In case you haven’t been paying attention to Sarah Palin’s antics lately (in which case: good for you), she recently got mad on the Facebook and the Twitters about noted rapper Common Sense performing at a White House poetry event. Like everything Palin says, this is gross and wrong. She apparently missed Common hosting the White House Christmas tree-lighting ceremony last year, and she was particularly incensed about his presence at an official event during Police Memorial Week even though he’s not exactly NWA or anything. (Common is a supporter of Assata Shakur, which makes him exactly like every other rapper in existence.) Rap fans will be relieved to hear that Jon Stewart is going to debate Bill O’Reilly on this topic later today, since no debate about the morality of rap lyrics is really settled until two elderly men have yelled at each other on a cable news channel.
It’s easy to take Common’s side in this argument. He’s a milquetoast, universally respected artist who hasn’t made a good album since 2000. Getting mad at him doesn’t just seem erroneous–it seems deeply misguided. And so the impulse is to do what Stewart has done: defend Common on logical grounds. He’s a vegetarian! He’s been on Sesame Street! People are misinterpreting his lyrics! But that’s not the point.
Taking art primarily at face value and demanding it be a “good role model” demeans its status as art; almost all great art depicts immoral acts. The issue is not whether or not said acts are moral, but whether or not the acts depicted can exist on the always-wavering boundary between standing behind creative freedom and offending people. Bill Clinton had a group of drug-addict adulterers play his inaugural ball; President Obama has invited far more morally questionable rappers to the White House–most notably, he had Jay-Z in for a visit. The point of including cultural figures in these symbolic power centers is not to endorse the message of their lyrics, but to recognize their fans as members of a common cause.
So by inviting Fleetwood Mac to play his inaugural celebration, Clinton wasn’t trying to say “Hey, America, let’s snort twelve pounds of coke and make a commercial failure of a double album.” Instead, the message was that if you were the kind of person who liked Fleetwood Mac, that didn’t make you un-American. You could still take part in politics; your opinions still mattered. And that’s why Obama’s bringing in people like Jay. He wants to make sure people who like rap–people like me!–know that they have a place in the center of power, and that someone is looking out for their interests.
Palin’s argument, extended to its logical conclusions, claims that people who have ever wavered on a moral issue shouldn’t be part of national politics. Which is fair enough, in its way–all of us want to exclude something from public life, whether it be the religious right or the Tea Party or, I dunno, babies. (Goddamned racist babies!) There’s a commonality between her attacks and our own, since, as Nitsuh Abebe points out, “anyone criticizing a record on moral grounds” sounds, to that artist’s supporters, no different than “scolds” like Tipper Gore or Palin.
Nitsuh, bringing up Odd Future (as all music critics are required to do at any possible opportunity right now), sides with those criticizing the group who at least grant rap’s validity as a genre, saying that their critiques are productive, whereas the moral “scolds” who want to paint Odd Future as a riot-inciting moral panic just encourage artistic immorality. But I’m not so sure. While there have been as many as three thoughtful, nuanced critiques of Odd Future, too many others explicitly condemn teenage boys as an entire class of people, and by extension claim that they should be excluded from popular culture.Moreover, it’s hard not to see how many of Odd Future’s critics are doing the same thing Fox News has done in this whole affair, confusing genre tropes with deliberate statements of intent. Just as Karl Rove says “let’s invite a misogynist to the White House” because, I guess, Common says “You’re a bitch, I got ones that are thicker than you” (as he does in his verse in Kanye’s “Get ‘Em High,” the only good thing he’s done in the last decade), so do we cry foul because Tyler makes jokes about having sex with old ladies. Sure, it’s unfair to dismiss any criticism of Odd Future just because lots of rappers call women bitches. But it’s also deceptively easy to do what Palin is doing. Thoughtful critiques aside, the other 12 billion knee-jerkingly self-righteous decryings of Odd Future play directly to the biases and poorly thought through convictions of people already inclined to agree, and throw red meat to supporters in the same way Palin calling Common a misogynist supporter of cop-killers does.
The question here seems less to be who is right and who is wrong, but rather what our responsibility is to art. Do we want it to be perfect? Or do we want it to be pleasurable? Despite the current brouhaha, Common’s biggest problem as a rapper is that he’s a little too moral, that he thinks a little too hard about what the implications of his lyrics might be. He’s so careful that he’s become boring–the last thing I want art to be.