Sexual Violence in Music

Last weekend, Kanye West unveiled the finished product of his controversial new video for his single “Monster”, the first release from his universally acclaimed album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (his fourth video release, however). The official video can’t be embedded onto this site, so below is the URL (copy, paste) to Pitchfork’s page regarding the video. (Warning: Video contains graphic images, including for those sensitive to death, hangings, blood, misogyny, contorted bodies, and amputated limbs).

http://www.pitchfork.com/news/42724-watch-the-finished-version-of-kanye-wests-monster-video/

This is scary stuff, most certainly, and it has already accumulated bad press and petitions for it never to be officially released by Universal Music Group. This video is indicative of what some are calling a chilling trend in popular music: the promotion and glorification of sexual violence.

It needs to be understood that this is not an isolated incident. West is not the only rapper being criticized for his lyrics nor is hip-hop the only genre receiving backlash from organizations against physical and sexual indecency.

Tyler

In Los Angeles, alternative hip-hop trendsetters Odd Future (OFWGKTA) have received more attention for the behavior of their semi-fearless leader Tyler, The Creator than their minimalist production and dizzying wordplay. Last month, Sara Quinn of the duo Tegan and Sara commented on her blog that Tyler’s numerous references to rape and his frequent use of the word “faggot” are “…repulsive and irresponsible”. In reaction to the media’s dismissal of the magnitude of his lyrics, Quinn wrote, “who will stick up for women and gay people now? It seems entirely uncool to do so in the indie-rock world…” The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) has also commented, saying on its website: “Using hateful language, regardless of the context, is inexcusable, and in fact very serious.”

If MTV ever airs “Monster” (figuratively speaking, considering how much musical television MTV airs nowadays), West will most likely receive the same treatment from more vocal feminist groups. The controversy has neither deterred the song’s position in the charts (#18 on Billboard’s Hot 100, the same peak position as his second single “Runaway”) nor the critical reception, which especially lauds guest Nicki Minaj’s confident and multi-faceted verse.

Tyler also doesn’t seem to be suffering, brushing off criticism with lewd and juvenile Tweets and Tumblr posts (he is only 20 years old, after all). His sophomore effort Goblin, released on May 10th, debuted at #5 on the Billboard charts and will most likely sell 100,000 units by the end of the year. OFWGKTA has probably lost a few hesitant fans to shell out ten dollars for an album (including myself), but they remain the brightest stars in underground music due to their sold out shows and ever-growing legion of internet-based supporters.

These incidents have re-ignited the debate about censorship in music that has lasted for over half a century. Some examples:

In 1954, Elvis Presley was dismissed from the Grand Ole Opry after some inappropriate “leg shaking” during his live performance that aroused excitement in the mostly female crowd. The very next year, country vanguard Johnny Cash caused a stir on his hit single “Folsom Prison Blues” when he claimed, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”

Dee Snider

In 1985, the Parent Music Resource Center (spearheaded by Tipper Gore) unleashed a campaign to stamp albums with ratings regarding the level and classification of obscenities in music. At a Senate hearing, Frank Zappa, John Denver, and most notably Dee Snider testified against the proposition. The most cutting remark, in reference to personal interpretation of lyrics, came from the Twisted Sister front man: “Mrs. Gore was looking for sadomasochism and bondage, and she found it.” Though the hearings eventually lead to the now ubiquitous “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” label, the testimony of Snider was seen as a victory for heavy metal and artistic freedom.

In 1989, Miami hip-hop bad boys 2 Live Crew released their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be to some undesired attention, including the American Family Association’s (AFA) claims that a “Parental Advisory” sticker would be an insufficient warning to prospective buyers. Florida authorities would later claim the album as obscene and threatened to punish store owners who continued to sell the album with legal action. The obscenity charge was later reversed by the United States Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and all the media attention resulted in the album selling over 2 million copies for the sexually charged rap stars.

In 1993, Wal-Mart forced grunge heroes Nirvana to change the name of their song “Rape Me” if they wanted to see their third album In Utero stocked on Wal Mart’s shelves (the band complied, changing the name to “Waif Me” on the store’s version). Two years later, Wal-Mart banned the Goo Goo Doll’s fifth studio album A Boy Named Goo due to the cover art depicting a naked baby covered in blackberry juice, and similar bans from the store have come down on Metallica, John Mellencamp, and even Sheryl Crow (of all people).

At the 2001 Grammy Awards, the GLAAD caused a scene by protesting the numerous nominations of rapper Eminem. He would respond by performing his hit song “Stan” with the openly gay Sir Elton John, and the song, though emotionally charged with acts of obsession and murder, would be lauded as one of the best performances in Grammy history.

In 2005, the single “We Are All On Drugs” was the second release from Weezer’s fifth studio album Make Believe. The MTV edit changed the song to “We Are All In Love”, much to the chagrin of the band’s biggest fans. The re-edit was not well accepted, and the song failed to crack the top 25, as expected by mid-summer.

In 2009, witch-house heroes Salem were criticized for adopting the phrase “rape gaze” in the description of their genre of music. The statement, released in various sources of the massive New York media circle, was followed almost immediately by a carefully crafted apology, stating, “we would never advocate sexual violence against another person.”

West’s “Monster” is partly cathartic and mostly satirical. His use of lifeless female bodies in his video is no more serious than Michael Jackson’s monstrous transformation in his epic “Thriller” video, but that doesn’t mean its content should be ignored completely. The body lying in the background of Jay-Z’s deliverance of his (subpar) verse is particularly eerie, mostly because it’s not unreasonable to believe raped and murdered women have been discovered in that contortion.

Tyler has spent a lot of time defending his music (in his traditional obscene fashion) over the past two years. He has said numerous times that he is not homophobic and he has never forced himself upon any woman, but also says that “people take things too seriously” and he doesn’t seem to be cleaning up his image or his songwriting.

Kanye

West has never really amassed a record for making controversial music (his private life, however…), but his “Monster” video understandably crosses the line for many viewers. Rappers have never been shy about inserting references to alcohol, drugs, gang violence, abortion, poverty, and their consensual sexual exploits in their music, but the subject of sexual violence has remained a taboo even in the most progressive musical genre. Rape is a reality, but few artists touch on the subject because, justifiably or not, many people consider rape as a crime of the same evil as murder.

Tyler doesn’t have much morality to stand on, either. His music in essence is no different than that of the Sex Pistols, Wu-Tang Clan, or Eminem: it’s simply a giant middle finger to society. While he is never explicitly homophobic, he uses gay slurs to describe people he doesn’t like because, in his words, he’s discovered they affect people. That is not a desirable attitude for his young, impressionable fan base. Quinn speaks a lot of truth regarding Tyler because it seems as if the only ones defending gay people and women in this situation are, in fact, gay people and women.

That’s only one side of the argument, however, because the First Amendment and artistic freedom play the biggest roles in this situation. Nothing artists ever record on an album will send them to prison in this country, and this is a freedom of which a good majority of citizens approve. Censorship sometimes brings more attention to a song than previously anticipated, often times backfiring for its detractors and resulting in enormous profit for the artists.

In some ways, the free market plays a big role in monitoring music. Even if  Universal Music Group does choose to release “Monster”, both MTV and VEVO (YouTube’s notorious music video satellite) can choose not to air it, and more importantly, people can choose not to attend West’s concerts or purchase his albums.

Many of Tyler’s defenders say he plays for his targeted audience and not to the public. Just as Joni Mitchell appeals to young, heartsick women and Rush appeals to musical geeks and fanboys, OFWGKTA appeals to the pissed-off masses of the young and impoverished. OFWGKTA are not popular because of their hate, but because they are fresh and talented in a genre where most of the music is stale and repetitive. That doesn’t justify their hateful language, but it explains their success and why, for better or for worse, we’re going to be hearing about them for the next decade.

After reading Quinn’s blog post, I decided against purchasing Goblin. I’m willing to defend that Tyler, the Creator is among the most talented and brilliant artists today, but I feel, as a sympathetic consumer, that his product isn’t worth my ten dollars. I’m not going to denounce Tyler as a person because I’ve never met him and his explanations, though obscene and misguided, are worth at least some sympathy. I am also not going to speak badly of his detractors, because as much as Tyler has the right to rap about a whining Jesus and to eat cockroaches in his videos (“Yonkers”), everybody else has the freedom to speak out against it, and that is a freedom we should cherish.

But seriously, can we please stop calling people faggots?

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