Start Snitching

April 28, 2007

In recent years, there has been a tremendous outcry against “snitching,” the practice in which gang members serve as informants for the police, in exchange for money or immunity from prosecution. Apart from community protests, resistance to snitching has become a cultural movement; clothing featuring the phrase “stop snitchin’” has spread to the point that it often is worn by schoolchildren, a section of society that police rarely recruit as informants. Yet, the pervasiveness of the “stop snitchin’” campaign inside and outside of heavily be-snitched neighborhoods belies the fact that snitching remains an essential tool of law enforcement, a tool that many supporters of the campaign would be worse off without.


To begin with, who exactly started the whole “stop snitchin’” phenomenon? A quick search of Wikipedia reveals that “stop snitchin’” originates from a shoddily-made DVD of the same name, put together by noted lowlife Rodney Thomas (and featuring a guest appearance by Carmelo Anthony, currently the Denver Nuggets’ small forward), in which Thomas threatens rival dealers who might otherwise consider cooperating with the authorities against him. Given that Thomas, who is now in prison for assault, received a greatly reduced sentence for pleading guilty and cooperating with authorities, one can be forgiven for seeing the entire “stop snitchin’” enterprise as less than totally legit.  


Furthermore, if TV has taught us anything, it is that snitching has its benefits, and not just for the snitchee. For instance, on the Shield, Detective Vic Mackey runs a cottage industry of snitches (referred to as criminal informants or CI’s), which allows him to contain the frequent flare-ups between neighborhood gangs and avert a bloodbath. Were Mackey not to have said CI’s, one can be sure that he would still find a way to get the information he needed, but it would likely be from beating it out of at least twice as many people, some of whom might be innocent. Thus, the more that gang members snitch, the less decent residents of the neighborhood have to worry about getting caught in the cross-fire, or for that matter, the less they have to worry about accidentally getting on Mackey’s bad side.


Finally, one must consider the kind of people who support the “stop snitchin’” campaign. Studies have shown that the audience for rappers who lionize the thug life and actively promote the “stop snitchin’” message doesn’t come from the neighborhoods where snitching (real and imaginary) actually takes place. Instead, the majority of this audience consists of teenage white kids from the suburbs, who not only think that they know what’s best for inner-city neighborhoods, but would most likely run away screaming if they were confronted with either a thug or snitch in real life.


So, the next time that you consider buying a fashionable “stop snitchin’” t-shirt, consider the consequences. Buying the t-shirt gives your tacit endorsement to a movement founded by hypocrites.  It also tells people that you’d prefer it if the cops indiscriminately beat them for information and looked askance at the first sign of gang warfare, rather than pulling a McNulty and outsmarting the bad guys. But if logic and reason aren’t enough to deter you, think about the kind of company that t-shirt would put you in. Do you really want to be mistaken for some ofay kid who listens to Young Jeezy? It’s enough to make you start snitchin’.

In On Autobiography, Philip Lejeune, after a lifetime spent trying to discern the self driving the autobiography, shifts his perspective on the genre, turning his definition of the form from one based on authorship into one based on the production of reading.

“Autobiography can be considered a collaborative genre involving several people behind the writing persona. The test of authorship can be shown to fail as a marker for the generic identification of some autobiographies.” (Review, Poetics Today, 11:3)

Elsewhere, Lejeune has written about autobiography told in the third person, or what it means when fiction uses a first person narrator. Once Lejeune felt the author needed to engage in linguistic flights of fancy in order to direct the reader with these other voices. But now his point of view has changed. For the author, all the voices mean much the same thing: its up to the reader to determine how they read the text, how they want to experience the world related by the narrator.

For whatever reason, I think about these questions most whilst listening to music (I also think about Tiddlywinks and girls with shiny noses). I think its the immediacy of the form; just you and the music, you and a singer, someone who, unlike an author, can emote, can direct my emotions. I can chose how to read a book, and claim to know how a character really feels; I can control the reading. But a musician has a much greater power in determining my experience. Despite what later Lejeune says, this is especially true since so much modern music is told in the first person, in the natural autobiographical form. We enjoy “Gin and Juice” because of the way it captures Snoop Doggy Dogg’s life (or, perhaps, creates his life in our minds).

More than other modern musicians (I guess, now that I’ve introduced the doubt, with the possible exception of Snoop), Elvis Costello seems to play with the autobiographical elements of songwriting, moving his listeners away from straight interpretations. Of course, when we consider or subject using paratext theory (care of Genette, the essential idea is that all the material surrounding the text shapes our understandings) we shouldn’t be too surprised that Costello would play with identity; after all, Elvis Costello is not his real name, and he frequently employed other pseudonyms.

Here’s an example (from “Tokyo Storm Warning”) of the way Costello plays with narrative:

“The black sand stuck beneath her feet in a warm Sorrento sunrise
A barefoot girl from Naples or was it a Barcelona hi-rise”

The lyrics are evocative. We’re at once transported to the rich moment and taken back. Our narrator gives us details, and then changes them. We have one poetic moment, and then another. Adding to our troubles, Costello repeatedly changes perspective. Sometimes the song is first person, other times second, and often in the third. There’s a story told, one that seems to be Erlebnis, but that story is repeatedly re and decontextualized.

“Every Day I write the Book” is another great example. In a song about text, Costello expresses his love for a woman in an atypical fashion, using an elaborate writing metaphor.

For me, the most important part comes at 2:23, when he sings, “Even in a perfect world where everyone was equal/ I’d still own the film rights and be working on the sequel.” The line expresses his desire to control the world around him, to tell the story as he wants it to go. The song is still the standard love song, but the conventional tropes are gone (Fun Genette fact #2: we have him to thank for the word “trope” being back in common discourse), replaced with new images.

And yet still, the emotion directs our reading. We know its a love song even with the twists. Perhaps this is the beauty of songwriting: the ability to play with lyrics and still control the audience’s response via the power of voice, of oral and aural persuasion. Or maybe not. This isn’t too well thought out, and it’s really more of an appeal to Ibiteyoureyes to burn me more Elvis Costello than (semi) serious literary analysis.