It’s always hard to gauge the extent to which regular people really care about this stuff, so I apologize in advance if this is wholly unpleasant for you. But over at Sound of the City today, Zach Baron has started a pretty important discussion about, as he put it, “Why We Sometimes Like the Things That Repel Us.” The reason for the piece is the stir that’s been caused by L.A.-based hip-hop group Odd Future this week, in the wake of their show on Monday at the Studio at Webster Hall. They rap about all sorts of terrible things: murder, kidnapping and, perhaps most notably, rape.
Baron takes steps toward explaining not only why we turn a blind eye to stuff like this, but why we might actually really like it—the gist being that it takes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to deal with realities that are not part of our everyday lives, and that it serves as a welcome respite from boring old white-boy indie rock and typical materialistic boasting in hip-hop. “It’s not so much how it’s different—although that does matter, too,” he writes, “But that it’s different. We sort the ethics out, after the fact.”
And then he gets back into how we defend the stuff. He talks about how important it is for critics to be able to disassociate or, as Brandon Stosuy put it, “to enjoy the music even if I don’t believe in the philosophy behind it.” This is one of the most important things that’s happened in music criticism over the past bunch of years—it’s how we’ve wound up falling all over ourselves to praise not only some of the most violent, homophobic and misogynistic hip-hop out there, but also, on the pop side, people like Katy Perry, who’s famously been let off the hook by a huge group of critics for painting homosexuality as a form of rebellion in her single, “I Kissed a Girl.” For better or worse, we’ve gotten to a point where we judge artists on their terms rather than our own. Baron recognizes this:
We’ve all gotten very good at disassociating, as critics. This is necessary. But it’s worth remembering that we’re always doing it, too—that to appreciate a lot of the art we love, we’re turning a blind eye to some of its essential aspects and to those of the people that made it. It’s a necessary lie that we tell ourselves, but a lie all the same.
And it’s true. I listen to shit like this all the time, and I always feel weird about it, because it’s obviously very complicated. Personally, I’m able to put aside my feelings about what’s being said and enjoy it for other reasons: the beats, a funny joke, a rhyme scheme carried on for a line or two longer than I thought possible. But The real question here, of course is this: Should we really be disassociating quite this much? And further to that, if a critic is unable to do so, does it make him or her less qualified to do the work of the critic? It’s hard to accept the idea of a failure or an unwillingness to ignore jokes about homophobia, rape and other extreme acts of violence somehow being a hindrance in any profession. Artists should be able and encouraged to say whatever the fuck they want to say whenever they want to say it, obviously, but just as importantly, critics need to feel free to tell them when they’re being assholes or, worse, making bad art.