One recent Tuesday morning, I turned on my radio, seeking comfort in the familiar flow of news and analysis on NPR’s “Morning Edition”. But on this morning, my Steve Inskeep fix came along with an unexpected sound: Kendrick Lamar’s new single, “i” – an uncharacteristically (and in some circles, controversially) upbeat track sampling the Isley Brothers’ “That Lady”. Inskeep was joined by Frannie Kelley and Ali Shaheed Muhammad of NPR’s Microphone Check to discuss Lamar’s success, now that the NBA has chosen “i” to feature in one of its recent ads for the new season.
It’s a challenge to cover any accomplished artist in a few minutes of air time, particularly when you’re severely limited in what audio you can play. A few bars from “good kid” and a few from “i” probably wouldn’t be what I’d have chosen to represent Lamar’s “charisma and ability to connect”, as Kelley put it, but she and Muhammad did a good job of painting that full picture while keeping things at an appropriate level for a 7AM segment on public radio.
This was the second time in the past couple months where I’d had the jarring experience of hearing a favorite hip-hop artist covered on NPR. Kelley had done a piece on OutKast’s 20-year anniversary earlier in October, during which she talked to Killer Mike and other Atlanta standouts about the group and its impact.
Stories like this might as well trigger an automatic email from my mother. If something about beer, music or social media merits a mention on NPR or gets enough Facebook chatter, there’s a better-than-average chance I’ll be hearing about it from Mom, too. I know many others with the same experience. NPR links are the new newspaper clipping.
For my mom and for many others, such stories are likely their first time discovering OutKast or Lamar; the topic could be as foreign to them as some of NPR’s other coverage of political and cultural worlds are to me. The challenge is to make it accessible to that new audience while not turning off the devotees by dumbing things down too much. I imagine that’s part of the appeal of a mainstream media role as opposed to one at a genre-specific publication, where you’re essentially preaching to the choir (or the haters). If you can reach the moms, the dads and the rest of the family with the same story, you know you’re doing something right.
NPR is a regular with this kind of crossover coverage – it does have a show called “All Things Considered”, after all – and it’s among the most successful at being educational but not patronizing, trendy without trying too hard. Less successful, at least in the eyes of the internet, is the New York Times, whose reporting on cultural “trends” are captured best by the NYTOnIT Twitter feed. Recently, the New York Times has reported on hashtag use, Taylor Swift’s new album, teenage smartphone obsessions, and Taylor Swift’s new album. No one’s knocking the New York Times’ reporting, exactly, but these pieces can have a lot in common with those newspaper clippings in the mail: a little too sincere, and way too late. (To some, the implication can also seem to be that something hasn’t really happened until the paper of record has discovered it.)
We all like to have our own areas of expertise, things we know about more than others, no matter how superficial: a band, a sports team, a literary sub-sub-genre, whatever. But we also live in a time when it’s easy to seem like an expert on almost anything just by scrolling through Twitter or asking Siri. Few things are truly niche anymore, especially music; the idea of drawing pride or personality from knowing the most about a particular artist died around the time that all music became available to everyone at any time—another ‘trend’ covered in the New York Times in October).
This isn’t about underground versus mainstream; it’s about depth. With any topic, there are levels of knowledge and exposure. When that topic gets its crossover moment, those truly in the know get a chance to enjoy a little bit of a feeling of superiority just by knowing when the story misses the mark. By understanding what’s missing, they can reassert their perceived authority, and offer some education to the uninitiated.
Longtime soccer fans in the US may grumble about the bandwagon World Cup enthusiasts and accompanying lightweight coverage every four years, but I bet they also look forward to the opportunity for those teachable moments. Tech enthusiasts got their moment this summer, too: when Steve Ballmer, former insane CEO of Microsoft and current insane owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was discovered by the sports world in all his sweaty, raving glory, they couldn’t dig out the old video clips fast enough.
Same with Kendrick Lamar fans tuning in to his NPR coming-out party. The reaction was probably at first like mine; a little surprise, a little mockery, then, ultimately, satisfaction. While early supporters had long since ceded any ownership of the rising star, this coverage offered another opportunity to view him as theirs and yes, to nitpick the song selection and analysis as any good fanboy does. And if their moms emailed them an NPR.org link later that day (subject line: “I KNOW YOU LIKE HIP-HOP”); well, what better way to feel like an expert?