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The Conversation: When is Music Too Negative, Too Hateful? Is There a Line?

Tyler, The Creator seems like a nice young man.
Tyler, The Creator seems like a nice young man.

Just last week, DC9 ran a review for the Gorilla Vs. Bear Festival that took place at the Granada Theater.

The show, which featured 10 acts -- from Shabazz Palaces to Preteen Zenith -- was pretty great. But a big hot-button topic surrounded the venue's "Twitter wall," which showed unedited Tweets on a screen between acts.

For a time during the show, the tweets got a little ugly. Hateful jabs at Shabazz Palaces and their fans didn't sit well with a lot of the crowd. Neither did some of the homophobic ones that showed up.

It got me thinking: Why is that commentary looked down upon as hateful and intolerant when done in that setting, but generally acceptable when done in music? While we certainly believe that no one should be censored, acts like Odd Future are pushing the limits of socially unacceptable subject matter in hip-hop.

After the jump, Pete and I discuss the reason such shocking acts have become so popular, while looking back at other acts who have pushed the boundaries in the past.

Daniel: Last week, I reviewed the Gorilla Vs. Bear Festival at Granada Theater, which was great by the way, but one of my big issues was with the Twitter board projected on the venue's side screens in between acts. Overall, the comments were funny, but as I noted, a few racist and homophobic remarks made their way onto the screen.

It really bothered me, and I don't think it sat well with our commenters either. One commenter wrote, "It probably was nothing more offensive than what you get from a typical Odd Future song. I forget where DC9 comes down on them." Pete, you responded by saying "DC9 approves of Odd Future," and posted a link to your rave review of their appearances at South by Southwest.

While I don't object to the group's music and believe that people are free to say what they want, the subject matter is a little too shocking for me. Same goes for any act that puts a high value on shocking lyrics.

So, I'm a lightweight. Whatever.

But it got me thinking: How far is too far when it comes to shock value in music? Is there a line? And if so, how far does an artist have to go before he or she crosses it? What are you thoughts, Pete?

Pete: The history of rock 'n' roll is rife with people taking things "too far." Think of all the things once deemed too "out there" for American audiences, from something as innocent now as Elvis' swaying hips to something still as thought-provoking as Karen Finley's naked spoken word/performance art offerings.

That's just the way things have always been in this world, and likely the only way they'll continue to be if the art aspect of the music is to truly keep being pushed. There are countless other examples -- like, say, the nudity seen on the album artwork offered up by The Dwarves (in town this week for a gig at The Double Wide, by the way) or even the murderous concepts behind some of Eminem's lyrics. Or, hell, Marilyn Manson wearing plastic boobs. Yes, we are all stars in the dope show.

Very little of that still looks offensive with the benefit of hindsight. I remember when Eminem first came out with The Slim Shady LP and how vulgar some of his lyrics about sex and murder were. Major talking-point stuff back at Needham High School, let me tell you. These days, though, he's pretty much without question seen as one of the greatest MCs of all-time.

Odd Future's no different. A little homophobic and crazy, maybe. OK, definitely. But the thing that makes them so great isn't their crude, often sophomoric lyrical content, but rather the vigor with which they proffer their material.

Point is, there is no line. Often, the only way to progress is to do something most see as a regression. But the message is so rarely just on the surface. It's the passion beneath the surface message that's important -- something that even my parents clearly didn't understand when they first confiscated my cassettes with Explicit Content/Parental Advisory stickers back in elementary school.

The difference is that these people are, at least in theory, artists. Douchebags who post racist and homophobic things on a Twitter wall at the Granada aren't doing so because they're being artistic. They're going for cheap laughs, and coming off like small-minded assholes in the process.

Isn't the best thing about the Gorilla Vs. Bear Fest aftermath the amount of people who've voiced their concern about the Twitter wall? Isn't that simple fact -- that very few people are OK with what they saw on there -- an encouraging thing?

Daniel: Yeah, I think that is an encouraging thing. And I am impressed by the vigor and passion in Odd Future's performances. I remember the first time I saw them. Their Jimmy Fallon performance was the craziest set I've ever seen on a talk show. I was blown away, for sure. But I had no idea what the subject matter of their music was about. I found out later that it's shocking -- possibly more shocking than any popular music to date.

I don't think that you can focus on the passion of the artist and turn a blind eye to the subject matter or the music. The passion with which they use to project their music is just extra. Marilyn Manson's fake boobs had nothing to do with his music, nor did Elvis' swaying hips. They were essentially just a way to generate buzz or sell the brand. Maybe Elvis didn't know it at the time, but he was basically establishing the formula for selling music. In retrospect, Elvis' music was legendary, and Marilyn Manson's music was OK at best. And, the shock value of the subject matter that Eminem and Marilyn Manson put out seems almost laughable these days.

All that is to say this: The subject matter of the music is the most important thing to the music. But I'm surprised that something as shocking at Odd Future has become so popular. Maybe it all just boils down to how desensitized the listener is. Maybe all those years in the hardcore hood of Needham have made you numb to world, no?

Pete: Yes, the MetroWest suburbs of Boston are truly "hard." (Not really.)

I'm not at all turning a blind eye to Odd Future's lyricism. But I honestly think that a lot of the to-do about Odd Future comes from people like you (no offense) who haven't really delved into their music and who, based on what they're reading elsewhere, think it's a problem. What Tyler, The Creator is doing really isn't any different than what Eminem did when he first blew up. At all.

Where do you see there being much of a difference? I'm asking this seriously.

Because I'm sure that, more than anything else, Tyler's pumped that his music has become such a hot-button issue. The only difference, really, is that Tegan and Sara made an issue out of Odd Future's lyricism, whereas Elton John went and performed with Eminem at the Grammy's.

Does that mean that what Tyler and his fellow Odd Future collective members are saying is A-OK? Not at all. But, as the old saying goes, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Which is also to say that, if you don't like it, you don't have to listen to it. And, even if you do listen to it, you certainly don't have to agree with it.

It's healthy to talk about things like this, even if that wasn't what Odd Future's intent was.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but it sounds like, based off what you're saying, that your problem with acts like Odd Future is that you think that an artist saying one thing paves the way for an average Joe to say the same things. Sounds like a cop-out to me.

I guess I'm just not sure what your issue with it is. The fact that we're even having this conversation means that Odd Future wins, doesn't it?

 

Daniel: Well, I don't mean to come of like I'm in a fight with Odd Future here. Like the saying you mentioned goes, I'm totally cool with their right to say what they want. And you're right, I haven't exactly delved into Odd Future's music, but what I have heard hasn't given me an appetite for more.

I think there are two big differences between what they're doing and what Eminem did over a decade ago. They're pushing the envelope further, and, while they are making a huge splash, I don't think they are as popular as he was -- at least not yet. Eventually, they might be, but I don't see that happening based solely on the strength of their music. I much prefer the musical creativity of acts like Shabazz Palaces, who played Gorilla Vs. Bear Festival, and a few of the Common records you loaned me.

But going back to what you said earlier, I have a hard time making sense of homophobic, racist, and sexist comments being unacceptable on a twitter feed at a venue, but totally cool when made in a song. Saying that it's OK because they're doing in as art still doesn't resonate with me. Hiding hateful and ignorant language under the guise of art seems like more of a cop-out to me.

So, why is it a cop-out to reason that if the Average Joe should be looked down upon for saying such things, then so should any artist?

Pete: I'm not saying it's totally cool. But it's certainly more acceptable and justifiable.

And in Tyler's case, it's all just ploy. Or so he says. He's gone on record a few times as saying that his music is therapeutic for him. There are even some instances on his latest record where he's supposed to be talking with his therapist. I don't want to give Tyler too much credit; that answer of his is likely just a convenient defense.

But, yeah, I of course see a difference between someone doing so in the name of art rather than life. It's impossible not to. I'd laugh in Katy Perry's face if she told me that I was a "firework" in real life. But, in song, it's clearly a metaphor that works pretty well, actually. Art is different than life. We all gave Britney Spears a pass when she, dressed in a Catholic school girl outfit, asked to be hit one more time. Her defense was that she was asking to be "hit with a sign." Um, sure. Why not?

Fact is, since the late '80s, a lot of hip-hop has been too reliant on the old gangster imagery first utilized by the likes of NWA. Odd Future stands out from all of the other imitators because they're not only re-energizing the sound through beats but also by intentionally pushing the boundaries of acceptable lyricism even farther along than most ever expected.

But it really is an act. Most hip-hop braggadocio is. Ice Cube, once the most violent rapper in hip-hop, is a family film and television producer these days. Method Man, who once famously threatened to "sew your asshole closed and keep feedin' you," did some voiceover work for the kids show The Fairly Oddparents.

Music far too often gets treated differently than other forms of entertainment when it comes to these boundaries. Extremely violent films like American History X and Fight Club are lauded for their aggressive handlings of hate crimes and terrorism. Brett Easton Ellis' American Psycho is praised for showing the inner workings of a serial killer's mind. The Wire is adored for showing the true and violent nature of inner-city drug culture. But Tyler, The Creator can't comment on the very real issue of homophobia? Even if he's simply adding fuel to the fire, the fact that he's railed against for doing so just doesn't add up.

One more thing: I would argue that your earlier statement about message being the most important thing about music is complete and utter bullshit. Take, for instance, one of your favorite bands, Sigur Ros, whose members sing in a made-up language called Vonlenska or Hopelandic, depending on who you ask.

For all you know, they're singing the same things that Tyler's rapping.

Daniel: Maybe I'm just getting old. Maybe I've become more like Will Smith's parents in "Parents Just Don't Understand," than I ever thought possible.

When I said message being the most important thing about the music, I meant the combination of music and lyrics. Explosions In The Sky have no lyrics, but they still have a message. What is less important than the music and lyrics is the hype that a band creates in order to sell the music. Elvis' hip swivel is less important than Elvis' music. Similarly, Odd Future's wild and passionate we-do-the-craziest-shit-imaginable attitude is less important than the actual music, which is laced with hateful topics.

Whether they are commentaries on homophobia, or actual homophobia, I'm not sure; I need to listen more. But, I'll be honest: I probably won't. Which brings me to a point you made earlier: If you don't like it, you don't have to listen to it.

Pete: Yeah, but I still think you should. Swag!


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