Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Why are so many good songs about bad behavior?

 "The Dixie Chicks do not advocate premeditated murder"

I realize this post does not lend itself to writing about actual music, but there's a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot and deserves a treatment: there is a lot of good music out there featuring lyrics of people behaving badly. Why is that?

First, why do I care? Because many people reject songs simply because of the lyrical content. I myself become uncomfortable listening to some music. And while I respect someone's decisions to listen or not, I think portraying bad behavior in song can be more complicated than simple glorification of actions of dubious morality.

Although I should probably try and define bad behavior, a can of worms in itself, I’ll just simply say that it’s hard to define.* In fact, that is the point of some of these songs feature bad behavior—some artists write about bad behavior precisely because other people define the behavior as bad, and the artists disagree. These artists either create their songs to argue against the dominant narrative and normalize the “bad” behavior, or more commonly (especially in hip hop) present caricatures of the bad behavior to make fun of negative stereotypes thrust upon them. While listeners are free to agree or disagree with the artist’s opinion, I think a listener should at least recognize when an artist is motivated in this way.

Besides glorification or normalization, another reason to depict bad behavior in a song is to critique the behavior as bad. Just like how stories need evil villains, sometimes artists need to depict bad behavior to successfully critique it. Songs are so short, however, we may only get the evil perspective instead of the good.

Unfortunately, the line can be fine between critique and glorification. Songs can be easily misinterpreted because of hard-to-understand poetry or obscured lyrics; a song that the listener might think is glorifying bad behavior may be critiquing it. Or it may be ambiguous. And at some point, the author’s intentions may not even matter—what’s important is how the song is used by the listeners.** Also, sometimes artists seem to be having a bit too much fun behaving badly, undermining their original motivation.

Which brings up another reason why people write bad behavior in songs: in order to vicariously be a part of the bad behavior. More than any other type of passive entertainment, music invites the listener to role play. Music is a fiction (despite rap music being used as evidence in criminal trials) that invites participation, for example dance or karaoke, and the listener can be a part of the forbidden, tempting bad behavior without actually doing anything immoral. And because of music’s ability to heighten and prolong emotion, listening to the bad behavior in song form is more powerful than just reading or talking about it.

Another reason for the depiction of bad behavior could be money—songs about good behavior don’t necessarily make as much money as songs about bad behavior. Not only is this because people enjoy exciting and tawdry things sometimes, but also because depicting good behavior does not usually produce passionate art. Good behavior can be boring, or at very least isn’t a problem that artists need to solve.

I’ve thought about another reason for depicting bad behavior in music: simply presenting the bad behavior. However, I think this option is not possible with music, because of how music can elevate what is depicted. Music is not a language of neutrality.

Once we have parsed why (or our interpretation of why) the bad behavior is depicted, then we have enough information to decide if we should reject the song or not. Or we can just feel guilty for liking a song that is definitely glorifying bad behavior.

* I'll include "explicit" language in this definition, at least.
** Anyone heard "Every Breath You Take" sung at a wedding?

1 comment:

  1. Nice post, Peter, and I linked back to your earlier one about music as fiction. I remember the point being brought home to me forcefully about 40 years ago when Joni Mitchell released Court and Spark; the most confessional of songwriters, as we thought, was explicitly constructing other personae in her songs--see "Free Man in Paris" (the way I see it--he said--you just can't win it) and "Raised on Robbery." I never listened to her songs the same way again.