Sunday, July 07, 2013

When You Hate that You Love a Piece of Art or Pop Culture

Originally published at Opine Season

The first rap group I really fell in love with was Goodie Mob. If you only know Cee-lo as a reality TV star, or as the singer in Gnarls Barkley, it’s important to understand that Cee-lo, as a member of Goodie Mob, was one of the best MCs ever. I learned how to rap by listening to Cee-lo (not to mention the very underrated Big Gipp), and the group’s first two albums are southern hip hop classics.

It was not until I was years out of high school that I noticed a couple of Goodie Mob lines (not from Cee-lo, but from group member Khujo) that were explicitly, inarguably, violently homophobic. Maybe I was just too young and ignorant to understand them before, but I suddenly had to see the group in a very different light.

I know I’m not alone in this. Maybe you grew up watching Buffy, and then suddenly noticed how few fleshed-out characters of color there are in Joss Whedon’s work. Maybe you really like Game of Thrones, but feel uncomfortable with some of the weird gender and race stuff in the series. Maybe you think Robin Thicke’s new song is the song of the year, but also think that the video is incredibly problematic. How do we reconcile all this stuff?

First things first: I don’t claim to have any answers. If you do, please share them in the comments. But here are a few points I try to keep in mind when grappling with these issues:

We can and should be critical of the things that we love
Being a fan of something isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not “I like this, so I’m going to turn my brain off,” or “this is offensive so it’s automatically terrible.” Culture is more complex than that. We like what we like. As individuals, however, we should be able to develop a critical eye and understand how even some of the art that we love has problematic elements. We should be able to have conversations about it without getting defensive. We should be able to make connections between the pop culture we consume and the society in which we live.

…at the same time, there has to be a line
It’s easy to take that last point and use it as a rationalization to never be truly critical of anything, like “yeah this neo-Nazi folk music is terrible, but it has such pretty melodies!” It’s okay– and healthy– to draw lines, to choose not to be a part of something. The common argument of “if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it” is usually a cop-out response meant to shut down debate, but it can also be a survival mechanism. Drawing “the line” is going to be an ongoing struggle for everyone, but it’s good to remember that if something is rubbing you the wrong way, there are millions upon millions of other (songs/books/shows/movies) out there to be experiencing.

There’s a difference between what we enjoy and what we promote/support
For example, you can listen to Eminem without buying any of his music, posting about him on social media or telling anyone about how much you like him. You don’t have to put money in his– or his label’s– pockets. We all probably have a DVD or an album in our collection that doesn’t exactly line up with the social justice values and principles we believe in. That doesn’t make you a hypocrite. That doesn’t make you a bad person. The important thing is strive to understand your feelings, continue navigating the aforementioned “line,” and keep fighting for those values and principles in your everyday life. Again, don’t shut your brain off; keep trying to cultivate awareness and action.

…at the same time, everything we ingest has an impact
Just something to keep in mind: whether it affects us at a conscious, rational level or a deeper level, art is like food. If you ingest too much crap, it’s going to have negative consequences, one way or another.

Cultivating awareness and a critical eye/ear doesn’t ruin art; it makes it better
I can’t go to movies on a whim any more. The sexism, the racism, the homophobia, not to mention the general wackness of 90% of everything Hollywood releases just doesn’t appeal to me. But it also makes the good movies, when they come along, that much more enjoyable. When you finally find a piece of art that speaks to you as art, but also isn’t brought down by stereotypical characters, or offensive ideas, or lack of representation– that’s a beautiful feeling. The same is true for TV, books, poetry, music and other forms of culture and communication.

Do I still listen to Goodie Mob sometimes? Sure. But it’s a complex experience. It’s not just “this song is good,” it’s an ongoing internal conversation about the roots of oppression, about the responsibilities of an artist, about my own life, privileges and experiences and how they line up with the ideas being expressed in the songs. It’s not as simple as just sitting back and vibing out to some music, but that’s okay. Pop culture isn’t just escapism; it’s our mythology, our hive mind’s currents and undercurrents. A little active listening is healthy. It can even be fun.

But it’s definitely an ongoing struggle. What goes through your head when you engage with art or culture that has problematic elements?

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