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Got any guilty pleasures?

Accident only knows, I sure do. Some of my favorites involve song lyrics. Don’t get me wrong here; there are plenty of off-color lyrics that I wouldn’t think twice about. Sexual innuendo, irreverence toward religious or political figures, or foul language? Unless these themes are just done badly, they won’t bother me in the slightest, and if they are done badly, then they aren’t a pleasure at all, much less a guilty one.

What I’m talking about here are lyrics that really do strike me as evoking a definite sense of wrong. It would be a little easier if my sense of aesthetics were completely amoral, but the truth is that I do sometimes react to art in moral terms. There are songs that I reject precisely because I find their content morally objectionable. Still, there are times when I like a song despite a few moral qualms about the lyrics, and maybe even a few that I like because of them. I don’t think I’m that I’m unusual in this regard. I expect most people could name a few such songs among their favorites, even as most people could name a song or three they don’t like on account of moral objections. If this isn’t inconsistency, the rationale behind the pattern isn’t entirely obvious. Sometimes we care, and sometimes we don’t.

…and sometimes the whole thing just gets a little uncomfortable.

One index of this discomfort would seem to be the lengths to which people will go to deny the problem altogether. Luckily, music fans don’t always have to do this on our own. The artists are often willing to help us find a way around the moral implications of an awkward lyric.

What has me thinking about this is a variety of efforts to explain away an offensive lyric by calling attention to its ironic usage. The problem is interesting enough at face value, but what fascinates me is the number of artists who seem to think an ironic usage means we can forget the baseline meaning altogether.

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Case in point?

Remember that old Guns N’ Roses song, “One in a Million.” The song purportedly tells the story of Axl Rose’s arrival in Los Angeles. Fresh off the bus, and full of himself, Axl treats us to a range of prejudiced reactions to various people in L.A. scene. The song contains at least a hint of self-criticism, but it doesn’t do much to qualify the barrage of bigotry already present in the song. It was quite possible to see the song as a story about his past, but it wasn’t clear from the song just how much it reflected his current views. Axl’s explanation of the lyrics didn’t actually make things any easier. Asked about the offensive lyrics, Rose seemed to express a kind of ambivalence over the matter. He wouldn’t say that they reflected his actual views, but he didn’t quite disclaim them either. Perhaps that was honest. It was also disturbing.

What sticks in my mind most about the controversy was a particular account Rose gave to Rolling Stone Magazine. Asked about the line; “Police and niggers, that’s right/Get outta my way/Don’t need to buy none/ Of your gold chains today,” Rose had the following to say;

I used words like police and niggers because you’re not allowed to use the word nigger. Why can black people go up to each other and say, “Nigger,” but when a white guy does it all of a sudden it’s a big putdown? I don’t like boundaries of any kind. I don’t like being told what I can and what I can’t say. I used the word nigger because it’s a word to describe somebody that is basically a pain in your life, a problem. The word nigger doesn’t necessarily mean black. Doesn’t John Lennon have a song “Woman Is the Nigger of the World”? There’s a rap group, N.W.A., Niggers With Attitude. I mean, they’re proud of that word. More power to them. Guns n’ Roses ain’t bad . . . N.W.A. is baaad! Mr. Bob Goldthwait said the only reason we put these lyrics on the record was because it would cause controversy and we’d sell a million albums. Fuck him! Why’d he put us in his skit? We don’t just do something to get the controversy, the press.

The quote contains all manner of sketchy rationalizations. The one that interests me here is the notion that the term could be viewed as race neutral, that it could mean just about anyone who is ‘basically a pain in your life’. It’s a fascinating gambit, one that’s still rather popular with casual racists. But the pretense doesn’t quite work. You could choose to apply it to a limited range of black people. You could even apply the word to someone who isn’t black. And yes, African-Americans can use these words too, and yes again, that seems to mean something rather different than it does when the rest of us use it. So, yes, you could certainly use the word in ways that don’t quite equate to a racial category. What you can’t really do is erase the history behind the word, or pretend that any other meaning you care to associate with the word is somehow divorced from that history. No. Whatever odd or ironic significance Axl Rose or anybody else may attach to the term in question, that significance is built on the very racial significance that he (and so many others) hope to deny. You can build on such meaning, but you can’t escape it.

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Prodigy tried a similar maneuver in explaining their song, “Smack My Bitch Up.” Like Guns N’ Roses, they seemed to explain their song in a variety of ways. At least one of these included an effort to suggest that anyone interpreting the song title as a reference to domestic abuse (or perhaps that of a pimp beating a prostitute) was missing the point entirely. It was actually, so they suggested, a reference to “doing anything intensely.” You could imagine the phrase as a general reference to intensity, but if that’s where they were going, they got there through an allusion to violence. Maybe that’s a deal-breaker for anyone listening to the song, and maybe it isn’t. Fair enough, but what doesn’t work is to pretend the phrase isn’t referencing a violent act. It is.

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When I recently stumbled into Banjo Odyssey by The Dead South, I thought surely the band had been going for pure shock value. With allusions to incest, violence, possibly rape, and still more incest, I couldn’t imagine any interpretation of the song that didn’t involve all kinds of wrongitude. It should of course come as no surprise that the band received from flack for the song. Their response was to produce the following statement on their Facebook page:

 

ATTENTION EVERYONE: We would just like to clear the air over some recent online discussion concerning our song, “Banjo Odyssey”. There have been a number of people concerned that the song is about rape, and that the song condones non-consensual sex. We would like to take a moment to explain the song to anyone who has been hurt or offended.

The song is written as a narrative. It is a story about two cousins who engage in a relationship, and are trying to escape their family, who is not O.K. with the relationship. The lyrics were meant as a satirical, tongue-in-cheek reference to our own genre; playing on the inbred-hillbilly stereotype often brought to mind when one thinks of bluegrass music.

We sincerely apologize to anyone who has been hurt or offended by these lyrics, as the last thing we would want to do is offend anyone. We make music because we love to, and as anyone who has seen our live show knows, we try not to take ourselves too seriously; we like to laugh, dance, and have fun and the song was written in jest.

Obviously, we do not condone rape or violence, and “Banjo Odyssey” (like many of our songs) is written as a story, and not as something to be taken literally.

Nate, Colton, Scott, and Danny

I still can’t decide just how much that explains and how much it doesn’t. It certainly helps to put the central theme of incest in a sensible story-line, but does that explain pulling the girl out by her hair? And what is the whole thing about going faster? I can’t help thinking the song is inviting us to savor the prospect of the girl’s discomfort in that particular moment. If it isn’t the allusion to rape that some took it to be, they have certainly traveled well down the path toward such an implication.

So, the song is meant a tongue-in-cheek parody. Got it! But how was this ever supposed to be inoffensive? I’m almost inclined to take that line from the statement as a deliberate barb in itself, because I cannot imagine any take on this song that isn’t built around the intentional discomfort inflicted on the audience. That the song means to play with that discomfort, and not to inflict real harm, seems clear enough to me. I could even add that I enjoy the song, but then again, I’ve never faced any of these themes in any meaningful sense. It’s a kind of privilege to be able to think of such things as fodder for humor. I can do that easily enough, myself, but what I can’t do is pretend a song like this doesn’t contain material that would be genuinely hurtful to some people. How that shapes any particular person’s response to such a song is an interesting question, but once again, I think it’s a bit disingenuous to pretend the offensiveness isn’t really there, or that it isn’t a significant feature of the song.

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It isn’t just bad boys that give us music to take to the confessional. The song Kiss with a Fist by Florence and the Machine is a really catchy tune with a really violent theme, at least if you think songs about hitting people, breaking their bones, and even setting fire to a bed come across as violent.

…but not according to Florence.

I’m quoting this from Wiki, but apparently the statement originally appeared on the Myspace page for the band:

“Kiss with a Fist” is NOT a song about domestic violence.

It is about two people pushing each other to psychological extremes because they are fighting but they still love each other. The song is not about one person being attacked, or any actual physical violence, there are no victims in this song. Sometimes the love two people have for each other is a destructive force. But they can’t have it any other way, because it’s what holds them together, they enjoy the drama and pushing each other’s buttons. The only way to express these extreme emotions is with extreme imagery, all of which is fantasism and nothing in the song is based on reality.

Leona Lewis‘s “Bleeding Love” isn’t actually about her bleeding and this song isn’t actually about punching someone in the mouth.”[

Once again, I think I get it. Hell, I even love it. This song is about intensity; it is about reckless passion, and it’s a damned compelling song precisely because it conveys that intensity very well. What doesn’t work is to pretend that violence didn’t play a vital role in achieving that sense of intensity. It clearly did. This song too, may use disturbing content to achieve something interesting, perhaps even wonderful, but the disturbing content is certainly there. Some of us can enjoy the Hell out of it, but I suspect it’s a little easier for those of us who have never had to worry about getting beaten by someone we love.

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So, where am I going with all this? Maybe nowhere. I actually like all these songs, and many with far more disturbing messages than these. Suffice to say that I’m not in the habit of policing musical taste, but there is something challenging in the way that irony skews each of these tunes, something the artists themselves have trouble explaining, at least outside the context of a performance.

None of these tunes actually advocate the views or actions expressed within them, but each plays with objectionable content in ways that at least some listeners are likely to find a bit too much. Pressed on the issue, the artists (or perhaps in some cases their management teams) each tried a bit too hard to backtrack out of their musical beds. Each has tried at some point or another to deny the central motif of their songs, which is a shame.

It’s a shame to see people work so hard to erase some of their work, at least in the narratives they tell outside their performances. It’s a shame, partly because it’s worth remembering we aren’t all uniformly sensitive to such things. One man’s guilty pleasure can easily be his girlfriend’s time to leave the room (guilty as charged). It’s also a shame, because it’s a denial of the something valuable in the songs themselves. Such music isn’t innocent, and that’s part of its appeal. If there is anything good about these songs (and I do realize that’s debatable), then that good thing is somehow built around all the disturbing themes contained in them.

We all have some guilty pleasures. Hell, sometimes we may not even have genuinen cause to feel all that guilty about them. Sometimes, an artist can wring something really positive out of disturbing material. Sometimes they fall a bit short of that and still end up giving us something enjoyable. Either way, there is no sense kidding ourselves about the matter.

…or about what we are listening to.