Where to draw the line on when enough’s enough
by Gordon Campbell
Music and politics have always been closely linked, ever since Pete Townshend kicked the yippie activist Abbie Hoffman offstage at Woodstock. It tends to be a love/hate thing. Or at times, a shotgun marriage of form and content. As when the Wikileaked cables were initially downloaded and burned onto fake Lady Gaga CDs, before they made their way to Julian Assange. (Which is yet another reason to admire the panache of Pvt Bradley Manning.)
By and large, political activists have either ignored pop culture (the fools) or regarded it with mixed admiration and disdain. Activists who struggle to get 20 people along to a political meeting can only envy the clout that musicians have with mass audiences, however exasperated they may feel about the uses (pleasure, money) to which that power is usually put. Content can also be a sore point. Is there any artistic content that can be said to go beyond the boundaries of what is morally acceptable ?
Over the past fortnight, a variation of this very old concern has been played out in the case of Tyler the Creator, the 20 year old hip hop artist behind Goblin, the buzz album of the year to date. Tyler is part of a chain stretching back through Eminem to Ice T’s “ Cop Killer” to NWA to the Sex Pistols to the New York Dolls, in that he’s consciously out to test the boundary limits of taste and common decency. Rape fantasies, homophobia…you know the drill. The man’s a provocateur, and a pretty good MC.
After months of accelerating word of mouth, concerts disrupted by violence and massive media coverage leading all the way to the New York Times Tyler and his musical collective ( which is called Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All ) have gone mainstream. So far, Sara Quin (of the band Tegan and Sara) has been the only prominent musician who has called Tyler out on the content of his lyrics. Along the way, she has also bagged the media that have gone along for the ride – alternatively shocked and titillated by the carnival – but very reluctant to criticize, presumably because that would seem totally uncool.
Here, in its entirety, is what Sara Quin had to say on the T & S website :
When will misogynistic and homophobic ranting and raving result in meaningful repercussions in the entertainment industry? When will they be treated with the same seriousness as racist and anti-Semitic offenses? While an artist who can barely get a sentence fragment out without using homophobic slurs is celebrated on the cover of every magazine, blog and newspaper, I’m disheartened that any self-respecting human being could stand in support with a message so vile.
As journalists and colleagues defend, excuse and congratulate ‘Tyler, the Creator,’ I find it impossible not to comment. In any other industry would I be expected to tolerate, overlook and find deeper meaning in this kid’s sickening rhetoric? Why should I care about this music or its “brilliance” when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible? There is much that upsets me in this world, and this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve drafted an open letter or complaint, but in the past I’ve found an opinion – some like-minded commentary – that let me rest assured that my outrage, my voice, had been accounted for.
Not this time. If any of the bands whose records are held in similar esteem as Goblin had lyrics littered with rape fantasies and slurs, would they be labeled hate mongers? I realize I could ask that question of DOZENS of other artists, but is Tyler exempt because people are afraid of the backlash? The inevitable claim that detractors are being racist, or the brush-off that not “getting it” would indicate that you’re “old” (or a faggot)? Because, the more I think about it, the more I think people don’t actually want to go up against this particular bully because he’s popular. Who sticks up for women and gay people now? It seems entirely uncool to do so in the indie rock world, and I’ll argue that point with ANYONE.
No genre is without its controversial and offensive characters- I’m not naive. I’ve asked myself a thousand times why this is pushing me over the edge. Maybe it’s the access to him (his grotesque twitter, etc). Maybe it’s because I’m a human being, both a girl and a lesbian. Maybe it’s because my mom has spent her whole adult life working with teenage girls who were victims of sexual assault. Maybe it’s because in this case I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message but has EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message. It is not without great hesitation and hand wringing that I enter into the discourse about Tyler, the media who glorifies and excuses misogyny and homophobia, and the community of artists that doesn’t seem remotely bothered by it. I can only hope that someone reading this might be inspired to speak out. At the very least, I will know that my voice is on record.
So far, Tyler the Creator’s only response has been entirely in character: “If Tegan and Sara need some hard dick, hit me up!” This ‘in character “ argument being one of the reasons that Sara Quin was reluctant to enter this arena – because in our post-modern universe, we’re all in character and Tyler the Creator is, like Eminem’s Slim Shady, a fictional creation meant to shock and awe, and to be the mouthpiece for feelings that are part of the social fabric.
Its not real because its art is the way this argument goes. Rape fantasy (among 19 year old boys) and homophobia is everywhere – and are ( allegedly) thus located nowhere where they can be banned or contained ; at least not on a CD by Tyler the Creator. Its (a) art (b) a persona and (c) ingrained in the social fabric – and cannot be construed as a call to action, or imitation. And if rape fantasy-and-homophobic art and Tyler’s persona are deemed dangerous because they’re prone to be directed at the vulnerable – in his case, at women and at gays – then what about the race card? Does it make any difference at all that Tyler is black, thus arguably changing the power context for some of his revenge fantasies in a way not available to white rappers like Eminem and Yelawolf? You be the judge. Here’s one of Tyler’s best tracks : “Yonkers” – and as a bonus, Tegan and Sara’s 2010 track “ Turnpike Ghost”
For me, Tyler’s content is a barrier – though not in the same way that Jerry Lew Lewis and Phil Spector now seem unlistenable, given their history of real life violence. Ugly sentiments may be his point, but over the long haul of a 70 minute album, those sentiments eventually turn Goblin into a fairly dank and oppressive slog. It is easy to see why Sara Quin felt ambivalent about putting herself at the sharp end of this conflict. Controversy feeds the beast, and speaking out can only abet Tyler the Creator, almost as much as colluding with him via silence. At the very least though, she did spur the Gay and Lesbian Alliance into saying something.
Goblin meanwhile, has debuted at No 5 on the Billboard charts, which is big, but not BIG. Best lines on the album so far are from this review in the Guardian.
If Goblin had a smell it would be the stale, hormonal fug of a teenage boy’s bedroom, whose resident, as Tyler confesses on “Her”, plays “Xbox in piles full of wet socks”. Tyler’s outlook is fundamentally adolescent: lonely, attention-seeking, snarky, defensive, belligerent, confused, self-aggrandising and self-hating. On “Window” he raps: “In school I was a zero, now I’m every boy’s hero,” but the zero stays with him and supplies his most candid material. He watches too much porn, cries, nurses grudges, contemplates suicide. He’s “annoying and I’m ugly, most niggas wanna punch me”. On the most engaging track, “Her” he wrestles with conflicting responses to romantic rejection: “I could slander her name and then tell ’em I probably fucked/ I could tell them the truth that she didn’t like me much.” Like anyone who spends too long insisting he doesn’t give a fuck, he clearly does.
Ironically, the Cannes Film Festival underlined one of Sara Quin’s main points – that violent art against women and gays is socially tolerated, but anti-Semitism is still a big bad taboo. That’s what the Cannes Festival organizers decided anyway, when they banned the Danish film director Lars von Trier for life after his “ I am a Nazi” comments during the press conference for his new film Melancholia. Ridiculous. That really was Lars von Trier in his usual persona, as the bad boy contrarian. Banning him for life is an absurd over-reaction. (The unease of Kirsten Dunst, sitting alongside him was understandable though, and very human.) By the time von Trier gets to “ How am I going to get out of this sentence?” you can see he’s been rising to the bait in a way that he can’t control. Here’s a clip of von Trier making his infamous comments about Adolf Hitler, plus a few reactions by Hitler to the bad news from Cannes.
Interesting question on the AV club a few weeks ago – how come people become much more conservative about music as they get older?
The same people don’t lose their appetite for new books, or new movies anywhere near as readily as they do with music – which, as any grizzled 40 year old coot will tell you, is not as good these days as it used to be, and/or sounds just like it did back then, except they (the Beatles, the Stones, the Clash, Steely Dan etc) allegedly did it better.
That’s nostalgia talking, of course. When you’re younger, as the AV Clubbers point out, music signifies what you do – and don’t – want to become, and serves as a lifeline in the period between leaving the parental nest and taking on work and family routines of your own. No wonder the time feels precious, and no wonder people resist the music of that era being overtaken, and displaced.
Fine. Yet that still doesn’t justify the crusty antagonism routinely directed at today’s critical and fan favourites. Long ago, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats said something about the need to be attentive to the music that you hate. Point being that hatred is a form of commitment and if you listen long enough to what you initially despise – in his case, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons – it can turn into love. Just like in the romcoms.
He’s right. Time and again, music that sounds irritating or abrasive will – eventually and suddenly – reveal its worth. That’s why everyone should resist the inbuilt gravitation to what’s familiar. It doesn’t help that as they get older, relatively few people hear new music played live. Online, everything is available, yet the routes to finding it become more and more personal. (PMA, Pitchfork, Passion of the Weiss, Fluxblog and Bradford Cox’s Deerhunter/Atlas Sound website are almost daily destinations.)
The music is out there, as good as ever. Instead of making the case with something new and difficult, here are a couple of great recent tracks that should be entirely accessible to anyone from the 1970s. Namely, the tightly coiled Cass McComb track called “ County Line” and Erica M. Anderson’s “ California.”
And oh, from the Canadian band Fucked Up’s new album called David Comes To Life, here’s a real toe-tapper called “The Other Shoe ” :