Sunday, November 09, 2003

(Actually, this was written a couple of weeks ago. I just haven't gotten around to posting it. I'll try to be more diligent.

Currently listening to: “Mob Rules,” Black Sabbath

Is it wrong to enjoy a song even if you find the lyrics morally repugnant? I’ve been thinking about that question since I saw dancehall superstars Turbulence and Sizzla at Lincoln Theatre here in Raleigh. My boyfriend, Mr. X has been trying to get me into dancehall, and this show was certainly a fine starting place. The infectious, throbbing groove was almost trance-like, and the air was sweet with the scent of ganja and the incense that various vendors were hawking in the club. The audience was fairly well mixed racially, and except for one or two rowdy kids in the front, quite happy to just hang back and groove. Everyone who got on the mic (including the opening group, which actually comprised about three bands in one), spoke of One Love and shouted praises to Jah Ras Tafari.

Imagine my confusion when I realized, halfway through one of Turbulence’s songs, that he was singing that man should be with woman only. I turned to Mr. X, who was happily bobbing along with the beat.

“Did he just say that gays and lesbians shouldn’t be together?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said. “That’s pretty much what he’s been saying the whole time.”

After the show, Mr. X, who is probably the most open-minded and accepting person I know, told me that homophobia is actually a persistent theme in dancehall. In Third World society, he said, being gay is just about the worst thing a person can be. Though some of the major artists have denounced homophobia, others blatantly sing about killing gays and burning their bodies because they are so defiled. One Love doesn’t count if it’s between two men or two women.

The dichotomy between a great song and terrible lyrics isn’t new at all. Lots of women will tell you that “Under My Thumb” is their favorite Rolling Stones song, but they’ll preface it by saying, “I know I shouldn’t like this song, but …” I’ve been having the same argument with myself since I began really listening to music. I’ve been a Christian (albeit an unconventional one) all my life, but the first bands to really catch my ears were ones that I just knew Jesus wouldn’t want me to listen to: Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, KISS, AC/DC.

“Highway to Hell” was particularly troublesome.

“This song is so great,” my 13-year-old mind puzzled. “But they’re singing about going to hell, and they’re wearing devil horns on the cover!” Bon Scott’s untimely death confirmed my suspicions: Sing about the Devil and bad things will happen to you. Strangely, my mom was a little more stoic on the issue.

“Karen, do these boys worship the Devil,” she demanded as she examined the “Highway to Hell” cover.

“No,” I meekly replied, even though at the time I was pretty sure they did. (Not only was I listening to a Devil-worshipping band, I had lied about it to my mom!) She said OK and never bugged me about my music again. The same can’t be said for one of my classmates, whose mother burst into his room and broke his copy of “Dirty Deeds” over her knee after overhearing the song “Big Balls.”

I know now that AC/DC, as well as just about every other “Satanic” band is just trying to sell records. Even the drummer from Venom – the band that invented the term Black Metal – admitted in “Lords of Chaos” that the Satan stuff was a joke. But sometimes I still wonder if I’m being true to my beliefs, especially when I listen to some of the Scandinavian bands that have turned Black Metal into a true genre. The music is hilariously bombastic: Imagine a million bees buzzing over the sound of a pipe organ and two opera singers. The band members wear lots of chain mail and paint themselves to look like corpses. They also talk a lot about ridding Scandinavia of Christianity (as well as Jews and anyone who isn’t “pure”), which they see as an outside influence, and returning the region to its pagan Viking glory. Some of them have actually put their words into action by burning churches and killing people. But I still listen to it.

So, at what point does an offensive message outweigh a brilliant melody? The only time this has happened to me was with the Guns ‘n’ Roses song “One in a Million,” which famously bashed gays, blacks and immigrants. But then, I didn’t really like that song in the first place, and it certainly hasn’t stopped me from listening to “Appetite for Destruction.” Does it matter if the artist apologizes, as Elvis Costello did after using a racial slur to refer to Ray Charles? Would people be less inclined to let him off the hook if he hadn’t been so critically regarded? What if the artist pleads youthful ignorance, as Siouxie Sioux has regarding her long-ago fixation with swastikas?

The whole time I’ve been writing this, I’ve been trying to think of what an artist would have to do or say in order to make me not listen to their music. But even for the most heinous crime I can imagine – pedophilia – there’s at least one band, notably, The Who, that I still listen to. (And, yes, I know that Pete Townshend claims he was just doing research.) It’s not fair to judge a whole musical genre, such as dancehall, on the works of a few artists, so maybe it’s not fair to judge an artist by a few songs. I’m not sure what the answer is, which pisses me off, because I started writing this in hopes of finding one.

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