Saturday, November 28, 2009

What NASCAR and Rap Have in Common

We have a little more than a month remaining in the decade, and I've already burned my "decade retrospective" blog post. But over the last couple weeks, I've found myself thinking some more about how the world today is different than it was ten years ago. It is easy to point out mainstream phenomena that exist today, but didn't exist ten years ago (i.e. Wikipedia and Facebook). It's still relatively easy to point out things that existed in the past, but have only become mainstream in the last ten years (such as the use of cell phones). But it is not as easy to notice when something has been "de-mainstreamed."

Last weekend, a NASCAR driver won a fourth straight championship, an incredible accomplishment by the standards of any American sport. Yet if you were to say this guy's name ("Jimmie Johnson"), perhaps a majority of Americans would picture a football coach who hasn't coached since Bill Clinton was president, while many others may think about sandwiches. Yet it wasn't that long ago that NASCAR was regarded as having achieved mainstream popularity, the "fastest growing spectator sport in the nation," with TV ratings that exceeded those of traditional American sports, and revenue through the roof. Now, ratings and revenue are in a free fall.

Meanwhile, last week I asked students in a college class to raise their hands if they were a fan of rap music. Not a single hand went up. This would have been unthinkable at the turn of the decade, when rap had crossed over into the Top 40, seemingly every hit song in every other genre had a trace of hip-hop elements, and most music videos were styled on what was going on in rap videos. Perhaps the best example of the unlikely mainstreaming of rap was when Snoop Dogg (who when he wasn't rapping about marijuana, was making porn films, and if he is to be believed, working as a pimp) was filmed for a cameo in "It's a Very Muppet Christmas Movie" (although the scene was left out of the final cut). Now, even with all music sales down, hip-hop has taken a bigger dive. In 2006, no hip-hop album made the year's top 10 for the first time in 12 years, and overall sales dropped 21% in one year (compared to 6% in the industry as a whole).

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that NASCAR and rap have dropped out of the mainstream (relatively speaking), but that they ever achieved such success to begin with. Both of them come out of decidedly non-mainstream milieus. What made an art form born in gritty, urban, black America into a commodity eventually embraced by soccer players? What made a sport born in southern rural white America into a commodity eventually embraced by stockbrokers?

While a book could be written (and probably has been) in response to these questions, a cursory examination reveals the strong influence of single individuals who could bridge the chasm between the original culture and the mainstream culture. When one tries to think of a rapper who could accomplish this, the obvious figure that comes to mind is Eminem. A white rapper with "street cred," he forged a cross-cultural gateway through which other rappers (and record companies) were ready and willing to come charging through.

It's not as obvious to think of a NASCAR driver who had such an obvious cross-cultural appeal, but upon reflection, the two most popular drivers of the early 2000s may have fit the bill. Jeff Gordon was born in California, raised in the Midwest, and appealed to Madison Avenue. He served as a fill-in host on Regis and Kelly and hosted SNL. However, he stayed connected to the original NASCAR base by marrying a southern girl and referencing God in every interview. Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Sr. was southern through-and-through, but he had a touch of Hollywood flair (he was nicknamed "The Intimidator") and as the architect of Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (DEI), he demonstrated a business acumen not traditionally associated with a southern "good ol' boy." And semioticians would say that even the cars these guys drove, Gordon's "Rainbow Warrior" and Earnhardt's black number three, hinted at an openness to cultures that were not traditionally associated with NASCAR.

But then Dale Earnhardt died. Jeff Gordon divorced his southern belle, quit talking about God, and married a European woman named Ingrid (and he also quit winning). Eminem pulled an Axl Rose and disappeared from public view. And NASCAR and rap music lost their cross-cultural equilibrium. (As a footnote, the artist formerly known as Slim Shady recently put out a comeback album that achieved modest success, but did not do much to renew the artist's stature. It appears that in this case anyway, Fitzgerald's famous quote about "no second acts in American life" is accurate).

So if there is something to this theory, we might be able to predict the next cultural phenomenon to drop out of the mainstream. First we can ask "What is currently in the mainstream, despite being more characteristic of a subculture?" One possible answer: golf. I suspect that although golf has long been regarded as mainstream, it is because the core group that it has historically appealed to has also been the core group that wields more power than any other group in American society: affluent white males. Yet I would also argue that over the last 10-15 years, golf has become legitimately mainstream. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out who can be credited with causing that.

So as we head into the final month of the decade, the big question is whether the events that happened outside of a Florida mansion at 2:30 in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving represent a temporary blip, or whether they signify the beginning of the end for golf as a part of mainstream culture.


Blogger Matthew said...

The recent Tiger events also beg the question - do we like our heroes to be heroes or do we like them to be human just like us? Because, you know, my life regularly features middle-of-the-night attacks on my car by my irate girlfriend.

7:59 AM  

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