Hip Hop’s Debt to Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney: The Father of Hip Hop?

Off and on I’ve been reading National Review for three decades now, which comes as a surprise to friends since I don’t share any of the magazine’s politics. But National Review has published some fine writers, along with the usual assortment of conservative hacks.  First and foremost, the magazine published many reviews by Guy Davenport, one of the greatest essayists of the last century. And of course Hugh Kenner was one of the great literary critics and a master stylist. Below that Olympian level there were many excellent writers: D. Keith Mano, Richard Brookhiser, Garry Wills, Joan Didion, Arlene Croce, Theodore Strugeon, and Jeffrey Hart. Even Joseph Sobran was capable of a fine turn of phrase when he reined in his racism and paranoia about Jewish power.

Having said that, there were always issues on which the magazine could not be trusted. Off the top of my head, I could never believe anything the magazine wrote about black people, the civil rights movement (they once asserted that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a poor public speaker!), intelligence tests, Latin American dictatorships (especially Chile), South Africa (and really the whole continent of Africa), climate change, the Viet Nam war, the theory of evolution, anything to do with the Middle East or Islam, supply side economics, the Shakespeare authorship question (the magazine allowed Sobran to indulge his pet theory that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays). This is only a partial list but gives you an idea of the magazine’s blind spots.

Pop music belongs on the list. Attached at the bottom of this posting is a scan of a National Review editorial from the August 10, 1984 issue which claimed that pop music was becoming more conservative in the Reagan era.

Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland: pioneers of Hip Hop?


Among the astonishing sentences in the article:

“Hip Hop culture (of which break dancing is a part) is an update of the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical ethos.” (In the whole history of the world has there ever been a more amusing example of clueless white people writing about black culture?)

“Bruce Springsteen (one of the few rockers capable of writing intelligent lyrics) has led the rightward tide. He still writes about the working-class victims of the Rust Belt, but on his last two albums – Nebraska and Born in the U.S.A. – his heroes are invested with a cowboy libertarianism.”

“One of the new artists who is writing with explicitly conservative lyrics is Little Steven. His most recent album, Voice of America, includes songs about the Polish Solidarity Movement, the Berlin Wall, and the outrage of urban crime and disorder.”

I’ll leave it up to readers to imagine how Mickey Rooney inspired Hip Hop. About Little Steven I’ll simply note that support of the Solidarity Movement (which was rooted in labour unionism) and opposition to the Berlin Wall could be found among liberals, anarchists, and socialists. And indeed, Little Stevens was no conservative. Here is what Wikipedia says: “With Voice of America, [Steven] music became explicitly political, with the central theme being opposition to Ronald Reagan-era American foreign policy… [In] 1985 he created the music-industry activist group Artists United Against Apartheid as an action against the Sun City resort in South Africa….In 1987, he released the album Freedom – No Compromise,which continued the political messaging in an even more strident fashion. Some U.S. appearances in that year as opening act for U2’s arena-and-stadium Joshua Tree Tour continued in the same vein – Oliver North was labeled a ‘criminal motherfucker’….” I wonder what the folks at National Review thought when they heard that description of Oliver North.

About Springsteen’s “cowboy libertarianism”: by 1984 it was already clear that Springsteen was a New Deal Democrat, and musically much influenced by a tradition that was even farther on the left, Popular Front legacy of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.  Readers unfamiliar with the great Springsteen’s work might want to look up the lyrics from Nebraska, which includes songs like “Johnny 99”, which run:

Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month

Ralph went out lookin’ for a job but he couldn’t find none

He came home too drunk from mixin’ Tanqueray and wine

He got a gun shot a night clerk now they call him Johnny 99

Down in the part of town where when you hit a red light you don’t stop

Johnny’s wavin’ his gun around and threatenin’ to blow his top

When an off-duty cop snuck up on him from behind

Out in front of the Club Tip Top they slapped the cuffs on Johnny 99

Well the city supplied a public defender but the judge was Mean John Brown

He came into the courtroom and stared young Johnny down

Well the evidence is clear gonna let the sentence son fit the crime

Prison for 98 and a year and we’ll call it even Johnny 99

A fist fight broke out in the courtroom they had to drag Johnny’s girl away

His mama stood up and shouted “Judge don’t take my boy this way”

Well son you got a statement you’d like to make

Before the bailiff comes to forever take you away

Now judge I had debts no honest man could pay

The bank was holdin’ my mortgage and they were gonna take my house away

Now I ain’t sayin’ that makes me an innocent man

But it was more `n all this that put that gun in my hand

Well your honor I do believe I’d be better off dead

So if you can take a man’s life for the thoughts that’s in his head

Then sit back in that chair and think it over judge one more time

And let `em shave off my hair and put me on that killin’ line.

Or how about this great celebration of the free market found in “Used Cars” (like “Johnny 99”, a song from Nebraska):

My little sister’s in the front seat with an ice cream cone

My ma’s in the black seat sittin’ all alone

As my pa steers her slow out of the lot for a test drive down Michigan Avenue

Now, my ma, she fingers her wedding band

And watches the salesman stare at my old man’s hands

He’s tellin’ us all ’bout the break he’d give us if he could, but he just can’t

Well if I could, I swear I know just what I’d do

Now, mister, the day the lottery I win I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car


Now, the neighbors come from near and far

As we pull up in our brand new used car

I wish he’d just hit the gas and let out a cry and tell ’em all they can kiss

our asses goodbye

My dad, he sweats the same job from mornin’ to morn

Me, I walk home on the same dirty streets where I was born

Up the block I can hear my little sister in the front seat blowin’ that horn

The sounds echoin’ all down Michigan Avenue

Now, mister, the day my numbers comes in I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car



National Review's foray into pop music criticism.

8 thoughts on “Hip Hop’s Debt to Mickey Rooney

  1. Great and funny post, Jeet — of course, National Review itself did all the heavy lifting for you in terms of the humour.

    Couldn’t agree more with you about the many great writers that Buckley was willing to hire in the early days, no matter the ideology. Thought I’d add Renata Adler and John Leonard to that long list you made.

  2. Amazing. Do you have any idea what they mean by that connection, or was it as much throwing random words together as the claiming of Silvio for the Republicans?

  3. I have no idea what they meant by the hip hop sentence. I think maybe one of their editors saw pat of a hip hop video, and thought, “when was the last time I saw young people dancing — oh, yes, those great Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals.”

  4. Very interesting, Jeet. Did National Review try to co-opt the punk & grunge movements too? I’d imagine the magazine might have found The Sex Pistols “Anarchy in the UK” refreshingly libertarian, particularly since it was released in 1976 under a Labour government — and wasn’t Kurt Cobain trying to warn youth about the perils of hard drugs when he sang that he felt “stupid and contagious”?

    Hey, anything’s worth a shot.

  5. Excellent guess Ian! Yes, as a matter of fact, NR did run an article in the late 1970s that tried to claim punk music for the right. I’d have to go into the library to dig it out but I seem to recall it was better than this hip hop effort (could it have been written by the young Chris Buckley?). Of course, there was a small hard-core right wing element in punk culture that verged on Nazism, but I don’t think NR was dumb enough to claim that….

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