One of the most controversial music-related debates is how we as listeners are expected to take responsibility for the music we listen to. It isn’t rare for some of our favorite songs to contain lyrics full of profanity and obviously misogynistic undertones. We might not identify with certain images, words and ideas in our day-to-day lives, but we still listen and dance and make songs with morally conflicting content relevant parts of popular culture. We enjoy them despite the lyrics.
The point of this article is not to shame or selectively celebrate certain musical genres, but to promote a dialogue over how conscious we should be of offensive content in music. In what cases are we allowed to excuse a song for the sake of light-hearted enjoyment and rhythm? Where do we draw the line when it comes to the level of offense?
I would be interested in knowing where these unspoken lines sit but the problem with pinning them down is that they vary from person to person. I know many people who only listen to a very limited selection of music to protect their sensibilities, but I also know people who will happily sing along to lyrics objectifying the very demographic of people they belong to.
Black women, for example, have been disrespected in hip hop and time again only to continue supporting the artists who berate their blackness and their womanhood. Examples can be found with Lil Wayne and of course, Kanye.
Sometimes I listen to lyrics and I wonder why I was dancing to a song a week, day, or even hour ago. I realize that there is a tendency for people to alienate a piece of art from the context of its creator for better or worse. Ex: Sean Penn beats the crap out of Madonna but whatever, he’s still a powerhouse in film because art.
[^^^Insert sarcasm there^^^]
Perhaps it is a similar situation for music.
We tend to neutralize our reactions to harmful or offensive lyrics because of savory beats and polyrhythms. By doing this we can enjoy the song without feeling guilty. And it’s not a very purposeful, conscious process, a lot of us do it without thinking.
When we are called out on our choice of music and the lyrics are brought to the table as a cause for concern, we admit the wrongness of the song but we still defend it. We’ve all heard or said the phrase, “I just like the beat” because if we totally discredited every song based on a flaw in lyrical content, there might not be that many songs to listen to.
The beat saves it all. When a song makes it to the top 40 it isn’t because of the vapid, unimpressive lyrics, but a catchiness that captivates and loops about in the mind, never reaching the final chorus.
But is that OK? Where should we as a society draw the line? How much offense is too much? What do we do with songs full of hate speech and bigotry?
The “I like the beat” defense can get a little stale. And while the argument of freedom of speech in America could be thrown in defense of lyrics, we all know that constitutional rights are used to protect the wrong things all the time.
Essentially, it is the listener’s responsibility to recognize what gets a pass and what gets snared in the nets of common sense.
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