This is one half a of a two article debate. You can read the other half here.
So far, the music of 2011 has been short on controversy, unless you count Lady Gaga badly photo-shopping herself onto a bike as controversial (Clue: we don't). So we can thank Tyler, the Creator, of hip-hop collective Odd Future, for bringing a reliable old shit-storm down on music with the release of his album Goblin. The debate over the flagrantly misogynistic and homophobic lyrics which pepper the album is raging in various corners of the net and in music mags such as NME.
Lyrics such as these seem precision designed to cause the biggest shit-storm possible: "I just wanna drag your lifeless body to the forest/ and fornicate with it but that's because I'm in love with you, cunt." How about: "We [are] ...ready to stab a clit with some glass and shit." Or even the admirably concise: "Rape, write, repeat twice". Pearls of lyrical wit and elegance every one, I'm sure you'll agree.
Playing with Himself
Now, there are three arguments being put forward to explain, excuse and otherwise justify Tyler's lyrical concerns. These arguments are the same ones which get put forward time and time again when hip hop artists produce dubious lyrics: he's just reflecting his background; he just repeating what's everywhere in hip hop culture; he's playing with a persona. A moment's reflection is all you need to work out that that last excuse can't exist with the first two. Either Tyler is honestly reflecting where he comes from and the culture he's surrounded by, or he's concocted a character as satire or narrative aid. It can't be both.
And yet, read reviews of Goblin and you'll see these arguments carelessly eliding into one another. Much the same happened with Eminem. A various times we were told that Eminem and Slim Shady were characters created by Marshall Mathers, and also that Mathers had a troubled background, was honestly reflecting young male aggression and frustration, and that this made him a brave artist. Eventually, it was impossible to tell where the characters were supposed to end and Mathers begin, something the rapper no doubt felt more keenly than anyone.
It's hard not to feel déjà vu when discussing Tyler, the Creator. How '4 real' is he? Curiously, the man himself appears inept at shedding light on his creative process, telling the Guardian, ""I usually just say... what I think is cool". Assuming Tyler doesn't want his lyrics taken out of context (and I'm not at all convinced he doesn't), he isn't going out his way to help matters. When Sara Quin, of Tegan & Sara, blogged about his questionable lyrics, Tyler took to Twitter to respond thus: "If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up." Tegan and Sara are openly gay, so presumably they're not going to be looking for dick of any consistency any time soon. Interestingly, Tyler's Odd Future cohort Syd da Kyd is also an out lesbian. We can only speculate at their inter-band dynamics, but it casts a further strange light on Tyler's lyrical obsessions, and makes them smack more of shock-tactic contrivance than earnest exploration of the man's dark impulses.
However, the argument that Tyler is playing with a persona is undermined by the fact that he's been known to lead gig audiences in chants of 'slut' and 'show your titties' at female crowd members. What a gentleman. If he is indeed cultivating a persona, he wouldn't be the first artist to find it's become hard to put the breaks on. The Beastie Boys are now widely known to be embarrassed by their infamous early dumb jocks act, where they appeared live flanked by giant penises and caged strippers. Ultimately, the boys realised that - surprise! - misogynistic antics do create an atmosphere were casual misogyny is permissible.
Off the Hook
In general, I find it hard to go with the reasoning that hip hop artists are simply reflecting their culture, not least because of the backhanded racism that seems to come into play here. By letting predominantly black artists off the hook with this line, are we basically saying we expect no better of them? That they can't help themselves? If Kings of Leon wrote a song depicting a rape fantasy in the gleeful terms Tyler, the Creator has would NME nail them to the fucking wall? You bet your life it would! When Morrissey made some dodgy comments on race in the early 90s, he was virtually ex-communicated by the UK music press. Compare and contrast and draw your own conclusions about media hypocrisy. More on that later.
However, if you still want to buy into any or all of those arguments listed above, fine, but I have a question for you: where are all the songs by female artists about attacking and raping men? If that seems a ridiculous thing to ponder, ask yourself why. Why does it make sense for a man to rap about raping a woman but not the other way round? The answer, when you pick it apart, is probably that there would be no audience for those kind of songs. Similarly, there's not much call for songs where gay artists have a go at straight people. No one would buy into that kind of stupid prejudice. Gay activists would condemn it as counter-productive.
Tyler, the Creator has identified an audience and, with the media's help, he's milking that for all it's worth. That audience is primarily made up of white young men. A couple of weeks ago, Hamish MacBain took Tyler to task in the pages of NME, pointing out that Odd Future had bypassed the traditional hip hop audience, instead crossing over quickly to the kind of alternative music fans who read Pitchfork, the Guardian and, hey, Soundblab. It's exactly these alternative, typically liberal-leaning fans who repeatedly let hip hop artists off the hook when it comes to misogynistic and homophobic lyrics.
Telling It Like It is
In the late 80s, NWA and 2 Live Crew turned hip hop form a cult scene which occasionally threw out a hit into a multi-million dollar business and the biggest youth trend of the latter half of the 20th century. They did this by selling ghetto culture and radical black politics to an audience of white suburban teenagers, mainly young men who rapidly switched allegiance from hoary old rock to this new music with breakout stars guaranteed to upset their parents.
But there was a problem: Many liberals who would otherwise have supported hip hop began to feel uneasy at the the misogyny and homophobia these groups spouted in song and in interviews. What they saw was that the oppressed - young, poor, inner-city black guys - were now using the language of their oppressors and, what's more, were selling this back to their oppressors' children as rebellion.
For NWA and their gangsta rap ilk, the argument to excuse their questionable views was that they were honestly reflecting and commenting on their culture, and to an extent this was true. However, by the time we got to one man sense apocalypse 50 Cent in the early 00s, this argument could no longer hold water. 'Fiddy' didn't call his debut Get Rich or Die Tryin' because he wanted to honestly reflect the culture he grew up in. He called it that because he knew he could make a fortune selling hyper-real stories of pimps, hoes, drugs and gang-banging to an audience of young white males salivating for their next vicarious hit. And - hey, sorry to burst your bubble, hipsters - Tyler is doing the exact same thing. He's just narrowed down his market a little.
Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy
To be fair to Tyler, the media has helped him along every step of the way. Hamish MacBain can grumble all he likes, because NME have already stuck Tyler on the cover of their 'rebellion' issue. And if that doesn't tell you everything about how the media has its cake and eats it when it comes to black male artists perpetuating an image of themselves as violent, woman-hating thugs, than I don't know what will.
Some of may balk at the idea of Tyler, the Creator being lumped in next to 50 Cent, but why? Because he's far more talented perhaps? OK, but advocates of this argument protest a little too much, I feel. What you're basically saying is, "Oh, we would disapprove of his lyrics but his music is just so good we can't". News-flash: you can maintain both stances without too much trouble. If you don't it's probably because, at a fundamental level, you think it's just not a problem for rape to be trivialised.
It has often been said that comedies and horror films work at the same visceral level. Both are trying their hardest to get an involuntary, gut reaction out of you. Where one wants a belly-laugh, the other wants a gasp, an involuntary covering of your face with your hands. With his lyrics, and again like Eminem before him, Tyler, the Creator is blurring the lines between the two responses. You laugh because it's just so gross, so visceral. But to really get the joke, you can't be the butt of it. There's really no way to avoid the fact Tyler's lyrics make women and gays to butt of the world-view he peddles. You can claim that he's actually poking fun at the mindset of the typical young male, but I think that's too kind and the person you're ultimately being kind to is yourself for enjoying Tyler's lyrics, even with the ironic detachment your privilege allows.
The sad fact which Tyler's lyrics reveal to us is that words like 'slut' and 'faggot' can never be reclaimed, not while young men desensitised to violence, swaddled from the consequences of violent domination and oppression, continue to be sold the idea that such words are funny and harmless. They're not. As a gay man who was bullied at school, I remember vividly wondering what a faggot was the first time the word was hurled at me. I had to ask my mother, and my understanding of that label and how it was suddenly, forcefully applied to me altered irrevokably my idea of self and how I fitted, or failed to fit, into the world around me. Similarly, what effect do you think it has on a young girl just beginning to understand her sexuality to come into contact with a song liberally peppered with references to 'sluts', that treats women as objects fit for at best contempt, at worst violation? (The fact that she will be simulatiously exposed to media telling her that dressing and acting in a way which would lead her to be labelled a slut is actually 'empowering' is, I think, a psychological cluster-fuck best left for another article entirely). Do you think she 'owns it'? Do you think she laughs along? Would you laugh along?
Da Real World
Maybe what it comes down to it this: These lyrics pose no real threat to young men in suburban towns all over the affluent west. We can enjoy the luxury of ironic detachment, of objective appreciation of the persona we believe the artist is playing with, and we can even allow ourselves a certain smugness for 'getting it'. But try making that hipster pose work in South Africa , where one in four men questioned in a survey admitted raping at least one women, or Egypt, where 80 per cent of women say they have been sexually harassed on the street. We get a lot of privileges in the west, one of them being the cultural remove which lets us enjoy lyrics depicting rape fantasies as if they were sci-fi tales about alien invaders. And yet, we in UK live in a country where rape convictions hover at around just six per cent, where feminist demonstrations such as Reclaim the Night and SlutWalk become more popular as young women wake up to the fact that they don't feel safe walking alone on their own streets.
"But what has this got to do with Tyler, the Creator's lyrics?" you might ask. To which I answer: if you can't make the leap between lyrics in which a man says he wants to mutilate a woman's genitalia and what's happening in the real world, then congratulations - you are living in a place where rape and sexual violence exist only as fiction. If only so many others around the world could enjoy that privilege with you.