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A Postmodern Analysis of Beastie Boys' "Shadrach"

Postmodern cultural texts abandon traditional notions of content and continuity. A text does not tell a single story - it may be fragmented into many different messages. References and examples are to other media creations and images, as recursive copies of copies abound. In addition, a postmodern piece may exhibit a kind of self-consciousness. While traditional texts adhere to standards of construction or objectivity that aim to make the creator invisible, postmodernist texts often reference themselves. As Andrew Ferguson writes in the Weekly Standard on contemporary celebrity interviews, "The celebrity profile becomes a story of a writer trying to write a celebrity profile." (Nov. 6, 1995, p. 39). These elements - fragmentation, self-reference, hyperreality, and pastiche - are found "Shadrach," a song on Beastie Boys' 1989 album Paul's Boutique, an example of postmodern culture.

Rap lyrics, the form of the work, are inherently fragmentary. Emphasis is on rhymed couplets or intra-line rhyme, not on overarching themes running throughout the piece. As long as a line is with its partner, it can be placed anywhere in the song. "And the man upstairs, I hope that he cares / If I had a penny for my thoughts I'd be a millionaire" appears twice (13-14, 54-55), each time without a link to the lines that come before or after. Consecutive lines, even within couplets, jump from such topics as pliers to law firms (21-22), from Brooklyn street fairs to insults towards other rappers (25-26), from an American President to a humor magazine (39-40). Continuity is neither necessary nor employed in the song.

Self-reference is evident in multiple places in the text. The most striking example is in the song's title and its chorus, "We're just 3 MCs and we're on the go / Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego." (16,32,59) The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego is told in Chapter 3 of the biblical writings of Daniel. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three Jews living under the reign of King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. The king built a golden statue and decreed that all of his subjects had to bow down to it when they heard official sacred music. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, as Jews, refuse to worship any such idol. The king, incensed at their behavior, ordered them cast into a burning furnace. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego consented, believing that their god would save them. To the king's surprise and amazement, the three Jews were not burned; instead they danced gleefully in the flames. Seeing this display of power of the Jewish god, Nebuchadnezzar ordered the flames extinguished, and commanded all in his realm to obey the god of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Similarly, the three members of Beastie Boys, Jews in the predominantly non-Jewish world of rap, resisted the temptation to make an album like all of its contemporaries. Paul's Boutique was a strong departure from the daily bread of the 1989 rap scene. It pioneered the dense usage of samples and beats that predominated rap just a few years later. As Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego won over the Babylonians by staying true to their beliefs, Beastie Boys attempted and succeeded the same maneuver in the rap world by staying true to their (then) unconventional musical ideals.

In another self-reference, the Beastie Boys insinuate the same message of influencing their colleagues despite their minority status: "Music for all for not just one people / And now we're gonna bust with the Putney Swope sequel." (19-20) Putney Swope is a 1969 movie about an ad agency that, by a quirk of electoral rules, elevates their token black board member, the title character, to chairman when the existing chairman resigns. Swope transforms the agency to all-black with one token white board member. The new agency, "Truth and Soul, Inc." makes shockingly honest ads pointing out flaws in products.

Other examples of self-reference are of the kind more common in rap songs: rappers boasting of their superiority over other performers: "Your style to my style you can't hold a candle to it," (2) and "I got more stories than JD's got Salinger / I hold the title and you are the challenger." (35-36)

Hyperreality, the copying of images that are themselves copies, and the equating of images and their underlying content, is also present in "Shadrach." One example is "I've got the girlies in the coupe like the Colonel's got the chickens." (38) The Beastie Boy who raps this is demonstrating his romantic prowess - how many young women he has in his car, fawning over him. Yet the comparison in this simile of excess is not an example of a real-world romantic success, not even an example of real-world excess in anything. The comparison is to how chickens are ubiquitous in the media-created image of Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders, who is designed to sell cooked chicken.

Another hyperreal reference is made two lines later: "I'm madder than Mad's Alfred E. Neuman." (40) Alfred E. Neuman, the gap-toothed figurehead of Mad Magazine, has only been pictured uttering one phrase: "What Me Worry?" How can one be madder (whether more insane or angrier) than an image whose madness is never expressed?

Televangelists are a quintessential hyperreal image, mentioned in "Rally round the stage and check the funky dope musicians / Jerry Lee Swaggert or Jerry Lee Falwell." (45-46) The addition of "Lee" as middle name to both televangelists could be both an emphasis of how much they are performers as well as a reference to the relationship between Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggert (they are cousins).

Pastiche/sampling is found throughout the text. There is an abundance of pop-culture references, literary allusions, and lyrical elements of other songs.

"For those about to rock we salute you" (7) references both the AC/DC's 1981 "For Those About To Rock (We Salute You)" and the Roman gladiators' traditional pre-fight salute to their emperor: "morituri te salutant" [those who are about to die salute you]

Similarly, "I once was lost but now I'm found," (9) has both recent and older roots. Many artists of the 20th century have performed the ballad "Amazing Grace" which contains the lyric. The origination of the phrase, however, is from John Newton's 1779 "Olney Hymns."

"Only 12 notes, well, a man can play" (18) is a subtle reference to the work of Arnold Schoenberg, who made famous atonal music, which chooses all of its notes from a twelve tone scale.

"Got more suits than Jacoby & Meyers" (22) has a double meaning when applied to the mass-advertising law firm Jacoby & Meyers - referring either to lawsuits or to the lawyers' dress.

"Get even like Steven like pulling a Rambo" (31): "even [like] Steven" stems from Jonathan Swift's 1711 "Letter to Stella," in which he writes "'Now we are even,' quoth Steven, when he gave his wife six blows to one." Rambo is John Rambo, the paramilitary Vietnam vet played by Sylvester Stallone in the three "First Blood" movies. In this doubly-nested simile, both levels express violent behavior.

"I've got money like Charles Dickens" (37) alludes to Dickens' lengthy writing style, a consequence of his contracts with magazines for which he wrote serialized stories - he was paid by the word.

Some lyrics come entirely or partially from other songs. "Never gonna let them say that I don't love you" (41) isn't sung by a Beastie Boy but is sampled directly from a Jimi Hendrix song. Likewise, "Being very proud to be an MC" (53) is sampled from "That's The Joint," by Funky 4+1. "And we love the hot butter on, say what, the popcorn," (49) is a paraphrase of a line from Sugarhill Gang's Rapper's Delite: "We like the hot butter on our breakfast toast."

References are also made to other personalities ("Mario Andretti," (47) "Harry S Truman" (39)) and to consumer products ("Adidas sneakers," (21) "Goodyear tires," (24) Cadillac's "Fleetwood" (57)).

Beastie Boys' "Shadrach" exhibits fragmentation, self-reference, hyperreality, and copious sampling. These elements are hallmarks of a postmodern cultural text. Each piece of the song is not an ordered contribution to a story told by the whole, as a traditional song would be structured. While some lyrics relate to others, most are only internally consistent couplets. The members of Beastie Boys refer to themselves and their song repeatedly, both in order to boast about their skills and to demonstrate their relationship to the rest of the rap community. Many other references of diverse are made in the song - to political and cultural figures, images that are themselves references, and other rap and rock-'n'-roll songs. These samples are stitched together to create a diverse postmodern pastiche.


Shadrach Samples, References, and Lyrics

15 November 1995
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