Tuesday, November 03, 2009

What do we do with "hate lyrics" from good artists?

For those who are unfamiliar with the context of the conversation, I don't have time to re-trace its entire history. But the specific discussion --a Facebook discussion-- concerns what to make of artists (we've specifically discussed Immortal Technique) whose otherwise impressive lyrical catalogues contain hateful slurs against marginalized groups.

There seem to be two debates happening here: One has to do with how we should interpret and engage lyrics we find objectionable in artists we otherwise like. I like that debate. The other is whether we should defend an artist's right to hate queers (or by extension other groups different than them, particularly minority or marginalized groups). I don't want to participate in that debate. On the "fragmented communities good/bad" debate I've pretty much made up my mind and will sail with those who have made up their mind a similar way; my looming life changes reflect this commitment.

I am also beginning to think that in order to be intellectually honest about this, I need to disregard my like or dislike for particular artists and just "study the phenomenon."

The foundational question, and we can dance around it all we want, but we wouldn't even be talking about this if there weren't this foundational question: Given that we have decided, as progressives, to reject _normative homophobia_ and the moral and political positions that subordinate homosexuality, do/does the artist(s) in question cultivate that normative/political/moral subordination?

Given that foundational question, I would ask three additional questions in regard to particular artists deploying homophobic lyrics: Has there been any media/alternative media commentary about this? Is there a case to be made for irony or some other alternative interpretation? Is it consistent with the artists' other relevant lyrics?

Finally, if an artist offers up a personal interpretation of their lyrics, we should in some sense privilege that interpretation, but as we know, it's not decisive; there is room to weigh the artist's intent with other considerations.

The answers generated by these questions won't always be definitive or final. Interpretation, as we know, doesn't have a final end point and some would perceive these questions as being too certainty-seeking. But as has been clear from the outset of this conversation, I am not demanding people stop listening to artists whose lyrics marginalize.

PS: I like Steve Greaves' review of IT here, because it both respects and questions.  Sometimes you'll go to those lengths when you recognize an artist's brilliance and are appalled by their ignorance. 


Anonymous said...

Looming life changes?

matt said...

In May I am resigning my position as Director of Forensics at the University of Wyoming. I am starting law school at UW in the fall. I also plan on stepping up on writing, podcasting and activism. Debate coaching in the U.S. is incredibly time-consuming (more than the lay person might ever think possible) and I want to take my skills and experiences into the real world to fight for social justice.

In about six weeks I am travelling to Duhok, in Iraqi Kurdistan, to teach debate for a week at a workshop sponsored by the Iraq Debate organization. This will sort of be my "last hurrah" as an international coach and scholar of argument. It will also inform a great deal of my writing, I am sure.