Even if you're not a regular viewer of rap videos, you'd likely recognize Nick Cannon's "Can I Live?" as a standout of the genre. Set in an abortion clinic, the autobiographical video starts out with an apparition of Cannon begging his then-17-year-old mother not to go through with it. The "mother" is shown hesitantly filling out medical release forms and then later lying on a gurney as Cannon pleads with her: "Three hundred dollars, that's the price of living?/ Mommy, I don't like this clinic/ Hopefully, you'll make the right decision/ And don't go through with the knife incision." Outside, abortion protestors stand in the rain, tears running down their cheeks, as soul singer Anthony Hamilton (a Charlotte native, incidentally) sings the chorus: "I'll always be a part of you/ Trust your soul, know it's always true/ If I could talk I'd say to you:/ 'Can I live?'"
In heavy rotation for several weeks now on BET's "106 and Park/Top 10 Video Countdown" (where it debuted at No. 1) as well as on MTV's "Total Request Live," the "Can I Live?" video is generally flanked by more standard rap video fare, a self-parodying barrage of booty and bling typically favored by Ying Yang Twins and the like. But apart from the deliberate in-your-faceness of "Can I Live?," what's truly shocking about the video is how it's prompted cultural commentators from across the political spectrum to give the song props as much for its boldly pro-life message as for the music.
"Mr. Cannon deserves recognition, too, for finding a truly startling way to express a rather simple thought: he's happy to be alive," wrote New York Times music critic Kelefa Sanneh. National Review's Kathryn Jean Lopez crowed, "As much as a political junkie like me might enjoy a conservative alternative to a Michael Moore screed beating him at the box office, I'm not holding my breath. But that's all right because Nick Cannon has found the answer. . . he didn't have to be heavy handed or compose a political rant. He's just offering an honest story. . ." (If showing a pregnant girl on a gurney doesn't constitute heavy-handed in Ms. Lopez' book, I shudder to think what might.) Even "106 and Park" cohost AJ (whose painfully square style makes a thirtysomething, Toyota-driving white girl like me look positively street) got up on his imaginary pulpit after a recent airing of the video and talked about how "important" the video is.
Lest anyone think Cannon is the answer to the right's search for an authentic voice in Hollywood, perhaps we ought to review some of the messages he relayed in earlier songs. For instance, this one from "Shorty Put It on the Floor": "Shorty, you gon' work for this little bit of change/ Side order of pimpin', little bit of game/ What ya know, gon' hurt, just a little bit of pain/ When I rip your skirt, from your little bitty frame." Or this, from "Gigolo": "When we do what we do, we can't be visible, boo/ The last thing I need is lawsuits, all I did is call you/ Initiated first move, Shorty, that was all you."
It would seem that it's not just impressionable young teens who are easily seduced by Cannon's considerable charm; supposedly sophisticated editorial writers are, too. Poor Ms. Lopez is as gullible as those teen girls who see the "Can I Live?" video and hope they, too, will have a little Nick Cannon who will someday grow up to publicly celebrate the sacrifices they made. As Lopez declares, "Nick Cannon will never know how many late-night debates or changes of heart he'll prompt when someone is surfing and runs into 'Can I Live?' but at least one mother is already grateful to Nick Cannon. . . Instead of the abortion, she went for an ultrasound, and saw her twins. Maybe Cannon will have a cameo in their video 24 years from now."
And maybe there's nothing wrong with that wish -- let's just hope that mother doesn't wind up with a pair of Eminems, who end up dragging mom's name through the pop-music mud. What's more grating than Cannon's supposedly apolitical posturing is the double-standard at work here. Imagine for a moment that the 17-year-old in the video does the "right" thing and has the baby; but instead of waiting for it to grow up, she writes a song about it herself, celebrating that choice. Certainly, she'd be entitled to the same accolades as Cannon, right?
Not exactly. After all, that's exactly what Charlotte's own American Idol Fantasia did with her hit "Baby Mama," and, as you may recall, she was promptly castigated for it. Here were some of the headlines: "Going solo isn't good for baby or mama" . . . "Song unworthy of singer" . . . and so on.
Whereas Fantasia was forced to defend her artistic choices, Cannon stands to profit from taking on the very same subject. It can't hurt his career to distance himself from run-of-the-mill gangster rap -- and what better way to do so than to sing a nice song about your mom? I just wonder what that song would have sounded like if his mother had written it herself.
Charlotte native Cynthia Joyce is a free-lance writer living in New Orleans. She was the founding music editor of Salon.com.