Last year, we did a series of five Artworld Roundtables in collaboration with Chris Richards, the pop music critic for the Washington Post. Richards posed the “five hardest questions in pop music”: “cultural appropriation, problematic lyricism, selling out, the ethics of posthumous listening, and … separating the art from the artist.” In response, we rounded up several thinkers working in these areas to see what they had to say about each question. Richards provided us with key examples to draw out the problems and complexities of each debate. The results are here: cultural appropriation, how to respect the wishes of dead artists, whether selling out is still possible, how to engage with objectionable lyrics, and separating the art from the artist who created it. And now Richards is back. Read on to see what he took away from it all.
When the editors of Aesthetics for Birds asked if I would be game to participate in a virtual round table discussion where various philosophers would take their respective whacks at what I had dubbed “the five hardest questions in pop music” in an essay for the Washington Post, I was pleasantly surprised and quite honored.
And once the discussion was underway, I was delighted, enlightened and enlivened. Many of these arguments helped me better understand my questions. Others made me want to rethink my conclusions. And when the good folks at AFB asked me if I’d be willing to transpose those responses into keystrokes, I said okay. Then I made them wait for many weeks, and finally, here they are.
Is cultural appropriation ever okay?
Shen-yi Liao locates a sharp edge in this question right out of the gate: “Much of the cultural appropriation discourse has been identity-first rather than power-first.” That felt like such a significant and illuminating distinction to make. Identity and power can overlap, of course, but attempting to tease the two apart has sunk me much deeper into the question.
I also thought that Elizabeth Burns Coleman made an exceptional point about who participates in the debate, noting, “The peoples of Africa are not only waiting for their royalties, but for their names to be recognized – and maybe for someone to ask them what they think.” Right on. We won’t get broader understanding of this problem if we only have certain members of listening public aggrieved on behalf of the appropriated. This discussion needs more voices.
Should we listen to music against a dead artist’s wishes?
Ashley Dressel kicked things off with a provocative idea: “There is no clear, compelling, reason to think we can harm the dead.” She goes on to explain that there are philosophers who disagree with that, but I felt almost instantly convinced.
And then James Stacy Taylor carries that line of thinking into a closing argument that pretty much sent me back to the drawing board. He argues that the release of Michael Jackson’s posthumous recordings could not harm Jackson (he’s dead), but that the recordings themselves could (and did) make people happy. Conversely, Amy Winehouse’s destroyed demo tapes would not have hurt her (she’s dead) but they did deny many fans the happiness of hearing them. Well, damn.
Can today’s artists still sell out?
I thought the most to-the-heart-of-the-matter argument in this segment belonged to Roy Cook who concludes that “economically aspirational themes of “getting paid” have been a central theme of rap music since its origins. As a result, it seems like hip-hop artists selling out doesn’t threaten the very identity of themselves or their work as hip-hop in the way that punks selling out threatens their very identity as punk.” Am I a little bit jealous that I didn’t write those very words in my original piece? Yes, very much so.
How should we engage objectionable lyrics?
My favorite point came from Angela Sun who said that she doesn’t cringe when she hears Mick Jagger singing “Brown Sugar,” perhaps because she can’t exactly make out what he’s saying. I think this is an incredibly important point. As a music critic, I’m constantly arguing that a song’s meaning does not reside exclusively in its lyrics – which seems obvious, but isn’t. When we talk about what a song is “about,” how often are we talking about the drums? Singers have an incredible ability to communicate more than one message at once, and this point that Sun makes is something I wish I would have dug deeper into in my original essay.
I also really appreciated Lauren Ashwell’s reminder that music is human-to-human communication, and that human beings are quite fallible. Musicians “are just people,” she writes, “and sometimes they really do misunderstand what they are doing with their words.” I feel that everyone should listen to music with this idea near the front of their minds. And for anyone who reads my writing in the Washington Post, I hope it’s at the very front. I think good critics should make mistakes.
Can we separate the art from the artist?
I liked David Heti’s resistance to my hypothetical question about inadvertently being drawn to music with inscrutable lyrics about white supremacy. I asked, “As an ethical listener, what’s your next move?” Heti writes that ethical listeners might not exist, and if they do, he doesn’t want to be one: “I think that one ought to allow oneself to be drawn to whatever art to which they are drawn.” I agree with that idea in my head, but it doesn’t hold up for me in the real world. Our consumption of art still happens in this wacky biodome of late-capitalism, and now that streaming has become our predominant mode of listening to music, the act of listening itself has become transactional. That is, we are giving white supremacist musicians our money by simply listening to their music on streaming platforms – even if we’re only giving them penny-slivers. So I’m still vexed.
But ultimately, I think the “five hardest questions in pop music” don’t have answers – but if we engage them as we should, they will hopefully generate more questions that might help us better understand the scenario. And I think that’s what’s happening when Eva Dadlez thoughtfully asks, “Is a film less good if it is produced by a rapist, a role less expertly performed if performed by a harasser, a routine less funny if an exploitative exhibitionist performs it?” How do an artist’s transgressions inform their art? I think that’s a very good question that gets us closer to an answer, or maybe even better, to a clearer understanding.