Literary Ramblings: The Floating Island Of The Real (a review of The Lonely Islands “I’m On a Boat”)

The Lonely Island

The Lonely Island

For those who haven’t seen or heard “I’m On a Boat”, you may want to watch the video before reading the proceeding article. Follow the link below.

In employing aspects of the pastiche, inter-textual play, and bricolage and by indulging in appropriation on a massive scale, it seems that contemporary hip-hop and rap serve as the epitome of post-modern culture, and while such indulgences can serve to enhance the work, there are aspects of the post-modern that also serve to undermine this genre of music. In his work Simulacra and Simulation, Jean Baudrillard discusses reality in the context of symbols and what they mean to society, while Michel Foucault had compared society to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon designs, and it is these two aspects of the post-modern world which are so prevalent in contemporary hip-hop and can often serve to undermine the work in this genre as many hip-hop artists ignorantly claim and aim to be and represent the “real”, while at the same time calling on the audience to acknowledge their success in the context of the social panopticon that their success might be substantiated by this recognition. These are the common flaws that serve to act as a retarding weight on many works within the genre and are also the aspects of hip-hop which The Lonely Island choose to satirize in their single “I’m On a Boat”, a brilliant lampoon of the genre which deconstructs the flawed presentation of the “real” in contemporary hip-hop and also question the need to have one’s own success validated by complete strangers.

T-Pain

T-Pain

Artists like Jay-Z have attacked the popular use of the Auto-Tuner, a studio device used to correct the pitch of vocalists and diluting the actual (or “real”) vocals by improving and perfecting them to obtain synthetic sound, a popular practice in many genres of music and most especially in hip-hop where T-Pain, the guest vocalist on The Lonely Island’s single “I’m On a Boat”, is perhaps the most prominent employer of the Auto-Tuner, and it is no accident that T-Pain and his Auto-Tuner are featured predominantly on this track. Throughout the track there are references to the “real”. Akiva Schaffer, for example, states: “this is real as it gets”, while Andy Samberg notes that the “boat is real”. Such references are clearly examples of inter-textual play that draws on habitual “real” references that are so prevalent in hip-hop/rap music. It is common to hear phrases like “keep it real”, but when rhetoric like this is juxtaposed next to a backing vocal that rests so heavily on the synthesized Auto-Tuner effect, like T-Pain’s vocals are, it clearly calls into question the sincerity of claiming to be “real”, and this is authenticity is further questioned when T-Pain calls on the listener to “believe” him when he asserts that he “fucked a mermaid”, a claim that is a clearly an extraordinary fabrication since it indulges in fantasy by referring to the mermaid and diluting the “realness” and sincerity of those who claim they are real.

This questioning of the “real” is not only present in examining the juxtaposition of the Auto-Tuner alongside Schaffer’s and Samberg’s claims of “realness”, but it is also present in examining the juxtapositions expounded in the lyrical content of the song. Schaffer, for example, after Samberg insists that the boat they are on is real, goes onto to say: “Fuck land, I’m on a boat”, rejecting the “real” land, or earth, for the fabricated, manufactured boat, which is an imitation of the real, and then goes onto say; “Fuck trees, I climb buoys”, again rejecting the “real” (in this instance a tree), for a manufactured reality (the buoy). While claiming to be indulging in a life that is “as real as it gets” (which includes fantastic claims like “riding on a dolphin”), Schaffer’s content actually rejects the real in favour of the synthesized and manufactured, just as T-Pain’s actual vocals are put aside in favour of vocals that have been manipulated by an Auto-Tuner, further illustrating the hypocrisy of such claims to reality.

Andy Samberg’s lyrical content also questions the sincerity of what he presents as “real” through inter-textual play. Samberg, for example, aligns his presence on a boat with the film Titanic by claiming that he is “the king of the world, on a boat like Leo”, referencing Leonardo DiCaprio’s infamous line from the aforementioned film, going on to state that his arms are “spread wide on the starboard bow”, again imitating a popular scene form a movie, suggesting that his actions are not his own sincere response to the experience, but an imitation of a learned response he had seen in a movie, diluting that validity of his claim that the situation is “real”.  And as T-Pain made the fantastic claim that he had slept with a mermaid, Samberg to makes a fantastic claim, stating that going to “fly this boat to the moon”, and continuing with his inter-textual play, he backs up this fantastic claim by suggesting that like “Kevin Garnett, anything is possible”, referencing a text outside of the song to back up his implausible suggestion. Like Schaffer’s and T-Pain’s lyrical content, Samberg’s content also articulates that though an artist might appeal to the “real”, it does not authenticate the artists claims.

Though the song clearly indulges in the debate about what is real, dipping into arguments presented by Baudrillard, the song is also very much about the effects of the social panopticon which Foucault speaks to. Foucault suggests that society works as a sort panopticon as each person acts like the witnesses of any potential social improprieties or crimes. But this carries with it certain implications, and just as one’s improprieties aren’t realized without witnesses, so to do one’s successes fail to be realized until they are witnessed by others, and this mentality is very much present in many hip-hop/rap songs and is satirized by The Lonely Island in “I’m On a Boat”. Samberg, for example (with T-Pain repeating him), calls out for people to “take a good hard look”, and asking “Everybody [to] look at” him, suggesting that while he may be experiencing some degree of success by being on a boat, this success cannot be realized unless others see it and acknowledge it. Samberg also orders the audience to “Take a picture”, suggesting that he not only requires others to witness his success in order for that success to be realized, but also that he needs visual evidence of it for future reference. To further this social recognition Samberg also is sure to juxtapose his own personal experience with others to validate his success, belittling a member of an imagined audience by noting that while Samberg is himself on a boat, others are at “Kinkos… flipping copies”, demeaning the working class and using this social/class-based juxtaposition to validate his own success. T-Pain also indulges in this during the song, combining it with the fantastic by asking “Poseidon [to] take a look at” him so that his success might be validated by a fantastical, omnipotent being, exaggerating this need to have social witnesses to validate one’s own success. The boat itself is of course a status symbol, playing into Baudrillard’s ideas of how society’s perceptions of reality are tied in with certain symbols, and heightening how certain artists rely on such symbols to help validate their success in a social context. Such calls to be recognized are present not only within the content of the lyrics of contemporary hip-hop and rap, but also in the actions of the artists themselves, artists such as Kanye West who has, on more than one occasion, made a scene when certain organizations have chosen to offer awards to acts which he saw as less deserving.

In watching the video for “I’m On a Boat”, its easy to laugh as the base humour presented and be entertained by the simple ridiculousness of its content, but these are not just ridiculous ideas thrown together, this is a carefully crafted work, an intelligent, sharp and effective satire which draws attention to some of the problematic themes that repeatedly arise in hip-hop and rap that serve to undermine the genre and many individual pieces of work. The song of course is not limited to these two aspects as it also mimics the excessive and gratuitous profanity found in contemporary hip-hop, and it also lampoons the tendency of some artists to belittle imagined and real members of the audience with words like “bitch” and “mother fucker”, and there are aspects of hip-hop and rap which are deserving of a satirical skewering that are not present in this work (such as the prevalent homophobic views projected by many artists, and the propensity to objectify women in hip-hop and rap -a thread common in many forms of popular music), but the aspects of post-modern art which The Lonely Island choose to satirise are very much deserving of critical analysis, and the skewering they present is effective, clever and sharp and should not be simply dismissed as ridiculously funny, but rather be seen as an insightful satire that calls into question how we see the “real”, and how we tend to measure ourselves next to others and rely on social recognition to truly realize any level of success.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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