by Mike Barthel
When I was fifteen, I prank-called a rape hotline. I called and asked if it was true that women who get raped are asking for it. This is maybe the worst thing I have ever done! But let me explain. While I was certainly the possessor of all sorts of sexist attitudes at the time (I was a 15-year-old boy, after all), I don’t think I actually believed that women who were raped were asking for it. The reason I even knew about rape hotlines in the first place was because I’d seen a number for one on a Tori Amos tape I listened to incessantly. I was a huge Tori Amos fan, in a trading-bootlegs, going-to-multiple-concerts, actively-participating-on-Usenet-groups way. When I got bored at basketball practice, I would start singing “Me and a Gun,” a song that directly contradicts the question I put to the hotline. (“Yes I wore / a slinky red thing / Does that mean / I should spread?”) So, you know: It’s possible I believed this, but it seems unlikely.
More likely? That I was pursuing the pleasure of saying something I wasn’t supposed to. I liked doing what I knew was forbidden; I liked doing it because I knew it was forbidden, because I knew why it was forbidden, and because I thought it was forbidden for a good reason. And it was that mismatch between what I knew was right and what I was doing that made it “funny.” At the time my neighbor Morgan and me were on a whole tear of prank calls. In part, we were just letting off hormonal steam, but I remember there being a real frisson to those calls too, the frisson between good morals and bad behavior, with which we were familiar from acts like Marilyn Manson, Big Black and Nirvana. What made my call unconscionable was that I let my desire to be entertained overwhelm the fact that there was a real person on the other end of the line, one who definitely wasn’t in on the joke.
But what about when the offensive act is not private but public? What if the utterance of forbidden things is a piece of art rather than just the conversation of an individual? How do we go about judging offensive art?
Lately, on the Internet, we’ve been arguing about a rap group that says bad things. They may not the best case for this argument, but they are the most current one. So let’s do it — let’s go Odd Future.
There are two main schools of thought regarding Odd Future’s offensive lyrics. Supporters argue, essentially, that the group does not mean the things they say, that they are talking about rape ironically or because they are teenage boys (see?) or because they want to make us aware that awful things happen. A few even claim that Odd Future isn’t rapping, they’re “rapping” — that is, playing — and so no harm, no foul. To supporters, these explanations seem self-evidently true, but they’ve failed to convince critics. Most problematically, explanations like these deny the real pleasure to be had from transgression, especially humorous transgression of the type the group practices. Odd Future fans want to talk about how meaningful this stuff is, but it seems hard to believe that the appeal of lyrics in songs like “Splatter” isn’t comedic:
Hopefully my dick don’t shrivel up, when it’s time to bust
In this rusty cunt, that won a cup in collectin’ dust
Boogyin’ with Jesus and a bunch of Nazi hoes
In the front row at a holy Justin Bieber show
Offensive talk about women is far from unusual in rap — you can point to horrorcore and Eminem as clear antecedents of Odd Future — and there are only a few small differences between, say, the Ying Yang Twins chanting “beat that pussy up” and Odd Future’s rape-talk. But it’s notable that the some of the same people bothered by Odd Future aren’t bothered by, say, Kanye “Yeezy upholstered my pussy” West — and that gets at an important difference.
But what is that difference? Critics of Odd Future have had a hard time defining it. They just know it exists. And what invariably happens in these arguments, on both sides, is that Odd Future becomes isolated from context and criticized based on possible (or actual) repercussions of the songs. Making songs about rape hurts people who have been raped — and it makes rape seem less serious in people’s minds; these are fair reasons to not like a piece of art, and this disliking is clearly a reaction that Odd Future means to elicit with its music.
Sometimes the criticism will shift from the music itself to the people who listen to it. Is it morally wrong to listen to music that could encourage violence against women and that definitely trivializes it? Some art like this we seem to be fine with, and some art we’re not. Where do we draw that line? And should we even be drawing a line at all? Because maybe the problem isn’t the line — it’s in even applying moral standards to art.
In 1997, Ann Powers wrote “In Defense of Nasty Art,” which challenged liberals’ failure to defend gangsta rap and industrial music from conservative assault. In the essay, Powers endorses the need for art to be violent and extreme at times, and, by comparing the Dogg Pound’s Daz to Gregg Araki, she requires us to consider how our cultural position in relationship to a piece of art affects our response and shapes how we define what is and isn’t “offensive.” Arguing against the “notion that even transgressive art must enrich and heal,” Powers points out that “fans of this material aren’t made any more comfortable by it than its enemies.”
What Powers was searching for as a critic was a way to explain an art’s appeal that doesn’t grant the assumptions of the people criticizing it. In other words, an explanation that doesn’t also assume that what matters about art is whether or not it’s good for society, rather than if it’s good art. We can’t just say that all transgressive art is good because it challenges our assumptions. That would mean that even awful art, merely by being transgressive, is “good,” and so stuff that we have every reason to condemn (Jeff Dunham, say) becomes beyond the realm of critique. She reaches this conclusion: “Not all art that claims to be transgressive is worth caring about. But you can’t tell the bullshit from the real by setting moral standards. You have to set artistic ones.”
Powers is cheating a little bit with her examples. All the things she identifies as good transgressive art still seem to be ones that question society in the same way liberals do. This suggests that Powers’ case for offensive art’s values-challenging qualities (one echoed by a lot of people who make an argument for the importance of difficult or unpleasant art) is just self-aggrandizement. We don’t like art that challenges our values; we like art that we think challenges other people’s values. Sure, we engage with art that expresses different values than our own (Katy Perry’s heteronormativity or Beyoncé’s reification of gender roles, say), but we almost never take those as actual challenges to what we already believe. We either find a way to excuse them away, regard them as a depiction of a view that exists rather than an argument in and of itself, or stop consuming the challenging art entirely. When we encounter art that actually challenges our liberal values, we find a way to enjoy it without actually engaging with those contradictions. We don’t really like challenging art. We like art that reinforces what we already believe in a way that makes us feel like believing these things is a heroic, rebellious act.
And so, once again, we’re left with a moral argument, with a case for the genre that valorizes its political value rather than its artistic or aesthetic worth. And that case is weak. Here’s how music critic Tom Ewing reacted when I brought up Powers’ piece:
[T]he appeal of a lot of what Powers calls “violator art” rests on a particular kind of fantasy of individual voices cutting through the (perceived) bullshit and replacing it with (claimed) reality, as garishly harsh as possible. It was a war on cosiness and niceness — as Powers suggests the people who got the extreme artists really riled up weren’t really the authorities but the soft, consensual, progressive left. In fact the idea of the strong individual vision, the Guy Who Doesn’t Flinch From The Truth, exposing softness, crushing weakness etc. has plenty of resonance in right-wing politics and in big business.
So the model is Unflinchingness vs… what? Well, hypocrisy, weakness, complacency but also often more general ideas of softness, dialogue, compromise… a whole bunch of qualities which our social (patriarchal) set-up codes as “female”, so it doesn’t remotely surprise me that there’s a lot of misogyny underpinning some of this art.
That charge doesn’t undercut the validity of “violator art” as a genre in and of itself. Almost all artistic genres have misogynistic underpinnings, after all, and that doesn’t necessarily get in the way of our enjoyment of or even participation in them. Sometimes it does. For example, Nitsuh Abebe argues that Odd Future’s offensive talk isn’t problematic in and of itself but because it prevents some people from enjoying it:
It’s those taunts in particular that ensure lots of people will never be able to feel entirely included here. There’s been plenty of discussion of the moral dimensions of that fact. Here’s another dimension to consider, though: Doesn’t that just kind of suck, that this group would turn out a lot of fantastic music that unnecessarily dis-includes a big chunk of listeners? That there would be these terrific tracks and vital energy you might want to share in and share with others — except that sharing in it involves leaping this pointless exclusionary hurdle that doesn’t just leave out people you care about, but actively assaults their sensibilities? Sure, this kind of teenage energy is usually exclusionary: It needles outsiders and old guards and earnest moralists, and along the way it creates an us-against-them camaraderie that animates a ton of Odd Future’s output. But this stuff isn’t just needling sensibilities; it’s throwing up a significant roadblock that divides me from people I don’t want to be divided from. Leave aside morals: It bums me out that I can love so much about a few of these tracks, but wouldn’t put them on a mixtape for a lot of people I care about. It bothers me on the same small level it bothered me when my family toured a men-only monastery in Ethiopia and had to leave my mom standing outside for 10 minutes.
I know a lot of female music fans who loved rap in the ’90s who can’t really listen to it today, and it’s no accident that the vast majority of rap nerds are dudes. The genre convention of talking about sexual prowess in aggressive, hyper-masculine terms and referring to women in almost exclusively derogatory terms has hardened to such a degree that almost every rapper now does it. And this is a problem for listeners who hear something different than what the artist is trying to say. When TI, generally a good dude, says “I’m chillin’ with my bitch today,” pro-rap partisans would argue that what he means is, “I am so good at what I do that I can take a break.” But what some listeners may actually hear is “I am a gross guy who calls women ‘bitch.’” TI probably doesn’t mean to alienate anyone — he’s about as inclusive a rapper as they come — but it still happens.
The problem with Nitsuh’s argument, though, is that Odd Future isn’t trying to be inclusive. He says that such talk “unnecessarily dis-includes a big chunk of listeners,” but it seems clear that a group whose leader says “I WANT TO SCARE THE FUCK OUT OF OLD WHITE FUCKING PEOPLE THAT LIVE IN MIDDLE FUCKING AMERICA” is not exactly trying to create a big tent.
The whole point of genre is to be exclusionary. You want to create a feeling among your listeners that they have special knowledge, that they are part of an exclusive group. Odd Future is great at making its fans feel like they get it when no one else does. You can see this same narrowing of audience in country music’s evocation of conservative values, in dance music’s logos of endless sub-genres, and in indie’s anti-pleasure ethos. Rap just happens to do it with misogyny. That’s a problem. But the reason why it’s hard to talk about that in moral terms — the reason Nitsuh had to look beyond the “moral dimension” — is that a moral argument requires us to place blame. There can be no sin without a sinner. And rap’s misogyny is not a problem with any individual pieces. It’s a problem with the genre conventions that produced that piece of art. Which is to say that we’re circling back, in artistic terms, to genre, again and again.
If we want to judge this stuff on an artistic basis rather than a moral basis, then we can’t try and prove that there is a socially redeeming value to offensive art. We should see “offensive art” as a genre, same as country, rap or anything else, one with its own conventions and reasons for being. With “offensive art,” the genre conventions are about being dark and talking about unpleasant things and being performatively confrontational. This doesn’t place such art outside the realm of critique — we can still have lots of problems with the ideological constructions underpinning one genre or another. Likewise, no piece of offensive art should get off the hook just because it’s using genre conventions. However, such a categorization would force us to consider each piece on its merits and, maybe most importantly, within an artistic tradition, instead of simply dismissing it because it contains offensive content.
We’re reluctant to make this move for the same reason that Odd Future supporters want to explain away the group’s offensive content (even as they celebrate it in their expressions of fandom). If offensive art is a genre, then people who like it are fans of the genre, which means that the conventions of the genre appeal to them particularly in the same way that, say, folk music appeals to the kind of people who wear organic cotton and value consensus and harmony and have a fundamentally positive view of the world. If offensive art is a genre, then people who like offensive art just plain old like hearing people yell about rape and murder.
This is uncomfortable! And it should be. But that isn’t the full story. It’s worth noting that we’re not talking about realistic violence here. We’re talking about cartoonish violence. Despite the rhetoric of this is art that throws reality in our faces, it’s not, really. A historical recreation of the Battle of the Somme would be throwing (violent, ugly) reality in our faces, while GG Allin tossing feces into the audience is just a man throwin’ dooky. It’s ridiculous, absurd, over-the-top. It may be a metaphorical representation of the darkness of the modern world, but it’s also just, well, a man throwin’ dooky. It would seem to function in much the same way as my prank call: Allin knew very well that he shouldn’t be throwing poop at people who had paid to see him, and that he did so anyway made it an outrageous rather than troubled act. And outrageous things are fun, as long as all involved are aware of the distance between the apparent intent of the act and the actual motive behind it. Absent that awareness, Allin’s behavior is threatening or worrisome; with it, it becomes entertaining.
I particularly like offensive art because I find it funny. If humor is the mismatch between what you say and what you mean, then intentionally offensive art offers the widest possible mismatch. It’s not just that you’re confusing someone named “Who” with the pronoun “who.” It’s that you know you should not say anything that makes light of 9/11 victims and do so anyway. That’s hilarious!
I believe this, yet I ultimately fell out of love with aggressively offensive art when I began to notice that most fans of the form did not find it as funny as I did. They seemed to actually embrace offensive art as something serious and important and challenging. And that seems awfully close to endorsing the morally problematic views being expressed rather than just enjoying it on an artistic level. The problem is not the enjoyment fans of offensive art derive from the genre, but that these fans think their enjoyment means something.
Maybe I’m not being generous enough here. In 2007, music writer Scott Seward gave a fantastic talk at a conference during which he explained why the themes of power that run through metal resonate so strongly with its audience. He talked about his history of listening to metal while working as a janitor at a mental hospital, and how the fantasies of power expressed in metal songs didn’t resonate with some fascistic urge so much as the fact that he didn’t have any power in the first place. Metal’s obsessive embrace of admittedly cheesy historical and religious material didn’t reflect any true desire to return to the state of nature. Rather, it was a way for people without much power to express a form of mastery in the form of their arcane knowledge. People who liked metal liked it because it allowed them to be different in some way, to be special.
So maybe it’s unfair of me to assume fandom of offensive art reflects an unearned sense of oppression, an embrace of the fantasy that saying bad things is brave and honest. Maybe it’s that offensive art is impossible to enjoy without, for the moment, thinking those things are true. Holding the idea of “unflinchingness” in your head requires a kind of suspension of disbelief. As a genre requirement it doesn’t seem all that different from the same suspension of disbelief that allows fans of musicals to enjoy when people burst into song for no reason.
And what do you get out of that suspension of disbelief? A single moment in which the complicated world in which we live makes direct and uncomplicated sense. It is intellectually productive to see the world as a vast sea of nuance, ambiguities and contradictions that never resolve but always stay open, “truth” as something that’s negotiated and re-negotiated again and again. But God, it’s exhausting! Offensive art offers an escape. It relieves that pressure, for a moment at least, by offering a perspective that makes the world black-and-white. I don’t know how enjoyable offensive art could really be if you don’t normally see the world as complex and nuanced. Without that knowledge, there’s no mismatch between what’s said and what’s meant. Consuming such directly unreal art implies that you are going to return, once it is over, to the real world of vagueness and subtlety you otherwise spend all your time recognizing. It offers the fantasy, to people who spend their day thinking and writing and speaking, that a single thought could truly pierce the fabric of the world; that an uncomplicated shout could actually make a difference. In reality, we know that’s not true. But it’s fun to think so, if only for a little while.
Mike Barthel has done a lot of things he regrets.