Location: Indianapolis, Indiana, United States

I'm just trying to develop an online body of work (even if the work is throwaway nonsense) to advance my writing career.

Monday, August 25, 2008

This May Hurt a Bit

Culture isn't such a nice word anymore. It has developed so many linguistic applications that it now lacks a clear and concise definition, although perhaps it never had one of those anyway. Always a vague and implicit portion of the lexicon, "culture" hit a new low when it was hijacked by corporate executives to describe the atmosphere they wanted to create within their organizations. They developed "sales cultures" and "professional cultures" and all sorts of other stupid, made up "cultures". Never mind that it took ceturies for the Chinese or the Egyptians or the Cherokee or the Italians to forge their respective cultures, these MBAs, being much more advanced, sorted out culture after culture within a few meetings over lunch. To some extent, culture probably can be controlled, influenced, manipulated, perhaps even planned, but it probably shouldn't be, especially not by MBAs.

Some of the dullest people on the planet are those who are offended enough by song lyrics to become social activists. This is not a defense of some of the lyrics; clearly there are some crass recording artists who compose songs for the sole purpose of titillation or to create buzz and controversy. This, too, is pretty boring. But it is not new. And outrage over such things has not proven nearly as effective a weapon as indifference.

Anyone who believes sexually explicit or violent song lyrics did not exist before 1980 or before 1970 or even before 1960 possesses little understanding of musical history. What do you want first? The sex, the drugs, or the violence? How about the racial slurs? The list is practically endless.

"Cocaine habit mighty bad
It's the worst old habit that I ever had
Hey, hey, honey take a whiff on me."

"I stepped right back
I shook my head
A big, black nigger in my folding bed
I shot through the window
I broke his leg..."

"There was old lady Dinah
She was sitting on a rock
Had a forty dollar razor
Trying to shave that knot."

The above three passages were taken from songs by the Memphis Jug Band. All three--"Cocaine Habit Blues", "On the Road Again", and "What's the Matter?"--made it onto wax in the late 1920s or early 30s. What catch phrase was used to describe this material? "Sex, drugs and jugs", maybe?

There's much more. Try listening to "Southern Can Is Mine" from 1931 by Blind Willie McTell, "Shave 'em Dry" by Lucille Bogan from 1935, "Ain't No Tellin'" by Mississippi John Hurt from 1928. And African-American artists hardly had the market cornered on potentially offensive material. There was an unknown country singer who recorded obscene parodies of "Frankie and Johnny" and a British performer who made bawdy, double-entendre numbers.

What's the difference between the material chronicled above and some of the current popular songs, whether it's deliberately provocative dreck or legitimately gritty? Airplay, mostly. But among all the flying accusations and claims that songs make people do this or that, one fact seems too often to get obscured. How can an artist, any artist, be held responsible for how an individual responds to something? The Bible and the Koran have been proffered as defenses for murder and mayhem; so have the Beatles and Judas Priest. They're not. A song, even if it chronicles actual events, is more or less a work of fiction, unless you happen to believe Mick Jagger really was born in a crossfire hurricane.

People are, of course, entitled to wish writers and musical composers and performers were more socially responsible. They're even allowed to ask them to be, but not to force or bully them. It's a very tired act and it seems to me a new scapegoat should be targeted.


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