Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Song Is You?

By Jay Stringer

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.


Paul D Brazill said...

I think music snuggles up close to us and it make make the storytelling a bit too intimate sometimes. I just thought of Pere Ubu's brilliant LP 'I Hate Women' which isn't an easy ride.

John McFetridge said...

In Canada the Standards Council just banned the Dire Straights' Money for Nothing from radio airplay because they received a complaint about the word, "faggot." Of course, that's turned into a big debate. One thing that comes up is that Mark Knopfler doesn't use that word when he sings the song these days.

Have you ever heard a song by The Specials called The Boiler? One of the most uncomfortable songs ever. It doesn't get much radio play.

Interesting points here.

Brian Lindenmuth said...


Looking at what I've just written apparently I've riffed and rambled.

First, two quotes, from the same piece, that may or may not be relevant to this topic :) But offer insight to the possible depth and breadth of rap and possible lessons for writers by extension.

A) "...why it's always more complicated than you think it is. Rap can be free wordplay or linear narrative. Sometimes a rapper uses words as rhythmic devices, as percussion, with little concern about literal meaning. Rap can be polemic or stand-up comedy. It's autobiography, fantasy, confession, satire, lecture, dream. The voice of the rapper can be first-, second-, or third-person, comic or hyperbolic or earnest. Even then it's complicated: Jay-Z's voice, even in earnest first person, is not necessarily Shawn Carter's voice, but then again sometimes it is.

This slippery point-of-view is one of the aspects of rap that gives it its depth--and by depth, I mean its sense of enchantment and obscurity, the dimension that can't be easily measured--which is one of the keys to its power. It's one of the things, Jay argued in the book, that justifies rap as a poetic form (whether rap ever needs to be justified as anything other than rap is another argument, which Kelefa Sanneh, among others, addressed in his review of the book in The New Yorker).

B) " We all know that rap is narrative, with unreliable narrators, and that the point-of-view in any narrative is not necessarily the point of view of the writer, but then we occasionally choose to forget this; in those moments we make judgments on rap songs without making the effort to first understand them on the terms of the form.

It was wrong when C. Delores Tucker did it, it was wrong when my stepfather did it when I was 13, and it's wrong now."


Brian Lindenmuth said...


2) The racial elements of this topic are hard to ignore. A black musician pens a crime song and it's hateful but a white artist pens a similar style song and it's artful (no accusations Jay just general observations). Is this a reductive way to frame the debate? Probably, but it can be an instructive introduction to analyzing a particular facet of the question.

In his upcoming book Zombie Spaceship Wasteland Patton Oswald writes:

"But avoiding the trash makes you miss truly astonishing moments of truth, genius, and invention. If you shut your mind to science fiction, you’re never going to read The Martian Chronicles or The Left Hand of Darkness. If you think murder mysteries are airport garbage, then you’re denying yourself The Horizontal Man or The Daughter of Time. If movies begin at Ozu and end at Roemer for you, then the subversive brilliance of Deathdream and Rat Pfink a Boo Boo will leave you in the dust. Die-hard rock-and-rollers will never discover Biz Markie’s The Biz Never Sleeps. Indie music hard-liners rarely venture into country music territory. Too bad—Dolly Parton’s Jolene and Waylon Jennings’s Honky Tonk Heroes are as essential as Last Splash and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot."

Take the crime songs "Children's Story" by Slick Rick and "Meeting Across the River" by Bruce Springsteen. Most folks are going to focus on the differences of the songs and fewer still will focus on the similarities. But in my opinion the discussion that arises from the similarities is a far more interesting one.

"And when we talk about books in more interesting ways–say, even something simple like the commonality of theme between a book by Cormac McCarthy and a book by Connie Willis–we begin to create different kinds of connections between books, and more meaningful connections between books. If we “talk” in this way in blog entries or articles or essays, then we do in fact influence the minds of readers, which, just like the minds of writers, tend to be in flux on these issues." — Jeff VanderMeer

Maybe through the venue of crime fiction it's possible to take an honest look at the overlaps in the drug problem of David Woodrell's Ozarks and David Simon's Baltimore.


How come Italian crime organizations in fiction are venerated but black crime organizations aren't given the same regard? Maybe this brief exchange that I had with Roland Jefferson a couple of years ago sheds some light on this better:

Brian Lindenmuth - I suppose that some of the themes that black novelists address could be difficult for white readers to relate to, such as assimilation and separatism. But is the theme of alienation, for example, really much different when addressed by Chester Himes as opposed to David Goodis?

Roland Jefferson - Alienation and assimilation are difficult for a mass readership to grasp unless it is addressed in a style or context that the readership identifies with. It also depends of whose alienation or assimilation one is writing about. Black alienation borne out of economic poverty and centuries old racial victimization will be a different experience from alienation in white, asian or hispanic cultures. And yet there are similarities that a skilled writer needs to be able to make the story relevant to the mass readership. By way of example, black criminal fiction is vastly different from Italian criminal fiction that is iconic in its characterization of the Mafia.

Brian Lindenmuth said...


But let's not just focus on the serious sides of this topic. Let's also say what about the similarities of genres. Like fantasy and crime fiction for example.

-Aren’t The One Ring To Rule Them All and The Maltese Falcon just MacGuffins?

-What are criminal empires and fantastical landscapes but secondary worlds that both have their own rules, and language(s), histories and cultures.

-In some types of crime fiction and some types of fantasy fiction there is a lot of power in names; having different names, hiding one’s true name, the power of discovering one’s true name.

-Isn’t a crime comic like 100 Bullets really a secondary world fantasy masquerading as a crime story?

-Isn’t a serial killer nothing more than a real life monster?

Dana King said...

Maybe I'm just too much a middle aged white guy, but to me the primary differences between Pelecanos, Springsteen, Waits, et al and what is most often considered to be objectionable rap is that the rap lyrics seem to be advocating the misogynistic and violent aspects, while the others are acknowledging the world in which the song/story takes place.