Sunday, March 2, 2014

The mistrial of Lou Reed's "The Original Wrapper"

No one can say Lou Reed didn’t provide his critics with plenty of easy targets. I’m the kind of fanboy who can give you at least a half-hearted defense for every punching bag from Metal Machine Music to Lulu (although I’d have to strain myself a bit to rally for Hudson River Wind Meditations). One point where I’ve always rolled over and admitted defeat, though, is the much-maligned “The Original Wrapper” from the equally spurned Mistrial album.

If you don’t know “The Original Wrapper” by title you might know it as “that Lou Reed rap song.” That’s an accurate description on the surface. It was 1986, and hip-hop had the zeitgeist by the throat, especially in Lou’s New York. America was starting to see the first wave of weird and cynical rap cash-ins: advertisements playing on the inherent “hilarity” of unhip white people trying to rap, Super Bowl champions gleefully looking like hip-hop dweebs, whatever the hell Dee Dee Ramone thought he was doing. In that context, Lou Reed jumping onto the rap bandwagon makes a certain amount of sense.

But I don’t think that’s quite what Lou was doing. Sure, taken at face value, “The Original Wrapper” looks like an unwieldy attempt by a middle-aged white guy to either ride the latest trend or mock it. The Guardian called it “a gob-smacking misfire from a man occasionally seen to be the epitome of art-rock cool.” A Dangerous Minds blog takes it as Lou laughably and semi-defensively laying claim to the title of “one of music’s original rappers.” The AV Club’s Jason Heller hyperbolically calls it a "complete annulment of everything that ever made [Lou] cool" and accuses him of "making fun of rap while he's trying to ride on its coattails." Even a comparatively charitable observer like City Pages' Nate Patrin calls out Lou’s "half-assed rhyming" and "a beat that sounds like public-domain music you'd hear at the beginning of an infomercial for exercise equipment." No less a cultural titan than myself once mildly lambasted the song in print, griping that "Reed delivers a monotone ramble on AIDS, yuppies, Jerry Falwell and other hot-button issues of 1986, all the while employing waffle-making as some sort of inscrutable metaphor."

Now, though, I think all of us were selling “The Original Wrapper” short. There’s simply no precedent for presuming that an artist as savvy and iconoclastic as Lou Reed was just surfing trends, selling out or being generally clueless. Show me even one other example from the man’s artistic career of that happening and I’ll concede your point. (His weirdly infamous Honda commercial would only count if he’d written an original song for it.) On the other hand, there is plenty of precedent for Lou mocking the state of the arts via expert – and often misinterpreted – mimickery. Look at his notorious “I Wanna Be Black,” a scathing satire of the type of white “fucked-up middle-class college student” who idolized black culture yet limited his view of it to what he saw in Blaxploitation films and heard on R&B records. Lord knows that profile could fit plenty of Lou’s musical contemporaries, particularly the British blues kids who mined a romanticized culture for derivative sounds. That song makes a lot of listeners uneasy because the satire cuts so cleanly that it’s hard to hear that Lou is mocking the commodification and media packaging of black culture, not the culture itself. He does the same thing more subtly with the iconic “Colored Girls” of “Walk on the Wild Side.” I’d say that their inclusion, and especially Lou calling attention to their race, is a dig at bands like the Rolling Stones trying to pump up their soul cred by occasionally employing Bona-Fide Black People.

Maybe the most direct parallel with “The Original Wrapper” is “Disco Mystic” from The Bells. It’s a fairly straightforward disco track, although decidedly darker-toned than most of the genre. For more than four minutes, Lou’s band throws together saccharine string riffs and an almost sarcastic guitar, with Lou occasionally jumping in to grumble, “Disco…Disco mystic.” I’ve heard people dismiss it as a weird attempt at making an actual disco-punk track, which makes zero sense in the context of the wildly non-commercial environs of The Bells. For me, this is Lou commenting on the creative bankruptcy and numbing repetitiveness of the current trend, all while cockily showing everybody that he could do it too if he ever wanted to.

There’s some of that in play in “The Original Wrapper,” but the target is different. Rather than rap music itself, Lou is mocking the eagerness of the media to co-opt this hip new trend. The lyrics are layered with the hypocrisies and evil banalities of politicians and media types who see hip-hop as a way to raise some revenue or score political points. As I see it, the song’s title and refrain (“Hey pitcher, better check that batter / Make sure the candy’s in the original wrapper”) make for a conveniently punny warning not to be sucked in by corporate repackaging of hip-hop culture.

As for the content, this isn’t exactly Public Enemy, but it’s an overtly political song that presages the social commentary of Lou’s universally heralded New York. It’s not a coincidence that Lou released this song as a single alongside “Video Violence.” Both songs condemn the crass packaging and marketing of violence by Reagan-era greedheads who simultaneously painted themselves as moral guardians (“Classic, original, the same old story / The politics of hate in a new surrounding”) and skewer the supposed high ground taken by religious conservatives (“Reagan says abortion’s murder / while he’s looking at Cardinal O’Connor / Look at Jerry Falwell, Louis Farrakhan / Both talk religion and the brotherhood of man / They both sound like they belong in Tehran”). The rhymes are clunky and the message preachy, sure, but I could point you to half a dozen KRS-ONE songs from the era that fit the same bill.

Also like KRS, Lou challenges the critics who’d class hip-hop as lowest common denominator vulgarity and overstuffs some verses with polysyllabic verbosity. “Don't mean to come on sanctimonious / But life's got me nervous and little pugnacious / Lugubrious, so I give a salutation / And rock on out to a beat really stupid” doesn’t really roll off the tongue, nor is it especially solid rhyming, but it serves its tongue-in-cheek purpose.

The production on the single version really is as bad as its reputation, a dorky, cheap-sounding collision of tinny beats and amateurish scratching. It's interesting, though, that the song improves markedly in most of its other incarnations, including the rockier version featured on the Mistrial album. Take a listen to that or to any of the live renditions I've linked here. Different production doesn't transform "The Original Wrapper" into a great song, but it at least elevates it to mediocrity. Heck, the 10-minute live version above turns into a pretty sweet jam that one could almost call Velvet Underground-esque.

I’m not going to pretend that "The Original Wrapper" is some kind of unfairly slighted masterpiece. It’s too broad and goofy to be especially effective satire. I’m not sure I’d even know it was aiming for hip-hop if not for the title. The production is hopelessly dated in a uniquely ‘80s way and the lyrics sometimes dissolve into gibberish. It’s probably best described as a not particularly successful experiment that’s very much of its era. Yet still I feel compelled to defend it, because it’s neither the colossal misstep nor the tone-deaf trend-hopping it’s made out to be. It’s a weird, misunderstood song that happens to be not that great but at least takes a stab at doing something interesting. As with most things in the Lou Reed canon, that’s more than enough for me.

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