Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Ownership of Language

In the ongoing debate about ‘hate speech’ and the limits that can legitimately be placed upon freedom of speech, there is a sub-debate about song lyrics.

Earlier this year Deborah Finding wrote about OrelSan(1), the writer responsible for the charmingly named Sale Pute (Dirty Slut), drawing a line to lyrics by other artists such as Eminem, who have exercised both feminists and the right with their musings on life, love, bitches, bling and weaponry. She noted, however, that:

Outrage about violence and misogyny in music is almost always confined to rap and hip-hop, despite there being much to engage with elsewhere.
There are three issues here. The first is the evaluation of different types of lyrics that have a sexist / homophobic / violent edge, the second is to look at why certain styles of music seem more prone to outrage than others, and the third is whether we can differentiate between lyrics apparently similar in content based on the identity of the person delivering them.

My view on the first issue is that there are three broad categories of such lyrics:

1) Narrative – the use of violent language in the course of telling a story – as Finding observes, Nick Cave has form here - see Murder Ballads(2), but think also of Polly by Nirvana, Stan by Eminem, Legs by PJ Harvey (an inversion of the usual ‘rule’ in that here it’s a woman planning to cut off her man’s legs). Now, I don’t have a problem with narratives of this sort unless they involve aspects of the other categories. Any nutcase can seek to blame a ‘cause’ of their nuttery – video nasties, heavy metal, JD Salinger – but if we banned everything that every nutcase had ever used as an excuse, we’d be left with Mog and the Singing Nun. At which point a couple of thousands of years of culture would lie down and die (although Mog rules, obviously – that’s just an example).

2) Punctuational – come on down Eminem (and many others) – sometimes you get the feeling that words like whore, and bitch, and queer, and fag are used lazily – simply because the writer can’t think of anything better to say. This casual use of language may not necessarily reflect ‘hate’ (does Chris Moyles hate gay people? Probably not) but it does have a reinforcing effect that such words are appropriate to use as insults or in a pejorative way (does Chris Moyles give a shit his words indirectly shoring up prejudice towards gay people? Probably not). Again, there is no question of ‘ banning’ here for me, but I do wish they’d stop it(3).

3) Incitement – and here’s the biggie. Lyrics such as the now infamous “Boom Bye Bye” by Buju Banton:
Boom bye bye
Inna batty bwoy head
Rude bwoy no promote no batty man
Dem haffi dead

So – he’s saying gay men have to die, and suggests shooting them. Is that indeed a different kettle of fish from:

Polly wants a cracker
Maybe she would like more food
Ask me to untie her
A chase would be nice for a few... ?

In my view, yes, as Banton’s lyrics could be read as directly inciting violence. Cobain’s, while they could be described as indirectly inciting it, are narrative. Do we ban incitement? Is that legally actionable hate speech? I don’t know. Fortunately legal action is not the only course of action – Because radio stations can take a view not to play it, magazines can take a view not to mention it, and newspapers can take the view that they should cover it, and let the offense taken be expressed. That’s dependent on the policy of those organisations in the public eye, rather than legislation, so it’s not foolproof, but isn’t that better? As we saw recently with n**k g*****n on Question Time, sometimes we need to see the fools in the open. But if someone stood up at a meeting and said that, would that be an arrestable offence? Possibly. And having a drumline behind you when you say it should not necessarily making a difference. Yes, I am conflicted on this one...

The second issue – why do rap acts get castigated when Cave is allowed a freer hand? Some might think this is class-based (in the broadest sense) – Cave is a white guy who wears a suit, and who has written a couple of novels. He’s an ‘intellectual’ in the music scene, not some snotty git in a track suit four sizes too big for him, dripping in jewellery that would make Fabergé go ‘ooh, that’s a bit much actually’. But I think it’s a different kind of class that matters: Cage is a great lyricist (and the fact that the books he has written have been so well received indicates the quality of his writing) whereas 2LiveCrew signally aren’t. That is of course utterly subjective, and that’s the rub. But there is also the objective argument, that someone like Cave, who is a smarter man and a better lyricist (in my humble), is more likely to engage in ‘category 1’ activities than the less imaginative ‘category 2’.

We need to look beyond the individual words used to the way they are used, the context. For example, Eminem may be castigated when his lyrics target his ex-ex-ex-wife (think I’ve got that right) directly (“Kim”) but praised when they are clearly fictional (“Stan”). One of the issues with Eminem is that some of his stuff is so good (“Mosh”, “Square Dance”) that when he puts out something like “Puke” or that video for “Superman”, it’s just, well, a bit of a disappointment. He’s better than that, one thinks – he should be with Cave in ‘cat 1’. Why is he being so lazy?

This moves on to the third issue. Who delivers the line? As feminists sought to ‘take back the night’, some artists seek to take back the words. Even the name that NWA chose for themselves was an example of this. Public Enemy’s line “I’m a black man, I can never be a veteran” is different in the mouth of Chuck D than it would be if directed toward him (and was even more interesting, arguably, in the mouth of Martina Topley-Bird on Tricky’s version).

It can be argued that ‘ownership’ of race-related words is more strongly observed than sexist or homophobic terms – Eminem (yup, him again) never uses the n-word, but sprinkles bitch and fag around rather liberally; some say this is because he has black friends and therefore understands better that the n-word is ‘not his word’, which he has yet to learn about terms offensive towards women and gay people. I think, for what it’s worth, that he’s just smart enough to realise that he’d get his head kicked in by Dr Dre were he ever dumb enough to use it.

And there are two forms of ownership here – is it the writer of the lyric or the deliverer who matters? Cave put the harshest lines in “Where the Wild Roses Grow” into the mouth of Kylie Minogue (“As he knelt above me with a rock in his fist”) rather than keep them for himself. Does this necessarily protect him from criticism? Nope. Both writer and singer have separate responsibilities for the song, and their roles separately discussed. Thus, “White Lines” was a fine moment for Grandmaster Flash, but an embarrassment for Duran Duran. They really should have thought that one through.

In many narrative songs, the words are put in the mouth of a fictional character, and it seems to me that this is key. If the character is so clearly delineated from the singer, then this is easier to assign to ‘cat-1’ and accept, than if, with Eminem, the ‘ongoing’ fictional character (not just Slim Shady, but even the idea of ‘Eminem’ himself) overlaps the writer so completely it is difficult at times to tell them apart.

Finally, the ownership issue exercises many people – “why can they use the n-word but I can’t?” is sadly too often seen. It’s simple, really. It’s because you’re not black. You don’t get to use the p-word if you’re not Pakistani. You don’t get to use ‘queer’ if you’re not gay(4). If a word has been used for years as a term of abuse then yes, there is a difference between ‘taking it back’ and ‘spreading it around’. That’s why Chris Moyles should shut up. He should not be forced by law to do so, but he should, morally, shut up about ‘teh gay’. That’s why Eminem should stop referring to bitches and fags. That’s why Le Tigre’s JD should say ‘bull dyke’ but Buju Banton should not say ‘batty boy’. This is not something that needs legislation, but a little bit of social progress. A little bit of ‘oi, neck in’ from those whose words are being co-opted. A little bit of trying to understand why people are offended, rather than taking offence at their offence. And it puzzles me why people don’t get that.

(3) Just because you find something offensive, this is not a reason to ban it. If you find something offensive, it’s a reason to say so. This is called ‘liberty’, and if we all make a bit more effort, it might just catch on.
(4) And yet here I am using it. Guess why...