You had to expect that after Tyler, the Creator’s MTV VMA win for Best New Artist there were going to be some dissenters. It looks like the first group to speak out against the decision is GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). On their blog, the group has posted a call to media outlets and music critics to rethink their support of Tyler and the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All clan. The official line comes from GLAAD’s Senior Director of Programs, Herndon Graddick:
Rather than providing simply a larger platform, MTV and other networks should educate viewers about why anti-gay and misogynistic language has no place in the music industry today. Given Tyler’s history of such remarks, viewers and potential sponsors should refrain from honoring homophobia and in the future look to a more deserving artist.
This isn’t the first time that GLAAD has taken on Tyler’s music. In May, they wrote in support of Tegan and Sara’s Tegan Quin’s open letter denouncing the content of Goblin. In that post, the advocacy group said they would “continue to monitor media coverage of Tyler.”
While GLAAD’s criticism of Tyler’s defense of his lyrics (“We’re just kids. We don’t think about that shit.”) is hard to argue against, their criticism of the lyrical content itself is more tenuous. They start with a quantitative assessment (NME claims the word “faggot” or a variant is used 213 times on Goblin, while GLAAD claims it’s used ten times, not including variants). They then say “as if that wasn’t frightening enough…” as if use of that word somewhere between ten and 213 times is in itself dangerous. The obvious question, and one that was posed in the comments on the GLAAD article, seems to be how does Tyler use such language?
This June, Tracy Morgan found himself in a similar predicament. At a stand-up gig, he performed a bit that offended many in the LGBT community. Morgan subsequently apologized, but the more interesting part of the discussion was fellow comedian Louie C.K.’s defense of Morgan on his Twitter account. In a series of tweets, Louie said:
“Tracey Morgan said something wrong, evil, cruel, ignorant and hilarious. He was on a comedy stage, not at a pulpit. you have a right to be offended, sound off. [sic] As a man who hates violence and discrimination against gays or anyone, I was not offended. I can have two thoughts simultaneously. 1. Gay people have a right to grow up and live in confidence happiness, honesty and equality. thought 2. [sic] Tracey Morgan is ridiculous and I love watching him just go to wrongful and crazy places in his mind and I can laugh. If every word a person says has to be right and balanced and fair, I will jump off a tall thing onto a hard place.
One reason the issue of censorship comes up so often in stand-up comedy is that the comedy stage creates a scenario in which anything can be said without regard to the outside world. If a comedian makes a joke about a man falling off a bridge, nothing actually happened in the outside world. We don’t have to be worried about the man’s health, or if measures were put in place to prevent further accidents on the bridge. He is a hypothetical man who fell off a hypothetical bridge. These sort of hypothetical situations allow us to explore worlds and possibilities that we can’t in the outside world of consequence. Music works similarly. While idealists may rhapsodize about the power of protest music, ultimately those songs are merely rhetorical exercises. Rage Against the Machine, much to their chagrin I’m sure, has never actually enacted political change. If they have inspired their audience to do so, that responsibility surely lays more with the audience than the band itself.
When these hypothetical situations deal with serious subjects like race, rape, and homophobia, the natural inclination of certain people (hopefully, all of us) is to feel a little uncomfortable or on edge, ask what position the speaker is taking, why he’s choosing these words, parse out possible hurtful intentions, and in general just pay attention. To take the leap in logic that assumes hurtful intentions, and assumes the speaker’s position, is to stop paying attention. The assumption seems to be that such words have a necessary correlation to the outside world, as if they are performative in such a way that saying “faggot” means you’re homophobic like saying “I apologize” means you’re sorry.
Elsewhere in their article, GLAAD states that a “significant part of those listening are adolescents seeking to emulate their favorite artists.” Personally, if were to emulate Tyler I would wear goofy socks and learn to skateboard, but they’re implying that there is a danger that the listeners of this album will act upon situations described therein, or at least come to view such acts as acceptable. Placing responsibility for such actions on the artist rather than the audience creates a censorship based on the lowest common denominator. If a deserving artist is denied his due because of negative effects his art may have on his listeners’ behavior, we had better start becoming better listeners.
At the beginning of “Radical,” Tyler provides a disclaimer. He says, “Don’t do anything that I say in this song, O.K.? It’s fucking fiction. If anything happens don’t fucking blame me, white America.” This disclaimer is completely superfluous. When Tyler raps “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school,” he is espousing personal agency. What he is actually saying is, you have the option to kill people, burn shit, and fuck school. You are an adult and you can make that decision yourself. And it’s liberating to be treated like an adult. If you burn down a building or drop out of school, that responsibility is entirely yours. Actually though, it’s more fun to just sing along.