Typically, I am not one to place at the feet of pop culture all the ills of our society, but I must admit that as I watched, completely mesmerized by Rihanna’s performance, the NBA All-Star half-time show, I lamented the near-fall of Western civilization. I know how comforting it is to abdicate personal responsibility and blame pop culture for all our troubles, but as I watched Rihanna I felt sorry for young, impressionable boys and girls who see her as a role model. As an educator, I see her influence daily in the young girls who easily and happily imitate her and the young boys who desire her—and there she was on stage shaking her body for all the world to ogle.
When Kanye West appeared on stage, I must admit the only thought going through my head was a prayer that his pants would be situated correctly on his waist. They were not, and I was forced to think about another day of battles that I would wage with wayward teenage boys who mimic hip-hop culture’s fascination with prison life. As many know, the baggy-pants culture—boys wearing pants so low that their underwear shows—originated in prison, as prisoners were stripped of the belts and shoelaces often used in suicide attempts and as weapons. The result, of course, is that gravity won, and pants fell below the waistline and exposed undergarments. For the past 15 years, the style has had staying power—so much so, that the high school teenagers who follow it now weren’t even born when the trend started. So, they imitate a style that they neither know nor understand—or, if they do, it is even sadder to think of them emulating a culture that originated in prison, a place created to take away their freedom. Is it ironic, then, that the teenagers who look to articulate their artistic freedom and to express their individuality ape a culture that signifies imprisonment? In some way, that would be like my wearing shackles and fetters as jewelry.
I don’t expect to win this war anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean I won’t speak out against a practice that I fear is detrimental to our students’ health. Wearing saggy pants sends a message that a student wants to be something he probably is not: a gangster. And when you send that message, you invite unwelcome attention, expectations, and responses. A thoughtful friend who ignores pop culture by not watching television opined: “Idols of pop culture are not real people. They are victims and creations of their own and other people’s greed and just as fantastical as characters in a Grimm fairy tale (or maybe worse, as they are more sinister, more bizarre, and scarier).” These pop icons, as she pointed out, are not to be believed or emulated, for they are figments of active (and greedy) imaginations.
Wearing saggy pants sends a message that a student wants to be something he probably is not: a gangster. And when you send that message, you invite unwelcome attention."
Now, I’m not a prig, as my iPod will attest, but as I see how strongly pop culture works on my students, I cringe. Rock ’n’ roll and hip hop have always caused a stir and purposely pushed the envelope—from Elvis Presley’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” to Jim Morrison’s arrest for alleged indecent exposure at a Florida concert, to Marvin Gaye’s crooning, “Let’s Get It On,” to Prince’s seductive gyrations on stage, to 2 Live Crew’s raunchy lyrics—but there was often something political or substantive in the music. Even Madonna, the artistic mother of Lady Gaga, Ke$ha, Rihanna, and other “self-empowered” women of today, sought to tackle important issues such as teenage pregnancy (“Papa Don’t Preach”), racism (“Like a Prayer”), and materialism (“Material Girl” is a sendup of Marilyn Monroe and that empty culture).
As much as Madonna pushed standards of taste, she was also shaping culture in important ways. She promoted and reinvented self for personal gain, but also to inspire change in our culture for the good. Today’s artists promote and reinvent self simply to serve and promote self. It’s an incredibly empty, selfish, yet mesmerizing and captivating reason for creating art.
Would that it were so easy to keep children from desiring to be Rihanna, a strikingly beautiful and surprisingly talented young woman with the world seemingly wrapped around her finger, or Kanye West, a wildly gifted and breathtakingly wealthy young man with millions seemingly poised to listen to his every word.
So, as an educator, I work daily, like the stonecutter in Jacob Riis’ quotation: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” We need to continue to hammer away at this culture, hoping to give our children examples of integrity, intelligence, kindness, and compassion.
A version of this article appeared in the March 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as An Educator’s Role in a Pop-Culture World