You won’t find many people my age who will admit it, but it’s true; I was at one point a fan of MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice. I don’t feel (in retrospect) that I had too much of a choice in the matter, after all “Can’t Touch This” and “Ice, Ice Baby” were major hits when I was in 5th and 6th grade (not a period of development that is really known for independent thought in young men). There was, of course, the allure of attending dances (where we would hear these artists along with Kid 'n Play, Kriss Kross and Bell Biv Devoe) and actually being able to interact with girls, which probably had something to do with my gravitation towards this music.
Vanilla Ice circa 1990
As my tastes adjusted (earlier, as a child I was a big fan of Iron Maiden and Metallica-style heavy metal largely under the influence of my older brothers) so did my fashion. As far as I know Vanilla Ice did not sport the emblems of any sports teams, however; MC Hammer was well known for his support of Oakland groups (namely the Raiders football team). It seemed very natural to wear the clothes of your idols, by doing so you are showing that you belong to a particular group of people, in my case, a group of people who liked pop-style-Hip-Hop. It didn’t matter, at all, that none of us were particularly interested in sports. To this day, I cannot say that I have ever watched one professional American football game all the way through (the boredom is just too overpowering). What mattered was sporting the colors of our newly-found tribe.
This was a concept completely lost on my Adult teachers, especially the males who watched sports. I remember one saying; “you should at least be able to name ONE player on the team if you are going to wear that t-shirt!” Of course, I didn’t have the vocabulary, or the intellectual capacity to explain that the t-shirt had nothing to do with football; it was a statement about music.
In the end, the perceived problem was self-solving as MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice gave way to Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. Almost overnight the emphasis on fashion shifted to flannel and torn up jeans – hair grew long and uneven – there was a palpable attempt at looking unkempt (as a side note, I remember the worst insult someone could call you in 1992 was “trendy”). For much of my life I laughed at my brief love affair with dance Pop-Rap, looking back though, the idea that these white suburban kids were trying to speak Ebonics and attempt dances that came from inner-city America actually seems charming (a sort of Utopian "everyone unites under 'The Running Man" notion).
MC Hammer's hit song "U Can't Touch This" 1990
Now, I know it is rather late in the blog to address the title "Unbelievably Culturally Valuable," but I suppose it had to be done at some point. We could assume that "unbelievable" means "immense," of course I am not using the word in this way. Very few people have anything complementary to say about this period of Hip-Hop, they look on it with a mix of disdain and humor, it is one of the reasons I started out by saying; few adults would admit to listening to this (at one point). But why? Its not like the music was of such a low quality, the lyrics weren't really more silly than other pop music of the time and although the fashion could be conceived as "clownish" other subcultures had dress that was equally bizarre. I suppose, that if we had to narrow it down, we would have to conclude it was the immense commercial success that did the music in. In many ways it created a "false majority" for the newly formed "grunge minority" (which would quickly become the majority) to rail against. Not to mention smaller independant Hip-Hop acts who felt brushed aside (3rd Bass to name just one).
New York Hip-Hop group 3rd Bass practically made a career
out of criticizing Pop-Rap. This is their 1991 hit song "Pop Goes the Weasel"
Yes, the music was highly commercialized and yes, the clothes on Mr. Hammer, not to mention Vanilla Ice’s rat tail are absolute “what were you thinking?” moments in fashion. On the other hand, the fact that both of these artists (along with many others) encouraged young people to dance is something for which I absolutely have to give credit. I think it’s no secret that in the United States, dance is a seriously under-nourished art-form. In fact, I will go so far as to say that the Hip-Hop genre in general was a major injection of interest contributing to its survival. The fact that this music provided a social framework where I was able to meet other young people at the beginning of my adolescence is something that deserves praise (from me at least).
So, as we look back and think of ourselves doing the “running man” or the “Rodger Rabbit,” between the cringes I hope we can also smile. And while we are at it, we might try our hardest not say Vanilla Ice ruined the song “Under Pressure.” I know I can still enjoy it. Finally, perhaps we can be encouraged by the fact that within every era, there is an opportunity to glean the positive and learn from the experience.