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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Music and Politics

Note: Cross-posted from Pearsall's Tunes.

Obviously, I spend a lot of time listening to music, and then thinking about what I listen to. I also spend a lot of time reading about it. One of the things that I have found quite interesting over the last two or so years of reading about music online (I was reading stuff like TWANBOC and Blissblog way before I started participating on Dissensus and doing this blog) was how different my reactions to the music I was listening to were from others. Well, maybe not in the sense of aesthetics, what I liked and so on, but more in how I tried to break it down in my mind. I think the crucial difference is that I've never spent much time worrying about the words in the music that I listen to, that, whether instrumental or not, my mind has mostly focused on the sounds. I suspect that part of this is the result of my educational background and my personal intellectual interests; it seems like a lot of serious music writers have studied English or Philosophy quite seriously at points in their lives. These disciplines are fundamentally about words, about expression, and about ideas, whereas in what I did at university, History, words are functional, pieces in a puzzle, information to be used. Of course, the very best historical writing is written very well indeed - certainly at a level comparable to the best literature or philosophy - but the words are merely the means to an end, to conveying the necessary information. Bad historical writing, if it contains the necessary information, is still useful in doing your own work. Trust me, I've used many historical journals for research, and there really are no limits to how turgidly executed the prose can be. On the other hand, badly-written literature (and to a lesser extent philosophy) is more or less useless.

How does this tie into music? Well, I think that the focus on words that is so much a part of studying literature and philosophy seriously lends itself, when applied to music, to focusing primarily on lyrics, to peeling them apart to better understand the intentions and thoughts of the artist. This does not mean that the music itself is unimportant, merely that in so much of the music criticism that I have read the lyrics are as, if not more, important than the music. I don't really approach music in this way. I listen to the lyrics of vocal tracks, but I don't really care what the artist is saying. For the most part, I just like the surface aesthetics of the human voice when set against the music; the words are just pieces of information in a larger whole.

Where is this coming from? Well, I've been thinking about this quite a bit since I read Kid Kameleon's notes to accompany his recent ragga jungle mix at Gutterbreakz. Here's the relevant quote that got me a-pondering:

Unfortunately, anyone who deals with current Jamaican-derived music eventually has to come to terms with their position on anti-homosexual lyrics. Basically, I try my hardest not to play 'em. I'm all for burning out wikkid men, corruption, bomberclaats in general, but the evidence is too strong that Jamaica has a problem with endemic violence towards homosexuals, and while I don't blame dancehall artists for that violence directly I feel I need to follow a policy of "do no harm" for my own mixes. I won't knowningly play openly anti-gay lyrics, although I'm OK editing them out with backspins. It's not a comment on the producer of the track as he managed to snag vocals that are killer in every other way and should be put to use. It's a comment on the vocals themselves. It's a tricky line, but I call on ragga jungle producers to steer clear of incendiary lyrics since I really don't believe the producers are making a statement of deeply held beliefs like the people they are sampling. Please take the time, producers and fans alike, to read LFODemon's Battybwoys are alright manifesto which I wholly endorse.

I read this (as I've read several other pieces concerning violent homophobia in dancehall lyricism, Wayne Marshall has a bunch of links if you are interested) and pondered it. For the most part, I listen to two broad fields of music: global black street music (for lack of a better term; I'm referring to hip-hop, dancehall, and grime) and global white dance music (from techno to hardtrance to hardcore and so on). Obviously these categories are hardly racially impermeable, but these are useful shorthands, and I'm guessing that my readers will understand what I'm talking about. Dance music, being for the most part instrumental, is pretty much disconnected from any concerns with lyrical content. But hip-hop, grime, and dancehall are all about lyricism as much (if not more, really) as they are about how to react to sketchily questionable violent, misogynistic, racist, or homophobic lyrics? I've been wondering about this question precisely because I've found that I have no reaction to such lyrics. I just don't seem to care really. I'm a reasonably liberal guy but for the most part it just doesn't seem to bother me when I hear musicians saying things that I strongly disagree with on a personal level, because I don't really engage with lyrics. Is this wrong? I dunno.

There's a strong common thread running through my music taste - I like electronic sounds over organic ones virtually always. For the most part, I'm just not interested that interested in music made on yer real instruments, or music sampled from said real instruments; I'd rather hear synths. A lot of the sounds that I enjoy in, say, dancehall are similar to the sonic signatures that I enjoy in techno. By placing most of my focus and enjoyment on the textures and aesthetics of the music that I consume, am I abdicating my responsibility to question statements that run counter to my own beliefs and values?

This is particularly the case in regards to homophobia in Jamaican dancehall music. I have had quite a few gay friends over the years, yet when I hear these Jamaican mc's bunning out the battyman dem (or at least when I can decipher the accents to the point where I can tell what they are saying), it just doesn't seem to faze me. Even though it's an implicit attack on all of these fine men and women I've known over the years, I don't feel particularly outraged, certainly less than I do by the antics and anti-gay rhetoric of much of the American Religious Right. Is this me giving them a pass because these musicians are black? Nah, it's not that, because I'm not really bothered by Eminem's homophobia either. I guess that it comes down to the fact that I consider music escapism, fundamentally disconnected from the everyday, and that is why I like the synthesized over the organic: it is one step removed from the everyday. Perhaps it is just a defense mechanism, because my other great passions are history and current affairs, the very definition of the everyday. I spend a lot of time reading serious and heavy things, about wars and crises and virulent debate, and so I try to separate my thoughts about music from my thoughts about our world, its past, its present, and its future.

I realize that these are not particularly satisfactory answers, but it seems like the only way that I really enjoy engaging with music is through the lens of aesthetic appreciation, and not through politics. I don't really enjoy mixing my greatest pleasure, which is music, with my masochistic need to do study the human condition. This is a cop-out, but I guess at least I am self-aware on this point.

|| RPH || 5:36 PM || |