The Mixed Messages of Modernism: A musical double standard

Jan. 13, 2012, 12:27 a.m.

The Mixed Messages of Modernism: A musical double standard I value free speech. Reading otherwise-controversial ideas rarely bothers me, but I struggle to read The Atlantic because its tone is so moralizing. In my days at school, especially among those who term themselves “socially aware,” I have not found that mindset a common one. Instead, I have met an army of white knights, always at the ready to descend with righteous anger on those who say the wrong thing, and others who are less impassioned but share the sentiment.


Attitudes towards speech heavily favor the shaming, if not censorship, of certain varieties of speech. Saying something insensitive, whether true and to the point or not, is universally decried. Oftentimes, this is a reasonable reaction. Most would rather write something bland, boring and uninformative than offend someone else — even if just by challenging their beliefs. The consequences are by no means limited to mere social shaming. They reach deep into personal, professional and public life.


When gaffes of that sort are made in the public and private spheres, reactions are harsh and swift. When words reflecting attitudes of unadulterated selfishness, a desire for needless excess or a cavalier attitude towards violence come up in conversation, people shake their heads in disappointment. Many see it as necessary that politicians resign after faux pas that imply wrongheaded values. A wide array of statements we term insensitive or coarse is thought to reflect so strongly on the character of their speakers that they are put beyond public redemption. But consider the music that will be ringing in bars and clubs across the country this Friday night. That we should delight in lyrics so blatantly wrongheaded when upholding a culture so sensitive it often oppresses controversial debate is so ridiculous it defies explanation.


At parties and at home, about a third of the soundtrack of the budding ‘10s is comprised of music whose lyrics not only make no pretense to being moral, but actively glorify actions that alarm even the most apathetic among us. Which is really strange in this day and age. Everything is analyzed for undertones of malice and immorality. What is found lacking is harshly critiqued. Yet the role of drugs, violence and inhumane behavior in music has never been so large as it is today. Yes, they’ve always been a part of our music, but no one would guess what “Day Tripper” is about (the immaculately clean Paul McCartney is singing about a prostitute). “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is riddled with drug references, but never do Ringo, John or George declare their love for codeine syrup and a host of serious drugs. Never do they give violence and manipulation a clear endorsement.


What is at the core of this double standard, that allows the veneration of casual immorality and insensitivity in one realm and not in every other? I could never pretend to know. It does, however, seem doubly absurd that this realm of clemency be music — the chosen form of entertainment, consolation and information about the adult world for teens, tweens and age groups too young to have a hip moniker.


This is not to say our music needs to change and I certainly do not advocate censorship. I will continue listening to the same things I always do. I merely want to point out how ludicrous it is that in a world where a police officer’s sexist, dumb, but apologized-for sentence at a 10-person public safety seminar at a law school in Toronto spurred an international movement, we not only abide by but encourage, admire and promote words reflecting much worse attitudes. We’ll pounce on statements that show the slightest signs of poor judgment, and do nothing but bob our heads while violence and carelessness are elevated onto our most prominent stages. We believe in free speech, but we also viciously attack that speech we deem unacceptable; then why is music exempt from our scrutiny?


The realization of our own inconsistency forces us to ask questions of the sincerity of our values. While I know plenty of Stanford students who won’t stomach a single word out of line, perhaps rightfully so, none of them takes issue with the music that inundates our airwaves. Neither do I, really. But it seems truly absurd that we can campaign against innumerable social ills and then give them tacit sponsorship by popularizing artists who make it central to their work. It’s not a problem I can properly address. But it certainly seems to have some hefty implications about our endorsement of our values and our beliefs about the media we let define our culture.


Is Tyler, the Creator not your ideal music? Let Spencer know at dsnelson “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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