How do you reconcile your personal values with supporting artists whose content promotes a world you don’t want to be part of creating?
I came of age at the turn of a cultural tide. In the 1980s, I swam comfortably in the slack water between the monolith of rock’n’roll and the nascent phenomenon of hip-hop. I loved Led Zeppelin as much as the Beastie Boys. And at 42-years-old, I listen to both regularly—except I still dance more like Robert Plant than Soulja Boy.
Now that I’m older and a little bit wiser, I find myself faced with a dilemma as a socially aware man in the 21st century. The question I find myself increasingly pondering is: Can I still enjoy the music of my adolescence, knowing that both genres have been repositories of homophobic and misogynist sentiments? Can I in good conscience separate talent from content?
The latest reminder of my dilemma comes from rapper Eminem’s new song “Vegas” where he seems to be rapping about raping Iggy Azalea. This kind of behavior is nothing new for Eminem, whose first albums were rife with both homophobic and misogynistic insults. As just one example, here’s a sample of the lyrics from one of the songs from The Marshall Mathers LP: Slut, you think I won’t choke no whore/Til the vocal cords don’t work in her throat no more?
Those words are tough to hear, and even tougher to justify—in fact, I don’t think there’s any way to justify them. Though my interest in Eminem has waned in the past 14 years, I can’t deny that I respect his rapping talent—his clever wordplay, his rhythm and timing, his delivery. But the blatancy of his misogyny makes it impossible for me to feel good about having his music in my iTunes library.
It’s easier for me to enjoy listening to Led Zeppelin and the Beastie Boys because members of both groups have distanced themselves from their adolescent preoccupations and misconceptions. Robert Plant’s lyrics in Led Zeppelin were a mixed bag of sentiments toward women; and there’s almost no reference to homosexuality in any of them.
The closest Plant comes to homophobia is in the song “Royal Orleans,” which describes one of the band member’s alleged encounters with a “New Orleans Queen.” Plant sings: New Orleans Queens sure know how to schmooze it/Maybe to some that seems alright/When I step out, strut down with my sugar/She best not talk like Barry White. I don’t think that’s particularly offensive.
As far as Plant’s misogyny is concerned, it’s probably most evident in his blues-inspired songs like “Black Dog” (Oh, oh, child, way you shake that thing, gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting), “Custard Pie” (Your custard pie—sweet and nice—when you cut it, mama, save me a slice), and “Trampled Underfoot,” where he compares a woman to a car (Come to me for service every hundred miles, baby let me check your points, fix your overdrive) in the spirit of bluesman Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues.”
While this isn’t the weapons-grade misogyny of an Eminem, it still portrays women as sexual tools. But while Plant’s lyrics objectified women in a sexual manner, the early songs of the Beastie Boys reflected a jumbled, juvenile misogyny more akin to the “He-Man Women Haters Club” of the Our Gang TV show from the 1930s. In the popular Beastie Boys song “Girls,” Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz raps that he wants girls to do the dishes; to clean up my room; to do the laundry.
But the advance of time and the wisdom that comes with age has caused both bands to change their tune for the better.
Even though Robert Plant’s lyrics remained fairly sexual even throughout the 1980s, his original solo albums since then reflect a significant change. Songs like “Come Into My Life” and his cover of Tim Hardin’s “If I Were a Carpenter” from his album Fate of Nations (1993), “The Enchanter” from Mighty Rearranger (2005), and “Stolen Kiss” from Lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar (2014) all represent a more mature attitude toward love and relationships.
Likewise, the Beastie Boys 1994 album Ill Communication signaled a similar shift. In the opening track, “Sure Shot,” Adam “MCA” Yauch says I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has to got to be through / To all the mothers and sisters and the wives and friends / I want to offer my love and respect till the end.
And if those lyrics weren’t clear enough, Ad-Rock wrote a letter to Time Out New York magazine in 1999 officially apologizing for the band’s past misogyny: “I would like to…formally apologize to the entire gay and lesbian community for the shitty and ignorant things we said on our first record, 1986′s Licensed to Ill. There are no excuses. But time has healed our stupidity…We hope that you’ll accept this long overdue apology.”
Ad-Rock’s right: youth is no longer an excuse. The 21st century has seen the most tremendous consciousness-raising when it comes to the suffering of women and LGBT individuals. We now have an obligation to educate younger people about the power of words to hurt and oppress. And the ubiquity of social media can broadcast this newly-won awareness at near-light speed.
So I guess I’ve resolved my dilemma: I’m not embarrassed to have Led Zeppelin and the Beastie Boys in my iTunes library. I can distinguish between extraordinary talent and inappropriate content, appreciating the former while denigrating the latter without much cognitive dissonance so long as there’s a notable change in the artist. I can do it now even though I couldn’t do it when I was a teenager because, just as the tide of music once turned, so has the tide of public consciousness.
There still remains the issue of raising the consciousness of current artists, and the young people who listen to and idolize them. In general there seems to be less stereotypical or hateful content in music today, but rap and hip hop remain stubborn outliers. I think what is needed is for more young artists to speak out, like actress Emma Watson did so eloquently at the U.N. back in September:
“If we stop defining each other by what we are not and start defining ourselves by what we are—I want men to take up this mantle. So their daughters, sisters and mothers can be free from prejudice but also so that their sons have permission to be vulnerable and human too—reclaim those parts of themselves they abandoned and in doing so be a more true and complete version of themselves.”