I have a question.
I was at a house party over the weekend for a relatives birthday. It's possibly the first time I've been to one of these things without drinking, and that makes it quite interesting at 3AM when drunk people are holding important intellectual conversations with you.
One did get me thinking. We were talking about rap music. Or the hippity hop. Or whatever the cool people are ironically mis-labelling it these days. We both agreed with the basic idea that there's some great stuff and some not so great stuff, as with any music, and that there was some that we just couldn't identify with.
We both agreed that sometimes the language can tune us out, that there's an edge of misogyny and greed to the bad stuff that leaves us cold. But then I got to thinking about those things. I love me some Pelecanos, as I've been prone to say on here, and he's written some very greedy and misogynistic characters. He gets away with it because he's a novelist and he's being true to the story and the characters rather than his own beliefs. We will follow the writer on that journey because we can see what he's doing. And I singled his name out just to make the point, but the same is true of many great writers.
We accept it of novelists. We sometimes accept it of filmmakers and actors (not always though, it's a rocky road.) But do we treat musicians differently?
We couldn't quite get our heads round that question. Each time we picked a side, we thought of an example that seemed to prove the opposite.
It was suggested to me that music is different. That a Novel gives us 80,000 words to find the context and the other points of view, but a song is only three minutes and it hits you straight away. But does that really make it any different? Is there anything that Tom Waits fails to get across to us in the 3:20 of What's He Building? that he could have better expressed with another 80,000 words? We get the full story. The difference is that a book can reveal itself to you in one reading while a song will do its magic over repeat listening.
The Mercy Seat can spend five minutes lying to you, then hit you with a parting shot of the truth, and have as much effect as a whole novel from the point of view of the unreliable narrator.
So, if there is a difference between music and prose, is it one that we bring to the table, rather than one inherent in the format itself? And do we treat different emotions differently?
For instance, we accept that Johnny Cash never shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. We know that Bruce Springsteen was never strapped into an electric chair for a string of murders and offered up the excuse,"I guess there's just a meanness in this world." We'll go with them on these flights of violent fancy because the songs tell us something, and make us feel something.
But are there acts or emotions that we're not willing to let a singer get away with?
Can we follow Springsteen, Cash, Waits and Cave on these flights of violent fancy because they represent something that we can keep at a distance? We're not all murderers and cold blooded killers. Sure, the job of the crime writers is to tap into the darker side and to make people face up to the idea that we're all capable of these things deep down. But at the same time, there is still a protective seal. There's still that element of tourism that comes with it.
But to face up to other issues gets more problematic. Writers and readers can be uncomfortable when dealing with racism, sexism, and other similar issues. Good writers again get away with it in longform because we see the merit in what's being explored. But do we give the same to songs?
Is a song about a misogynist or racist going to be written off as misogynistic or racist? Is the songwriter going to be charged with something in the way a novelist wouldn't? I'm sure we all encounter these issues all to often out in the real world. Whether it be at work, or a family member, or a friend. Someone who suddenly states an opinion that can't help but make you look at them a different way. Or even those dark moments when you realise that some of these issues have a few roots and leaves buried away in you somewhere, and that it's your own brain and judgement that helps you keep them down. We are all capable of sexism or racism just as we are with the more "glamorous" acts of crime fiction, but we encounter the former far more in our real lives, and this can make them more uncomfortable to explore.
If a song uses language we don't like, and talks about issues we don't like, should we go with the gut reaction of not listening, or should we treat it like a challenging novel and listen closer? Should we see what the use of these words and ideas is saying?
Paul Westerberg has a song that is filled with sexist language, and on first listen people have commented to me that it's misogynist. On repeated listens it becomes clear that the song is asking us to look at the attitudes of the man that's being sung about. Wilco had a song a few years back that was a breezy lilting little pop song, that then ends with the cold statement, "she begs me not to hit her."
Singing along to those songs can sometimes be a far more difficult proposition to belting out a line about shooting a man in Reno.
So the same question applies there. Is there a difference? Should there be a difference? And is it one that we bring to the table, or that is inherent in the different formats?
And just before I duck out of here, a quick plug. The folks over at the deceptionists have released episode 3 of the podcast. I'm enjoying it. Give it a try.