Objectionable music, objectionable you

I bought the Josh T Pearson album yesterday. I’ve loved the Lift to Experience record since buying it after meeting Pearson at a 65daysofstatic gig, being told he made awesome music, and being impressed by both his erudition and his beard. But I hesitated to buy Last of the Country Gentlemen because it’s meant to be a collection of bitter, borderline woman-hating songs about the guilt he feels for being a dirty cheat, and I just don’t know whether I’ve got room in my life to listen to a record like this now.

With faultless timing, a really interesting thread about the ethics / morality of being a music fan (or, perhaps, how one applies one’s own ethics and morality to one’s music fandom) sprang up on ILX over night, and demanded I peruse it during breakfast this morning. (Nabisco on Wagner and fascism later in the thread is his usual wise and erudite self.)

It’s an area that’s been talked about a lot on ILX before, inspiring some posters to whinge that it’s been done to death and shouldn’t be talked about again, but the nature of online communities (and their inherent fluctuating membership) and any debate therein means that the same topics can and do arise naturally from time-to-time and necessitate new debate.

And now definitely seems to be a worthwhile time to resurrect this debate, with the praise being lavished on Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All following SXSW. I’ve not heard Odd Future, but descriptors I’ve seen have intrigued me, and I’m quite keen to investigate. One of the things that’s stopped me is that I barely use a computer for music at all anymore, except to load new stuff onto my iPhone and iPod every so often – the iPad, and the ability it’s given me to browse and communicate via the net in a worthwhile fashion while on the sofa listening to music via the hi-fi, has made the idea of listening to music while sitting at a desk, and consequently downloading music in any way (something I wasn’t keen on anyway), seem even more bizarre and alien than ever – I sit at a desk to type intently, not for leisure. Given that Odd Future’s entire output so far is only available to download (albeit for free), I’ve just not got round to doing it; it seems too much like work.

The other thing stopping me is the knowledge that Odd Future’s lyrics are meant to be… let’s say rambunctious. And by rambunctious I mean disgustingly profane and aspirationally offensive; they seek to confront and confound and confuse on every side, littering lyrics not just with swear words but with the most appalling subject matter. Not least rape jokes. Those two words shouldn’t go together. Likewise, the word “faggot” should only ever be used in reference to a pork dish served with mashed potato, mushy peas, and a pint of real ale, but it apparently gets thrown around Odd Future songs and gigs with abandon, and not as a culinary reference.

Of course, Odd Future are young, and the young are prone to bouts of extreme idiocy. It’s not ridiculous to think that they may grow up, chill out, realise the error of their youthful ways and apologise for their behaviour in the same way as Adam Horowitz of Beastie Boys did with regard to the “shitty and ignorant things” they said on their debut album (specifically in reference to the gay and lesbian communities). Odd Future’s youthful belligerance and energy is a key part of their appeal, is the thing people are raving about. It can certainly be tempered and redirected from negativity as they get older; I hope it does. Some people, however, just get worse as they mature.

We got rid of the last Kanye album not long after buying it. Admittedly this was partly due to the obnoxious sound and boring, overlong, egotistical arrangements, but the rampant misogyny run through the lyrics was a big contributing factor too. Arguments have been proffered that Kanye is satirising, playing a character, lampooning himself, that a sophisticated listener can cut through the rape-and-S&M fantasy lyrics, and appreciate My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as a grand artistic statement and cultural comment. I don’t buy any of that. I don’t buy it for Kanye anymore than I buy “but it’s great to dance to” protestations from people who excuse ragingly homophobic dancehall MCs. The “it’s just their culture, it’s ingrained, they can’t escape it” excuse strikes me as being just as dangerous as any other kind of “they don’t know any better” patriarchal relativism. In what other context would you tolerate savagery for lols? Skrewdriver don’t get a free pass (although, as posited on the ILX thread, this is partly because, a lot of the time, the abhorrent beliefs override any aesthetic merits the music may have had otherwise, by infecting the aesthetic, by becoming the driving factor behind all the aesthetic choices, rather than just another of the aesthetic choices).

Obviously there is the question of talk versus action, storytelling versus behaviour; Eminem talking about killing people versus Varg Vikernes actually hacking people to death and burning churches. I don’t know how to parse this differential, beyond shrugging and saying that if Varg’s music was worth bothering with I’m sure someone would have said so to me, and until then I’ll continue to ignore it. I loved American Psycho but I’ve never read a Norman Mailer book; I’m pretty sure I never will. Literature and music aren’t analogues though, and the relationship I had with American Psycho aged 20 is not the same as I could have with Kanye West age 31.

Morally objectionable music can lead us to ask questions of ourselves and become better, more tolerant, more caring people. But it can also just be horrible and objectionable. And people are, and should be, capable of coming to those conclusions, capable of making themselves better people, without the aid of rape jokes as a catalyst or aide memoire. Likewise some people are capable of being assholes without listening to Kanye West detail the extent of his own assholism and learning from the master.

The ILX thread reduces the music fan’s response to moral objection to a capital reaction; essentially, as one poster summarised, buy, borrow, steal, or pass. But Lex and Alfred both understand that it’s a more complex reaction than this; each of us applies buy, borrow, steal, or pass arbitrarily across different artists, genres, and moralities depending on our own whims, tastes, and pasts. I have no hard-and-fast code of behaviour for this, no rule for what’s acceptable to me; just a gut instinct.

What about record labels, though, and their parent companies? If one avoids musicians because of the things they sing about, say, or do, then surely one should take into account how releases the music, too? Monstershark said something at Devon Record Club about avoiding shopping in HMV because it was owned by Thorn EMI, and Thorn were arms manufacturers. Likewise I’m pretty sure Sony’s umbrella corporation includes companies manufacturing tanks and bombs. I took money from EMI for a writing job in 2005; I’d like to say I pondered over it, but I wasn’t in a position to turn down £300. I didn’t know that Thorn and EMI had de-merged in 1996; I didn’t know they’d ever merged; I just had a vague sense of unease that something, somewhere, was rotten with EMI. Beyond even the Dirty Vegas album they once sent me a promo copy of. (As a rule I get the idea that Monstershark has both more courage and more convictions than I do; I consider conflicting thoughts, feelings, ideas, and then ignore them and continue regardless.)

There’s an undeniable frisson of excitement from some morally objectionable music (possibly not from the likes of Varg Vikernes), especially to the educated, liberal, white audience; from Lil Kim talking about beating someone, from Eminem’s stalker/killer fantasies, from Odd Future’s profane tirades, from Kanye’s drugs-and-money-and-women-are-all-playthings bravado; we’ve always liked storytellers who push boundaries of taste, decency, and acceptability, be it Bill Hicks or the Marquis De Sade or whoever else. I imagine it’s the same base instinct as the will to drive too fast, drink too much, imbibe too many drugs, or indulge in any other type of devil-may-care hedonism that we know is bad for us but which gets the heart pumping.

Roland Barthes’ idea that “the birth of the reader is at the expense of the death of the author” has appealed to me since I came across it while a student, but I think it needs some degree of caveat. A produced text, be it a book, a record, a film, a painting, or anything else, is not an entirely blank canvas. Even if our experiences and understandings lead to wildly different interpretations in perceived or inferred meaning, we are not creating that meaning entirely from within ourselves, autonomously; we are still reading the same book or listening to the same record, and the form of the thing being consumed must have some influence on what we take from it (otherwise why choose what we consume culturally at all?).

Rather, I see a text as being a set of ingredients, and our experiences as a recipe for what we make with those ingredients, as well as an understanding of what constitutes an ingredient; a rigorous musical understanding helping you to strip the whole carcass of a song the same way as a good cook strips the carcass of a chicken, boils the bones for stock, and so on, rather than just picking at the breast meat and leaving the rest. Some recipes will use all the ingredients; others won’t. All will make a different meal, sometimes almost imperceptibly so, and other times radically so. We each have our own mental spice cupboard with which to flavour things (or not).

More and more these days I find myself unable, or perhaps unwilling, to muster the effort to deal with stripping the metaphorical carcass of music that I find morally… let’s say repugnant, rather than objectionable (is being a dickhead morally objectionable? If so, most of the record collection goes out of the window). There is more than enough great music to spend my time with out there that doesn’t require leaving my morals at the door; even stuff that gives me that frisson of danger when I still need or want it. I suspect I get that frisson less from a wince-inducing lyric than a squalling saxophone or savage guitar these days; a similar visceral reaction but without the moral dilemma.

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4 responses to “Objectionable music, objectionable you

  1. Great post Nick. Thanks for the words which I took to be kind. Fascinating how moral purpose and ethical certitude look solid when viewed from outside, but feel like disintegrating jelly from the inside.

    My standards are as fluid as they come. Burroughs, Ballard, Hunter Thompson… Steve Albini, Swans, Ghostface, Arab Strap and Bonnie Prince Billy… all absolute favourites, at times all make me worry at the boundary between telling objectionable truths and just being objectionable. But the frisson than comes with transgression is undeniable. One just has to hope that the artist is playing with transgression and nothing more. Sometimes you just have to admit that it’s hellish fun to scream along to ‘Cop Killer’.

    Boycotts are impossible, and mine have been patchy, largely superficially considered, and dearly cherished. All have been somewhat juvenile, and only one – meat – has had the thorough thought and consideration you assume. Interesting to look up the page on your site and see the photo of that Godspeed artwork. I assume you’ve seen the diagram from ‘Yanqui U.X.O’ which connects record companies to arms dealers? It’s here: http://www.wegart.sk/images/pics/godspeed_map.jpg. And that record was produced by the moral mastermind behind Rapeman…

    P.S. I type this wearing my beloved Bill Hicks t-shirt. Hicks wasn’t really an objectionist. He espoused the use of hallucinogenic drugs, loved watching porn and thought those who work in marketing should kill themselves. You may object to any or all of these views/hobbies, but they hardly put him outside the mainstream by today’s standards.

  2. P.P.S. I’m really finding the OFWGKTA rush pretty irresistible.

    P.P.P.S. Mailer was one of the greats. Some of the rawest writers of the century, and he worried at exactly the same things you are doing above. To find out what it meant to transgress, to break the rules, he went ahead and did it, and then he told the tale.

    Ultimately you draw your own line with this stuff, then you hear an amazing bass sound and you redraw it.

  3. Just wanted to say, great post. I came across this via B. Michael Payne’s post on the subject, which you may also have seen by now. Feel like you and I are sort of in the same boat, although for different reasons– I happily download loads of new music, but I’m skeptical of the machinery behind whatever act receives, as if from on high, the designation of Subject the Clique of Music Writers Must Care About– “don’t believe Big Hype,” as it were, to quote the new Patrick Stump EP– and even more so when so much of the momentum behind this act (as with Vampire Weekend a few years ago) (or, hell, Kanye West, any time, ever) seems to derive as much from some supposed controversy as from anything actual in the music (which, especially in this case, I rarely see people talk about). You don’t win friends with rape jokes.

    Anyway, rambling now, but again: great post!

  4. Pingback: Blog Watch Edition 9: Odd Future, Again and Again | The T.R.O.Y. Blog

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