If the Beastie Boys Can Get Respectable, So Can Your Teen
Next month, on April 14, 2012, Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock”
Horovitz—collectively known as the Beastie Boys—will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Guns n’ Roses and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
According to the Hall’s website, the Boys are being recognized not only for creating hip-hop’s first
number-one album (1986’s License to Ill) but for having “one of the richest, most important careers in
hip-hop and rock, introducing rap to a huge new audience and then pushing the frontiers of what a hip-hop group could do.”
Now, while I’ll never profess to be the most dedicated Beastie Boys fan ever, I do own a well-worn cassette of License to Ill. And back in March 1987, when the Beasties’ rebellious, parenthesis-partial anthem “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” was tearing up the charts, I was sixteen, the ideal age to appreciate the song’s righteous rage against hypocritical parents and preachy teachers.
And yet, I have to say: if the 2012 me could travel back in time to tell the 1987 me that this spoiled-brat-white-rapper novelty act, known for hauling a giant inflatable phallus on stage, would not only still be recording music twenty-five years later but would be immortalized in the Hall of Fame—well, I’d have a hard time believing me.
I’m not saying this because they were misogynistic, although they certainly were. (“Girls, to do the dishes/ Girls, to do the laundry,” they giddily sang in “Girls.”) Or because they were homophobic, even though they were that, too. Or even because their lyrics revealed rather violent tendencies, which they most definitely did. (Just re-listen to License to Ill and see if all the references to shooting people startle you as much as they do me.)
No, twenty-five years ago, the Beasties seemed unlikely candidates for rock-and-roll canonization primarily because of their sheer goofiness. The “Fight for Your Right” video, for example, ends in a pie fight. It all seemed so juvenile to me—and I was sixteen at the time.
But then something very curious happened: the Beastie Boys grew up.
While they used to gripe about their moms taking away their best porno mags, the elder Beasties have somewhat more global concerns—for example, Tibetan independence (in 1996, they organized a series of Tibetan Freedom Concerts) or violence against women (over a decade ago, Ad-Rock used his acceptance speech at the MTV Video Awards to chastise promoters and fans for the sexual assaults that occurred at the Woodstock ’99 concert).
And although they’ve maintained their hard-core edge, the Beasties have cleaned up over the years, both professionally (in concert, they change some of the more offensive lyrics from their older songs) and personally. For example, while the 1986 Beasties were all about pounding beer and swilling brass monkeys, Adam “MCA” Yauch is now a vegan and a practicing Buddhist.
A Buddhist Beastie? Who would have thought?
To someone like me, who has followed their career only sporadically over the past quarter-century, the transformation is astounding. I’d almost equate it to going to a high school reunion, seeing someone you haven’t seen in twenty-five years, and realizing, “Hey, the last time I saw that guy, he was sticking chess players’ heads into toilets… and now he’s started a multi-million dollar foundation to stop coerced youth military service in Uganda?”
Moreover, along with this transition from Boys to Men comes an awareness of their past transgressions. In 1999, Ad-Rock wrote a letter to Time Out New York magazine apologizing for the homophobia present in License to Ill. He reiterated this contrition in a 2004 Entertainment Weekly interview : “There is no defense,” he said, when asked about some of their earlier homophobic and misogynistic lyrics. “We were stupid teenage boys.”
And to me, that’s the whole thing. Forget about the fact that they were not technically teenagers. (Mike D and Ad-Rock were both 20 in 1986, while MCA was 24.) They were basically stupid teenage boys. They were offensive and obnoxious and illin’. But they got better.
Don’t get me wrong: the 2012 me—who is a father and a teacher— can never condone some of the things the young Beastie Boys said or did. But I have to admire the Beastie Men—for learning from their mistakes, for apologizing, for using their influence to make positive change in the world. In short, for growing up.
And that, I think, should bring solace to parents of teenagers everywhere. Maybe your teen has morphed into a whiny, purposeless, rebellious punk, someone completely unrecognizable to you, someone who steadfastly believes in his inalienable right to party. Maybe you have fears he will never amount to contribute anything useful to society. But he will.
After all, twenty-five years ago, the Beastie Boys were rhymin’, stealin’, and prancin’ around a giant inflatable phallus. If those guys can become responsible adults… well, there’s hope for everyone.
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