Monday, March 7, 2011

Cool or Cringe?

by Tamara Whitehouse

This music video for Hey Ya by the band OutKast is a perfect example of someone intentionally playing with identities, and ultimately remaining unscathed.  In the first forty seconds, we hear Andre 3000 and his companions speak using African American Vernacular English (AAVE) characteristics, but he is somewhat incongruously dressed in a nerdy style- he’s wearing a button down shirt, a tie, hideous plaid pants and suspenders, all classic and stereotypical tenets of nerd fashion.  This nerdy style, however, seems to remain unmarked by the general audience of the video- I, for one, never noticed that he was dressed nerdily until I was trying to think of illustrative videos for this blog posting.  He still seems cool, likable, and even if it’s noted that he’s not wearing the same casual clothes his companions are, this is not a bad thing.

It seems that the ‘coolness’ and ‘street cred’ that is given to him based on how he speaks overrides the perception we receive from how he’s dressed.  In fact, how he’s dressed might even be considered cool, just because he's cool.  He might be creating a trend with his plaid pants and suspenders.  I propose that a negative can become a positive when the negative action or signal is performed by the ‘in’ group, or by someone who has such a high level of ‘cool’ status that even doing something typically ‘uncool’ (such as wearing nerdy clothes) does not threaten their underlying coolness, and can even reinforce it.  The stigma of being a nerd does not ‘stick’ to Andre 3000 because his singing has AAVE characteristics, which outweigh all else.

Jane Hill describes in detail how AAVE is perceived as being and representing ‘cool-‘ which she defines as “sexy, edgy unflappability” that is highly valued in modern American pop culture (Hill, 166).  Those who use AAVE can claim “desirable qualities,” particularly hypermasculinity (only desirable among white people) and street credibility. Usage among white adults can make them “seem more youthful and in tune with the latest styles in popular culture,” (Hill, 167-168).  AAVE appropriation can lend “desirable qualities” to white people, and an odd and uncomfortable disconnect exists between the coolness of AAVE characteristics and the boundary at which such characteristics become negative- too gangster, too black, too non-Standard (Hill, 169).

On the other hand, AAVE on its own does not give ‘coolness’ to everyone or in all cases.  There are limits and boundaries- the usage of AAVE has to be judged as authentic and natural, otherwise it is cringe-worthy and does a disservice to whoever uses it.  For my first example of this phenomenon, I present to you: Kevin Federline.

This interview includes such cringe-worthy phrases as “you know what I’m sayin’” and “when me and the wife are beefin’ or somethin’ like that.”  They aren’t cringe-worthy on their own when spoken by someone we expect to hear it from, but coming from Kevin, they suddenly are.  He comes off as inauthentic, fake, and pretending.  Why?  Part of it, surely, is simply that he is white- but I hesitate to say that’s the only reason, because white people can use AAVE without being pegged as inauthentic, or at the very least, without being pegged as being quite as inauthentic as Kevin.  Another reason may involve who he’s associated with: Britney Spears, his then-wife.  Though she had changed her public image by then to be more adult, no one can ever forget where she started- bubblegum pop music that’s as far from the world of rap music as country is.

Speaking of which, let’s visit my second example: N*SYNC’s cringe-worthy music video for the cringe-worthy song, “Pop.”

The video is bad, with random break dancing and hundreds of cheering white people, but the lyrics make it truly horrible- “why you wanna classify,” “worry ‘bout yours ‘cause I’mma get mine,” and my particular ‘favorite,’ our lovely Justin Timberlake singing defiantly about “the ice around my neck.”  In my opinion, Justin Timberlake can't say ‘ice’ without sounding absolutely silly- he is simply not a part of that culture, at least not during that period of his career.  The song is trying too hard to be cool, to mimic AAVE styles of speech, to enter that world, and therefore it fails.  It becomes, instead, almost a parody- white boys poorly appropriating black culture, making it look ridiculous because they look ridiculous.  They can’t pull it off, but they’re so earnest in their attempt.

N*SYNC are no more convincing in the roles they appropriated than Kevin Federline is.  They both have associations with white culture, perhaps even superwhite culture, that are just too strong.  This results in their performance of black culture being seen as an obvious disconnect.  On the other hand, even though Andre 3000 wears ‘white,’ ‘nerdy’ clothing in his video, which would normally set him apart from the black culture typified in AAVE stereotypes, his usage of AAVE throughout is not marked or suspect.  This could, again, be due to multiple factors.  His companions, at least in the first forty seconds, are wearing more typical street attire, which gives them, at least, credibility in their language usage.  This credibility may rub off on Andre.  The man who introduces the band on the television is white and wearing very classical, white styles of dress, and speaks in a very Standard manner- which could provide a clear contrast between the two differing forms of speech, making Andre’s speech stand out even more as clearly AAVE influenced.  Further, and perhaps most basic and fundamental, Andre appears to be African American- therefore, his use of AAVE is expected and unquestioned.

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