The Marketability of Mediocrity: Soulja Boy and the Music Industry
In his own way, rapper Soulja Boy (born DeAndre Way) is a musical genius. At the age of 19, Way has seen three of his songs reach the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 Top 20, with his number one single “Crank That” capturing the top spot for 7 weeks—longer than such classics as The Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” and the Rolling Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Combined, Soulja Boy’s songs have been downloaded nearly 7.5 million times. His accomplishments are astonishing examples of a significant change in the hip-hop industry – a sacrifice of artistic and musical integrity for enormous monetary gain. This change, whether for better or for worse, is here to stay.
Let me specify what I mean by “change”. Gone are the days of classic, grass-roots rap, where a snare drum beat, a smooth harmony and cool bass line, coupled with eloquently versed lyrics about societal problems constituted a hit record and resonated with a wide audience. Gone are the days when critical reception, RCA awards and musical pride truly mattered. This change, which Soulja Boy has illuminated within the hip-hop industry, has given birth to a new type of rap, no longer about voicing meaningful issues and connecting with listeners on a deeper, philosophical level. Rather, this facet of the hip-hop industry has become a calculated business, dedicated to pushing out insensitive and cliché music — because that’s what sells.
Record companies reel from the staggering amounts of money brought in by the “Soulja Boy brand of hip-hop,” not a musical genre, but a proven – and simple to execute – blueprint for commercial success. The process begins with producing a catchy musical beat, lacking real instruments, but full of computerized synthesizers, and then creating an official dance for the song. The rapping or singing almost seems like an afterthought. Strung together are a couple verses about sex, drugs and money, made to rhyme for good taste, and then heavily processed with the industry’s favorite toy, Auto-Tune. Hip-hop has become so predictable to the point to which it’s hardly bearable to listen. Sure, the beats are catchy and the dances are fun, but the lyrics no longer have any significance.
The second step to commercialized hip-hop monopolization is marketing, the most significant change in the evolution of hip-hop. Effectively exploited by record companies, the Internet is the most effective marketing tool in existence today. It’s the only platform by which billions of humans are connected to one another, and can share ideas. Soulja Boy was one of the first rappers to take full advantage of this resource. He named his first album, “Souljaboytellem.com,” after his official website. As a YouTube partner, Soulja Boy earns additional revenue for filming and posting videos. In a video entitled, “Soulja Boy Tell ‘Em gets paid for every YouTube video he posts!” (currently viewed 1,369,492 times), he stated that he is paid 2 cents per every view, and 15 cents per every comment. If this is accurate his 400,448,420 video views alone have earned him $8,008,968.40 – a tad more than a modest sum if you ask me.
Though Soulja Boy emerged on the scene in 2007, the marketability of mediocrity had been rising in the music industry for over 10 years, tracing back to 1997, with the development of Auto-Tune by Antares Audio Technologies. Auto-Tune is an audio processing software that allows producers to correct the pitch of singers, note by note. The end result leaves a perfectly-pitched vocal performance, no matter how bad the singer. Auto-Tune gives record companies the opportunity produce singing superstars out of pedestrian performers. In the late 90’s, boy bands like the Backstreet Boys and N’ Sync popped up along acts such as Britney Spears, all achieving great success. Sure, these performers could carry a tune, but Auto-Tune brought sugary-sweet perfection to their vocals, enchanting America’s youth with a hypnotic mix of sex appeal and saccharine singing. Record companies can now turn any fresh faced twenty-something with a little bit of charm and a good-looking face into a musical superstar, no exceptional talent required. Just a little Auto-Tune.
Most notably, rapper T-Pain has made an entire career based off of extensive use Auto-Tune, becoming a pseudo-poster boy for the software. Jay-Z even rapped in his latest hit “D.O.A (Death of Auto-Tune)”, “You rappers singing too much/Get back to rapping you’re T-Paining too much”. But the mass market loves this “T-Paining”, evidenced by favorable chart performance and even the development of an iPhone app called “I am T-Pain. The app allows anyone to Auto-Tune his or her singing voice for only $2.99, and it’s currently the 10th highest grossing app in Apple’s App Store. Auto-Tune has penetrated virtually every genre of music; a song without Auto-Tune has become the exception, not the rule.
Despite my preference for authentic, “old-school” hip-hop and rap, I truly admire this calculated and perfectly executed evolution of the genre. Record companies and musicians have taken advantage of the great technology at their disposal and exploited it to the highest degree, namely in terms of monetary gain. In a capitalist society, there’s nothing wrong with that. The producers, promoters, and artists behind the new hip-hop industry are geniuses. Through musically uninspiring, cliché, socially and sexually insensitive songs, they have earned billions of dollars. Although Soulja Boy’s musical gifts are limited when compared to The Beatles or Tupac, the success of the business and marketing behind his work is nothing less than unprecedented. This trend is likely to remain, so long as Soulja Boy keeps making his millions.