Thursday, November 11, 2010

We Mean It, Man

I must be more obtuse (or idealistic?) than I expected, 'cuz I didn't realize that some people were genuinely perturbed by Odd Future's patently sociopathic content. The self-styled vanguardistes at the Village Voice - surely eager to spare their liberal patrons' delicate sensibilities - are now sweating the same stale vapors that a musical group heralds the collapse of decent society by advocating "abominable acts of murder, kidnapping, blasphemy, and rape." Granted, unlike most previous musical Horsemen of the Apocalypse (cf Elvis, Black Sabbath, Prince), Odd Future do actually rap about murder, kidnapping, and rape. But many of the same writers who are now concern-trolling Odd Future were, mere months ago, performing the most absurd moral Chinese algebra to justify M.I.A.'s nebulously pro-terrorist politics. What, has months of midterm-fueled Tea Party xenophobia impoverished everyone's sense of humour?

One of the base assumptions seems to be that Tyler the Creator & Co. misunderstand their own malevolence - which is just silly. Tyler closes the second track on Bastard with the deadpan punchline, "As you can tell by listening to this record, I was probably angry... I didn't mean to offend anyone. Alright, I'm lying!" Odd Future are keenly aware of structural violence in the same way that Nick Sylvester claimed M.I.A. is: anyone who emblazons "Fuck 'Em All" atop of photo of Mussolini understands that vindictive, solipsistic cultural works buttress a coercive, bulldozer politics.

What's missing from the conversation is context. The surreal pranksterism of their videos and the deliberately repulsive content of their lyrics suggest that Odd Future are the first all-Troll hip-hop group, and by Troll logic, any reaction is better than none. You find them a hilarious shot in the arm of hip-hop dulled by materialism and "keeping it street"? They win. You find them a horrific example of cultural necrosis? They win. It just happens that bad reactions are way easier to elicit than good ones.

One of the weaker defenses of Odd Future's content is that they haven't really raped, kidnapped, or killed anyone, but this confuses talking about something with encouraging it. Odd Future's members seem more keen on gross-out contests, skateboarding, and generally fuckin' around than committing felonies. As Sean Fennessey noted in his Pitchfork profile of the group, "How far will you go to make someone laugh is a standard in the ritual emptiness of teenage life." Boredom & isolation as a bottomless well of artistic inspiration has produced music as brilliant as it is variegated: Iggy Pop's The Idiot, most of Elliott Smith's catalogue, Fugazi's Steady Diet of Nothing. Much closer to Odd Future's idiom are Norwegian scum-rockers Brainbombs, whose singularly obscene work (sample song title: "Lipstick On My Dick") is a testament to the cabin-fever psychosis of Nordic winters.

Which brings us to another Norwegian band, Burzum. Varg Vikernes' one-man black metal act has become the litmus test for disassociating an artist from their art, as demonstrated in the Village Voice article mentioned at the top. But the analogy between Odd Future and Burzum is grossly insulting: the former is a bunch of teenagers flipping polite society the bird (i.e. doing what teenagers do), the latter is a convicted murderer and avowed white-supremacist Pagan theocrat. There is nothing to suggest that Odd Future are anything other than punk brats being punk brats, and rapping about terrible things is a far remove from being the kind of loathsome cur that Vikernes truly is.

Some may detect the whiff of hypocrisy in shrugging off Odd Future's repellent rhymes when I took M.I.A. to task for having "renovated 'not meaning it' from an emergency exit to a revolving door." There is, however, a difference. Maya Arulpragasam insists (at length & ad nauseum) that she is a political artist who stands for something, yet she resists explicitly political interpretations of her work because advocating suicide bombing is not a good look for a pop star. But what does Odd Future stand for? By all appearances, nothing. They're hedonist pranksters who offer a purely negative worldview that's breathtaking in its viciousness. And here, the precise mistake most people make is to cleave content from style, artist from art: the very fact that we, the audience, simultaneously enjoy and are disgusted is what we need to investigate. As Zach Baron points out in his Voice article, "What artists like Odd Future... do, maybe, is venture where other people won't and there start considering all sorts of human behavior we would prefer not to think of as possible. But it is possible."

Art as abreaction, discussing the unspeakable. As a friend of mine recently said of Dario Argento's Profondo Rosso, when the hatchet drops and the music kicks in Super Fly-style, it's more thrilling than chilling because the buzz comes from identifying with the killer instead of the victim. Despite this, Argento obviously does not advocate cutting up strangers, and so the question is returned to the audience: why do we enjoy watching it onscreen? Like Baron, I've got no stomach for torture-porn, which clearly casts us in the minority of Western movie-goers, yet the same question I ask myself watching Profondo Rosso can be asked of any Saw series fan: why do you enjoy watching it onscreen?

Musicians are in an odd place compared with other artists, in that so often what they speak of is assumed to be a direct expression of their true intentions or feelings. But there is no evidence that Odd Future sincerely countenance rape any more than, say, Gaspar Noé. If an artist is a genuinely terrible person or an exponent of profanation, the conversation is necessarily about them and why they do/say terrible things. But in the case of Odd Future or Argento or Noé, there is no disassociation between artist & art necessary because they are not meant to be taken at face-value. The error is to scrutinize why Odd Future rap about rape when, really, we should be examining why we like listening to them rap about it.


Paul said...

thank god you are writing about the really important world issues. keep up the good work

Seb said...

Amen, my brother.