Editor’s Note: Through a partnership with Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Music, The Curator is delighted to share thoughtful music criticism from the 2015 Festival. Over the coming months, The Curator will publish one paper a week in order to continue and extend the conversation from the Festival. On a range of artists and songs, each paper engages and interprets popular music from a faith perspective.
Contrary to what you might think or assume, you are an explicit, crucial and fundamental participant in the music industry. Whether or not you play, create or work in music, you are a crucial component in the complex web of its creation. Passive participation is a myth; such understandings are either outdated or entirely illusory. Certain values and ideologies at play in our involvement with music, even at the most basic levels of our system (i.e. supply and demand) reveal that passive involvement does not exist, especially in 2015.
In The Atlantic, Derek Thompson points to these realities, writing, “Record labels are using new sources of data about our preferences to find the next stars. Every time you download a song or search for a band on Wikipedia, you help steer the music industry.” Labels themselves are looking to newly formed, vast pools of meta data reflecting our consumption of music: who are we listening to, where are we listening, how often, and when. And these labels are trying to respond accordingly; their business decisions reflect the myriad of logistics in our consumption. You and I, through our listening, consumption, curiosity, and spending, are determining what music gets made.
The manner in which we consume music is a political reality. It is political in the most basic sense of the term; our consumption is part of learning how to properly organize and conduct ourselves in the midst of life together, a life where we have ethical responsibilities to the others bodies who help constitute and determine our own subjectivities. This should serve as no real surprise, but our mode of analysis and critique has not caught up with our our politicized role in consumption. We need to shift our language and understanding to account for that political reality.
In light of those political realities (i.e. the role of connection we play in the production of music through our consumption of it), we need to shift how we analyze music and the music industry, moving away from negative/positive critiques and analyses of the content and artists in music alone. I am not saying we neglect the top-down critique or analysis. Perhaps now more than ever, the all-pervading reality of structural issues require analysis. Yet our current context requires that we implicate ourselves in the analysis of the music industry, rounding out a structural critique of music with a certain examination of the demands of the people, of the masses determining the trajectory of the music itself.
This form of analysis opens up the conversation and critiques to the values buried beneath our demands and participation in the music industry. A common example from the cultural context that tends to aim for ‘cultural engagement’ commonly criticizes certain hip-hop artists, songs, movements and the genre itself because of its ‘immoral content.’ Be it the vulgar language, the sexualized content, or the misogynistic tendencies, the critique itself deals with the production of inappropriate material. Talking through and critiquing misogyny or inappropriately sexualized ideas is crucially necessary. That being said, any criticism that aims to dismantle the production of an item or set of ideas without properly examining the telos, the cultural and economic demand that enables the production of the object in the first place, has obviously missed the point.
Another factor important for us to consider here is that this sort of critique—one that analyzes the artist alone—fails to make sense of the historical formation of music in general. Take hip-hop as an example, which exists a fundamental discourse of resistance. Any critique that fails to account for these realities in light of the plight of black bodies at the hands of systems and power in the name of whiteness is, in my opinion, a-historical and unrealistic. Hip-hop serves to meet a concrete demand, the demand for a language of protest in light of America’s historic, oppressive tendencies on black bodies. Hip-hop is no different, then, than jazz or blues. As Cornel West writes, “The black musical tradition—from the spirituals and blues to jazz and hip-hop—embodies a desire for freedom and a search for joy in the face of death-dealing forces in America.” An investigation of the black musical tradition helps to shed light on the cultural, economic and racial histories/myths that demanded the production of the music in the first place.
Imani Perry, the author of Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop, has touched on something similar. She argues that popular hip-hop has recently become a fetishized product. Hip-hop is not procured, bought, listened to, or attended by a majority black audience any more. What does it mean, then, that a massively white crowd is demanding and consuming at alarming rates, according to this political, economic schema, the fantasy of ghettoization through popular hip-hop? Shouldn’t this provide the questions of our critiques? These themes are being demanded from somewhere. And why? Such a critique is itself the inversion, the reversal of the all-too-common discomfort with inappropriate content. Rather than projecting some sort of lack of moral standing onto those producing the content, this artistic criticism turns in on itself, ultimately probing our own imaginations in a way that makes possible the admission of our own culpability and weakness.
Another way of getting at all of this is to ask: for whom are these songs being created? And are they performing well in the marketplace, if our money truly is the reflection of our values in the capitalistic system? Any critique of Tyler the Creator that does not account for his rampant success at the age of 18 is moving in the wrong direction. Rather than addressing the surely alarming, fascinating, values-laden process by which he narrates his own hatred of and violent fantasies toward Bruno Mars, what would happen if we were to ask ourselves what it means for us to have made Tyler a commercial success, particularly because of his outlandish persona and lyrics? In a fascinating interview with Larry King, Tyler speaks to his road to success through internet uploads. People simply liked it, and it spread through word of mouth. We created Tyler the Creator, both you and I.
Take, for example, the possibility of SLAYER’s (a hugely popular thrash metal band out of California that rose to rampant success in the early 80s) commercial success. All of this from the Wiki page: SLAYER has sold 3.5 million albums in the U.S. alone. Ten studio albums, two live albums, a box set, six music videos, to extended plays and a cover album. Four of those studio albums went gold. The band has received five Grammy nominations, winning Grammys in 2007 for “Eyes of the Insane” and another in 2008 for “Final Six”.
The point of bringing SLAYER up is not to vilify them or to pick the most heinous of bands. Rather, they are an extremely successful band and easily fit into this ‘inappropriate content’ trope. Commonly touching on issues of serial killers, necrophilia, Satanism, warfare, etc., many conservative groups have responded with outrage and disgust, ultimately resulting in bans, delays and lawsuits. However, instead of simply critiquing whatever unhealthy tendencies we see in the lyrics of SLAYER, what might we begin to learn about culture, about ourselves, when we realize that 3.5 million individuals bought this music? 3.5 million people demanded it, made it monetarily possible, successful even? What is it in the social consciousness, the diseased social imagination that demands the production of these things? Isn’t that a more interesting conversation and critique?
At the end of the day, a shift that analyzes the commercial demand and makes sense of our politicized participation in the industry itself is better than the top-down approach for the very fact that it implicates us as listeners. It doesn’t allow for a removed, vacuous approach in which our hands are clean.
One of the creedal affirmations, the formalized mission of the Christian church itself, is to search for life, to highlight and foster the resurrection of the dead, which only happens through the concrete behavior and actions of the redeemed community; the church is the means through which the kingdom of God is materializing. This is precisely why Wendell Berry calls for us to “practice resurrection,” to enact that which we are believing and hoping. As active participants, then, the primary mode of questioning our involvement in the music industry becomes, “What does it mean for a redeemed people to participate in the consumption of music?” Perhaps, then, we can begin to frame our consumption around the process of ‘searching for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’
This new mode of analysis and participation renders our money into our vote, our vote in the system as it currently stands. And we need to vote for that which is life giving, for that which bears witness to the grand scope of human being in the wake of the phenomenon and reality of Jesus–music that speaks honestly about being human, that fosters the fullness of life, which is to say music which operates according to the values put forward by the life-affirming, resurrection powers of Jesus. These modes of participation and analysis–this newly formed critique–are most clearly exemplified in the pop-culture criticism of David Dark and Taylor Worley. Their criticism is constantly on the search for ‘cosmic-plainspeak’–the resurrection and fulness of life breaking into the here and now through popular culture, through the truth-telling process of music itself.
Within this broader framework, our values and monetary contributions begin to align with the narratives we are aiming to participate in as people of faith, as a redeemed people. Only then can we begin to identify ourselves, as the late Will Grey brilliantly observed, as ‘the modern Medici,’ a people dedicated to the cultivation of skill, talent and art through monetary contribution in light of understanding themselves as patrons. Such a form of consumption would involve the integration of our beliefs, values, economics and practices. It is through this highly politicized form of participation in the music industry that we need to be looking for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.