When Music is Our Enemy

The tunes we listen to affect us more deeply than we know.

I was one of the unfortunate millions to tune in to this year’s Grammy Awards in February. The ceremony itself was, as always, a drab affair, little more than an industry convention dressed up as popular entertainment.

To take pleasure in this spectacle — which differs from a half-time show only in taking place indoors and being four times as long — one must see in it a kind of suspense. You have to care, for instance, about the answer to questions like “Upon which of last year’s three best-selling singers will the recording industry decide to confer even greater publicity?”

To judge by ratings, many people really do care. I’m just not one of them.

But I had other reasons for tuning in. This year’s Grammy Awards was a little different, or so it seemed, from those of earlier years. In the week or two preceding the Awards ceremony itself, a noisy controversy arose around the ceremony’s headlining act: a duo pairing England’s flamboyantly homosexual national bard, Elton John, with the rap world’s most abrasive new star, Eminem.

Eminem is not just another rap star. In a genre overwhelmingly dominated by (indeed, almost reserved for) black performers, Eminem is that rare thing, a white rapper with street cred. But Eminem’s rap legitimacy has come at a price.

To be accepted as a genuine rapper, Eminem has had to out do the rap world at its own game of tedious one-up-manship and vulgar self-assertion. In the process, Eminem has proven that, when it comes to the vices of the average rap star, he can hold his own with the best of them.

Thus the uproar preceding the Grammy Awards. Though Eminem’s best-selling albums had proven his appeal to the all important suburban-white-male-teenager demographic, those albums’ lyrics — in which fantasy scenarios of gay-bashing and the murder of women constitute minor themes — seemed explicitly crafted to offend the politically correct sensibilities of the entertainment elite.

As a result, the night of the Awards was preceded by much hand-wringing and feigned consternation. On one side of the debate were those — mainly leaders of the homosexual lobby and their friends in the recording industry — who opposed Eminem’s appearance at the Grammy’s. The danger of “hate speech”, they warned, was so great that it in this case took precedence over artistic license and freedom of expression. Meanwhile, Eminem, his fans, and large numbers of musicians interested in preserving the conceit that their art is exempt from moral critique countered with the predictable and now well-worn argument that Eminem’s lyrics are “poetry” and, as such, not to be taken literally as recommendations of violence against women and homosexuals.

Everyone is by now familiar with how the controversy turned out. Eminem did play the Grammy’s and, to judge by the reporting following the show, his duo with Elton John represented a grand reconciliation of free speech and political sensitivity. The two principles turned out to be compatible after all, Eminem was given three Grammy’s for his trouble, and, just to make sure we didn’t miss the point, Elton and Eminem indulged in a lengthy embrace at the end of their act. All was right in Hollywood, the ceremony seemed to assure us, and now we could stop worrying about it and go back to our lives. Class dismissed.

I can’t say that I was convinced. Like millions of other Americans, I had been suckered into the spectacle and was duly resentful once I figured out that the “controversy” had been nothing other than a clever ploy to increase ratings.

Worse yet, the controversy itself entirely missed the point. The problem with Eminem’s music was not, as everyone had pretended, that it was exceptionally violent or crude or hateful. The problem was that it was typically all of these things. Though Eminem seems to have a special place in his heart for imaginary violence against women and gays, his music otherwise consists of the usual (but no less objectionable) dreck that makes up the fantasy world of your average rap superstar — casual mysogyny, braggadocio, crude materialism, an ethic of vengeance.

The vices of the rap star are so many, only a Hollywood executive or a trained philosopher could distinguish between better and worse. Eminem, in this respect, is no different from a thousand other performers today.

And this seemed to me to be the real story. Eminem’s music is objectionable. But this isn’t primarily because Eminem has it in for gays and women. Rather, it is objectionable because Eminem, like so many other artists today, makes it his business to instill in his mainly teenage audience values that are in the end perverted and anti-social.

That it was the other story and not this one that we heard in the week or two leading up to the Grammy’s is just a small example of a much larger and more important trend in our culture to neglect questions concerning the morality of artistic expression. Art and life, we all seem to agree, have nothing in common. While art may reflect life (an argument, by the way, frequently employed by Eminem’s apologists), life itself is somehow insulated from art.

Despite the certainty with which many people hold this opinion, it is of relatively recent origin. For thousands of years, Western thinkers have been acutely aware of the central role played by art — and, in particular, by music — in shaping the values of society. One of the first to recognize the powerful and elusive place of music in social life was the ancient Greek philosopher Plato.

In his Republic, Plato famously has Socrates expel all poets from his ideal city, a category in which he includes most musicians. For Plato, the primary aim of music is to attach sentiments to deeds. In a well-ordered society, good deeds are rewarded by the emotions which follow from moral approval. Music, when used properly, serves to connect these two and thereby to reinforce the governing values of the community. In deciding to expel most musicians from his ideal city, Plato was simply recognizing the other side of the coin: that music can also be used improperly to attach the wrong sentiments to the wrong deeds and that, in doing so, it sets itself against the community as a rival source of moral value.

In developing his theory of music, Plato was not especially interested in the question of lyrics. In fact, to judge from his Republic, the music of ancient Athens didn’t even have lyrics. And it is here that we have the most to learn from Plato.

When people today talk about the morality of music, the discussion is always focused on the content of musical lyrics. Given the sort of grotesque hymns in which so many contemporary bands specialize, it’s easy enough to see why. And yet to focus exclusively on the question of lyrics, as in the Eminem controversy, is to ignore the larger point. For it is as true today as it was in 4th century B.C. Athens that the characteristic sound of a musical style is itself a powerful repository of moral life.

It’s simple enough. The great thing about music, the really powerful thing, is that the very act of listening is to accept an invitation to moral sympathy. In this way, listening to a song is no different from reading a novel. In both cases, the audience, whether listener or reader, is invited to put himself in the position of the person telling the story. Since every storyteller has his own point of view and characteristic values, to put one’s self in his position is, however briefly, to allow one’s self to share his perspective. With time, this perspective can rub off on the audience.

When the novels or songs in question serve to affirm the values of a truly moral life, that’s a good thing. But it can be a bad thing, too, if — as is so often the case today — the music or literature in question is in the service of a set of values which are perverse or anti-social.

Like lyrics, the characteristic sounds that make up a musical style also tell a story. Take, for example, punk rock. Even if you could remove all the singing from a punk album, a characteristic sound would still remain. And, in the case of punk, this characteristic sound is the sound of scorn and resentment. Similarly with rap music. Strip away the words from your typical rap album and what’s left over is a pattern of rhythms that comes very close to the sound of crude physical threat (oddly, this often holds true even of rap songs that are supposed to be about love).

In both cases, when you put the lyrics back in, the message does not change — it just becomes more literal and obvious. When considering the morality of music, in other words, the total product — performance, lyrics, and style — must be taken into account. As Louie Giglio, founder of the Passion worship movement, has remarked,

I think all music — not Christian music but all music — is worship music because every song is amplifying the value of something….

There’s a trail of our time, our affection, our allegiance, our devotion, our money. That trail leads to a throne and whatever’s on that throne is what we worship. And we’re all doing a great job of it because God has created us to be worshippers. The problem is that a lot of us have really bad gods.

It is only when we grasp this that we can understand the true force of music as a vehicle of moral meaning. Young people seem to recognize this more readily than their elders. Whenever young people meet, there comes a point early on when they ask one another about their musical tastes. It is not an idle question. As anyone who has grown up in America knows, musical preference is at the same time a matter of allegiance: What one listens to is always in part a self-conscious assertion of community and of support for the values upon which that community is founded.

When one adolescent asks another about his musical tastes, he is thus asking about much more than the contents of his CD collection. He is in fact asking about the contents of his soul. And, in a culture in which music has, with the sponsorship of the big recording labels, too often come to represent a perverted moral life, this soul is rarely innocent.

To see this, you only need to spend a half hour watching MTV. In what is a powerful cocktail of images, lyrics, and sounds, young people are lured into identification with values and types of behavior that would kill even the most hardened sensualist. For many, neglected by their parents and left to their own in finding their way in the world, this is also a primary source of moral instruction. But with a sentimental education such as this one, it comes as little surprise that the recent spate of school shootings has for the most part taken place in affluent suburbs. More people have cable there.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that things are entirely hopeless. Plato’s understanding of music led him to envision an ideal city from which most musicians had been expelled. When the tyrannical ruler of Syracuse gave Plato a chance to implement his vision of this ideal city, however, the scheme quickly fell apart.

The solution is thus not to outlaw Eminem. Even if we could, it would hardly solve the problem as there are thousands more like him just waiting for contracts.

The solution is to keep in mind what’s at stake in our musical preferences and to refuse, as far as possible, to participate in music which affirms a corrupt morality. If enough of us do this enough of the time, we may yet get the music industry to change its mind about what sort of music deserves to make it to the Grammy Awards.

In the meantime, it’s probably not worth tuning in anyway.

Copyright 2001 David Orland. All rights reserved.

About the Author

David Orland

David Orland is a freelance writer in Berkeley, Calif.