You don’t need me or the genius of content dubbed “entertainment news” to observe that some people do better with success in show business than others. Sometimes the inability to creatively harness fame and fortune crescendos in a grotesque pantomime in flames (Elvis dead on the toilet, Mel Gibson screaming), while the savvy engineering of a career can almost blind us with its gleaming efficiency (Tom Hanks becomes a brilliant producer, Oprah becomes a second U.S. government). And then there are those thousand other settings in-between.
Last week, Adam Yauch succumbed to cancer at age 47. Yauch was one third of the rap group The Beastie Boys, and I’ll diligently inform you at the top here that I never followed the group or their music although “Fight for Your Right (to Party)” was inescapable for anyone owning a radio. Still, Yauch would appear on my radar every once and awhile as a name associated with events meant to make things better. For humanity. He didn’t OD, he didn’t embarrass himself in late-night DUI arrests or shoplifting busts, and he never needed to draw attention to himself by being seen with anything as ridiculous as a pet monkey or a Kardashian.
Instead, he went to Tibet in 1992 and from that became more interested in the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Later in the 90’s he became openly concerned about the lyric content of his band and other rap artists advancing what he called “a fantasy.” Put another way Yauch became a grown-up while continuing to work the fields of pop music, a zone where heightening your consciousness is often fodder for comedy skits. In the 90’s Yauch became one of the world’s leading advocates for the cause of Tibetan independence. Contrast that with, say, Cher and Madonna who were even at that time well into their middle years but continued to writhe on stage in futuristic brassieres as pre-recorded soundtracks pounded home lame ‘hooks’ about the vagaries of one-night stands. I know they also do benefit gigs; I’m just looking at arcs of development here.
There are those who might wonder aloud about the propriety of three white New Yorkers appropriating rap music and then making a lot of money from it. The Beastie Boys began in 1979 as a hardcore punk band opening for the likes of Bad Brains and the Dead Kennedys at venues such as the historical CBGB’s in New York. Moving off their sound to do a playful hip hop groove, “Cooky Puss,” they found they had a hit on their hands in dance clubs. They moved forward as a hip-hop unit working with a DJ, a format that was something of default position back in the day. It helped that their DJ was future record producer Rick Rubin.
With Rubin came “Licensed to Ill” in 1986, said by many to be the best selling rap album of the 1980’s. It stayed at the top of Billboard’s album chart for five weeks. Following that, evidence suggests that the Beasties continued to hold an audience and sell records by paying attention to evolving and, as cited earlier, thinking a bit more about the content of their product. But that hardly made their CD’s any kind of social corrective. And again, if you want to argue that three white dudes appropriated rap for their own purposes then maybe the whole thing looks somewhat less than noble. Just make sure your analysis includes every white ‘rock’ act since the early 1950’s.
Yauch continued to grow on his own. Following his travel to Tibet, he worked on behalf of Tibetan independence by co-founding the activist Milarepa Foundation and producing benefit concerts that grew to become as big as the massive Live Aid effort in 1985. His interest in film begat a production and distribution company called Oscilloscope Laboratories, which released the dramatically intense Iraq-related drama “The Messenger” and the brilliant and covertly sardonic art commentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”
LA Times pop music critic Randall Roberts wrote last week that in his short life Yauch “managed to carve a path at once so admirable and unlikely that his contributions should serve as a model for a life worth living.” There’s plenty right there in that statement to give us pause to reflect.
Whether we in any way asked for it or not, American media in collaboration with audiences (consumers of content) has created a theater of dysfunction that celebrates and rewards celebrity car accidents. Sometimes those car accidents are literally car accidents, but more often they’re events of banal behavior magnified and amplified in such a way that the pathetically inane appears to have meaning. The systems and corporations that literally feed off this type of theater have such success with it that they often struggle when reporting on celebs that are using their influence and clout to do something that matters. Imagine entertainment news editors rolling their eyes in reaction to yet another trip to Sudan by George Clooney meant to save dying humans. Adam Yauch got some wisdom, then grew and acted accordingly. We should all be so Beastie.