Hoodrat, hoodrat, hoochie opera?

Posted on June 24, 2011


In case you don’t know the story behind the opera Carmen by French composer George Bizet, here’s a brief synopsis for you via hip-hop/R&B songs:

Carmen to Don Jose: “My milkshake brings all the boys to the yard.”

Don Jose to Carmen: “You make me wanna leave the one I’m with and start a new relationship wichuuuuu…”

Escamillo to his fans: “I got hos in different area codes.” (Can’t think of a hip-hop song about bullfighting…)

Carmen about Escamillo: “Killing me softly with his song.” *

Don Jose to Carmen: “I’m in luuuuv with a stripperrrrrr….”

Carmen to Don Jose: “Can’t touch this.”


*Don Jose stabs Carmen*


*I know that “Killing Me Softly” was not originally done by the Fugees. No need to email or comment about that.)

This summer, some of our Colorado Children’s Chorale kiddos are playing kids on the street of Seville, Spain for Central City Opera’s production of George Bizet’s opera Carmen. (Never heard of it? Perhaps you’d recognize this music? Or maybe this? If so, then you know a little about Carmen.) I know some of the famous music from the opera like the Habanera that even most non-classical music lovers would recognize (I also sang Escamillo’s big aria for my senior recital), but before Tuesday night I’d never heard or seen the whole opera before. But once I saw it (and thoroughly enjoyed it, I might add), a flurry of thoughts entered my mind about cultural double standards in the arts and how easy it is to be a musical lemming if we aren’t careful.

In case you didn’t know, the opera Carmen is about a prostitute. Carmen’s first big solo/aria in the opera is basically a melodic, operatic version of Kelis’ “Milkshake” from a few years back. The opera has great music, is incredibly sexy, and in a lot of ways is absolutely hip-hop in its culture (so hip-hop in fact that some huge R&B and hip-hop names like Beyonce and Mos Def turned the bones of the Carmen story into a “hip-hopera” a few years ago.) And yet, I guarantee that there are folks in the opera-going audience for Carmen who routinely bypass the hip-hop station on their radio dials not because of the beats and the rapping, but because of all the songs about sex and violence.

But wait. If the culture present inside the Carmen story is so hip-hop, then where are all of the hip-hop heads in the audience? While many hip-hop heads are content to spend much of their days listening to music that is so often extremely rich in sexual and violent talk (though of course not always), it’s fair to say that in general, they’re less interested hearing about those things through the medium of opera.

So why do we have these double standards? Short answer: I don’t know. Long theories: as far as I can see, there are at least three explanations for why we are all guilty at times of doing this, whether we prefer classical, hip-hop, or any other musical genre above any other one.

1. Language barriers. Even with supertitles translating Carmen from French to English for us, that doesn’t mean most folks want to sit through three hours reading a translation of what we’re hearing. I understand and sympathize with this complaint. I just hope that no composer in the history of the world who speaks a language other than English has ever had anything important or meaningful to say that I should know about…

2. We sometimes value the musical content over lyrical/story content. This explains why American classical music buffs don’t mind reading translations of operas that aren’t performed in English/watching the crappy opera fight scenes/chalking up the occasionally choppy storytelling to “opera being opera.” It also explains why some pop music fans are willing to let some of those horrendous pop music lyrics anywhere near their ears or their heart. Sometimes, we just want the music. Sometimes we care less about what the musical present under the tree actually is; we just want it to be wrapped exactly the way we like. But while some of us say that this is how we listen to music all the time, if that were really true, why you don’t hear about many hip-hop heads smokin’ weed to Lecrae and Canon’s “Blow Your High?” ‘Cause in spite of what we say sometimes, even when the beat is bumpin’ and the MC’s flow is blowing our minds (did you hear Canon’s verse? Click that link back there. Amazing stuff.) lyrical content does matter to us. Or why won’t opera fans listen to a CD of nursery rhymes set to beautiful classical music sung by a famous opera singer? Because they want richer lyrical content. So #2 is true to a point, but not when you truly test its limits.

3. Even though both sides are presenting very similar lyrical and story content, we feel that the genre of music we love and all of the intangible forces that it brings with it is musically or even morally superior to others. As a Christian I personally feel that there is this moral line in music that secular hip-hop constantly straddles and steps over, and it makes me feel uncomfortable to listen to too much of it. Example: the Milkshake song. That song disgusted me when it came out. But what’s weird is that even though some rock songs (The Police’s “Roxanne,” for example) or the Habanera from Carmen at the top of this page center around subject matter that is very similar to “Milkshake,” those two songs don’t make me feel uncomfortable and dirty. In this example I clearly have a concern about the raunchy sexual content, but I have two different reactions to raunchy sexual content based on how it’s presented musically. Why? Maybe because deep down, I subconsciously think that rock and opera are better than/superior to hip-hop, so I allow them to have moral and musical freedoms that I don’t extend to hip-hop. Clearly a musical double standard I’m not proud of (and am trying to fix), but perhaps if you’re honest with yourself, I’d bet that you can relate to my dilemma in some way.

At the end of the day, I think that we all value similar kinds of stories and ideals across all cultures and musical genres, but we are painfully, even embarrassingly superficial about how we choose to allow those stories and ideals to be presented to us. We have so many choices when it comes to entertainment and are so accustomed to being catered to how we like things being presented to us that we choose presentation over content way more often than we should. We’ve got to learn to be better listeners than that. ‘Cause let’s face it: Carmen’s milkshake has all of the ingredients you’d need to bring the boys to the yard. So if you like that sort of thing, you should have no reason to let language/musical genre/the age or color of the majority of people in the theater hinder you from taking in some entertainment you’d definitely enjoy based on lyrical/story content. All art forms got hoodrats. Some tease with milkshakes; others with castanets. All could teach you; but they’d have to charge. 😉