Friday, February 22, 2008

The Importance of Swagger

1. To walk or strut with a defiant or insolent air
2. To brag or boast noisily
1. Ostentatious display of arrogance and conceit

Generally associated with hip hop and athletes (read: black people), the term Swagger contains either a positive or negative connotation depending on your point of view. If you're a basketball fan disillusioned with the NBA, Allen Iverson is the poster child for everything wrong with swagger. God forbid you mention practice in the presence of The Answer. But the flip side of that coin is that without his swagger, the six-foot-nuthin' baller would never have become one of the most prolific and consistent scorers in the history of the game. Certainly talent is what it is, but perception is reality - the more AI believes in himself and the more he projects that confidence-cum-arrogance, the more his competitors believe it too. Next thing you know, the one-time Slam Dunk Champ, Vince Carter, doesn't even attempt to block the six-inch-shorter Iverson's dunk.

The same holds true for music - especially hip hop (but also rock, which we'll get to in a sec). There are the pros and cons (so to speak), but it is virtually impossible for a hip hop artist to become a huge star without first telling everyone listening what a huge star he is. Whether your braggadocio is related to how much street cred you deserve - in the amount of blow you used to sell (Biggie, Clipse, etc), how many times you've been shot (50 Cent), how straight ghetto you are (Wu-Tang) - or simply to laying claim that you're the greatest rapper alive (Jay-Z, Lil' Wayne), the industry is based on swagger. As a result, artists with mediocre talent can become enormously popular (T.I.), while an artist like Black Thought - arguably the greatest MC to walk the earth - will never reach that status. Swagger alone can automatically demand respect.

But look at the career of Kanye West: once just a good producer that couldn't even get a record contract as a rapper (because he was thought of as just a good producer), he's now a Grammy-winning recording artist with three of the highest-selling hip hop albums of all time. It was his unflappable belief in himself that launched him from fine print to top billing, but it was when that self-belief took on an arrogant, narcissistic tone (aka, swagger), that he truly became a superstar.

Kanye West Joins Daft Punk Aboard Their Spaceship

As I mentioned at the start, there is a certain amount of latent racism at play here. Swagger has existed in rock 'n roll from the very beginning; from Elvis Presley to Mick Jagger, Iggy Pop to Jim Morrison, it was swagger that made rock 'n roll the fear-inducing beast it became in the 50s and 60s. The fear that these icons caused, however, was due in large part to the type of music they were playing - the "devil's music" was really just appropriated Blues (i.e., black music). And the more fearless an artist, the more fear they induced, and, simultaneously, the bigger a rock star they became. Censored by all forms of mainstream media, it was their swagger that convinced them to persist, and convinced fans that they should pay attention despite - or in spite of - that censorship.

Beyond lyrics and beats, swagger extends to how you carry yourself. From the chains around your tattooed neck to the coke-white sneakers on your feet, your appearance defines your swagger too. Commonly referred to as Image, your aesthetic, and that of those you surround yourself with (be it entourage or posse), is an essential element in the music business. In the early days it was Elvis' pelvic thrusts and Jagger's pouty-lipped strut; but it is hip hop that took swagger to the next level. LL Cool J, Snoop Dogg, Ice Cube, Tupac, UGK, Dr Dre - these are the artists that established swagger without saying a word. More importantly, though, they established swagger as a marketable tool, and made it synonymous with hip hop itself.

Clearly not all musicians are interested in becoming superstars, and many superstars achieve that status without eternal boasting. Today, the term swagger stretches beyond Webster's abridged version, and beyond hip hop. Whether conscious of it or not, the Arcade Fire have swagger - not because of self-aggrandizement, but because of a certain self-importance that sidesteps bragging. They refuse to sell any of their songs for commercial use, they write grandiose orchestrations full of political dissension, and their sheer presence - at least seven members all dressed in Amish-like outfits - make them something bigger than the sum of their parts. And that too is swagger, and that too is why they have become the entity they are today.

So let's add one for Webster's:

2. Indelible quality that advances the rocker to the Rock Star, the MC to the Superstar.


No comments: