When writing about culture, it’s important to place things in context. All art is so keenly trapped within its time and place, it often seems that 90 percent of cultural criticism begins with understanding where, and when, an artwork comes from, and trying to appreciate it on those terms. When confronted with something new, young and inexplicably popular, no one wants to be that sad old crank yelling at his radio, barking at the kids to get off their lawn.
My usual instinct, whether it is YouTube panics or inscrutable Korean boybands, is to try and understand them on the terms in which they give new, unfamiliar joys to people younger than myself. Otherwise, I fear, I'll soon be shouting out my window at passing youths, urging them to keep the noise down so I can leaf through my dusty old printouts of Bebo pages in peace, pressing my trusty old ear trumpet to the gramophone and playing that scratchy old Aphex Twin record one more time.
There are, however, occasions when no such worry presents itself, when you’re only too happy to channel your inner Seymour Skinner and say, yes, the kids are wrong. So it is with mammothly popular Irish rap group Versatile. The group are, by any metric, one of the rising stars of Irish culture, this week announcing a headline stint in Dublin’s 3Arena in November. It is a remarkable achievement that two young men, so early in their careers, will have a headline gig at a 13,000-seater venue. This is, indeed, a feat matched by only a handful of other Irish acts this year, all of whom are greatly more established.
One hopes Dublin's fastest-rising rap group are capable of adapting and changing to the 21st century
But this week has also shone a light on the group’s repeated use of racist, sexist, classist and homophobic lyrics, many of which are so artlessly deployed as to be thoroughly depressing. We have here the full smorgasbord of tedious taunting, references to “faggots”, “black bitches” and “junkies”, all offered for the glee of being hatefully offensive.
To their defenders, Versatile are merely provocateurs, and they argue any proper viewing of the context of hip-hop will show their actions to be the logical progression of rappers tackling offensive and taboo subjects since the artform began. Unfortunately for that argument, context is a two-way street, and any deep examination of white, middle class Dublin boys affecting working class accents while rapping about sexual assault, or their ability to attract black women who like them “more than chicken”, is unlikely to cast them in the role of courageous, downtrodden truth-teller.
Moreover, not everything charmless is harmless, and leadenly expressed hatreds like those aren't just bad because they offend people, but because they enable those who still, in 2019, hurl these kinds of obscenities at minorities, up and down streets, and in nightclubs, all over Ireland. One hopes Dublin's fastest-rising rap group are capable of adapting and changing to the 21st century, or else calling themselves versatile is just one more insult to our collective intelligence.
One band who did manage to evolve from enfants terribles to something more worthy were The Beastie Boys, whose seminal Paul’s Boutique LP turned 30 this week. This prompted a lot of consideration on the course that band traced, from brats to bards, and iconoclasts to icons, as well as on the nature of all that’s happened in the time since passed. The album is a classic, and the numerous little treats released for fans in the form of demos, b-sides and additional materials are a treasure trove of fan service, as were the interview events with surviving members Ad-Rock and Mike D, who lost MCA to cancer in 2012.
Does it surprise or appal you that, as of this week, I Gotta Feeling by The Black Eyed Peas is a decade old?
But this welcome dose of context carried with it another, accompanying element that’s all too common in the current zeitgeist for retrospectives and nostalgic reappraisals: the faint, uncanny sense of dread that trickles alongside this current glut of cultural anniversaries.
Frisson of tension
Do you feel it? That frisson of tension when forced to reckon with the remembrance of things past, in an ever-retreating spiral of Facebook-ready nostalgia bombs? Is it odd that the moon landings, which happened 50 years ago this week, are very nearly closer in time to the first World War than they are to now? Does it surprise or appal you that, as of this week, I Gotta Feeling by The Black Eyed Peas is a decade old? Do you get some chewing sense of the infinite by considering that Ricky Martin's Livin' La Vida Loca was number one 20 years ago this very day? Or that this month marks the point at which Forrest Gump has been around for a quarter of a century?
Perhaps it's always been a thing, but it seems like we are now being hit with these anniversaries more and more, conditioning our soft, aching brains to contextualise things a little too much, and in ways we may not be used to. Pleasingly, there's even a term for this chronological dissonance. Coined by British music writer Pete Paphides, "mortality maths" is that sharp intake of breath one gets when they realise how much time has passed, most especially via the milestones engendered by pop-cultural birthdays. Sometimes these circumvent the usual patterns, and catch you off guard in other ways.
It's one thing to say that Nirvana's Nevermind is nearly three decades old, but quite another to hear, in one bracing example cited by the BBC's Rhodri Marsden, that Spencer Elden, the baby on Nevermind's iconic cover, will celebrate his 30th birthday in 18 months' time. It's stranger still when one considers the temporal proximity of cultural events you lived through but could have sworn were years apart.
Why, for example, does it not surprise me in the slightest that Avatar was released 10 years ago this December, yet it boggles my mind that it entered cinemas the same week as the surely much more ancient Zombieland?
Whatever the case, these cultural anniversaries need not be time capsules of our own escaped youth, nor knells sounding our impending decrepitude. They remind us that time is little more than a fruitless exercise in attempting to place context, and thus meaning, on the days that number our lives; a meaning unimplied by the formless line that stretches, ever thinning, from birth to death.
It’s probably best we don’t dwell on it; resist the urge to treat these birthdays as a chance to place our shabby lives in context, and rather greet them as a welcome excuse to revisit a few old classics once again.
Trust me, when you read the special edition version of this article in 20 years, you’ll thank me for it.