Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The signification spiral. I was kind of puzzled to read this article today in the New York Times. Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy has built a persona on being the "snowman", an image that has become his logo and adorns t-shirts.
The snowman's success is proof that Jeezy has a knack for self-promotion, but it's also an example of the way rappers use coded language to juggle multiple constituencies. A casual observer might see the snowman as just one more improbable hip-hop fashion trend.
But as I'm sure you sense by now, it's not just a snowman! I know! Freaked out! Jeezy claims it's because he wears so many diamonds; ie, he's "iced out". But the New York Times is proud to reveal to its readership the exclusive insight that "snowman" is another word for cocaine dealer! Whoa, I didn't see that coming!

You see, apparently rappers are over the old Ice Cube style of speaking confrontationally about ghetto life. Now they use clever code so whitey won't know about their subversive ways:
In his current hit "Soul Survivor," featuring the streetwise R&B singer Akon, Young Jeezy imagines the life of a dealer but sticks mainly to code words: "Road trip, yeah I'm trafficking the white/Please, Lord, don't let me go to jail tonight." He never says "crack," and "cocaine" appears exactly once, shortened to " 'caine"; in the radio version, it's blotted out.

Some of the people singing along in their cars might think of "Soul Survivor" as a rather nonspecific ode to perseverance, and they wouldn't be totally wrong. Young Jeezy would probably claim that his drug-dealing tales are really analogies, applicable to anyone who has ever had to face a ruthless marketplace.
My first thought was: "Does this journalist think that people are fucking retards?" But then I began to think about this in another way. Rather than draw their own conclusions about a song's meanings (conclusions which "wouldn't be totally wrong"), it suits this article to describe hip-hop as an ever-retreating 'language of deviance' - a language that must retreat further and further into euphemism as it becomes more mainstream and better known. But importantly, the language also retreats further and further into deviance, which makes it more and more imperative to "crack its code" and expose the deviance for all to see.

In Policing the Crisis, Hall et al describe this process as a "signification spiral" - "A self-amplifying sequence within the area of signification: the activity or event with which the signification deals is escalated - made to seem more threatening - within the course of the signification itself".

Signification spirals rely on two ideas: escalation and convergence. First, the popular media conflate freshly identified social threats with pre-existing ideologies or discourses associated with older 'subversive' groups. They do this in order to evade the political implications of new cultural phenomena. In Intimate Enemies, Philip Jenkins describes moral panics as "the politics of substitution" - attacking one phenomenon because it symbolises a more problematic and complex issue. So, in the NYT example, the media surveill drug-related language because they can't surveill drug use.

Second, signification spirals always imply the transgression of certain (yet unspecified!) moral thresholds, which, it's implied, will lead to a situation escalating out of control if no "firm steps" are taken. This can degenerate into a general panic about the state of society or 'the yoof of today'. In this way, the article both 'reveals' rappers' 'deviant' language and suggests that, once 'identified', the rappers will come up with more and more inventive and obscure ways to express their deviance, which in turn will require more and more cunning methods of 'decoding'.

I wonder whether this has anything to do with hipsters' use of language - their need to operate within mainstream culture yet maintain a distance from it by using increasingly ridiculous words. This is parodied in The Hipster Handbook. Trouble is, I don't think hipsters are a subculture; they court moral panic and desire to be perceived as deviant, yet I would argue they're rarely likely to spark it. So I don't think deviance is a useful analytic category. But what is the affect of trying to be deviant? That's the real question for me right now.

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