In May 2006 Jay-Z was angry. The Economist had just published an article with the suggestive title 'Bubbles and bling' in which Frédéric Rouzaud, managing director of Louis Roederer (the French producer that makes the champagne Cristal) openly admitted that the association of Cristal with the "bling lifestyle" left him largely unimpressed. Asked to comment on whether the trend was hurting the image of his luxurious product he had this to say: "That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it".
Jay-Z felt aggrieved. And four years later, even though he seems to have simmered down a bit, he is still not letting go. In his book Decoded, (published this November by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House), which is, in his own words, 'not an autobiography', he is revisiting the events.
Jay-Z still considers these comments an uncalled for attack on hip-hop culture. Back in 2006 he retaliated with the following statement: "I view his comments as racist and will no longer support any of his products through any of my various brands, including the 40/40 Club, nor in my personal life". The boycott was covered by mainstream New York media, and this attested to the influence of the materialistic school of hip-hop -- championed by Jay-Z, Notorious BIG, and others -- as it had made it into the cultural mainstream. Shawn Carter himself was considered at the time as an important tastemaker, "the E.F. Hutton of hip hop", as the New York Times had put it in an article published in June 2006. As president of Def Jam and with his personal worth at approximately $286 million, he was well aware of his power.
In his 2010 account of the events Jay-Z offers a more sober and thoughtful commentary. "We used their brand as a sign of luxury and they got free advertising and credibility every time we mentioned it ... Cristal, before hip-hop had a nice story attached to it; it was a quality, premium, luxury brand known to connoisseurs. But hip-hop gave it a deeper meaning. Suddenly, Cristal didn't just signify the good life, but the good life laced with hip-hop's values: subversive, self-made, audacious, even a little dangerous". In real life, this exchange was never reciprocal. This is not how these things work.
How these things actually work has been investigated and evidenced by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu was an intellectual star, ever since the 1970s, in French and international academia. His 1979 book, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, has been extremely influential in the field of sociology, and his analysis so accessible and useful that it has earned him an audience beyond academic circles (and a posthumous Twitter account). Bourdieu proved that taste, the same taste that makes a champagne sell for $600 a bottle, or aesthetics, and the choices that we make in art, literature, and music are not innocent. They are in fact, together with the cultural symbols that we appropriate, weapons used in class competition.
His primary aim was to debunk the illusion the dominant classes have of themselves that they are somehow more deserving of their privileges in power and wealth, because of their superior knowledge and culture. He also exposed the role of the educational system, and in particular that of the elite Universities' and (French) Grandes Ecoles, in securing the generational succession of higher class dominance.
Bourdieu viewed social space as a field where different classes compete with each other in a game whose outcome is determined by the volumes of economic, social, and cultural capital each player accumulates and by the relative weighting of these capitals in relation to overall capital holdings. Cultural capital refers to the knowledge and skills that we acquire through family and schooling and is considered an asset, such as real estate or money. There are mechanisms that transform cultural capital to economic and vice versa and it precisely these that Jay-Z has managed to manipulate with such success, aided by his instincts and "training" as a hustler. As he puts its, "I'm not a businessman, I'm a business, man".
Before Jay-Z became a business he had first to transform himself into a businessman. He did it by converting cultural capital into social and economic capital. Originating from a working class background, he generated cultural capital by putting mid 1990s hip hop into the best selling music mainstream. Doing that he was able to convert cultural capital into economic, and this found its way back to his lyrics, which were heavily embellished by nods to luxury products.
Simultaneously because of his cultural influence he was able to develop the social connections that would enable him to become a music mogul, an entrepreneur and a corporate executive. Media like the New York Times and New York magazine were happy to document his ascension. Shawn Carter is a self made man, a winner in the game of social mobility and it is such stories that make great copy. He was only happy to contribute to this; hip hop culture makes it legitimate to literally sing your own praises.
When hip hop became a bona fide mainstream cultural item it created dozens of new millionaires; rappers and producers who in their lyrics bragged about the symbols of higher social status they possessed, while simultaneously proclaiming themselves to be in touch with their working class roots. When rappers were ordering Cristal they were actually buying social status, a luxury with a European aristocratic pedigree, and the symbol of a higher class with an already developed semantic network. They were declaring their need for a higher cultural status that would match their large holdings in economic capital.
Cristal prides itself as a champagne originally made in 1876 for Czar Alexander II. It is the definition of a Veblen good, its price rises according to demand, therefore it has to be rare, inaccessible, expensive, elitist; hoi polloi cannot drink it. Therefore Cristal has no interest in being associated with an anti-culture, a subversive culture as Jay Z puts it, or even a formerly radical one. Cristal wants to maintain the status quo. The Economist does not carry the same cultural connotations as Cristal, although their target audiences can intersect. After all they sell half their circulation in North America. They are a liberal, center-right magazine dealing with economics and politics, widely perceived as the thinking man's Time, and one of the few periodical publications that has seen no decline in its sales. Most of its readers are managers and professionals, what Bourdieu calls the dominated fraction of the dominant class, who read the magazine as means of acquiring canonized cultural capital. Cultural capital is canonized through academia and although The Economist is by no means an academic journal, the magazine's subject matter and quality guarantee its readers this association with high brow intellectuality.
As Bourdieu noted the connections between cultural capital and class are less important for the dominant classes. They can transfer economic capital through inheritance and gain social capital through privileged social connections. As symbols The Economist simply did not need Jay-Z, nor did Cristal.
Vaios Papanagnou is the editor in chief of Esquire Greece