What hip-hop bling reveals about American status anxiety
“I have to dress nice.”
“I have to look nice.” “If I look nice, I look good.”
“Everyone wants their girlfriend to be beautiful.”
This is a familiar sentiment from a popular culture where the beauty ideal has become almost fetishized. In this context, the idea of “beauty” is almost equated with status. When one is beautiful, she or he has something that is universally desired: the right to be seen – especially in public. Beauty is a powerful image-making device, and we understand this better now, because society has become more discerning about the value of women.
These statements echo each other, but with a particular emphasis on the second: “everyone wants their girlfriend to be beautiful.” In this context, beauty equals sex appeal (to paraphrase). When we say “beautiful” to men, we mean (a) sexy, (b) pretty, (c) attractive, and (d) someone who will “serve” you. When we say the same thing to women, we mean (a) attractive and (b) someone who will make your career. The power of beauty lies in the fact that it is impossible to measure the beauty of someone without having a body to look at. This is a particular challenge for women, who have been constantly marginalized in Western society over the last few decades.
There’s nothing particularly new about the idea of beauty being associated with status, but there is something very old about the way it is conceptualized, particularly in the dominant cultural narrative of the world. We need to understand what that means. What we are finding is that we are no longer dealing primarily with an aesthetic ideal that has been perpetuated by the West. Instead, we are facing a fundamental paradigm shift: the relationship between beauty and status has been replaced by something else entirely.
The new paradigm is expressed most clearly in hip-hop. Hip-hop is not just a music genre