This edition of Artworld Roundtable appears in collaboration with Chris Richards, the pop music critic for the Washington Post. Over the next several weeks, we’ll present a series of roundtable discussions based on Richards’ “five hardest questions in pop music”: “cultural appropriation, problematic lyricism, selling out, the ethics of posthumous listening, and … separating the art from the artist.” AFB has rounded up several thinkers working in these areas to see what they have to say about each question. Richards has provided AFB with key examples to draw out the problems and complexities of each debate. First was cultural appropriation. Second was how to respect the wishes of dead artists. Third was whether selling out is still possible. Today we ask how we should engage objectionable lyrics.
The lyrics to some of our favorite songs are, upon moral reflection, completely horrific. Do those lyrics affect whether we should endorse the music or support the artist? Or is it okay – because it’s fictional, because it’s catchy, or because we know the artists don’t share those views?
How we should engage objectionable lyrics is the third of “the five hardest questions in pop music”, as described recently in the Washington Post by pop music critic Chris Richards. Below is the guiding question accompanied by a few examples that Richards finds particularly salient, followed by our contributors’ responses.
Question #4: How should we engage objectionable lyrics?
1) It’s difficult to imagine a contemporary pop act releasing a song with lyrics as outrageous as those of “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones. Yet the band continues to perform this song in concert without facing any kind of significant protest – presumably because… it’s the Stones! Should an artist’s public stature change what they’re allowed to “get away with”?
2) The heavy metal band Body Count, fronted by the rapper Ice-T, made headlines in 1992 with their hit single “Cop Killer” – a protest anthem against police brutality. The song generated widespread backlash from law enforcement officials and politicians, and a national dialogue about censorship ensued. But perhaps not enough discussion addressed why our society objects to similar messages when they materialize in different types of art. The killing of police officers is depicted in film and on television all the time. Why is it objectionable for that same subject/idea to appear in song?
3) The popular rapper Rick Ross has cultivated a stage persona that his fans know is fraudulent – he raps from the perspective of a drug cartel kingpin, but in reality, he worked as a corrections officer before launching a career in music. Then, in 2013, Ross recorded a song that seemed to endorse date rape. “Put Molly all in her champagne/She ain’t even know it,” he rapped. “I took her home and I enjoyed that/She ain’t even know it.” (Ross later apologized for the lyric.) Does the fact that Ross raps from the perspective of an almost entirely fictitious persona change the ramifications of this lyric?
Our contributors are:
“It’s just a song,” is a refrain you hear repeated like a chorus in discussions about songs with objectionable lyrics. But songs can be catchy, and it would be surprising if we were not shaped in some ways by the words that we surround ourselves with, especially if those words are delivered to us in a melodious tune or with a powerful beat. I don’t think we should be sanguine about “our” virtue being immune to corruption by offensive ideas found in popular music; it’s not so clear that “we” should worry only about impressionable others (those kids!) being unable to separate reality from art. Music can be a powerful way to spread ideas. Most of us likely overestimate our immunity to “catching” offensive ideas as easily as we overestimate our intelligence. Does this mean that any man who enjoys singing along to U.O.E.N.O. is just a short step away from drugging and raping a woman? No, certainly not. But he should worry about how engaging in a practice of listening to and repeating misogynistic lyrics might shape his interactions with women; songs don’t have to directly cause a rape to contribute to a culture where women are reduced to “conquests.”
Rick Ross claimed that he just intended to “paint pictures” with his lyrics, trying to suggest that he is only creating a vignette, describing rather than endorsing. This idea is echoed in the Simon Frith quote that Chris Richards discusses: “To articulate a sensibility musically is not to endorse it.” But words, and so lyrics, do not exist in a vacuum, and what we are doing with words, or lyrics, is determined by more than just our intentions. It is not obviously always up to an artist what they are doing with their lyrics, as what we do with our words can be affected by the worldly conditions our speech, or song, is created within. An employer may intend to simply express a hope that an employee will voluntarily take on extra work, but given a sufficiently large power imbalance any such expression becomes a command. Similarly, even if Ross did not intend to endorse rape, in a world where men do drug women in order to rape them, and where this is often not even recognized as rape, an artist can’t simply create a persona that talks positively about doing exactly that (“Put Molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it/I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it”) without implying endorsement. In a world where trans people are dehumanized, attacked, and murdered you can’t refer to a person whose gender is not clear to you as “it” and not engage in a similar practice of dehumanization. And in a world where Black women are often reduced to over-sexualized stereotypes and slavery is often thought by many white people to be a problem that is just in the past, you can’t, particularly as a white man, sing cheerfully about enslaved women being whipped or about tasting their “brown sugar” without becoming part of the problem.
Musical artists, however, are just people, and sometimes they really do misunderstand what they are doing with their words. And sometimes the audience needs additional context to understand why lyrics that appear objectionable were chosen. In thinking about how to engage with the music of those artists who produce songs with seemingly objectionable lyrics, we should also pay attention to how they engage with us in the ensuing conversation about those lyrics – do they enter into that conversation thoughtfully, or do they try to insulate themselves from criticism by claiming that the offensiveness is just a matter of interpretation or that “it’s just a song”?
Supposing that lyrics can differ in why they are objectionable, I don’t think there is one principled and uniform way to engage with objectionable lyrics. How we engage with them or whether we engage with them at all likely depends on what is objectionable or what we find objectionable about the lyrics. For example, one might find the lyrics to Cannibal Corpse’s “Meat Hook Sodomy” objectionable on the grounds that they are thought to be shocking, tasteless, or perhaps even obscene. However it doesn’t seem to me that just ignoring or otherwise not engaging with these lyrics is morally impermissible.
If it is sometimes okay to just ignore objectionable lyrics, is it ever necessary to engage with objectionable lyrics? It certainly seems true of some lyrics. For example, lyrics that can rightfully been interpreted as hate speech seem to demand some sort of engagement. If a known white supremacist band, whose lyrics explicitly endorse ideas like “white power” were to try to book a show in my town I would expect every promoter, bar owner, and fellow musician to let them know they were not welcome to play music in our community. It seems relevant that one reason hate speech is objectionable is not because it is merely tasteless, but that it is in an important way harmful. Promoting “white power” might increase the likelihood that violence be done to a member of our community, thereby making that person less safe. Reducing someone’s safety in that way seems like a harm to that person.
The Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar” contains lyrics that are racist and sexist but it doesn’t seem like an example of hate speech. If its lyrics are harmful, then at least they are harmful in a different way than the example above. The lyrics are certainly degrading, and that is a good reason to think that they are harmful. It may even rule out non-engagement. But I’m not quite convinced that the lyrics are objectionable because they are harmful. So how do we engage with lyrical content that may not be harmful but isn’t something we are permitted to ignore?
I think applied virtue ethics may be a good guide here. We can recognize that the lyrics are degrading and an example of how not to write lyrics. Although we don’t protest the Stones, we should not ignore their problematic work. As artists we ought to actively work to make better lyrical content of our music, and as listeners we ought to promote artists who don’t use degrading lyrics (even if it is just for shock value). Mick Jagger himself seems to be doing his part to help us recognize that degradation for shock isn’t a virtuous way to write lyrics. When the song is performed live the lyrics are different than those on the record.
Body Count’s “Cop Killer” might strike one at first as an example of hate speech promoting violence against the police. If it is hate speech, then all the hubbub surrounding its release might very well be justified. But it isn’t hate speech. It is a protest song. It reacts to police brutality. It doesn’t promote violence against the police, and I don’t believe that it made any police officers less safe as a result of being recorded.
If I were a betting man, I’d say the hubbub surrounding its release was the result of racially motivated politics. The song was released in 1992. Its lyrics are about a vigilante who wages war against the police. All the members of Body Count are people of color and the group is fronted by Ice-T who had a kind of ‘hardcore’ image as a rap artist prior to his work in heavy metal. George H.W. Bush, the then-president of the United States, even weighed in – unfavorably, of course.
But compare a similar case. In 1994 the punk band Rancid released their album “Let’s Go.” That album has a track called “Side Kick.” The lyrics describe a vigilante who kills government agents, including police officers, to help his community. Lyrics that are strongly analogous to those of “Cop Killer.” No one said a fucking thing. All the members of Rancid are white, and punk rock in the ’90s was not seen as threatening to white communities like rap was. This, despite the fact that Rancid’s front man, Tim Armstrong, looks like a gutter punk and sings about substance abuse. But no one said anything. Kids I grew up with had to sneak copies of NWA’s Straight Outta Compton to listen to it. Meanwhile, their parents would by them punk albums for Christmas.
Why did Body Count’s song get picked up? In particular, why it, and not Rancid’s song, or any number of other punk songs? I think the answer is quite clear.
The Rolling Stones song “Brown Sugar” is indeed at the far limit of offensiveness. I’m not so sure, however, that the primary reason it’s more or less gotten a pass is the stature of the band. For one thing, the more offensive lyrics—about slave traders and such—are not particularly comprehensible. As with many popular songs, most people just mumble along without understanding or reflecting on what’s actually being said. How many jingoistic July 4th airshows involve Springsteen’s anti-war anthem “Born in the USA”? Among people in the know, there’s certainly an extent to which positive listener expectations and the rockingness of the song lead many to give Jagger and co. the benefit of the doubt. Robert Christgau writes, “‘Brown Sugar,’ in which (if you listen with care to a rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis) Jagger links his own music to the slave trade, exploits the racial and sexual contradictions of his stance even as it explores them.” Whatever that means! Christgau seems to give Jagger too much credit. Mick’s own commentary in a 1995 interview is less sophisticated: “God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.” The original title of the song was actually “Black Pussy,” which Jagger changed because he thought he had gone too far. This clues us in to the true driver of the song’s aggressive offensiveness. It’s the same basic reason Siouxsie Sioux and Sid Vicious wore swastikas: to freak out squares. He wanted to push the boundaries, but recognized that ‘Black Pussy’ would have been a bridge too far. The offensiveness of the lyrics isn’t incidental, it’s the whole point. This doesn’t automatically excuse the song, of course, but it does give someone who wants to keep liking it a way to see it as distanced from its offensive content.
This brings us to what I see as the key concept for approaching objectionable lyrics: rhetorical distance. Irony and satire are one way to achieve such distance, but as Lissa Skitolsky has pointedly argued, ironic or satirical framing can serve as disingenuous cover for laughing at objectionable stereotypes or otherwise sneaking through objectionable material. Subversions of this sort need to be judged in context on a case by case basis. Another common way that rhetorical distance is created is by introducing a fictional narrator. Bon Jovi tells us in “Blaze of Glory”:
I wake up in the morning
And I raise my weary head
I’ve got an old coat for a pillow
And the earth was last night’s bed
I don’t know where I’m going
Only God knows where I’ve been
I’m a devil on the run
A six gun lover
A candle in the wind
No one seriously thinks that Bon Jovi used an old coat for a pillow and slept directly on the ground at the height of his popularity. It’s also highly unlikely that he was a six gun lover. Quite generally, the listening public’s default interpretation of rock and country songs with a first-person narrator is to assume fictionality. No one worries that Johnny Cash actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Some songs really are autobiographical, such as Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” but one wouldn’t assume this without background knowledge or some sort of direct signal within the song.
Rap does not generally seem to get the same benefit of the doubt. Ice T famously said, of the controversy surrounding “Cop Killer”: “I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. I ain’t never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it. If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.” Just as for rock and country, rap narrators are predominately fictional characters. Rick Ross is a particularly glaring example, because not only is he not an international drug kingpin, he was a frickin’ corrections officer. But the general phenomenon extends far more widely. Ghostface Killah is an aging family man, but he still raps primarily about selling cocaine and committing murder.
What explains the tendency of the Tipper Gores and Sean Hannities of the world to fail to recognize and appreciate the significance of the distance between artist and narrator in rap music when they could care less about Eric Clapton’s rhapsodic praise of cocaine or Carrie Underwood’s proud claims of wanton truck vandalism? The primary answer is plainly obvious: racism. Rap with more aggressive content is a wet dream for people like Hannity whose agendas are served by fears of Black boogeymen.
Another consideration is also relevant: the ubiquitous rap narrative of authenticity and Realness. Rappers often purport to really be drug dealers or murderers. There are exceptions for genuinely autobiographical rap, such as Biggy’s “Juicy,” which contains markers of its autobiographical intent within the song. But in the absence of such indicators or at least background knowledge that reveals that a song’s lyrics are autobiographical, the default assumption should be to treat claims of Realness as internal to the fiction. Rick Ross—very obviously not an international drug kingpin—frequently emphasizes that he really is an international drug kingpin. He claims to know Manuel Noriega, immediately clarifying that he means the real Noriega, who he insists owes him a hundred favors. This sort of claim to Realness is part of the fiction: the character Ross is playing is a rapping drug dealer who persistently insists that (unlike other rappers) he really does the things that he raps about. This is part of the characterization of the fictional narrator. It’s a little bit of a mind-bender, but not unfamiliar from other genres. All sorts of city-folk claim to be “really country.” The country group Midland raised some eyebrows with their obviously fictional lyric claiming that they paid their authenticity dues by spending 10,000 hours playing in dive bars.
It is important to acknowledge that there is a degree to which the fictional violent and otherwise objectionable content of rap music is sometimes meant to reveal something about the real world. The rich socio-political commentary laced throughout much rap music depends on its having some connection to social reality. The thing is, though, that to the extent that a given rap song functions in this way, it tends not to glorify or celebrate the objectionable aspects of its content. Listening closely to Scarface’s classic album The Fix, for instance, makes abundantly clear that he is not advocating for violence but rather offering a probing and nuanced critique of the sociopolitical forces that underpin violence in Black communities. This is true even though there are places where it looks on the surface like he’s bragging.
So why the apparently upbeat attitude in so many songs about murdering people and selling destructive drugs? Compare the case of gangster movies. It’s thrilling to watch Tony Montana push it to the limit. The meteoric rise and the exhilaration it involves helps us to see the appeal of the gangster lifestyle and empathize with the protagonist. Sometimes a rapper pushes it past the breaking point, as Ross did with his sexual assault innuendo. For most listeners, this sort of content generates an aesthetic flaw: we were with you, Ross, about riding around in a Rolls Royce with machine guns and smuggling kilos on a speedboat, but it’s not fun anymore when you start talking in a positive way about drugging women without their knowledge. Where this threshold lies is a fuzzy question, and it will be different for different listeners, but most people seem to agree that Ross crossed it with the lyric in question.
Rap songs that celebrate violence are analogous to the “meteoric rise” section of a gangster movie. These songs reveal the romantic appeal of a life of crime. It’s very unusual, however, for a rapper’s body of work to consist only in such celebratory material. Rappers also explore the downside of the activities that they proudly brag about on other tracks, and these tracks are rendered even more tragic by juxtaposition with the romanticized tracks. Consider this monologue from the late, great Pimp C (himself one of the most sublime murder braggarts in all of rap) at the beginning of a Boosie Badazz track, wherein he advises young rappers to talk about the downside of the life of crime and not just the upside:
In any case, even setting aside the fact that most rap artists have complex attitudes about the subject matter of their lyrics, what’s the problem if some rap is just unapologetically violent? Rap gets an unfair amount of negative attention in this respect. Violent movies, novels, comics, plays, Greek tragedies, and Homeric epics have been and will continue to be widely popular among people from all walks of life. Violence can function in many positive ways in art. It can be a potent tool for creating a vivid and captivating fictional world. It can elicit a strong emotional response. I don’t see any reason why we should feel fine about enjoying the wrath of Diomedes, but then turn moralistic about the exquisite storytelling of Ghostface Killah.
Here is a puzzle. We are often lenient toward artists for offensive lyrics even though we wouldn’t otherwise condone the content of those lyrics. We might feel uncomfortable singing along to “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones once we realize how appallingly racist and sexist its lyrics are, but that is the extent of our disapproval. We still tap our toes and bob our heads to the beat even though we would be horrified if we heard a friend say in conversation what Mick Jagger sings in the song. That we are so forgiving of artists for offensive lyrics is especially puzzling given the first-person quality of vocal music. When an actor says something racist in character, we don’t accuse her of being racist because we recognize that it’s not her, but the character, speaking. But when musicians sing, they sing in first person. (There are certainly exceptions—some artists, like Rick Ross, perform in character, adopting fake personas for the purposes of their music—but it seems fair to say that lyrics are generally written from the musician’s own perspective.) The puzzle is this: why do we tolerate objectionable lyrics in song, but not objectionable speech outside of a musical context?
There are a few ways we might try to justify our leniency toward artists for objectionable lyrics. Consider “Brown Sugar”. If asked why we continue listening to “Brown Sugar” despite its reprehensible lyrics, we might shrug our shoulders and say, “Whatever, it’s the Stones!” In this case, we point to the artist’s stature to justify our leniency; the fact the Rolling Stones are so renowned somehow makes it okay for them to sing racist and sexist lyrics. In addition to being bewildering, this line of reasoning amplifies rather than resolves the puzzle at hand. In general, we are less lenient toward people for saying objectionable things the more famous they are. We are more likely to publicly call out bigoted politicians and celebrities than we are bigoted friends and family members in large part because we recognize that there is more at stake when someone famous says something objectionable. Thus, pointing to an artist’s stature doesn’t resolve the puzzle of why we forgive objectionable lyrics in song but not objectionable speech elsewhere. If anything, it suggests that we should be even more outraged when artists of high stature release music with objectionable content.
Another way we might respond if asked why we continue listening to “Brown Sugar” despite its objectionable lyrics is by saying, “Whatever, it was a different time!” Here, we point to the different social climate in which the Rolling Stones wrote “Brown Sugar” to explain why we forgive them for its lyrics. The problem, however, is that this doesn’t explain why objectionable lyrics continue to pervade pop music. Although it seems unlikely that a song as blatantly racist and sexist as “Brown Sugar” would find mainstream success today, there has been no shortage of objectionable lyrics on the radio recently. It’s not surprising at all that a song like “Blurred Lines”—which, like “Brown Sugar”, is unsettlingly cheerful about sexual assault—can top charts even today. Thus, recent changes in social climate don’t explain we care so deeply about objectionable speech, but not objectionable lyrics.
I listened to “Brown Sugar” again to figure out why I don’t feel intense revulsion when I hear the song. All I could come up with is this: Mick Jagger’s voice is raspy, and it’s hard to make out what he’s saying. I have to really focus on understanding the lyrics when I listen to the song, a task made difficult by the song’s catchy beat. I also need to work to drown out the song’s cheerful melody that conflicts with its grave lyrics. Once I’ve exhausted this mental energy to understand the lyrics, I do find them offensive, but certainly not to the extent that I do when I hear people endorse rape myths outside of music.
Tricia Romano famously described “Blurred Lines” as “rapey”. Most people seem to agree that this is an apt description of the song. But imagine hearing, outside of a musical context, a man say “I know you want it” repeatedly (specifically, 18 times in four and a half minutes) to a woman who doesn’t seem to want it. “Rapey” is too cutesy of a description for this scenario; “sexual misconduct” seems more fitting. This suggests that words lose some of their force when they are written into song lyrics. A sentence that is merely rapey in a song is sexual misconduct outside of a musical context.
A corollary of this observation is that lyrics don’t really matter. Here’s the thing about pop music. We can listen to a song a hundred times, even have the lyrics memorized, and still not know what the song is about. Rarely do we listen close enough to pop songs to absorb their lyrics, and when we do, we can’t always separate the lyrics from the song’s melody, rhythm, and instrumentation, which might conflict with the tone of the lyrics. Words don’t have the same force in song that they do in speech. It’s no surprise, then, that most pop music—even good pop music—has very mediocre lyrics. While a beat can make or break a pop song, lyrics cannot.
What does this entail for how we engage objectionable lyrics? If lyrics don’t really matter, then it seems like it shouldn’t matter when they are objectionable. Does this mean that there’s nothing wrong with the lyrics of “Brown Sugar” and “Blurred Lines”? I would hesitate to say this. Words may have less force in song than in speech, but this doesn’t mean that lyrics are meaningless. The fact that it’s difficult to understand objectionable lyrics that are put to a cheerful, catchy tune and obscured by a raspy voice doesn’t make it okay for artists to sing about serious issues lightheartedly. It does, however, explain why we are lenient toward artists for singing objectionable lyrics but not toward people who say objectionable things outside of music.