So: Odd Future. Zach Baron wrote a pretty nice piece for the Village Voice today on grappling with the youthful hip-hop crew’s belligerent lyrical fascination with violence and misogyny — particularly the word “rape,” which the crew loves, not to mention the also horrific “fa——.” Calum Marsh took a similar tack for Cokemachineglow in his review of OF member Tyler, the Creator’s new album. Both of these articles share the common thread of enjoying an ostensibly offensive product without knowing why: “We sort the ethics out, after the fact. And when we do? Well, I don’t know, exactly. Odd Future’s lyrics are offensive to moral people however you slice it—whether you defend their creative imperative, note they don’t actually do this stuff, or give them credit for making their audience confront a whole range of things about the way humans are that they’d rather not contemplate,” Baron wrote, while Marsh’s conclusion was: “So Bastard‘s central question remains not is it good? but what’s your tolerance for wide-eyed musical celebrations of rape and violence? I’m not sure I have an answer for either.”
The real answer, I’d say, is that it’s simply a balancing of the scales. This is the opposite of a new discussion: Your enjoyment of Odd Future, who, like most rappers, are crafting narratives more than they are tearing out diary pages, isn’t much different than how you feel about N.W.A. or TV’s Dexter or playing Grand Theft Auto. Killing people: Terrible! Rape: The worst! But within the context of a song or a show or another form of entertainment, violence of any sort is conflated into tension and excitement — even if that adrenaline rush comes at the cost of (fictionally) crossing external moral boundaries. The very thing that makes Odd Future’s music feel relevant — the sharpness of its edge — is why the blade cuts so deep.
In other words, the visceral pleasure outweighs the intellectual outrage. Enjoyment does not require a complete embrace of love or hate, either, a binary critics are quick to turn to (because it makes their own work more exciting, which is both tempting and pays the bills). For the most part, I like Odd Future’s music — their precocious beat-making and borrowing, their charismatic flows, their teenage vitriol. Their imagery is so extreme because in 2010, being anything else in the pop or hip-hop worlds means being ignored. (Exhibit A: Lady Gaga’s YouTube views. Exhibit B: Your favorite band’s.) They want to shock us. That doesn’t justify perpetuating the imagery, of course, but think of it this way: some people have friends with odd quirks they put up with; some people put up with absurdly offensive rape lyrics within hip-hop because, well, the beats bump. It becomes a personal concern: Am I disgusted by some of the group’s lyricism? Yes. Am I disgusted enough to stop enjoying their albums? Well, no. Can you thus make judgments about my moral fiber? You’re welcome to. But I’m more interested in the band’s cathartic energy, and the cliched, presumably fictional subject matter itself feels, for me, less important than the artists and the music behind it. That said, the appearance of fiction and of character creation is a hugely important one: Look at Chris Brown, whose music has struggled to rise above the night he beat Rihanna. (His music being generally bad has not helped him out here.)
At any rate, we as a society remain fascinated by violence — in music, on TV, in our videogames. The other side of rape’s ugly coin, though, is love: sex, desire, a whole world of emotions extreme in utterly different ways. Critics seem happy to talk about violence, but the vocabulary for discussing sex seems notably absent. I wrote earlier about Ryan Dombal’s review of Warpaint and his all-but-meaningless word choices — “frothing to a natural climax,” “engrossing,” fascinating,” “sultry,” with other reviews full of this kind of language: “feverish dreaminess,” “lonely whispers,” “heart-tripping,” another review reads. These kinds of reviews, of which there are several, diminish the band as sirens calling out to Ulysses, their music originating from some secret, magical female place. (You can guess which.) It’s revealing of male desire without an admission of it — without an attempt at seeing the band as beings capable of such feelings themselves.
Of the reviews I’ve read, only the Phoenix’s Reyan Ali (who could be male or female? A cursory Google didn’t tell me) was brave enough to use directly sexual language:
By album closer “Lissie’s Heart Murmur,” Kokal (or another singer) sounds as if she were about to have the most restrained orgasm in the world. And that, “exquisite” aside, is a pretty apt summary of the record.
It is! A far better one than “frothing to a natural climax” (barf). But by coding masculine desire under the siren banner, the critic can stop short of sexist territory — discussing the band’s, yes, totally hot hippie-chick image, or worse, that the songs might encourage sensual emotions along with “feverish dreaminess.” Has America’s pro-gun, anti-condom puritanical ethics or, alternately, a liberal arts education so neutered (generally white) male writers that any frank discussion of female sexuality within music is a bad discussion? The risk of sexism (or as fearfully, sexual embarrassment after the revelation of private feelings) means reviews for bands like Warpaint will inevitably end up being condescending and — without the key ingredient of critical transparency — only halfway accurate.
This assumes the writers sense the album’s, or the band’s, sexual energy — some may not, and the reading of The Fool as a ghostly seance isn’t a wrong one. But part of the goal of criticism is to judge what the band’s goals are — not just the contextless critic’s reception of them — and in that, we come to a female perspective. The NME’s review, by a female writer, addresses Warpaint’s looks but confidently links their image to the music:
“They’ve been co-opted on account of – yup – being pretty ladies with an address book full of glittering names: a fucking boring fact that’s dragged up at every opportunity… Warpaint don’t deserve that. In the nicest possible way – in that no-one should give a toss – they’re hardly a fashionable bunch. The four of them look as though they were dragged away from sniggering at Beavis And Butt-Head in the early ’90s, all bushy-browed and slouchy. That would be pretty much irrelevant if it weren’t for the fact that that’s where their sound stems from too.”
NME’s review further points out, something the quietly ogling male reviews don’t, that this is an album of super-sad love songs. Album highlight/mission statement “Undertow,” which aims at a lover attempting escape, is about metaphorically drowning in a relationship and, directly, “running, running, running from trouble.” These are serious feelings to grapple with! And yet, critics have largely chosen to accept the band for the music’s superficial aspects, its “feverish dreaminess” and “fascinating” qualities — in its way, a process nearly as depressing as reviews of their looks might be.
To tie this all up: as Odd Future proves, writers are quick to take aim when women are in jeopardy. And yet, when it comes to giving women, like Warpaint, their due — which includes the idea that they might, in fact, be desirable and have desires! — it’s that same sense of fear that causes them to lose their tongues. So: Answers? Anger and love are both part of the emotional palette that makes music meaningful to us. Some records, and the players behind them, push those feelings to the far reaches. Acknowledge that, critics. Tell us who you are, and in doing so, show us how to listen.
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