A post about Sara Quin’s post about Tyler the Creator

Well, thanks to Sara Quin’s blog post/open letter to the music industry, I’m finally listening to Tyler the Creator’s recently released and much-hyped Goblin. I’d been procrastinating for over a week, ever since a leaked copy found its way into my iTunes. I just wasn’t very excited to hear it. Fair to Tyler or not, the excess of hype–particularly among indie rock types who don’t seem to have much enthusiasm for any non-Odd Future emcees–turned me off. Also, I really haven’t felt like hearing some kid rap about raping women. It’s just this mood I’ve been in.

I’ve only listened to about a fourth of the album, so I’m not going to attempt an assessment of its merits, but I don’t think I actually need to plow through the whole thing (it’s long, Jesus) before writing a reaction to Quin’s post. I have to go to work in a couple hours, so in the interest of timeliness, I’m just going to go ahead and share. If you haven’t read Quin’s post, please go read that first.

First, I’m absolutely with Sara Quin so far as the necessity of critiquing the misogynist and homophobic content of Goblin. Like Quin, I am also disturbed by many critics’ and listeners’ thoroughly uncritical and enthusiastic reception of every smart ass lyric this kid spits. I am glad that she and other cultural critics are voicing alternate analyses. Based on the bit I’ve heard, I have mixed feeling about this record and Tyler’s strengths and weaknesses as a songwriter, lyricist, and rapper, but that’s really neither here nor there for the purposes of this post.

I am largely empathetic to Quin’s frustrations with Tyler’s uncritical popularity amongst people who fancy themselves progressives, despite his violent misogynistic lyrical fantasies and frequent use of homophobic slurs. I am glad that she is speaking out against the acceptance of misogyny and homophobia in the music industry. However, I am quite troubled by some of the theoretical devices she employs in order to do so.

Quin opens her post with a pair of questions:

When will misogynistic and homophobic ranting and raving result in meaningful repercussions in the entertainment industry? When will they be treated with the same seriousness as racist and anti-Semitic offenses?

Whoa, there. Does Quin really believe racism is treated more seriously in the entertainment industry than homophobia and misogyny? Just, like, in general? I can’t even begin to fathom how one could viably make such as assessment of even the music industry as a whole (let alone the entire entertainment industry), as I see a whole lot of racism that isn’t taken very seriously. Just off the top of my head, upon reading these sentences, I immediately thought of cuddly indie duo Ching Chong Song, a white band who named themselves after a racist slur. While some of their shows have been met with protests organized by Asian-American student groups, who made it quite-clear to the band that their name was, if somewhat anachronistic, still plenty offensive. The band responded by calling their critics “stupid petty retards”, retaining their racist moniker, and going on about their career without further public incident. For a couple years now, I’ve been pretty dismayed by how unseriously this momentary controversy has been treated. But this anecdote doesn’t even scratch the surface of the systemic racism around which the US popular music industry has been built, from day one. The fact that Quin doesn’t see this as clearly or often as misogyny and homophobia doesn’t mean its not there. It’s often easier to recognize oppression that negatively affects us directly than that which doesn’t.

I also found it curious that Quin would stipulate that anti-semitism is verboten in the music industry, or at least taken seriously across the boards, in a piece attacking the acceptance of a rapper known for celebrating Hitler and calling himself a Nazi. Just sayin’.

I’m going to ramble a bit, but this is the takeaway: we do not have to compete in the Oppression Olympics in order to argue that misogyny and homophobia are unacceptable and must be taken seriously. What’s more we should not, if our goal is to combat oppression in general, not just the kinds that hurt us most personally. Doing so is actually counter productive, as it both needlessly divides people who could be allies (it divides many people right into little bits–I wonder how Quin would feel if asked to chose which is worse, homophobia or sexism) and obscures the intertwined, intersecting workings of oppression.

So I’m a little worried when I see people I follow on twitter eagerly spreading this link around as a tonic in the midst of Tyler-mania.

Quin goes on to write:


No genre is without its controversial and offensive characters- I’m not naive. I’ve asked myself a thousand times why this is pushing me over the edge.

Honestly, reading this, I asked myself the same question. While I definitely think Tyler and Odd Future’s pseudo-shocking misogynistic and homophobic (and pro-Nazi) content is worthy of discussion and critique, I also don’t find it particularly notable in a broader musical-historical context. Unless something that actually surprises me pops up later in the album, this is absolutely nothing new or unusual for pop music. It’s the same old same old, which is part of what’s so depressing about it. It’s notable this spring, at least on the Internet, for sure, but I actually can’t relate to Quin’s selective horror. Especially when her self-reflection leads her here:

Maybe it’s because in this case I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message but has EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message.

Whoa, whoa, whoa there. Really? I’m not exactly sure what all Quin is trying to say here. Let’s take the first part first: “… in this case I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message…” Whose race and class? Tyler’s? Is Quin explaining that she’s not suggesting Tyler is homophobic and misogynistic because he is black and comes from whatever class background he comes from? Why is she preemptively defending herself? I guess because race and class supposedly have “EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message.” Aside from the fact that Tyler has been admonished, so not everyone refuses to do it, this is also bit cryptic (again: whose race and class? And how exactly do race and class have “EVERYTHING” to do with Tyler’s presumed free pass?), but I think I know what Quin is getting at. Earlier in the post she explained:

…is Tyler exempt because people are afraid of the backlash? The inevitable claim that detractors are being racist..?

So I guess she believes that Tyler is gets a free pass on misogynistic and homophobic lyrics because he’s black? Since when is that how this works? Since when has being black given artists a universal force field of protection against being criticized for being misogynistic and homophobic, or anything else? Did Quin miss the congressional hearings on “gangsta rap” back in the ’90s? How about when congress did it again in 2007? I can believe that there may be a few misguided souls out there whose confusion about how to best be PC in this situation leads them into silence, despite being troubled by Tyler’s lyrical content, but just how widespread can this phenomenon be? How central is it to Tyler’s popularity with critics and audiences? I would guess its quite peripheral, if existent at all.

More insightful is the end of the quoted sentence above, which I truncated. In addition to being afraid of being called racist, Quin posits that people may withhold negative judgement of Tyler because:

…the brush-off that not “getting it” would indicate that you’re “old” (or a faggot)

Well, sure. Everyone wants to be hip, tough, and on the winning team. But is it that critics and audiences are scared of being among the unhip masses of gay oldsters who don’t “get” Tyler, or is it that they actively enjoy the feeling of inclusion that comes from being on his side? You can be old and on his side, as many critics are, or gay and on his side, as plenty of gays (including Syd the Kid of Odd Future fame) are, you just have to tolerate his homophobia, misogyny, and adolescent self-absorption. I understand that wanting to be cool and being scared of being uncool may be two sides of the same coin, but I find it strange that Quin repeatedly focuses on the fear. I think people who like Tyler’s music largely do so because they actively enjoy Tyler’s music, not primarily because they’re scared to say otherwise.

Which leads to another question I have about this aspect of Quin’s thesis: Since when does the music industry need the fear of being called racist in order to fail to stand up against misogyny and homophobia? Maybe people aren’t giving Tyler a pass because he’s black, but because we live in a homophobic patriarchy. I can’t help but think of Julian Assange here, how quickly so many righteous defenders of Wikileaks (notably including famous career feminist Naomi Wolf) turned into rape apologists when an ugly portrait of their hero’s sexual politics began to emerge. Those on the left who refused to toe the Lying Sluts line were raked over the coals. Scratch a progressive, and you’re frighteningly likely to find misogynist.

Or, to bring it back squarely into the music industry, look at famously white rapper and best selling recording artist of the aughts, Eminem. Almost exactly two years before the release of Goblin, Mr. Mather’s released his really crappy comeback album, Relapse. Its general crappiness (and it was really crappy, I mean, even Eminem himself admitted as much on his follow up, Recovery) was partly due to its boring, repetitive, stupid lyrics that frequently described graphic fantasies of stalking, raping, and murdering women. Over and over again. Including real women who actually exist in the real world who Eminem mentions by name. It is a truly juvenile and vile piece of work, sprinkled with plenty of homophobia as well, which is made all the more appalling by the fact that Eminem isn’t a kid toying with shock value tactics he’s too young to know are already played out, he’s an adult who played out these themes himself on superior albums at the beginning of his career. While Tyler is still a kid playing Johnny Rotten, Eminem is one of the biggest stars on the planet, an archetype unto himself, and twice Tyler’s age.

So how did critics and audiences react to Relapse? They ate it up. It was one of the biggest records of the year, selling many many many times over what Goblin ever will. Rolling Stone gave it 4 stars. The generally more scrupulous Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-. It was nominated for three Grammys and won two–GRAMMYS, people. You know, the awards given out by the old, respectable, out-of-it fogeys of the RIAA? They lapped it up. They gave rap album of the year to a collection of songs celebrating jerking off to Hannah Montana, raping and murdering Britney Spears, and making fun of Samantha Ronson for being an ugly lesbian.

I was utterly dismayed by this reaction, as someone who enjoys a lot of Eminem’s music and respects his talent, despite his often very problematic lyrical content, I knew the album blew, even though I’d hoped it would be good. Yet all these fans and critics were too invested in the myth that it was the great comeback the world had been waiting for to see that it wasn’t, let alone criticize it for being one of the most over the top pieces of misogynist music to ever hit the Billboard charts. It seemed that these gross retreads didn’t bother anyone else as much as they bothered me, it seemed like they didn’t bother anyone at all. I’ve actually come across a lot more critical discussion of Tyler for promoting homophobia and misogyny around the release of Goblin than of Relapse-era Em (Marshall Mathers LP-era Em is another matter. The Marshall Mathers LP is also a less offensive and much better album than Relapse.)

My point in writing all this is not to nit-pick away Quin’s arguments about why Tyler’s lyrics and cool-kid status are problematic, I agree that they are. But I also think that it is extremely problematic to assert that 1-misogyny and homophobia are bigger problems than racism (at least in the music industry) and 2-Tyler gets away with metaphorical murder in large part because he is black. These assertions are not only problematic, they are not true. They serve to bolster systemic racism by hiding it, while at the same time pretending there’s some variation of “reverse racism” at play where there is none. I highly doubt this was Quin’s intention in writing the post, but inten is not the be all end all (I don’t necessarily think Tyler is consciously trying to perpetuate homophobia or promote rape, either.)

There is no need to do this in order to critique and fight against misogyny and homophobia. I am glad Quin has spoken out despite her fears. I sincerely hope that both she and those her piece spoke to and for will open up their analysis to make room for opposition to all forms of oppression, without privileging one over another or obscuring the actual power dynamics in play.

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Invincible

I am appalled that Shapeshifters, Invincible’s wonderful LP, came out two and a half years ago, and I had no idea. It’s almost all I’ve listened to for the past few weeks, and is destined to stay in heavy rotation for a long time to come.

I think I first came across Invincible through activist-y means. I feel like I saw her name on some CD I was looking at in Wooden Shoe once upon a time, though my brain may have manufactured that kinda-memory. I’m surer that I saw her MySpace profile in conjunction with internet stuff I did for pro-Palestinian campaigns. I never listened to her stuff, though. In all honesty, the fact that I came across her through internet activism did not peak my interest, because most well-intended political music is not anything I want to listen to. Great political music is like my holy grail, and most of my favorite music is, at least sometimes, explicitly, consciously political. However: so much self-consciously political music I come across, especially that which I first come across in activist scenes (rather than through music fans–activist or not), tends to be heavy handed, uninspiredly amateurish, and artistically lazy. I won’t name names.

Invincible’s name came up now and again, but I was never that curious because, frankly, what were the odds that a white activist rapper was worth listening to? I mean, most white people who rap, shouldn’t. I’ve heard some awful stuff in my time by white people claiming to making hip hop of some political significance. I didn’t know anything else about Invincible, I had no context other than what I just outlined. I didn’t know about her deep roots in the Detroit hip hop scene. I didn’t know that she was a serious rapper, not an activist who decided to try rap cuz she couldn’t sing, or fetishistically thought it’d be more hardcore than starting a crappy punk band. I didn’t know who made her beats or how hot they are. If one person I respected had told me to listen to her, I happily would have, but I come across a lot of names of artists over the course of the day. Don’t check most of them out. No matter how hard I’m kicking myself now for not buying that fucking CD at Wooden Shoe.

Then, this past summer, Invincible was interviewed on Democracy Now as part of their coverage of Detroit Summer. She did a song a capella, and the show used clips from her songs as bumpers. One of the bumpers was from “Sledgehammer”, including the part where Invincible shouts out Fannie Lou Hamer, Fred Hampton, Nina Simone, and, one of my favorite film makers, Marlon Riggs. I was walking to work when I heard it and was just like, WHAT. If you’ve heard the song, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, here it is:

Around this time Jean Grae (who is maybe my favorite, favorite emcee) started (or I started noticing that she was) mentioning Invincible occasionally and I was like, ok, that bit of a song I died over is probably not at all a fluke. I kept making mental notes to check her out, and kept forgetting, ’til two days ago when I suddenly remembered and decided to see what was available through iTunes. Shapeshifters was available, so I got it, and HOLY GOD.

There’s not a skip-able cut on this thing, from the Toni Cade Bambara-quoting “State of Emergency (Intro)” to the closing cut, “Locusts”, which spawned a docu-music video.

There’s a lot going on in between. Besides the aforementioned killer “Sledgehammer”, some of my favorite songs are the brilliantly “Lovecats” sampling “No Easy Answers”, the Ann Arbor/Ypsilenti-centric “Deuce/Ypsi” (which resonates with my own disillusioning childhood in a liberal college town), and “People not Places”. Ah, “People Not Places”, how long have I been waiting for this song? It makes a nice diptych with The Shondes‘ anti-Zionist anthem “I Watched the Temple Fall” (lyrics). In it, Invisible lyrically returns to her home from ages 1-7, Israel, via Birthright and goes through the visited hotspots, revealing the Palestinian history obscured by the new Israeli villages, institutions, and language. Her portrait of a land where Hebrew has been foisted upon all and those speaking Arabic can expect police harassment is nuanced and affecting.

First stop: museum of the Holocaust
Walkin outside–in the distance–saw a ghost throwing a Molotov
Houses burnt with kerosene
Mass graves
Couldn’t bare the scene
It wasn’t a pogrom–it was the ruins of Deir Yassin

It speaks to Invincible’s superlative artistry that a song that serves as a history lesson backed by a very intentional agenda doesn’t come off as didactic (even if I’d still like it if it did). This song is a great example of why I’m so smitten with her–great delivery, great beats, and those rhymes! Intricately constructed rhymes that never sacrifice personal truth for cleverness, though there’s ample amounts of the latter to go ’round. The politics emerge organically and always carry the weight of emotional truth. This is political music at it’s absolute finest (also just music in general at it’s finest.)

The song also features Abeer, who was so memorable in one of my favorite documentaries ever, Slingshot Hip Hop.

Then there’s “Ropes”, as honest and moving an addressal of suicidal tendencies as Elliott Smith’s best (or “Take Me”, by Jean Grae, for that matter). Apparently its excellent video was accepted to MTVU, only to have the standards department ultimately reject it for it’s “problematic suicidal undertones”. I don’t know that I’d call the suicide-related contents “undertones”, the lyrics are pretty clear, but the more obvious issue here is the flagrant hypocrisy here–this is MTV. MTV, which you may remember from such videos as “Jeremy” in which the titular character artfully blows himself away in front of his rather young class. There’s nothing nearly as graphic here, just a sober, genuinely life-and-struggle-affirming story:

I heard the barrels cry wishing they could spare ya lives
Was feeling paralyzed but no I wasn’t scared to die
Feared not livin to the fullest so i pulled it
All or nothing
Now somebody wanna call my bluff when
I tried to flinch
Told them that the suicide attempt was cause I’d rather die
Than live and ride the bench
For every victory there’s like 50 times the set backs
For every revolution there’s a death trap
And everytime I see police attackin with a tazer gun
A protester that’s down already on the ground my face is stunned
I see people that’s unaffected like “that’s just for safety hun”
Turn around and tell myself: “You’re not the crazy one”
To all the unfazed and numb, hope that you hear
What I’ve spoken is clear
So you stop repressing choking the tears
We all walk the line between insanity and sanity
And hope and despair

But you really can’t get this by reading the words on your screen, so here’s the fabulous, Coney-based video:

I’m so excited about this album. You must hear it. I am paying rapt attention to Invincible, and can’t wait to see what she does next.

(See also: Rap Genius exegeses of “Sledgehammer” and “People Not Places”. Invincible herself explains “People Not Places”. You can follow Invincible on Twitter. Also, that MySpace page is here.)

Rock the Bells!

Rock the Bells is weird. In many different ways. First, the main stage should really be called the “Nostalgia Stage” as it was completely devoted to past glories. DJ Premier’s opening set was a tribute to J. Dilla. Slick Rick, Rakim, and KRS-ONE performed most of The Great Adventures of…, Paid in Full, and Criminal Minded, respectively. Lauryn Hill did tracks off The Miseducation and The Score, almost exclusively (more on that in a minute). A Tribe Called Quest was joined by Busta Rhymes to recreate Midnight Marauders, Wu-Tang did Enter the 39 Chambers (ODB’s son came out, ostensibly to do his dad’s parts), and Snoop did every song off Doggystyle, filmed recreations of the album skits and all. He was wearing a floor length, Crip-blue bandana print dress. The guy dancing around on stage in a big dog costume was blue bandana-ed as well. The set highlight for me was The Lady of Rage, who sounded great. Has she been working all this time? Some of the other rappers who have been out of the limelight were a l’il rusty, but she was on her game. She also doubled the day’s previous tally of female rappers on stage (“Cock the Bells”, indeed).

Also, for me, personally, “Ain’t no fun”, as expected, lived up to its name. I also want to take a moment to appreciate Slick Rick’s reassurance that he meant “no disrespect” by performing his classic track, “treat her like a prostitute”. Unclear if he meant towards prostitutes or the women discussed in the song, who are not actually prostitutes. Sadly, his advice regarding women who are not prostitutes was not to give them money.

I saw Public Enemy a few weeks ago in Central Park and the Hip Hop nostalgia circuit thing is weirding me out. I don’t have some big analysis of it, it’s just weird. Or maybe it’s just continually weird to me that I’m old.

The second, or “Paid Dues” stage was the place to hear any remotely recent music. I was mostly soaking in “whoa, La-di-da-di…twice in one day!” over at the big stage, so I missed Immortal Technique, Murs, and other people I’d like to have seen but have seen before and will likely see again. I did catch Brother Ali, who I haven’t listened to before and was great, and Street Sweeper Social Club who, as I’d hoped, put on a hell of a show. Most of the crowd bolted after Brother Ali’s set. The remainder seemed both largely confused as to who SSSC were and angry that they took so fucking long to set up (it wasn’t actually long at all, but in the blazing sun, it sure felt like it.) Once Boots Riley and Tom Morello and their quite capable band took the stage, all was forgiven, the crowd was wowed and won over. A few dudes were so moved by the raucous rocking that they exploded into a real live mosh pit, which was kind of charming but kind of annoyingly, aggro-ly executed and impinged on my ability to focus on the Paper Planes cover that had just begun, seeing as I was suddenly, nonconsensually on the front lines and having to mind my Mosh Safety. Still, it’s a testament to how thoroughly SSSC rawks live, bursting with energy, immediacy, and joy that gets lost in the music’s translation through the studio. If you can see them live, do it.

Everyone else was fun. Lauryn Hill: the songs had such drastically new arrangements (and I was so far away and mostly unable to see shit) that it took a bit for me to really connect with the material. Then she did “Ready or Not” and I started to cry.

I wish she’s rap again. Her singing voice isn’t what it was–whose could be, unless maintaining said voice was still your full-time job–but she still brings it. Her set and that just-released song off Corin Tucker’s new album got me thinking about how unfriendly the music industry is to parents who are primary caretakers. Usually mothers.

Pictures!
Boots Riley, Street Sweeper Social Club
Boots Riley

Tom Morello with SSSC
Tom Morello

Tom and Boots, Street Sweeper Social Club
SSSC in action

Brother Ali
Brother Ali

Snoop...
…and this would be Snoop. I think.