Why aren’t Americans taking to the barricades over stagnant wages, rising inequality and declining social mobility? The reaction to Apple’s purchase of Beats, a joint venture between producer Dr. Dre—who is becoming hip-hop’s first billionaire—and recording entrepreneur Jimmy Iovine, may hold some clues.
The facts look daunting. Wages as a share of GDP have dropped significantly, from 49 percent in 2001 to 43.5 percent in 2012. The income of America’s top 10 percent is now 16.5 times that of the bottom 10 percent—the highest of any major industrial nation. And while defenders of inequality could formerly point to the promise of opportunity that brought so many immigrants here (including Iovine’s Italian ancestors), America has lagged behind not only Scandinavian nations but also Canada in terms of opportunity. Yet union organizing—important in most other advanced countries—remains stagnant. The Occupy movement has moved on.
At first glance, the Apple-Beats deal seems to suggest that opportunity is alive and well in America. As a performer and producer, Dre (born Andre Young) is a classic dropout success story, undaunted by poor grades and racial prejudice. Iovine, a college dropout, is a Brooklyn native whose longshoreman father encouraged him at an early age.
Still, the music industry today is probably more unequal than ever before. The website Digital Music News recently reported that the top one percent of artists earn 77 percent of royalties—one of the most skewed distributions of any profession. Still worse, much of this inequality is due to luck and a head start in social media rather than music quality, according to research by Princeton sociologist Matthew Salganik and his colleagues.
Dre isn’t just another hip-hop tycoon (Sean “Diddy” Combs and Shawn “Jay Z” Carter are each worth more than $500 million); he may be an unintentional agent of inequality. Beats is Apple’s most expensive acquisition, and Apple is counting on Dre’s and Iovine’s taste and technical expertise to build its own streaming platform. Companies such as Pandora and Spotify, which offer subscribers hundreds of thousands of songs for a monthly fee (or for free if they listen to advertising), have been challenging downloads as MP3s crowd out CDs. Composers and artists receive only a fraction of the cents per play that streaming companies pay to publishers. The result is artistic oligarchy. The “long tail” of opportunities for noncelebrities, hailed not long ago by some web gurus, may be a mirage. Hartwig Masuch, a rights-management executive, predicted in The New York Times in 2013 that “no artist will be able to survive to be professionals except those who have a significant live business, and that’s very few.”
Iovine may be the marketing wizard, but Dre is essential to the brand. Hip-hop, especially gangsta rap, helps explain Americans’ ambivalence about inequality. Gangsta rap’s violent materialism may be understood as a protest against the racism that created ghetto pathology, but it’s also a message of radical personal empowerment that cuts across ethnic and class lines. Thirty-five years ago historian Christopher Lasch suggested in The Culture of Narcissism that whites were attracted to the violence and sexual language of the black ghetto because “black culture now speaks to a general condition…a widespread loss of confidence in the future.” (Recall that President Jimmy Carter delivered his “malaise” speech on national television the same year, 1979.)
The real issue is deeper still and was noted by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, first published here in 1838. The European, he wrote, was bound up by consciousness of his social class into relationships of dependency and patronage, keenly aware of debts to his ancestors and responsibility to his descendants. Americans invented the new concept of individualism, the pursuit of a personal destiny that detaches ties to family and original friends. Individualism may be “mature and calm,” Tocqueville acknowledged, but it risks degenerating into egotism, which he defined as “a passionate and exaggerated love of self.” For such observations, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America created the kind of sensation in France that his countryman Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century did 175 years later in the U.S.—though the second is as worried about inequality as the first was worried about equality. Rap, especially gangsta rap, expresses a defiant individualism that in good times reflects boundless aspiration and in troubled times masks anxiety.
The American frontier created the badass boasting hero. Two years before the U.S. edition of Democracy in America, the Crockett Almanac appeared, with David Crockett’s supposed boast that he was a “real ring-tailed roarer of a jawbreaker.” Crockett’s contemporary, legendary keelboater Mike Fink, was said to have called himself “half wild horse and half cockeyed alligator.” Some scholars believe the African American “sounding” tradition, a major source of rap, derives from this genre of boasting. If religion is the opiate of the masses, as Marx asserted, then flamboyant self-assertion is the stimulant.
Long before the gangsta rapper, American radical individualism helped create a new social type: the criminal dude. Al Capone, one of the most violent and notorious interwar gangsters, wanted above all to be known as a dandy. His preferred nickname was Snarky, which at the time meant “fashionably flashy” rather than “sarcastic.” According to Capone biographer Jonathan Eig, “It is nearly impossible to find a photograph in which he is not the best-dressed man in the room, even when he was young and poor.” Esquire lists Capone among the 75 best-dressed men of all time. The gangster, role model of the gangsta rapper, existed to stand out.
Even a film as moralizing as Wall Street could inspire rather than deter future masters of the universe. Austrian financier Michael Berger, now a fugitive convicted of fraud, was said to have modeled his clothing and haircut after Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko, whose unforgettable “greed is good” speech invites assent as much as repulsion. Gangsta rap is part of a heritage of honorable ruthlessness that has extreme inequality as its aim. It has been a long time since many people held Spartacus, the rebel slave of ancient Rome played by Douglas’s father, Kirk, as a role model.
To critics like Lasch, the gangster cult signifies narcissism and the decline of community spirit and social capital. But it’s doubtful whether middle-class Americans have ever been deeply committed to equality or to sharing their good fortune.
Nostalgia for solidarity obscures the racial inequality behind the New Deal’s egalitarianism. Even at the height of the FDR era, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation institutionalized racial and income discrimination in support of the security of better-off property owners; for the first time, African American and poor white neighborhoods were formally redlined and became ineligible for federal assistance. In Washington, D.C., the expanding, largely white bureaucracy began to displace Georgetown’s impoverished African Americans. And the revulsion against the rich in the 1930s had its limits. Hollywood rejected consciousness-raising themes in favor of mass fantasies of upper-class consumption, such as 1935’s Top Hat. One of the best-selling books of the era was Matthew Josephson’s The Robber Barons, which casts the ethics of America’s Gilded Age industrialists in an unflattering light. Despite this, The New Yorker reported on a job applicant at a brokerage who declared that, having read the book, he wanted to become a robber baron himself.
That young man may have been delusional, but his amoral ambition had a point. When John Steinbeck declared that Americans had resisted socialism because the poor saw themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” he was implying a character flaw. Yet psychologists have recently suggested that self-deception in certain contexts can be helpful. Shelley Taylor of UCLA, for example, has found that it can sometimes be healthy to disregard obstacles and the role of chance in life and instead exaggerate our ability to bend the world to our will—an attitude essential to the rapper (and probably every aspiring artist and athlete).
Today’s headphones and earbuds are the sonic counterpart of Taylor’s Positive Illusions, creating a realistic soundstage within the isolated brain. The boom boxes of the 1970s and 1980s may have been obnoxious to fellow pedestrians, but they established a community of sound, if often an unwilling one. Beats headphones have internalized the boom, making it possible for each of us to march independently to our own drummer. Whoever or whatever is to blame, the dream of collective action against inequality appears moribund. The partnership of Dre and Iovine with Apple is closer to the creed of the signature 50 Cent album produced by Dr. Dre: Get Rich or Die Tryin’.
Edward Tenner is author of Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.
This article originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of Playboy.