16.7.06

DEVELOPING THOSE NONCOGNITIVE SKILLS. Leonard Pitts reminds Shawn Carter that possessions do not equate to respectability.

I feel sorry for Shawn Carter. I know I shouldn't, but I do.

It seems that in recent weeks, Carter, a rap star and music executive known professionally as Jay-Z, has pronounced himself angry with the makers of Cristal champagne. Cristal, you should know, is frequently referenced in rap lyrics as a synonym for the high life, for pimping and drug dealing your way into an existence where the women are always willing, the luxury cars always gassed up, the sheets always satin.

This prompted the Economist magazine to ask Frederic Rouzaud, president of Champagne Louis Roederer, parent company of Cristal, whether it might hurt the brand's image to be associated with such a coarse, outlaw culture. Rouzaud's reply: “That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Perignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.”

The quotation requires a bit more context. For the time being, the Economist article remains available online.

The Russian tsars adored Louis Roederer’s Cristal, a taste that is shared today by rap singers Sean “P.Diddy” Combs (Puff Daddy) and Snoop Dogg. Welcome to the world of prestige cuvées—the very best and most expensive of champagnes, which go for anything from $100 to over $600 a bottle.

When ordinary mortals want to celebrate, the question is less likely to be Cristal or Krug, than whether to drink champagne or sparkling wine. Once the choice is made in favour of real champagne—produced only in the Champagne region of north-eastern France—it becomes a question of brand. Should you go for one of the big reliable names like Moët & Chandon or Veuve Clicquot; or maybe something a bit cheaper or more adventurous from a lesser known grower? If you feel like splashing out, you might plump for a vintage champagne. But for a select band of people—a mixture of champagne fanatics and the super rich—only the very best will do. Thus the need for “prestige cuvées”.

Just who these ultra-fancy champagnes are aimed at is a slightly sensitive issue. Cristal was originally created exclusively for the Russian tsars. Jean-Claude Rouzaud, who managed the Louis Roederer winery until his retirement earlier this year, once said: “We make our champagne for that 3-5% of consumers who really know wine, and who take the time to taste it correctly.”

Romanovs and rappers. I love it. Such talk seems made to order for Thorsten Veblen or John Kenneth Galbraith. And that's where the president of Louis Roederer put his foot wrong. But the article qualifies his comments.

Both Dom Pérignon and Krug have had their share of unwelcome attention, too. The late President Mobutu of Zaire, a notoriously profligate dictator, was said to be a devotee of Dom Pérignon’s rosé champagne. Naturally enough, Rémi Krug, the chairman of the champagne house, prefers to emphasise the more cultured devotees of Krug—drinkers, like the late Ernest Hemingway or the painter Francis Bacon, who are “creative individualists who never follow the crowd, and have strong tastes of their own.”

As is the case with other luxury brands, some consumers are nevertheless motivated more by the sheer ostentation of the product. For many years, the most famous consumer of Krug in Britain was Jeffrey Archer, a novelist, politician—and, ultimately, prison inmate, after being convicted for perjury. His insistence on serving Krug, and nothing but Krug, to guests at his summer parties was regarded as a tad flashy—a little like his reported instructions to guests about how to find the lavatory (“Past the Picasso, left at the Matisse”).

But without New Money, how would we know what constituted tacky? Plastic flamingoes and reflecting spheres? Please.
The tsar was annoyed that his champagne looked and tasted identical to that drunk by his courtiers. He wanted a wine that was made with particular care, in a flashier and more distinctive packaging. And so Cristal was created, a particularly fine champagne in a clear bottle of crystal glass with a gold label. The design, which made Tsar Alexander one of the earliest exponents of bling, had a practical advantage: the clear crystal glass made it easier to check whether the champagne had been poisoned.
I rest my case. The Economist reports on a taste test, to mix metaphors.
Back in London, your correspondent served Krug blind (that is, with its label covered up) to some dinner guests, along with a vintage champagne from another house called Nicolas Feuillatte and Pelorus, the finest sparkling wine made in New Zealand. Gratifyingly, they all much preferred the Krug—although none regarded it as utterly different from the other champagnes they had tasted.
Mr Carter has taken offense at Mr Rozaud's remarks and seeks to put Cristal in the same odor as the Birmingham buses and Greensboro lunch counters. Mr Pitts is less than impressed.

And here, it might be worthwhile to observe two facts.

One: Cristal has managed to thrive for most of 130 years without Jay-Z's endorsement. Indeed, the brand is manufactured sparingly and is perpetually sold out around the world.

Two: Cristal retails for upward of $200 a bottle. How, exactly, do you launch a boycott of something most people can't afford? Might as well ask me to boycott Gulfstream private jets while you're at it.

It is, on both sides, a silly contretemps. Still, there is something poignant in Jay-Z's apparent surprise and hurt at Cristal's blithe rejection of hip-hop's operating ethos: that acceptance can be bought.

There has never been an entertainment form that placed as much faith in the healing virtues of materialism as rap. From the days when Run-DMC first extolled the virtues of Adidas shoes, rappers have invoked brand names and branded themselves with talismanic fervor. Timberland! Hennessy! Lexus! S. Carter!

They seem to feel that when you can afford these things, it makes you, I don't know ... complete. As if, with Tims on your feet, Hennessy in your glass and a Lexus in your garage, you're good, you're covered, you're in the club.

For an art form whose artists and fans are largely young, largely black and largely from poor, bullet-scarred neighborhoods, it is a powerfully attractive fantasy. But it is a fantasy nevertheless.

Which is, in so many words, what Frederic Rouzaud just brutally explained to Shawn Carter: that he is not in the club. That no matter how much Cristal he buys, he will never be in the club. Sure, kid, we'll take your money. But don't mistake that for respect. Not while you're young. And black. And reeking of nouveau riche. And representing values that are anathema to our own.

So yeah, I feel sorry for Carter. But at the same time, what's it tell you that he was even surprised?

Among the many lies of hip-hop, this whole notion that wearing or imbibing or driving the proper brand will make you whole is in some ways the most infuriating. It represents a corporatization of cool that would have made Miles Davis ill. In his era, after all, cool meant being an iconoclast, a visionary threat to the status quo. In Jay-Z's era, it is a brand name, it has a sponsor, it can be bought off the rack.

Rap could have been, should have been, a truth-teller and world-shaker. Instead it has largely contented itself with being free advertising for corporate titans, selling fake cool, sometimes with corporate assent, but often, without even a thank-you.
Brand names, it says, will make you whole.

The Washington Post's Jabari Asim suggests the Cristal boycott is misplaced.

Boycott. Now that's a word you don't hear so often these days. Hard for me to encounter it without thinking of Rosa Parks and brave Alabamans walking and carpooling their way to justice. But I suppose it applies just as well to millionaires whose sensibilities have been offended. A bottle of Cristal, it should be noted, can go for $300 or more. That's a lot of bus fare.

So that does it. No more bottles of this high-priced bubbly for me. The next time I'm at Plumm, the swank Manhattan nightspot, I'll tell the waiter to fill my flute with Dom P. Rose, a variety Jay-Z is experimenting with these days.

Seriously, though, I'm not mad at Jay-Z for expressing his displeasure. Just as with women and others who have taken offense at his sexist, misogynist lyrics, he has a right to be peeved by what he sees as disrespectful treatment. But there are far bigger alcohol-related problems among the urban population that helps keep his tunes at the top of the charts, and he would probably be
quick to agree.

For instance, while Cristal seems hesitant to embrace young black consumers, the makers of malt liquor are more than eager to establish a relationship. They are among the alcohol manufacturers who target African-American youth, according to a new study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at Georgetown University. The analysis, an update of an earlier study, found that alcohol ads on radio and television and in magazines in 2003 and 2004 reached more African-American youth ages 12 to 20 than youth in general on a per capita basis.

Pro Hip Hop, an occasional host of Carnival of the Capitalists, has been following this story since it broke, with a more recent roundup offering this observation.
It's a little silly to call someone racist for not wanting to be associated with musicians who brag about their criminal past and, in some cases, appear to be continuing their criminal activities. Just a thought.

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