Today in Rock Critic Debates: Is All This Disassociation a Good Thing?

11/10/2010 3:17 PM |


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.


7 Comment

  • Are you saying you only interact with and appreciate art through identification with the artist?

    I can’t help but conclude that you’ve gone your whole life without ever giving serious thought to the content of art.

  • I said pretty clearly that, while I recognize that it’s complicated, I can enjoy all sorts of things that are technically troubling. What I don’t feel good about is that the critical environment has become such that there’s some overcompensating when it comes to some of the more quote-unquote offensive material, to the point where any dissenting opinion is cast off as either feminist/moralist single-mindedness or indie rock insularity. Just because something is offensive doesn’t mean it’s good, the same way it doesn’t mean it’s bad.

  • I think this is a really thoughtful consideration, Mike.

  • All this shows is the smallness and insularity of your listening (and by extension your community). Two words for you: Cannibal Corpse.

  • @TR, pdfreeman
    Are you saying you’re morons and didn’t really read and/or think any thoughts about what’s been written? ARE YOU? IS THAT WHAT YOU’RE SAYING? Two words for you: clown pillows.

  • hum this makes me think of murder ballads, just listened to that one track Baron linked. you know what gets me in a live setting if a lyric like “we rape sluts” is up, does the audience pump their fist and go “yeah!”? this is seriously fucked up. not fimiliar with the rest of it.

    just thinking of Stooges “my idea of fun is killing everyone”(wtf was Iggy thinking?), or “brown sugar”. I think you have to go case by case basis and make a value judgement. for ex. a friend of mine refused to listen to the stones over that one song. “Rape Me” though should not be brought into this argument.

    also I think being an “asshole” or a psychopath/sociopath is way worse than being a bad artist.

  • A very interesting and well-written article with something to say which I think is important.

    Perhaps we need to face what they’re saying and try to struggle with it, get inside the artist’s head, understand what makes them say what they do, and figure out if they, after all, really mean it. And Odd Future is a great example. Tyler is definitely living out his rape fantasies through his art, fantasies which in his mind are very, very real. Yet I can’t help but feel like he would never really act on those urges, unless it’s consensual roleplay with a safe word, of course.

    And that’s an important distinction to make. Do the words which offend you speak the truth about the person, or are they all just a part of the artistic fabrication? What offends me more is the constant homophobia, because I really get the sense that they hate gay people, which is not cool and which no one should be given a pass for anymore.

    But you’re right, so many critics don’t even want to go there. (I think there’s something to be said for the liberal framework of cultural and moral relativism at play here.) But to me, when we start to push past our boundaries, that’s when the fun begins.