“When will misogynistic and homophobic ranting and raving result in meaningful repercussions in the entertainment industry?” – Sara Quin
“If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!” – @FuckTyler, Twitter
On Friday, Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara posted an open letter to the band’s website criticizing the music industry and music journalists for their embrace of Tyler the Creator, the charismatic and controversial leader of the LA-based rap collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (henceforth abbreviated as Odd Future). Tyler’s label debut, Goblin, dropped last week to extensive discussion and press coverage, and the collective as a whole has been the topic of extensive coverage in recent months, including features in Spin, Esquire, New York Magazine and countless others (not to mention one of Nardwuar’s best interviews in a while).
“While an artist who can barely get a sentence fragment out without using homophobic slurs is celebrated on the cover of every magazine, blog and newspaper, I’m disheartened that any self-respecting human being could stand in support with a message so vile…In any other industry would I be expected to tolerate, overlook and find deeper meaning in this kid’s sickening rhetoric? Why should I care about this music or its “brilliance” when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible?”
Her post is sincere and impassioned, but misses the mark a bit in appreciating why Odd Future have struck such a nerve. Her big question—why has the sexism, homophobia and ‘horror rap’ elements of Tyler’s shtick not rendered him persona non grata among music tastemakers?—is actually not that difficult to answer, I would argue, and I don’t think she gets the answer to that question quite right. But her strong counterpoint to the Odd Future phenomenon provides a good opportunity to tussle out some of the complicated questions that the collective’s meteoric rise poses.
(Disclaimer: this post really isn’t about my own personal take on Odd Future, but here it is: I find the phenomenon compelling, some elements of the shtick—particularly the raucous, juvenile live performances—genuinely endearing, but Goblin as an album to be ultimately too dark, morbid and unwieldy for my tastes.)
Nihilism versus hate
Quin certainly gets one part of her open letter spot-on: were Odd Future using anti-Semitic slurs, for example, we’d probably be having a different conversation here. There’s no question that societal attitudes towards homophobia and sexism has been slower to catch up to that of other discriminatory behaviours and speech. And hip hop, in particular, has long been a place where both sexism and homophobia have been, if not embraced, than certainly tolerated.
Yet this probably less true today than ever before, which is what makes the embrace of Odd Future’s extremes a little more complicated. Because yes, their language is derogatory towards women and homosexuals – but it’s not as if their offensiveness is restricted to one or two maligned groups. From Haitian earthquake victims to the police, to religion to (um..) dolphins, everything gets a little bit of hate on Goblin – and not the least of which, Tyler himself too. More than one review has considered the album a giant psychiatrist’s chair, with Tyler spewing all of his manic, fucked up id all over the room and often ending up the subject of his neurotic scorn.
So if Goblin hates everything, does it really hate anything?
It’s worth remembering that communication of an idea is never simple: it involves a sender, a receiver, a message and (often) media in between. The reason why ‘hate speech’ is such a complicated and tension-filled concept is that it poses the possibility that language—the message, in and of itself—can be hateful, even if none of the other forces involved in the communication of that message understand it as such. Does using homophobic or sexist language, even in the interest of ‘shock’ or ‘button pushing,’ render the sender of that message under those same terms? At what point does irony cease as a justification as an excuse or explanation? Should some words and phrases always be off-limits, context be damned?
Odd Future’s success suggests that the answers to those questions are not absolute. I suppose it’s up to each of us to consider whether or not they should be.
There’s something else important at play in considering the Odd Future phenomenon: age. In seeking an explanation for the journalistic consensus around Tyler’s record, Quin argues that journalists don’t want to appear racist or uncool. But what she neglects is that the central idea in nearly every review or article on Goblin is not Tyler’s race or his “coolness,” but his age (the rapper having just turned 20). In one of the most compelling pieces yet written about Odd Future, published at the Poetry Foundation, Bethlehem Shoals provides his perspective:
“Is OFWGKTA offensive? Yes, but they’re also undeniably funny, sad, and, somehow, devoid of moral gravity in a way that’s both silly and nearly surreal. One friend of mine has referred to OFWGKTA’s lyrics as coming from an unformed “girls are gross” perspective, and certainly, in the YouTube videos where 16-year-old Earl Sweatshirt isn’t rapping about cannibalism and screwing corpses, he comports himself like a shy, polite kid just out to goof off with his friends. At the same time, OFWGKTA makes such doggedly creative and self-aware music that it sometimes feels as if they’ve chosen depravity not because they want to, but because they can. If there’s such a thing as meta-vile, then these kids are your pioneers.”
It’s that youthful energy, that “we don’t give a fuck” rebellious streak that makes Odd Future so enticing to so many people; it doesn’t necessarily soften the collective’s harsh edges, but it ensures that they don’t stick so deep in many listeners’ skins. If writers and fans genuinely believed everything that Tyler was saying, he’d be a horrifying monster, possibly making those writers and fans monstrous by association. But the youthful spirit of Odd Future functions like a sly wink—or, better put, a middle finger with a guilty smile—tipping the observer off that this is not something to be taken too seriously.
But is that assessment of Odd Future—button-pushing juvenile pranksters—accurate? And if it is, does that even matter?
The activist journalist
If Quin misses the crux of Odd Future’s appeal, she’s right on the money in pegging journalists’ embrace of the group as the most difficult part of the whole equation.
Because while Odd Future antics often get compared to Eminem, there’s a crucial difference: Eminem’s rise to fame more than a decade ago was a classic collaboration between fans, radio, music video, a major label push and—yes—journalists. There were enough actors involved in the process that all aspects of the system fed off of one another. Or, put another way: journalists couldn’t be accused of endorsing Eminem’s sexism and homophobia just by covering him – they were obliged to cover him because all of the other components in the process were making him a big deal.
There’s an argument to be made, in contrast, that Odd Future owe a huge portion of their success to music writers who’ve become enamoured with the group’s shtick. That doesn’t mean that the group’s talent and (in particular) its raucous live show aren’t part of the equation, but bloggers, websites and journalists have been essential in branding Odd Future as a group to watch, keep tabs on and get excited about. And following Odd Future’s assaulting performance on Jimmy Fallon—the closest thing to a “tastemaker” in TV music these days—those voices have grown to include major magazines, newspapers and websites.
In the world of ‘music people,’ Odd Future are a big deal—and ‘we’ deserve a great deal of the credit/blame for that. But in the broader world, they’re still an unknown (as this hilarious local Boston news piece about a ‘riot’ outside a Tyler autograph session makes clear). They’ve never gone through the same public wringer that Eminem had to go through, because they’re not playing the same game. So the Odd Future conversation has been dominated by ‘us,’ not ‘them.’
(Yes, I know, I’m painting with broad strokes here. Just roll with it for the sake of discussion.)
Given that Tyler’s interviews are often rambling, button-pushing and “in character,” it’s worth considering the idea that there is no character at all—that the journalistic read on Odd Future is off the mark. After all, we, as much people, don’t necessarily share the same moral absolutism that the ‘mainstream’ has. In most cases, the forces that would be up in arms against Odd Future—the RIAA, the PMRC, the religious right—are exactly the ones that our rock and roll sensibilities admonish. They’re the ones who miss the jokes, who lose track of where voice begins and ends in popular music. In contrast, we embrace nuance, complexity, subtlety, irony.
But do we embrace too much?
That’s Sara Quin’s question, really. And I’m not confident on where my answer is at this point. It’s difficult one, because even if my own impressions of her target are not nearly as clear as hers, her motivation is 100 per cent in the right place. When she asks “Who sticks up for women and gay people now?” and suggests that “it seems entirely uncool to do so in the indie rock world,” those aren’t just idle toss offs. They’re crucial questions.
Whether Tyler the Creator and Odd Future deserve our praise or scorn is debatable. But they should be most certainly be questioned.