Category Archives: music

kanye vs. kant

Today I’m going to write about Kanye West.

No, I’m not going to review his new album The Life of Pablo; I won’t talk about his problematic, sometimes misogynistic lyrics (something that I struggle to reconcile with enjoying his music); and I’m not gonna discuss that horrible “BILL COSBY IS INNOCENT” tweet. Again, problematic, and something that others can do a much better job expounding on than I can.

Instead, I’m going to write about Kanye West and taste.

Kanye’s return to Twitter has been one hell of a ride. He’s no longer going on about being responsible for empty water bottles left on planes, nor bemoaning the lack of cherub imagery on his Persian rugs, nor getting emotional over fonts.

But now he tweets about his music, clothing line and debt; creativity and inspiration; his reverence of Will Ferrell; and critiquing his critics.

At first glance, particularly for someone who doesn’t follow the man on Twitter, Kanye’s tweets about the Grammys seem to be the rants of a self-obsessed man with such a pathetic take on losing that he downs too much Hennessy and then, once properly hammered, takes to Twitter to enact a clumsy revenge.

But peek between the lines, Dear Reader, and you’ll see something else.

“Everybody with any form of taste.” The implication? Taste is something objectively good. You and I don’t get to decide what is tasteful on with our personal opinions.

And that’s when I thought, “Well, shit. Am I reading Kanye or Kant? It’s KANTYE.” (Please clap.)

See, the work of Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher from the 1700s, has more in common with the Twitter account of Kanye West than one might expect. In his Critique of Judgment, he talks about something called sensus communis, or a common understanding of what constitutes “good” art.

But here’s where it gets tricky: Kant says we determine what is good art by using reason, the highest human faculty. Kanye … well, that’s not exactly his perspective. Or it doesn’t seem to be.

Again, taste. But this time Kanye implies something else: “cultural relevance.” Part of the reason the Grammys are not a valid awards show, Kanye insinuates, is because Grammy voters are out of touch with culture.

So here we wade into more complicated territory. Taste is something both objectively good and culturally relevant. That’s where Kanye and Kant diverge (feel free to argue; I haven’t studied Kant in depth for three years).

But if something that is Good is determined by a common consensus exclusively from those who are in touch with pop culture, then doesn’t that exclude or devalue the opinions of people who aren’t in touch? Why does Kanye assign different standards of taste depending on who listens to March Madness? And if only those people who are culturally relevant can have taste, then can taste truly be objective?

Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe Kanye’s understanding of art falls into what Kant would label the tier of art below the Good, which is the beautiful, or that which pleases. “In all judgements by which we describe anything as beautiful, we allow no one to be of another opinion,” wrote Kant.

But I get the feeling that Kanye thinks that art occupies more of a transcendental plane than merely a pleasurable one.

Hell, maybe Kanye’s tweets have more to do with class, race and power instead of art and taste. I’ll get to that too (probably). But for now, I’m thinking out loud here (and trying to remember how to blog instead of write journalistically), which means that I’m going to leave this post open-ended. If you have thoughts, I’d love to read them.

(Here’s the A$AP Rocky music video, by the way. I’d say “You decide whether it’s any good,” but, you know, we just discussed that.)

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wow internet, very critical thinking

In November, I wrote a post about Lily Allen’s controversial song and video “Hard Out Here.” Although I tried to participate in the Internet’s discussion on whether or not the video displayed racism and internalized misogyny, I became frustrated by the arguments on both sides. So, as I always do in my angrier moments, I took to my Tumblr to vent. My venting actually became one of my most well-received posts on Tumblr, which actually restored my faith in the Internet a little, tiny, speck of a bit. It’s also shorter than my original post on this website, and since people seem to respond to closer-to-bite-sized pieces on the Internet, I thought I’d publish it here too:

I’ve always thought that the Internet is an opportunity to democratize critical thought and theory rather than confine it to higher education.

But more often than not, the discussion that I find on the Internet is more discouraging than inspiring. People talk about issues such as race and sexism, but it’s in such generally in such a shallow, self-righteous way, and I have such trouble finding any serious analysis.

Take Lily Allen’s new video for “Hard Out Here.” Depending on who you talk to, it’s either a feminist anthem, or Lily’s a racist pig who’s using black women as props in her attempt to satirize other pop stars using racist women as props. The responses I see bouncing back and forth are “it’s perpetuating racism” or “it’s satire so the racism doesn’t count!”

In reality, what Lily is doing is much more complex either of these accounts. By showing the elderly white producer instruct the women how to twerk (which is such an absurd image based on what we are conditioned to expect), Lily illustrates that this representation of women’s bodies in popular culture is a conscious manipulation created by people in corporations who know that these images will produce a certain kind of impact. It’s intentional. And it’s systemic. (I broke it down in a lot greater detail here.) On the Internet, I rarely see any real attempts at transforming the system, though, as everyone is too caught up in regurgitating the same old words without any substance behind them.

Cultural appropriation is undeniably an important issue that needs to be discussed—and changed. This is why it’s disappointing to see people take it in such a one-dimensional fashion. I see people dismiss Lily’s video with a holier-than-thou complex and mimicking the words “cultural appropriation” on such a hollow level. “Her satire is perpetuating the same thing she’s attempting to criticize.” Please, take a look at the mechanics of her satire before you parrot a tired, stereotypical argument. Then we can discuss whether or not she is successful in her satire.

Plus, a whole lot of these people who are talking about cultural appropriation seem to share a suspiciously similar rhetoric with the vocabulary of White Savior syndrome.

Racism exists as a finite, economic structure in our society. Stop squabbling over the same, worn arguments and calling each other names, because this ultimately distracts from a system that needs to be changed materially (not through ThoughtCatalog).

deconstructing lily allen’s “hard out here”: parody or perpetuating patriarchy?

I was greeted on my lunch break with an absolute thrill: British pop artist Lily Allen released her first single in almost five years. I began listening to “Hard Out Here” at 1 p.m. I haven’t stopped since.

“Hard Out Here” a sharp takedown of the misogyny that dominates popular media, but Lily’s lyrics, both corrosive and clever, also use satire to deconstruct representations of women and insert her own agency within the remaining rubble of ambiguity.

Here’s what I mean.

The main idea is a giant middle finger to the patriarchal notion that somehow men are of greater value then women, which can be summed up with the lyric, “Forget your balls and grow a pair of tits.” This is, of course, a reversal of the phrase “Grow a pair of balls,” which is roughly translated to, “Man is power.” The line sets the tone for the entire song: it is a parody piece, sarcasm dripping throughout.

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Despite the fact that the song came out approximately twelve hours ago, I’ve already read a substantial amount of criticism about the lyrics and music video. The backlash argues that although Lily recognizes the binaries into which women are classified, she shames women who do not fit her ideal of women-who-challenge-patriarchal-values.

Take the second verse:

You’re not a size six,
And you’re not good looking
Well you better be rich
Or real good at cooking

You should probably lose some weight
‘Cause we can’t see your bones
You should probably fix your face
Or you’ll end up on your own.

Those who insinuate that Lily bashes skinny women are missing the point: Lily’s target is not women (size 6 or size 20), but instead she attacks the powerful forces that constantly perpetuate the hierarchy that values a woman who is size 6 over one who is size 20. (Size 6 in the U.K., by the way, is equivalent to size 2 in the States.) She’s not shaming women who receive plastic surgery, but she is  blasting a culture that tells women to match a standard or else end up dying alone.

The beginning of the song has garnered quite a bit of attention as well: “I suppose I should tell you what this bitch is thinking/ You’ll find me in the studio, not in the kitchen/ I won’t be bragging about my cars, or talking about my chains/No need to shake my ass for you, ’cause I’ve got a brain.” Some find fault with this part of the song because it does not appear to match the same sarcastic tone that follows in the rest of the song. Then, these fault-finders say, Lily is smearing women who do prefer to spend time in the kitchen, or those who do enjoy twerking. Plus, several argue, having a brain and “shaking one’s ass” are not mutually exclusive. It’s internalized misogyny, they say, elevating your own behavior while condemning the choices of other women.

I’m not convinced that the first verse doesn’t fit the satirical bill. It’s the personal pronoun “I” that seems to detach these lyrics from the song’s parody, which removes a layer of separation from Lily (the narrator) and the text (the song). This is where it gets complicated, and this is what Lily is so brilliantly capable of doing.

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Remember Lily’s first single from her last album? “The Fear” was a post-modern take on the encompassing nature of consumerism. At first Lily creates a dynamic of duality: “I wanna be rich, and I want lots of money/I don’t care about clever, I don’t care about funny.” Materialism and money is set up as desirable, whereas having a personality or asserting one’s individuality is undesirable. Upon a first listen to the song, one assumes, “That’s satire. Surely somebody wouldn’t be so callously shallow.” She continues to sing, “And I’ll take my clothes off, and it will be shameless,/ ‘Cause everyone know’s that’s how you get famous,” which, again, seems like a moralistic criticism of a culture that values women as objects, especially because Lily made her own fame back in 2005 by way of talent on Myspace. Fair enough, though here’s a sobering fact: Lily has definitely appeared topless in photo shoots before. Oh. Perhaps the lines that she’s drawing aren’t so clear. Further on, lyrics such as “I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore” or “Now I’m not a saint but I’m not a sinner” further deconstruct the ethical binary built up at the beginning of the song. Her participation in the song’s irony at once creates a moralistic worldview and an ambivalence toward this worldview as she cannot break reality from representation.

In terms of “Hard Out Here,” a similar dynamic is at play. The first verse mimics worn binaries of women, and Lily seems to identify with the woman who goes to work and uses her brain. Of course, this is further complicated by Lily’s past songs (which deal explicitly with sex) and her home life (she took a four year hiatus from work after she gave birth to two girls). It becomes increasingly difficult to define her stance; ultimately the ambiguity breaks down the binaries she mirrors at the song’s start. The moralistic tone is only a part of her mimicry. When her position becomes ambivalent,  the moralism is abandoned.

Finally, we approach the most prominent criticism. As one Twitter user put it: “‘i’m not going to shake my ass for you because i have a brain’>has black women twerking next to her and grinding on her.” This refers to the music video, also released today, which features several women of color doing just that. As it happens, the music video is just as much of a parody as the song itself. Moreover, it engages with the political world of pop music and other artists currently in the spotlight; the exaggerated nature of the twerking and Lily’s outrageous treatment of the dancers calls to mind Miley Cyrus’ controversial use of black women as props in her act. The video is mocking Cyrus, not celebrating her actions. Moreover, the video shows the absurdity of an aging white man instructing the dancers on how to twerk for the satisfaction of the camera (the male gaze, if you will). The producer illustrates that this representation of women’s bodies in popular culture is a conscious manipulation created by people in corporations who know that these images will produce a certain kind of impact. If anything, Lily reveals that the problem is intentional and systemic.

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Lily not only responds to Miley Cyrus, but she also throws some major shade at Robin Thicke’s sexist summer hit “Blurred Lines.” In his music video, a naked model dances around giant silver balloons that spell out “Robin Thicke had a big dick.” Lily does the same, although her ballons read, “Lily Allen has a baggy pussy.” What a woman. The lyrics also directly respond to T.I.’s violent rap verse “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.” Lily sings, “Don’t you want to have somebody who objectifies you? Have you thought about your butt, who’s gonna tear it in two?” Fair point, fair Lily.

The producer character in the music video also directs Lily to wear chains, dance around a sports car, and stuff money into the bras of her dancers, imitating the very displays of male power that Lily claims she won’t be doing at the beginning of her song. Once again, we see mimicry…and this behavior seems downright ridiculous. Rather, Lily finds her power in her voice within the space she creates with her intentional ambiguity–she is not here to tell women how to act, but to take down the rhetoric (and its material infestations) of misogyny.

Lily’s chorus sums up the complexity of a woman’s place in a society that regularly villainizes women and feminism: “It’s hard out here for a bitch.” The ambivalence that she creates by satire breaks down the binaries established by the dominant culture, but at the same time, she recognizes the danger of dictating or condemning the actions of other women. It’s complicated. Some are convinced that the irony of her song is not spelled out clearly enough, and thus her images are perpetuating the very sexism and racism that Lily attempts to dispel. I, on the other hand, believe that she succeeds in her parody. Either way, Lily is one of today’s best pop musicians, not only because her music dazzles, but also because she incites compelling conversation.

What do you think? Does Lily win or fail in her effort at satire?

the economics of race and silence: kanye west and bell hooks

Remember when Kanye West said, “[We] brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi, and they said ‘no.’ How many motherf*ckers you done seen with a leather jogging pant?” in an interview with Zane Lowe on BBC1? And then Jimmy Kimmel thought he’d strike his late night humor chops by recreating the scene with a couple of kids? And there was that great Twitter feud between Jimmy vs. Kanye of 2013?

This fiasco was resolved over a month ago when Kanye appeared on Kimmel’s show to receive an apology, but today I found myself googling the original BBC1 interview with Kanye again. This time, my curiosity was piqued by bell hooks.

First order of business: an introduction. bell hooks is a name, not a tool you can find in the Walmart home improvement aisle. I studied a bit of her feminist cultural criticism in my last year of college; currently a professor at Berea College, her work pushes feminism beyond the confines of the white and privileged. She is a materialist, and she recognizes the economics at play in subjugation–not simply theory that works in the realm of ideas.

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young bell hooks. via Denison

She wrote a piece responding to Sheryl Sandberg’s contentious book Lean Inwhich is totally “not a feminist manifesto.” Oh wait, “ok, it is a feminist manifesto.” Both of these quotes belong to Sandberg in her book and illustrate the sort of non-substantive banter which, hooks argues, makes up Sandberg’s entire argument.

Among the fallacies that bell hooks finds with Sandberg’s argument is this:

“Given the huge amounts of money Sandberg has acquired, ostensibly by paying close attention to her financial future, her silence on the subject of money in Lean In undermines the call for genuine equality. Without the ability to be autonomous, in control of self and finances, women will not have the strength and confidence to ‘lean in.’ … her failure to confront the issue of women acquiring wealth allows her to ignore concrete systemic obstacles most women face inside the workforce. And by not confronting the issue of women and wealth, she need not confront the issue of women and poverty. She need not address the ways extreme class differences make it difficult for there to be a common sisterhood based on shared struggle and solidarity.”

bell hooks is absolutely right. To consider social inequalities, one cannot simply discuss gender or race or class on its own, but as a part of a larger political world to which we all have a relationship. Sandberg’s silence, therefore, is not merely a missing piece, but an intentional statement that eliminates the mention of class and race from the conversation. Silence is a political statement– an erasure of marginalized voices.

So what happens when these silenced voices do speak? What is their cultural impact, if they have any at all?

Enter Kanye West and his interview with BBC1. Many followed Jimmy Kimmel’s example: they laughed at it and brushed it off  It seems that every time he speaks up, he’s turned into a clown by smug commentators and bloggers….

We got this new thing called classism. It’s racism’s cousin. This is what we do to hold people back. And we got this other thing that’s been workin for a long time… So you don’t have to be racist any more. It’s called self-hate. It works on itself. It’s like the real estate of racism. Where just like that, when somebody comes up and says kind of like “I am a god,” everybody says, “who does he think he is?” I thought I told you who I thought I was. A god. Would it have been better if I had called the song, “I am a n*gga?” Or if I had a song that said “I am a gangsta”? Or if I had a song that said “I am a pimp.” All those colors and petinas fit better….on a person like me, right? But to say you are a god? Especially when you got shipped over to the country you’re in and your last name is a slave owners’? How could you say that? How could you have that mentality?

Kanye explains how the dominant culture works on a mass scale by suppressing the will, goals, and empowerment of individuals. If each individual thinks of themselves in terms of the manner prescribed to them (i.e. “I am a black man and therefore a n*gger” or “I am a woman and therefore inherently weakened by emotion”) rather than in terms of their abilities and potential, they cannot challenge and move beyond the power structure that dictates their limitations in the first place. What if the weaknesses that we perceive as individuals are intentionally imposed by culture? To boot, the cultural effects of subjugation are economic. A person without agency has no financial autonomy either.

I’m not blindly praising Kanye. I struggle to swallow and reconcile some of his lyrics, for example. I enjoy his song with Jay Z “N*ggas in Paris” on a purely musical level, but I can’t listen to the lyrics lest I hear the words “Come and meet me in the bathroom stall/And show me why you deserve to have it all.” The subtlety in this representation of sexism perhaps makes it all the more dangerous, and it certainly illustrates just how problematic the intersection between race, gender, class actually is.

But people don’t see the complexities in Kanye’s words, because they don’t take him seriously. The critics and bloggers who smugly mock him with about as much cleverness as Jimmy Kimmel (read: none) turn him into a clown, a grotesque, behaving in exactly the way that Kanye condemns in his interview (“…and everybody says, ‘Who does he think he is?'”) So what happens when the silenced decides to speak? He’s a caricature, a cartoonish image built up by different segments of the media.

But it’s fashion consultant Jibril Durimel who mainly gets it right, as Kanye quoted him:

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For further reading, check out this piece by Tom Hawking from June called “If You’re Laughing at Kanye West, the Jokes on You.”

Otherwise, I’ll leave you with this:

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music for your sunday

“Old Enough.” One of my favorite jam sessions, with The Raconteurs, Ricky Skaggs, and Ashley Monroe.

It’s been a busy week, and I’m not done yet. Happy Sunday.

is girl power a useful form of feminism?

When researching the 90s phenomenon of “girl power” for my post on Smart Girls at the Party, I found this piece from BBC Radio 2’s The People’s Songs about the Spice Girls. It covers the history and evolution of women in popular music of the  20th century, and different voices weigh in on the validity of girl power as a part of the feminist movement. Several argue that “girl power” is nothing more than a marketing tool, which, though I’m aware of its commercial influence, I don’t think is entirely true.

I’m not naive or uninformed. I know that the Spice Girls were assembled because they responded to a casting call, and assigning each girl an identity (Sporty Spice and Scary Spice are my favorite, although I was always compared to Baby Spice) only heightens any sense of artificiality. When I was in the first grade, though, all of this information was far past my scope of understanding.

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Here’s what I did understand: The Spice Girls were fun. They were powerful and confident and friendship was more important than boys. I was generally an anxious kid, but when I danced to “Wannabe” or “Spice Up Your Life,” I forgot about my nerves and turned into that child who had just discovered silly, unadulterated joy. I looked up to the Spice Girls, and I still do. As a teenager and a now a pseudo-grown up, my focus has always been on working hard to achieve my goals or enjoying myself with friends instead of finding a boyfriend, and I’ve never thought that strange. I was unaware of their lasting influence, but the Spice Girls ingrained in me that part of self-reliance is pursuing my interests and to have fun along the way… Hey guys! I can enjoy fashion just as much as I love deconstructing Shakespeare! Who’d-a thunk it? Sounds a lot like Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls to me.

In other words, the Spice Girls had successfully boiled down feminism to shape the way that a seven-year-old would later define her ambitions and worldview. That’s power, which brings me to this excerpt from the BBC Radio 2 story:

“The legacy of girl power is contentious. Doubting its validity, Amy McClure of North Carolina University claimed, ‘An ideology based on consumerism can never be a revolutionary social movement. The fact that it appears to be a revolutionary movement is a dangerous lie that not only marketeers sell to us, but that we often happily sell to ourselves.’ …It’s typical of the superiority and wrongheadedness of academia when applied to the world of pop culture, a world where often trends and movements happen without the commission of the establishment: political, commercial, or academic. Professor Suzanne Hopkins was more accurate when she saw a correlation between girl power, the rise of the Spice Girls, and the glut of late-20th century action heroes like Lara Croft and Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” narrator Stuart Maconie says (my emphasis added).

I’ll get to Buffy on this blog in a big way, don’t you worry, but I was particularly struck by the line that I italicized. The mission of this blog is to deconstruct pop culture with the help of critical theory that I studied as a Literature and Theory major, because what use is academia if it remains locked within the confines of higher education? (Seriously, though, I enjoy every discussion with a dissenting view about this topic–please let me know your thoughts!) Pop culture’s reach means that its direct influence on the general population is much greater than in the halls of a liberal arts college.

So here’s what I want to know: Does diluting theory into an easy-bake recipe for the sake of accessibility within pop culture change the meaning of theory? Does it become appropriated by corporations as a tool for advertising and thus, oftentimes, working against the original theory itself? Or, on the other hand, is it necessary to make theory accessible to the general population to avoid the Ivory Tower complex and instead incite real cultural change?

And finally, is girl power useful for feminism? I think so (and a zig-a-zig ah!)

blurred lines

Fine! I’m throwing my hands up in frustration, because I admit it. “Blurred Lines” is catchy.  Apparently my taste in music is not good enough to find the song’s beats to be boring or annoying or whatever disinterested music snobs are saying about the song. I like to dance. “Blurred Lines” is a great dance song. Of course, there is that classic hang-up: misogyny. Here comes sexism rearing its ugly head, and it’s not quite as catchy as the beats in “Blurred Lines.”

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” is what we might call 2013’s summer hit, played on every radio station multiple times within a few hours. But if you actually pay attention to the words, well… Some of the most alarming lyrics are rapped in T.I.’s verse: “So hit me up when you passing through/ I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two.”

What’s disappointing is that the violent sexual imagery is nothing new and, indeed, very common in popular music (this goes for everything from pop to hip hop to rock, by the way). But what is new about “Blurred Lines” is the interesting, productive discussion about sex and the objectification of women in the media, both traditional and online. I’m not here to rehash what other critics have said, because the misogyny is pretty obvious. I want to problematize the criticism  by asking the question, is it okay to listen to sexist songs if you drown out the lyrics and simply dance along instead? In other words, is it possible to compartmentalize the violent, objectifying words apart from the music?

For instance, what if I changed the lyrics as I sang along? Am I still complicit in spreading this damaging message if I’m alone in my car and fully aware that I don’t agree with them?

Here’s another question: Can we tell women what they can and cannot enjoy? If a woman receives pleasure from listening to “Blurred Lines,” do I have the authority to deny her that pleasure by changing the song?

Loads of questions, so little time, and not many answers, and I haven’t even touched on the music video where supermodels awkwardly strut and dance around the fully clothed Thicke, T.I., and Pharrell, who is also featured. For now, here’s a genderswapped parody (maybe the answer to my previous question about changing lyrics is simply to listen to this version instead):