Leonard Pitts Jr.: How yesterday’s moral panic becomes today’s soft sell

Leonard Pitts

I’ve wanted to write this one for years. It was the crisps that finally made me do it.

Not just any old Lay’s or Ruffles, mind you. No, I’m talking about a new chip brand (on its website, the Miami-based company says it’s been around for 25 years) that I recently saw at a checkout. Rap Snacks, we used to call them, available in flavors like: Notorious BIG Honey Jalapeño, Snoop Dogg OG Bar-B-Que Cheddar, and Rick Ross Sweet Chili Lemon Pepper, each packaged with the rapper in question on the bag.

Which inspires me to finally ask a question I’ve wanted to ask for a long time. Don’t you feel a little silly now?

I mean, all of you who 30 years ago, more or less, thought rap was the end of the world. We’re talking about a fury unlike anything we’ve seen since men with hammers smashed jukeboxes, trying to kill rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s. Rap, to hear some of you tell you, was a cultural apocalypse, and rappers, the scariest men in America.

Snoop Dogg, then billed as Snoop Doggy Dogg, was on the cover of Newsweek giving the camera maximum attitude. The title: “When is Rap 2 violent?” These days, Martha Stewart’s best friend walks down a mythical beach in TV commercials, handing out beer.

Then there’s Ice Cube, who as a member of the NWA drew a threatening rebuke from the FBI for a certain song that was highly critical of police in African-American neighborhoods. He has since become a movie star, playing a father, a soldier, and a barber, among many others.

Ice-T was boycotted and vilified because of a speed-metal song called “Cop Killer”. He’s now hunting for a breakfast cereal, a car warranty company, and laundry detergent, and has spent the past 22 years playing — wait for it — a cop on NBC.

So yes, the arc of their career, the snapshots of yesterday and today, would seem to suggest a silly feeling is in order.

People tend to forget the power of American marketing to absorb and commodify what once scared and appalled. Despite this amnesia, the process is not new. Rather, it’s the one we saw with Elvis in the 50s, the Rolling Stones in the 60s, Alice Cooper in the 70s, Prince in the 80s. They were all scary once; all threatened the status quo. Now they don’t.

Now they are the stuff of nostalgia, museums and, in some cases, even scholarship.

The point is not that popular music shouldn’t be criticized for being violent, racist, misogynistic, or otherwise embarrassing. It’s more that when said review takes on the tenor of fire alarms and anti-aircraft sirens, when there is panic in the streets and there is a general feeling that this song, this artist, this genre, depicts a cultural Armageddon, a deadly threat demanding chilling headlines or government intervention, it suggests that critics have forgotten how many times we’ve traveled this road and that a bit of hindsight might be in order. Not to mention a healthy bit of respect for tomorrow’s ability to make today’s fears silly and garish.

It is, after all, the solemn duty of each generation to outrage that which preceded it. And if you’re one of those who came before you, you’d better remember what it was like when you were the outrage. And take comfort in the fact that controversy inevitably becomes a commodity.

Exhibit A: Snoop Dogg OG Bar-B-Que Cheddar. Because time happens to all of us, no one stays dangerous forever.

And marketing always has the last word.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers can email him at [email protected].

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