99 Problems and “The Voice” is One
On the live finale of The Voice, Tony Lucca performed “99 Problems,” a rap track off Jay-Z’s The Black Album. During the judge comments, Christina Aguilera launched a blunt assault against Lucca. “The lyrical connotation was a little derogatory towards women,” Aguilera said, clearly upset at Lucca and his coach, Adam Levine. Aguilera took issue with the song’s central verse, “If you’re having girl problems I feel bad for you son / I’ve got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.” Lucca chose not to say the word “bitch” throughout his performance. Instead, he muffled his mouth and let out a percussive burst that, while sonically similar to “bitch,” managed to squeak past the censors. Given a chance to respond to Aguilera, Levine explained, “the ‘mmm ain’t one’ is life getting at you, things bringing you down. We’re not referring to women, we’re referring to everything.” “If you’re having girl problems,” Christina interjected, to which Adam said, “It’s called a metaphor.” While I believe that Lucca’s performance was problematic, I think Aguilera was wide of the target.
Generic brand white bread feminism—feminism as ideology—asks all the wrong questions. Such overly simplistic formulations of feminist thought criticize “99 Problems” as degrading towards women. Indeed, it is hard to deny that “99 Problems”—and much of the so-called “gangster rap” tradition—is misogynistic. The vocabulary of gangster rap is rooted in violence against women. It is just not that interesting or persuasive to denigrate “99 Problems” on the basis of its rhetoric. A more nuanced feminism might ask, “why is patriarchy so structurally entrenched in ganster rap? Why is gangster rap a discourse of sexual violence?” That is to say, I would encourage a more generous approach to “99 Problems,” one that does not hold the song to a particular ethical standard. A more productive and instructive method is to think about the song in its material, social, and historical contexts. “99 Problems” even speaks to criticisms like Aguilera’s: “Rap critics that say he’s ‘Money, Cash, Hoes’ / I’m from the hood stupid, what type of facts are those?” Like most of The Black Album, “99 Problems” looks back on life “in the hood.” In effect, the song comments on the ‘90s gangster rap tradition retrospectively. Jay-Z describes an incident in which a police officer pulls over a young black man for no reason and insists on searching the car. Although the song questions the legitimacy of police authority, the gangster rap music industry comes under fire, too. In a verse like, “Fiends on the floor, scratchin’ again / Paparazzis with they cameras, snappin’ them / D.A. try to give a nigga shaft again / Half a mill’ for bail ‘cause I’m African,” an image of rap stardom converges with the consequences of hood life. Criminal activity, gangster rap, and a police state are mutually implicated and inseparable. Therefore, “99 Problems” actually demonstrates how policing informs the culture, mores, and discourses of “the hood.” Violent language against women evolves from the complex distribution of power across police, cultural, and criminal authority. The status of “the hood” as a marginalized and exceptional space, a territory where the projection of police force is coded as white, where police politics slip into old racialized sexual politics—“the white man castrating the black man/black sexual threat” trope—explains the intersection of misogynistic discourse and “the hood’s” cultural product. Gangster rap, marked as subversive and anti-police but contained within capitalist and corporate logic, reproduces police violence as a fantasy of violence against women. What happens on the street is rehearsed in domestic spaces. The tension between the content of gangster rap and its material reality—its appropriation and consumption by white audiences—spills over into the objectification of women. Thus, I don’t find ethical criticisms of “99 Problems” persuasive in the least—the generic feminist criticism covers up for its policemen. I might go so far as to suggest that this generic feminism that cries “respect women” ventriloquizes the anxiety of white males. “Respect women” slides into “respect white women” all too easily.
My interest in discrediting the generic feminist criticism does not let Lucca off the hook. Muffling the word “bitch” castrates the original. The Lucca version cuts out the song’s profane power, transforming it into another fantasy of whiteness. By covering “99 Problems” as a country number, Lucca and Levine ripped the song out of its material, social, and historical contexts. Lucca skipped all of the lyrics specific to life “in the hood,” and so completely decontextualized “99 Problems.” Frankly, the performance came across as comical. I especially enjoyed watching the band member playing a washboard with “more life” written across the top. Lucca’s “whitening” of “99 Problems” derives from the same basic impulse as Aguilera’s generic feminist criticism. Aguilera and Levine, though in open and hostile disagreement, speak from the same ideology of racialized politics.