Culture War Correspondence: Music – Catchiness vs. Content

KAT: Greetings friends! Tonight Evan and I bring you a topic that is close to the heart of anyone with the ability to hear (or feel vibrations): music.

EVAN: In particular, we’ll be discussing lyrics, appropriate since I can just barely sound out “Amazing Grace” on the piano. As far as pop music goes nowadays the words our favourite artists are singing are not always ones we can agree with.

It’s why this version of a certain Robin Thicke song is the only one I can listen to with a clean conscience:

 It’s also why I just can’t enjoy jamming out to Rihanna and Eminem’s romanticization of domestic abuse (“Love The Way You Lie”).

EVAN: Speaking of Eminem, I want to preface the more obvious with the less by saying that the man is a wordsmith of the highest calibre. No offense to the Bard or anything, but if you check out a breakdown of, say, “Rap God”, it’s going to blow you away how in-depth his lyrics are.

That being said, the second verse does include a number of lines kicked off by this:

Little gay-lookin boy
So gay I can barely say it with a ‘straight’ face, lookin’ boy
You’re witnessing a mass-occur
Like you’re watching a church gathering take place, looking boy

Which . . . is unfortunate, to say the least.

KAT: Exactly. I actually just went and looked up some of the most controversial songs and found some that I hadn’t really heard of. For example, I remember my mom really hated the band Slayer. It’s kind of understandable given the context of their song “Angel of Death” which outlines a lot of the horrific works of Josef Mengele and got them a pretty terrible reputation as Nazi sympathizers.

So what do we do with these songs? I mean, when Robin Thicke comes on the radio every hour do I shut off the radio? Change the station? Send him some hate mail?

This is how I feel every time Robin Thicke comes on the radio.

EVAN: Well, you hit on the very important fact that we don’t have to listen to these songs. Sure, we may be bombarded by them whenever we’re in the vicinity of a radio [more often than you might think], but we don’t have to make the conscious decision to go out of our way to find them on YouTube.

But on that same note, let’s be real: we enjoy listening to them.

KAT: Yeah. Just to refer back to Thicke (since he’s the example I hear most often these days) there have been so many times I’ve started singing along before I realized what song it was and gotten all angry at myself.

So does that make us total hypocrites?

EVAN: In other words, are we guilty of falling prey to earworms? I mean, when phrased that way I certainly don’t think so.

You mentioned obligation or responsibility just a while ago, though, which we’ve covered on the blog in regards to being conscious shoppers. On that same note I suppose we should do what we can to ensure that the art we engage with is communicate a positive [or at least not a negative] message.

So how would you recommend we go about that? How much research is necessary for guilt-free listening? This is just in regards to how we spend our time and what we fill our ears with, I think actually purchasing said music makes this question vastly more important.

KAT: Good question. I mean, you could probably dig into most music out there and find a reason to boycott it. I guess it would just have to be a personal choice. You make a good point differentiating between what we listen to vs. what we spend our money on. I mean, I can choose not to support an artist I don’t agree with, but when it comes to the radio (at least up north) my options are either accepting the ear-bug or listening to silence.

Honestly, I think that’s partially why the Christian music industry has been so successful. It’s like censorship by choice, and sometimes maybe that’s not such a bad thing. I mean, I love that a lot of the music I listened to growing up was always reminding me how much God loved me or how I was loved and important. Sometimes there was even some solid Christian bands (I’m thinking of the golden years of Jars of Clay and DC Talk). It’s not really my preference for music anymore, but I like that there was a different kind of music scene out there.

EVAN: So you’re saying that those genres survived by virtue of being different from what else was out there?

KAT: I don’t want to assume I know for sure, but I feel like it’s a safe bet.

As a person who works with kids for a living, and someone plans to reproduce at some point, the first thing that came to mind when you brought up this discussion was how it applies to kids.

I mean, almost all music is accessible to everyone now. Even with some radio censorship, the internet allows most youth to get around that barrier. My mom was such a hater on music lyrics when I was a kid that it drove me insane, but now that I’m adult even I sometimes have a hard time listening to mainstream music around kids. At this point I’m not really sure what I would do with my own kids, but I know I don’t want them to have a subscription to MTV. I don’t want them to think that all women are objects and playthings and that to be a real man you should use women as props for your lifestyle like they do on TV.

EVAN: When I was younger, say my mid-teens or so, I can remember taking a lot of pride in the content of the music I was buying at the time. In general the lyrics of my mostly-rock collection of CDs [with some Avril Lavigne and Kelly Clarkson thrown in] was generally decent stuff.

But c’mon, not every kid is like I was. It’s always going to be jarring to see six-year-old kids singing tunes that are pretty much entirely about sex [see: Daft Punk and Pharrell’s “Get Lucky”]. Skip to around 3:10-

 Agreed. Especially when you consider how some studies have suggested that certain types of music can actually affect the behaviour of children.

So does that mean we have a moral obligation to protect children from music? And is that kind of goal even possible without becoming a Luddite?

EVAN: Well, you and Gordon definitely talked about censorship at an earlier date, and while he doesn’t believe that children being exposed to certain things are particularly dangerous, that’s now really the focus here.

What you’re bringing up is how to protect your children without your supervision, and that entirely boils down to parenting. If you tell them not to do something, like watch MuchMusic or MTV or what have you, whether they do or don’t is dependent on their level of obedience which is directly connected to how you’ve raised them.

KAT: Or how stubborn they were when they came into the world. I’ve known some pretty amazing parents with children who weren’t really all that obedient.

EVAN: To take this conversation back to the actual content of the songs, since we are nearing the end of our time, I think the question we need to address is this: What’s the harm in jamming out to “Blurred Lines” et al.?”

KAT: Well, I’m not really sure. Maybe in the moment it isn’t a big deal, but doesn’t that moment kinda undermine later efforts to challenge the kind of messages spread by musicians like Thicke?

EVAN: The implication being that enjoying the song makes one complicit to the skeevy sentiments therein?

KAT: Haha. Perhaps not complicit, but at least uninentionally feeding into the machine that is producing such sentiments.

EVAN: Given our breaching the topic of what it means to be a conscious consumers of what we may never actually buy [music, TV, etc.] I think it’s time we cap this talk before we get in over our heads.

KAT: Sounds good to me.

I hope you all enjoyed our discussion, and please, let us know what you think. Do we need to apply our moral conscience in choosing what we listen to? Or are we just overcomplicating some mighty good jams?

3 responses to “Culture War Correspondence: Music – Catchiness vs. Content

  1. I think the main thing goes back to the idea of narrative. I’m so influenced by stories around me, and although I will credit the notion that I’m an obsessively word oriented person, I can’t disrgard the idea that other people are also absorbing these storylines. When I hear my students sing (in class, today) about how they are going to “buy another round to make sure that honey gets down” It drives me crazy. A) don’t be singing in class…but B) their concepts of respect and dignity are being shifted into commercial exchanges. Before they are even of age to go and buy that next round, they’re already thinking that purchase should result in specific behavior from others.

    As for me, I turn the radio off, I thumbsdown on Pandora, and I can control that. I can’t control public spaces like malls where the stuff is pounded into my ears but being conscious of an evaluative space is so helpful. When I remember that words MEAN something, it makes it easier for me to take the pop song seriously.

  2. It’s cool that I read this post the same day I found this:
    which, I think, is ripe for discussion (or at least casts some speculation on your comparison of Shakespeare and Eminem).

    • I may or may not have posted that link to the blog’s Facebook page the day before this went up, but I did very recently.

      When comparing Eminem to Shakespeare I don’t think the size of their respective vocabularies enters into it so much as how they utilize said vocabularies. I’d refer you back to the Rap Genius link, but to recap just two lines of that particular song-

      “But for me to rap like a computer must be in my genes
      I got a laptop in my back pocket”

      There’s the on-the-surface reading that his rapping ability is inherent, but on top of that “genes” as a homophone of “jeans” which leads directly into him having an actual computer in his pants.

      It may appear pretty excessive to make view the two side by side, but I think that at the very least it adds to the validity of the genre as an art form.

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