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NBA Star Listens to His “Mom’s Music”

There’s a long, culturally complex relationship between basketball, race, music and the American way of life. The Daily Devil’s Dictionary explains.

When not reporting on events that take place in the arena, stadium, ring or on the court, national sports media in the US occasionally invites us into the locker room to deal the dirt on conflicts concerning everything from sexual conquest to a player’s taste in music.

The Golden State Warriors, the NBA champions, recently added a star center, DeMarcus Cousins, to an already star-studded team. Although most commentary has focused on the question of how so many egos can share a single basketball during a 48-minute game, NBC Sports reveals another source of friction that may threaten team chemistry: the music players listen to while training.

Cousins’ taste for what his teammates perceived as an outdated style of music apparently shocked them. One player commented: “Man, you don’t know if he’s getting ready to make love or preparing to shoot a basketball. It’s hard to work out when your mom’s music is on.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Your mom’s music:

Recorded popular music created with a style that has passed its cultural expiration date

Contextual note

Music in contemporary US consumer culture has definitively lost the characteristics that cultures traditionally assigned to music — a means of social expression that drew on a variety of identifiable cultural traditions, ranging from the religious and spiritual to the rhythms of dance. Musical styles and new forms of expression grew from musicians’ attention to the interplay of melody, harmony, rhythm and their exploration of the expressive potential of their instruments. Until very recently, for most of humanity, music accompanied public moments, from recurring religious rituals to funerals, from military parades to public dances.

Thanks to the invention of the Sony Walkman in 1979 and Apple’s iPod in 2001, followed by the ubiquitous smartphone, music was transformed into a pure consumer product designed for private experience rather than public events. The creation of dominant musical styles, formerly created by musicians themselves in their collective dialogue with tradition, was now managed by the moguls of the music industry and their marketing wizards schooled in creating and exploiting brands. What sold was good, even if the musicians playing it disagreed. What didn’t sell simply wasn’t heard.

Styles were created and discarded, following purely commercial reasoning. Like any consumer product, music has a shelf life that can be managed. DeMarcus Cousins defended his unfashionable taste on pragmatic grounds, by appealing to the effect on his workout rituals: “They’re listening to ‘Mo Bamba’ [song] and all this other [expletive]. I need to slow it down with some ’80s and ’90s music. That’s how I get down.”

In today’s American consumer culture, people affirm their identity by the TV programs and music they consume. Music becomes little more than the sounds that accompany other human activities. At the same time, it’s a badge people wear to express an “attitude,” a major factor of their group identity.

This is reflected in recent Hollywood films, such as Damien Chazelle La La Land, whose main character’s obsessive identification with mid-20th-century jazz alienates him from the rest of society, including his girlfriend. But it also defines him as an Ayn Rand-style hero for his unwavering commitment to realizing his identity and fulfilling his dream. In two films built around his fantasized version of the culture of jazz (Whiplash is the other), Chazelle has managed to demonstrate his profound ignorance of the historical tradition of the music he appears to embrace, reducing music itself to a means of fulfilling extremely individualistic ambition. This epitomizes today’s musical culture in the US. 

Historical note

Basketball is certainly the most rhythmic of professional sports. It’s also the most African-American sport. The Harlem Globetrotters, a black basketball team, emerged as spectacular performers of the sport at a time when all major league sports in the US were reserved for white athletes only. By the 1940s, the Globetrotters proved competitively that they were superior to the all-white NBA championship teams. This eventually led to the admission of black athletes, who now dominate the NBA.

The Globetrotters have always started their show with the traditional jazz tune, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” in the background to accompany their virtuoso warmup performance. Ever since, African-American music has assumed special importance in the world of basketball.

The black American community made the most significant contribution to the history of music in the 20th century, in the form of jazz. Starting with a rural black folk tradition, the blues, integrating the harmonic approach of marching bands (around funerals) while associating the tradition of black Baptist church music, by mid-century jazz had spawned a sophisticated and highly influential art music — the bebop of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, among others — and a less sophisticated, popular, electric avatar of the blues: rhythm and blues, and then rock ’n’ roll. In parallel, it enabled the pop tradition of romantic songs (Frank Sinatra, David Crosby, Julie London).

When producers and music publishers discovered the fabulous earning power of rock ’n’ roll, they found a way of promoting a white version, putting Elvis Presley on front stage, with Chuck Berry just in the background. Jazz continued with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and other equally sophisticated artists, but its very sophistication and narrow audience marginalized black music — until the rude, provocative violence of rap and hip-hop made it possible to promote commercial black music, further marginalizing the tradition of black art music.

The elevation and commercial exploitation of gangsta rap served another purpose in the political realm: discrediting black culture, which in its sophistication — at the time of Miles Davis, James Baldwin and Malcolm X — threatened the white cultural order.

In this context, it was interesting to hear former US President Barack Obama’s comments on music this week in a discussion with basketball star Stephen Curry: “Let’s face it, a lot of hip hop and rap music is built around me showing how I got more money than you, I can disrespect you.”

These are the simplified-to-the-extreme values of the white liberal order — worshipping money and success — and American exceptionalism, or the right to bully the rest of the world. That’s what commercialism does, even if Obama regrets its effects.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.