The Artistic Merit of Misogyny

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In a new post on Tiger Beatdown, Sady Doyle comments on the controversy surrounding the misogynistic and sexually violent lyrics in Tyler, the Creator’s new album.

Last week, Tyler, the Creator, of the hip-hop collective Odd Future, released the album “Goblin”, which includes lyrics such as “I just wanna drag your lifeless body to the forest/And fornicate with it but that’s because I’m in love with you, cunt,”We [are] …ready to stab a clit with some glass and shit,” and “rape, write, repeat twice”. The misogyny, however, is not confined to his lyrics: on multiple occasions, Tyler has led the audiences at his concerts in chanting “slut” and “show your titties” at women in the audience who joined him onstage, and even mocked a woman who was standing at the bar offstage by repeatedly declaring, “bitch is a stripper,” to which the audience responded with cheers and laughter.

However, it’s not just audiences that are celebrating his behavior: “Goblin” has garnered immense praise from those in the music industry, and, overwhelmingly, critics have bent over backwards to overlook, justify, and even commend the album’s horrifyingly violent and misogynistic lyrics. Metacritic, a site which assigns numerical values to reviews by mainstream critics and compiles ratings, assigned “Goblin” a relatively high score of 73 out of 100. Moreover, reviews not only praised the music but often both justified and praised the misogyny expressed in the songs. Pitchfork’s Scott Plagenhoef says of Odd Future, “They’re new and exciting and divisive and youthful, a magnet for controversy and commentary, and near-perfect think-piece-generating machines– due in part to the brutality and stomach-turning sexual violence of their raps.” Of Tyler himself, Plagenhoef goes on to say that “He comes across as an everyday kid. He lives with his grandmother. He likes porn.” According to the Chicago Tribune’s Greg Kot, “Transgression is crucial to pop culture…they’re artists, orchestrating their chaos into satire and pulling punch lines out of absurdity and outrage.” Critics like Kot are even willing to acknowledge that Tyler, the Creator’s horrifying lyrics are much of what propels his fame, and yet they still insist on classifying his cheap ploys to shock listeners into attention as artistic merit. Furthermore, as Doyle points out in the Tiger Beatdown post, misogyny and sexual violence are by no means new: one need only glance at an episode of any crime-solving show now on TV to see far worse acts enacted against women. The desire for such images and narratives, however, appears to be insatiable, given the voracity with which listeners and critics are still consuming this album and its “absurdity”, despite the saturation of pop culture with similar images and messages.

Understandably, given the cultural context, Tyler’s main response to such criticism has been to argue that his lyrics are harmless and unremarkable, telling The Guardian for instance that “I usually just say what I’m feeling at the time, what I think is cool” and Tweeting that “It’s Not That Serious.” However, even if Tyler’s listeners do not take his words as direct license to enact sexual violence, these lyrics still contribute to a culture in which sexual violence is ignored, excused, and glorified. This is not to place the blame primarily on the artist: there is little utility in chiding him for his lyrics or attitude, regardless of how problematic they are. If Tyler is, as he claims, saying what he thinks is “cool”, then the people to blame for this album’s impact are the ones who, by embracing this album, publicly agree that sexual violence is, in fact, cool. The people who are responsible for normalizing these sentiments (or rather reinforcing their normalization, given how common glorified depictions of sexual violence are in pop culture) are the critics and listeners who have given this album a warm reception often without more than a cursory attempt to denounce its horrifying lyrics. The sexual violence against women at Odd Future concerts alone functions as proof that, regardless of the artist’s intentions, publicly endorsing sexual violence does, unsurprisingly, create an atmosphere in which sexual violence is tolerated.

Additionally, even if, as Tyler claims, the more extreme elements of his lyrics are too absurd to be reenacted by most audience members, the casual misogyny surrounding his threats of violence is itself insidious. As reported in another article by The Guardian, when Syd da Kyd, another member of Odd Future, told her father that she was working with Tyler, the Creator, he commented that “‘As a female, you’re slapping a lot of women in the face,’” to which she replied, “That’s what I do. I slap bitches.” While I do not intend to undercut Syd da Kyd’s agency in crafting her own brand of misogyny, this anecdote usefully demonstrates what gets filtered through the denouncements of Odd Future’s misogynistic lyrics: even if Tyler is right in claiming that most people will not go home and practice murder or necrophilia as a result of his concerts, and even when critics do acknowledge that the violence he describes is extreme, the more subtle elements of sexual violence that he endorses remain untouched by criticism. If the problem with Tyler, the Creator is that he goes “too far”, how far is acceptable in the first place?

On the bright side, the backlash has been significant, and portends some positive changes in the way that our culture responds to misogyny. Notably, Sara Quin, of Tegan and Sara, published a blog post called “A Call for Change” that asks, “When will misogynistic and homophobic ranting and raving result in meaningful repercussions in the entertainment industry?” Quin’s call for attention is making its way around the internet, as are numerous other critiques, and it appears that the extremity of Tyler, the Creator’s sexist vitriol may finally be attracting some negative attention and alienating some of his fans. Tyler, the Creator’s response to Quin, via Twitter? “If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up.”

However, Quin’s critique, like many others, failed in an important way: Quin argues, throughout the post, that people refuse to criticize Tyler, the Creator for his misogyny because he is black, arguing that “I don’t think race or class actually has anything to do with his hateful message but has EVERYTHING to do with why everyone refuses to admonish him for that message.” It is dangerous and unequivocally wrong to suggest that our society has any qualms with attributing sexual violence and misogyny to black men. The U.S. has a long history of lynching black men for sexual crimes that they did not commit, and our media and cultural consciousness continues to portray all black male sexuality as criminal and deviant. The entire genres of rap and hip hop, both of which originated in communities of color and retain that association, are frequently denounced, ostensibly because of the misogyny and sexual violence in many song lyrics. Actress Ashley Judd infamously stated that “most Rap and Hip Hop music—with its rape culture and insanely abusive lyrics and depictions of girls and women as ‘ho’s'—is the contemporary soundtrack of misogyny.” (Tyler, the Creator then provided this artful critique via Twitter: “Ashley Judd Is A Bitch, Hoe And A Stupid Face”.) Fans of Tyler, the Creator and those opposed to his misogyny and endorsement of sexual violence are at an impasse, because critiques of his lyrics almost inevitably turn into critiques of other cultural forces perceived to be behind it.

Obviously, rap and hip-hop are not the only avenues for expressing misogyny, and all rap and hip-hop should not be tarred with the same brush. There are clear undercurrents of racial mistrust informing the way that misogynistic rap and hip-hop lyrics are critiqued, as well as the way they are defended: while white feminists frequently blame (implicitly black) “culture” for any misogyny by black rap and hip-hop artists, there is also always a contingent of white people who fatalistically see this misogyny as an inevitable offshoot of rap and hip-hop culture.

The release of “Goblin”, as well as the numerous critiques of its lyrics, provide opportunity for a revolutionary role reboot. As Quin points out, this is a perfect opportunity to address why our society tolerates misogyny and positive portrayals of sexual violence in so many media. And fortunately, this discussion is already largely underway.

However, discussions of gender that ignore racism and other avenues of oppression are ineffective, incomplete, and ultimately harmful. As people concerned with gender justice, we must not oppress others in an attempt to alleviate our own oppression. While “Goblin” warrants criticism for its violence and misogyny, we must not attempt to hold all rap and hip-hop artists accountable for Tyler, the Creator; we similarly must not let this instance of misogyny get lost in what detractors of rap and hip-hop perceive to be ubiquitous sexism. A refusal to address the role of race in this discussion, like Quin points out, will ultimately only hinder our efforts.

By addressing Tyler, the Creator’s misogyny in a responsible way, we may be able to have fruitful discussions about the tolerance of sexual violence and misogyny in the music industry and the media at large, and we may finally see real change.

Read the Tiger Beatdown article here.

-Liza

(Photo Courtesy of Steadybloggin.com)