a rapper. "When I was 16, I got up one day and I decided that there was absolutely no way I could live one more day in the town or the country where I was from," she recalls. "I told my parents I was going on a holiday, I got on a plane to Miami and I never looked back." Imagine arriving in Miami alone at the age of 16 with no family or friends to help you, no work visa or job prospects, and only the cash you've managed to scrape together scrubbing floors to survive on. Do you think Iggy was handed stardom on a silver platter? No, she earned it on her knees, with a sponge and an iron will.

Two feet in the red dirt, school skirt
Sugar cane, back lane
Three jobs, took years to save
But I got a ticket on that plane
People got a lot to say
But don't know shit bout where I was made
Or how many floors that I had to scrub
Just to make it past where I am from. 

In songs like "Work" and "Walk the Line," among others, Iggy lays out her bona fides in stark detail. Once she made it to America, she scrubbed even more hotel floors, studied the Carters, worked her ass off in the studio and outwitted devious music industry vampires to fight her way to the top.

Some take issue with Iggy's lack of what they like to call "authenticity." But who are we to define what is genuine? These days, when a little girl proclaims that she is really a boy, we take it seriously. Not everyone was born into the situation for which they feel they were destined. Perhaps when Iggy lays claim to being the "realest" in "Fancy," she means "real" in the sense of being true to yourself—especially if you've never been who people think you are or who they expect you to be. Maybe being "real" means never giving up on your dreams, no matter how many people make fun of them—whether they be outback rednecks or insular Aussie rappers, or her current critics, who revel in calling her names like a bunch of schoolyard bullies, comparing her to a black person with albinism or a cross-dressing black actor in whiteface, accusing her of being so entirely fake that even her body is artificial, or blackmailing her to bend to their will with the threat of releasing a sex tape.

Then there's Nicki Minaj's veiled accusation that Iggy doesn't write her own lyrics—essentially an insinuation that Iggy's lyrics are being ghostwritten by her mentor, T.I. Now I respect Nicki as much as the next person—or at least I did before she turned herself into a living cartoon character, back when she was ferociously guesting on tracks like "Monster" and "My Chick Bad," and spinning sexy confections like "Ice Cream Man." But there's a bit of hypocrisy in someone who has transformed herself into a caricature with half a dozen different masks and voices denouncing someone else who has adopted a persona that doesn't entirely reflect her roots. Doesn't Nicki's catty hint that Iggy doesn't write all her own lyrics seem a bit ironic, considering that Nicki's latest paean to the penis, "Anaconda," lifted its skeletal structure wholesale from Sir Mix-a-Lot's infectious "Baby Got Back"? Anyway, hardly anyone—including Nicki Minaj—writes songs entirely by themselves these days, and those who do rarely have multiple hits at the top of the summer charts. But even if Iggy does get a little help from her friends with polishing her lyrics—and there's no real evidence that she does—you can't tell me that the lyrics for songs like "Pu$$y," "Hello," "My World" and "Drop That," all written well before Iggy and T.I. met, aren't pretty solid.

This accusation is often followed by the claim that Iggy's songwriting is "oddly impersonal," most likely based on the critic listening to Iggy's two recent #1 hits, as opposed to even the most cursory examination of her current album The New Classic, or any of her previous work. This might be the place to point out that few rap songs topping the charts these days have much to say for themselves content-wise. But if you actually listen to Iggy's larger body of work, you will find a great deal of extremely personal storytelling about chasing her dreams, her past relationships, her friendships and her sexuality.

Of course, not everyone will appreciate her stories, and many will find them offensive. Iggy named her first album Ignorant Art after a quote in the movie Basquiat, from a scene where the artist sold some drawings to Andy Warhol, describing them as "ignorant art… stupid, ridiculous, crummy art," and she once described her music as raw, energetic, taboo, and even a little experimental. She's not trying to please everyone or create music that is aesthetically pure and politically correct, she's just expressing herself the only way she knows how, with whatever tools she has at hand. And when you take risks, sometimes you make mistakes—and sometimes you make magic. As Iggy remarked recently, "Keep it light on the advice—look at us, we must be doing something right, clearly."

Now we come to the strange idea that there are only a couple of slots for women in the rap game, and Iggy is unfairly taking the one not currently occupied by Nicki Minaj. Please. There's no secret conspiracy to keep women down in the hip hop game. If any of the other women rapping today exhibited the commercial appeal of either Nicki or Iggy, we would be hearing about them. Money is king. This is a catfight that female rappers perpetuate more than anyone. As Iggy observed, "It’s like hip-hop is the husband, and there can only be one wife. Everybody else is like, ‘Get the fuck off my man!’ ... I wanna be the best, but I don’t wanna drag anybody through the mud. There used to be a lot more women." There should be more successful women in hip hop, but that's only going to happen if we start listening to them. It's not Iggy's fault if we choose not to buy and share music by other women who rap. In fact, Iggy could end up opening doors for other women who haven't found their audience yet. For instance, after I downloaded some Iggy song or other, eMusic suggested that I might like another rapper, who happened to be the Minneapolis indie artist Lizzo. I bought Lizzo's album Lizzobangers on the strength of her entertaining single "Batches and Cookies." So maybe Iggy's success will make other people and even industry execs open their minds and acknowledge that there are other female artists with potential.

But looking at the bigger picture, aren't cross-cultural artists like Iggy a sort of gateway drug into hip hop for people who find black culture mysterious and a little intimidating? You can't tell me that white artists like the Beastie Boys and Eminem haven't opened doorways into the larger world of hip hop for people who would have found it challenging to jump right into listening to aggressive, sexually charged lyrics that showcase language that is taboo for outsiders.

Some of Iggy's critics demand that she use her platform as a political soapbox. They say that given her popularity, she must speak out about the issues they deem appropriate. But if she did speak out about those issues, her detractors would only look to find fault in some nuance of her message. The truth is that Iggy does have a political cause that she speaks about not just with her words but in her every action, and that's feminism. But it's feminism on her own terms, a viewpoint that seems to annoy the more literal-minded among the self-appointed guardians of womanhood.

This camp of accusers posits that Iggy's overtly sexual lyrics and onstage twerking antics are demeaning to women. Yes, being forced to use your sexuality in order to make a living can be degrading, but flaunting your sexuality isn't inherently negative. If you enjoy what you're doing, anything can become an art form. Strippers have fascinated Iggy for a long time. She's been sneaking into strip clubs since she was 14, and she learned everything she knows about twerking from the hard-working dancers of Atlanta, where she and her friends would routinely go to strip clubs to hang out and eat chicken wings. Fascinated by the movie Showgirls, she based many of the visuals of her stage show and music videos on the theme of a stripper's struggle and eventual rise to stardom. "For me, visuals are as important as the music," she explained. "I just love escapism and giving people something to escape to. To me, that's what art is."

When Iggy and her crew are onstage twerking, it's empowering. It's clear that Iggy loves her body, which is fabulous but unconventional, and she wants other women to love their bodies, too. She owns her sexuality and she's using it to tell us what she wants—and what she wants is respect, success and cunnilingus. As opposed to a lyric like "Ice Cream Man," in which Nicki Minaj tells us what kind of penis she prefers, and what she plans to do with it, in songs like "Pu$$y" and "Down South," Iggy is letting us know precisely what kind of pleasure she expects to receive, with explicit instructions as to exactly how it should be delivered. She's also telling us girls that if we want something, we need to demand it on our own terms.

In my opinion, Iggy Azalea should be an inspiration to young women and to us all to get off our asses and chase our dreams, no matter how outlandish they might seem. I often compare her to Joan Jett—still a girl power icon after 40 years—who wasn't afraid to go balls to the wall and be exactly who she wanted to be, no matter how outlandish her persona might have seemed at the time. Like Joan, Iggy is pioneering a new template, showing us how to be unapologetic, aggressive and powerful without seeming masculine, and proving that with grit, determination and hard work, anything is possible—and the first step is believing in yourself. As Iggy says, "Conquering your own mind is the biggest challenge of them all."

1 comment:

Skulligan said...

Whether or not Iggy loves hip hop culture does not affect the concern that she is appropriating Southern black culture. The fact that she affects a fake accent alone is offensive. I understand that singers affect accents all the time (Brits and Americans like to swap often), but this is the difference between race, not styles or regions. People are concerned with the size of her rear because if she paid for that to make herself "more black," that's also really offensive.
I disagree that she's showing off a unique or non-mainstream body... pornhub just released some statistics from this past year and the top search for the site was 'big booty.' Big butts are a TREND right now.
White guy rappers haven't gone as far as Iggy has to create such an image.
Despite her supposed love of black culture she's made some controversial (racist) tweets.
As for writing her own things, I personally don't make as much of an issue with it as a lot of people do. I don't mind if a great performer doesn't write their own music. There was some controversy when she went on a radio show and was challenged to freestyle. She rapped some, but it turned out that the lyrics were premeditated as they were found to be on the next album she released. This wouldn't be a problem in most other styles of music if you can't jam on the spot, but in the hip-hop community, this is something one is supposed to learn, first and foremost, and Iggy failed. This contributes to the idea that she's taking something that doesn't belong to her, and merely going through the motions.

There is a problem with the music industry's willingness to promote only a select few female artists. That's not Iggy's fault but she is benefiting from it.

I don't know anything about her music. It's probably catchy. Maybe it's good. I think her music is beside the point when it comes to why people don't like her.

Iggy probably loves rap. Iggy makes catchy songs that people like. Iggy is probably a nice person.

There is definitely something very wrong with our access to media, that makes it difficult to even discover other young female (and male) artists in the hip-hop genre (or any genre). Our access to media is as controlled as they can get it, and we're being steered towards a white girl who has carefully crafted her image to match that of another culture, when there are TONS of talented women from that culture out there that we don't get to see.
This is what people are angry about.

Just because it's happened before with rock music doesn't mean Iggy should get a pass now...