Can listening to music be an act of moral hypocrisy?

It’s never been easier to have an opinion. Social media has democratised not only the knowledge upon which people can rely to bolster their ideas, but also the platforms upon which these can stand. And yet, these are minute-by-minute opinions; time is immediate, and so must you be, otherwise you will necessarily fall behind. In fact, it is so easy to get caught up in ‘opinionating’, that argumentation and reflection get lost in the process, and nothing bears the mark of this more powerfully than popular culture.

Popular culture today is opinion. And so, here is mine.

Can music be (im)moral?

Music is a part of the everyday for most people, whether it is secluded by earphones to be heard only by the listener, or on a boombox (forgive the 90’s reference) to encompass a larger audience. And yet, how often in the process of listening to music do any of us ponder the morality* of the act? A little, perhaps? Negligible at most.

Morality in music appears mostly in the negative, delineating those genres to which someone will not listen rather than a reflective instinct on what is actually being heard. Within this, rap music, and hip hop culture in general, are the typical scapegoats not just for unreferenced opinion, but a strong attachment to moral highground that may be otherwise weak or entirely missing in other aspects of our lives.

Yes, the moral highground is extremely appealing when it appears to us to be useful and contextually appropriate. And rap is easy to lambast and take down. Hip hop culture as a whole has garnered a (not incorrect, if utterly under nuanced) reputation for housing homophobia, misogyny, and encouraging violence (features which, over time, seem to have begun to be eroded). Rap in particular has nurtured this by giving vocabulary to these otherwise often visually depicted themes.

What about other genres of music?

Yet, by giving so much space to words, rap has the unusual privilege of polemic and discourse in a way that other genres do not. By being a vocal rendition of a rapper’s opinion, thoughts, reflections, throwaway comments, freestyles, idioms, and so on, it gives the listeners a far larger and more open canvas from which to judge its morality than other kinds of music.

Therefore, not only do most people have an opinion on rap (whether they actively or passively listen to it), but they are also usually armed with at least a small collection of evidence to support their impassioned stances on the genre. Of course, one need not have a particularly nuanced take in a matter of taste – rap can be disliked simply because it is not liked, without needing a riveting and evidential argument to support this. Yet, it nevertheless provides the opportunity for such a thing to be developed.

Where, then, does morality fall? With regards to rap and hip hop in general, a moral stance seems to come easily to most people. Opinions come ready-made in popular culture and discussions on hip hop’s constant misogyny, homophobia, and crude capitalism amongst its other vices and tropes. Even those who do not regularly listen to rap have an opinion on it ready to serve to whoever is willing to hear. The line therefore seems quite well demarcated – there are those who will listen because of what rap has to say; those who will listen despite what rap has to say; and those who won’t listen to rap for both of the aforementioned reasons. Other musical genres on the other hand are not as categorical.

The balladist form of song-writing hinges on a greater equilibrium between melody and words. The tradition of a repeated chorus (and perhaps a bridge) leaves very little time and space for a varied and detailed lyrical discourse that goes beyond the central theme of the song. While there is a great amount of music of this form, stretching across many different genres, that also espouses a political stance and element (and several different points on the political spectrum), when the theme is not political, controversy is somewhat more shielded, often metaphorical, and easier to dissociate from the artist and art.

What then, do we make of such artists as Eric Clapton, who never explicitly or intentionally forayed into political commentary of any kind musically, but interrupted his own concert in August 1976 to hold forth, inebriated, on his intense dislike of immigrants in Britain, his belief that they should leave the island, and his admiration for the politician Enoch Powell, who, not long before, had made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. It was politics on stage, but not of the lyrical kind.

>> To read: Loved the Music, hated the Bigots <<

Very few people actually know (or choose to remember) that Eric Clapton voiced such views. That his 1976 remarks sparked an entire movement entitled ‘Rock Against Racism’ is even less known. How short is societal memory?

In fact, Clapton went on to reiterate those views as recently as 2003 in a far more lucid state. Politics do not come into Clapton’s music, but can we, and should we, dissociate the musician from his openly expressed views? And that is what brings us to the next part in our question: where, then, does morality lie in other genres of music?

Do we question the sexism and sometimes crude misogyny of dancehall and reggaetón, while we move our feet swiftly (or not) across the dancefloor? And how many of us ceased to bop along to Chris Brown’s alluring beats after he physically assaulted Rihanna? If the #metoo movement is anything to go by, it is, in intention at least, a campaign to raise awareness of the things we let exist by conscious negligence. If Harvey Weinstein’s deplorable acts are enough for us to wish to boycott his movies, why should we treat music any differently?

Does instrumental music have a word to say in all of this?

The problem of morality takes on an even more complicated form when it comes to music that may leave no space to lyrics at all. Classical German composer Richard Wagner (who, incidentally, was a ‘sans-papiers’ fleeing the law in Germany while living in Zurich), is of course, the prime example of this. He is infamous, particularly in Israel and Germany, for making a concerted effort to instil in his music his strong antisemitism, which had already been made evident in his treatise “Judaism in Music” (1850). Where lyrics are (often) entirely absent, and there is an instrumental representation of views, should the listener be made aware of the melodic twists and turns that are intended as descriptions of hateful concepts and ideas?

In an interview in January 2018, Eric Clapton addressed his inflammatory remarks in 1976 and suggested that his words were the product of his being a “simple-minded, working-class villager”, linking this kind of mentality to the results of the Brexit referendum. Leaving aside the question of whether or not this comprises an adequate apology, or whether such a thing would even be possible, it brings to the fore the question of where we draw the line between culture and politics.

Should we be aware of the politics of the artists to whom we listen, whom we may even love, or whose music may profoundly move us? And if so, is it the responsibility of the artist to integrate an explicit underscoring of his or her politics in the music produced so that the listener is immediately aware and can make an informed decision? And what of his/her context, and the fact that his/her views fell not so far from the median of the society and the time in which he/she lived? How effectively can we really separate music from the society that enables its production?

Music, after all, is by and large a recreational art for most people – something to listen to, to be inspired by, or to keep us company as we carry on with our everyday.

Are we then to moralise every second that we spend thinking of other things, to maintain the sacred boundaries of our moral highground?

You might query why this should be something worth discussing. Aside from the moral reflexive that we should perhaps all exercise more often than we do, it has inadvertently become more relevant in the contemporary world because immigration and identity have taken on (a)new centrality to the way that the world behaves and communicates.

Morality therefore might be too vague a term; what is happening in fact is that listeners are becoming aware of their own identity, which increasingly seems to be at odds with the views of their musical idols.

Music is a personal venture most of the time – it’s about what moves you, even if you enjoy it in the social atmosphere of a crowd. And if it’s personal, but you’re listening to something written for people who are not like you, then you might encounter some dissonance. A kind of cosmic discord emerges between the musician and the listener.

Cultural appropriation, political views – all of these become enmeshed in what we ultimately define as good music. Humans are complicated, particularly since we necessarily exist amongst other equally complicated humans. What a kerfuffle.

This dissonance may arise from precisely this: in an age where everything needs to be riddled down to 140 characters, there is very little space (quite literally) to engage in a more profound debate about how we relate to the popular culture in which we are entirely immersed. From the world we now inhabit, where gifs, memes and emoticons communicate feelings and expressions, for which explicative sentences or regular punctuation seem old fashioned and redundant, morality appears too murky and obscure a territory to wander into.

Scandal, you see, can be both caused and reversed in twitter exchanges, or headlines. It is easy to watch it unfold and feel involved without having to associate any sense of morality with the outcome. No one has a nuanced opinion on the Trumps or Boris Johnsons of our time – it is a simple line between love and hate, and a debate that develops in exclamations.

So, can listening to music be an act of moral hypocrisy?

In his treatise on The Institution of Music, the philosopher Boethius proposed three ‘levels’ of music of which we, in the mortal world, are capable of recognising but one: musica instrumentalis, or music that is produced by the means of instruments. Within this form of music, there are a further three levels of engagement: the composer, the musician, and the listener. Boethius suggested that of the three, the listener was the most enlightened, retaining the facility (and the possibility) not just of listening to the music, but also of understanding it. Though scientifically outmoded, this philosophical concept does contain an important idea: if we accept that we are thinking, responsible individuals, then we are not only capable of agency, but should perhaps be exercising it too. Then, we too hold a certain responsibility with regards to the music we consume.

>> Have a listen: ‘Our Inner Music’, The Essay, BBC Radio 3, October 2018 <<

Perhaps the answer is not to draw a simple line between morally ‘acceptable’ vs. ‘other’ music or art forms, or artists, but simply to make an effort to be more aware of the context from which things emerge and evolve. This can facilitate a deeper understanding and conversation about what we are collectively consuming and endorsing, and bring insight to those situations encountered frequently – when we mentally switch off from the uncomfortable pronouncements in the lyrics of ‘that popular song’ on the radio and hum along, even if our gut instinct was to switch it off.

The moral dilemma becomes ever more complex considering that every time we spin a song on Spotify, or replay on YouTube, we are endorsing (financially and officially) that artist and everything that he or she represents (consciously and unconsciously).

Perhaps the point is to be aware, and to engage in dialogue, and understand, so that we acknowledge the complexities of even our everyday choices that seem so ordinary but might have reaches far beyond our own significance.

This is about identity – however that defines itself for the individual listener. That individual may make a personal choice to ignore politics in favour of melody and the emotions that it brings forth, and that may be the more forgiving, wiser thing to do. For, once we start to unravel things at the seams to examine their inner contents and whether or not we can politically accept this art, it may be that the sensory pleasures are lost entirely. That would be a sad, soundless, and empty world.

Isn’t it precisely this duality, this compartmentalisation of human enjoyment as against reality, that allows us on the one hand to dance in ecstasy to the sounds of Stromae’s liberating chorus in ‘Alors on danse’, while forgetting his poetic but harsh depiction of life in the verses that contain it? It is this very same instinct that allows people to listen to songs as they aim insult even at them. But is this ignorance or survival?

The responsibility of the artist is an ever-present question mark. And while rappers at least have been forthcoming about claiming their influence when it is a force for political and social revolt in the name of justice, they have eschewed acknowledgement when it comes to themes of suicidal violence, misogyny, and gun-crime. You can wreak a lot of havoc with a pen, for both better and worse, but so far people have tended only to take responsibility for the former, even when their own words are testimony to their sway on both counts. Yet, because of rap music’s ever-widening reach, it has constantly been both the subject of, and a hefty contributor to, the conversation. The discussion should be more universally attended; perhaps those 140 characters that encourage instantaneous opinion might serve that very purpose.

In view of greater participation, it is to ourselves that we must address the final question: to what extent can we talk about morality and music/culture without then asking whether the morality of music is extricable from the realities of the world we inhabit? If music is representative, then we too have our part to play, for what are musicians if not more visible members of the society in which we all co-exist? Reflection and judgement, particularly when those must be passed on your own morals, are not the tenets of easy-listening. No one really wants to do either when you can just turn on a tune and get lost in its beats. As D12 put it, “It ain’t nothin’ but music,” right?

#itaintnothinbutmusic?

Thank you for reading!

*For the purposes of this article, morality is understood as the basic notions of right and wrong that guide the individual, rather than the more complex, philosophical sense of the term.

Paroma Ghose

Paroma Ghose

Paroma Ghose peut être décrite en trois mots: la littérature, le rythme et la politique. Elle est Suisse, Indienne, et Britannique (pas nécessairement dans cet ordre). Elle fait actuellement son doctorat sur le rap français et la notion de l’appartenance en France.

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