Two recent controversies have me thinking that our love/hate relationship with pop music is worth paying attention to. Yes, I know, it's pop music, but pop music is in many ways the crystalization of our culture set to a beat we can all dance to.
The first controversy happened at Middlebury College, where I teach. Chance the Rapper was invited to campus and a line from "Favorite Song" set off a whole lot of talk about homophobia in rap. The line goes "I'm a slap happy faggot slapper." Sure sounds like homophobia to me as it did to many of his critics, but many on campus argued that the song is part of an ironic riff on how much the sort of kids who go to Middlebury love rap songs with homophobic lyrics even as they profess to hate homophobia. Whether or not his lyric is ironic or sincere, the lyric led to a crisis of conscience on the college campus and the solution was for him not to sing the lyric at all, a condition he apparently agreed to according to the Dean of the College, Shirley Collado. Interestingly, Chance did sing the lyric at Middlebury and based on the video posted on line, some Middlebury people were ecstatic to hear it (click on the "Favorite Song" video to see the audience response).
So mostly white and mostly well off college kids LOVE this sort of rap. And yet, at the same time, mostly white and mostly well off college kids love Lily Allen, whose most recent single, "Hard Out Here," makes fun of the sort of sexism and crass matieralism that structure much of pop music and apparently from Allen's lyrics, especially structure rap music. The video begins with Allen on an operating room table getting what appears to be a liposuction for a "Mommy Makeover" since when her manager asks her how she could let herself go like this, she responds with "Well I've had two babies." Then Allen goes on to take apart the sort of rap music that Chance and other rappers are known for, singing that
"I won't be braggin' bout my cars, or talkin' bout my chains, don't need to shake my ass for you cause I've got a brain."
Allen's ironic critique of hip hop includes mostly black dancers slowly twerkin' to the lyrics "it's hard out here for a bitch" while they are directed by an older white man—clearly representing a music industry that is both racist and misogynist and dominated by older white men.
Then in big blow up letters we see that "Lily Allen has a baggy pussy"—letters that are a mimcry of the twerkilicious "Blurred Lines" video in which we see "Robin Thick has a big dick."
Despite Allen's attempt to start a conversation about misogyny in pop music, her exclusive focus on rap music and her use of women of color twerking had racial implications that have many viewers angry at her inability to see both racism and misogyny together. According to Julianne Escobedo Sehpherd over at The Hairpin,
"Hard Out Here" video, reads like the ultimate in "white feminism," an example of the insular and anti-intersectional types of occurrences... It's a feminism whose white privilege is so acute and steel-hardy that it does not acknowledge—or, more ominously, even realize—that the issues women of color face are complex and multifarious. Allen has issued a statement directed towards those accusing her of racism; in it she writes that her "being covered up has nothing to do with me wanting to disassociate myself from the girls, it has more to do with my own insecurities and I just wanted to feel as comfortable as possible on the shoot day." She is seemingly unaware that by choosing to "cover up" but having her dancers wear pum-pum shorts and slap each others' asses and pour champagne down each others' butt cracks, she was exerting a very specific supremacy indeed.
I am struck by how both the response to Chance the Rapper and the response to Lily Allen might be related to a new form of pleasure in pop music—the pleasure to point out how truly messed up it is even while we (guiltily) consume it. So Lily Allen can point out that women are exploited in rap music even as we watch the asses of nearly naked women in her video. And Chance the Rapper can rap about faggot slapping even as we insist he not drop that lyric and then when he does explode into screams of approval.
Pop music has become both our Id and our Superego. Our unfiltered selves—our racist, misogynist and homophobic culture crystalized—even as our Superego tries to shut it down.