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My Niece Was Right About Tyler the Creator
Published on October 24, 2011 by guest author: Tony Are
When MTV's Video Music Awards were broadcast back on August 28, they were mainly only background for me. It's been quite some time since any of the nominees or performers were anyone I was really passionate about, and I'm not really the biggest fan of award shows—especially this one, which has in recent years played out more like a reality-TV program based around an awards show. But my niece was posting about it on Facebook from her Blackberry as it was happening, and I ended up posting back (such is the state of communication between relatives in this modern world). This past week I've been thinking about our conversation, and I have to admit she was right about Tyler the Creator. But that meant that now I had to go back and think about how music means what it means.

I had been following Tyler's Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All crew for a while—I downloaded all the original free ”tapes”—and I won't (and you shouldn't) underestimate how powerful the music was. There's an aspect (which was sort of where I was coming from) of similarity between the upheaval this bunch of nihilistic skater kids caused in the overblown, overstuffed world of rap music and the upheaval that the first punks in 1976 and '77 caused in the overblown, overstuffed world of rock music at that time. I would still recommend checking it out if you haven't—for instance, “Earl” by Odd Future crew member Earl Sweatshirt (whose underage career and mysterious disappearance was explored in a New Yorker piece by Kalefa Sanneh). Propelled by Tyler's understated backing tracks of looped drums and occasional synthesizers that are closer to the aural wash of “Industrial” metal than to most hip hop, Earl slings miraculous rhymes that slither and pounce, like mad beat poetry: “Yo Im a hot and bothered astronaut crashing while / jacking off to buffering vids of Asher Roth eating applesauce / Sent to earth to poke Catholics in the ass with saws / and knock blunt ashes into their caskets and laugh it off...”

Right—so back to me and my niece. For those who don't follow these things, Tyler was up for “Best New Artist,"  represented by his song/video “Yonkers.” My niece was really down on him—she was rooting for the catchy but insubstantial Kreayshawn. My argument came down to the age-old critic's trope—you might not like what he is saying, but its better art. And that, I thought, was that.

Well, not quite.

When dealing with “pop culture," is there really an objective standard that's outside of the effect it has on people? Of course, it's really complicated—first of all, there is such a thing as “craft," which has a kind of objective standard that's been developed or agreed upon over time—stuff like being in tune and on beat and understanding dynamics, and in the case of rap music, the internal and external poetry of the line. But then you do have to start looking at what it says.

And that's complicated too. There is the part of it that is just rebellious, and in that way, liberating—like the scene in The Wild One where the dancing woman asks Johnny, “What are you rebelling against?” and he replies “What have you got?” And some of it does get to some deep internal secrets that send a chill down your spine, like in “Yonkers,” where Tyler says “F-k everything man / that's what my conscience said / then it bunny-hopped off my shoulder / now my conscience is dead.” There's some of that effect in every outsider music—in punk certainly, in various heavy metal offshoots, in early gangsta rap like NWA, or even outliers like Missing Foundation (banned from CBGB's in the 80s for setting fire to its stage and destroying some or most of the sound system).

But the punks and Ice Cube and Marlon Brando and even Missing Foundation had another side as well. There was a sense of wanting to “break on through to the other side," even if you had to destroy everything, including people's sensibilities, to get there. And in Odd Future's art, that's the guest who has not yet arrived at the dinner party.

My niece had a better intuitive grasp of this than I had. Certainly it had to do with some sensitivities she has that I don't—she's an African-American Jewish/Quaker lesbian who instinctively mines pop culture for both heroes and villains regarding her identity (and blogs here). Also because she still understands music as something you base your life on, something you inhabit. Let's be frank about it—the Odd Future oeuvre is a very bleak and uninviting place, unless you are a nihilistic, misogynist homophobe (in case you haven't figured it out from the linked videos, Pitchfork explains why in more detail here). And yes, Tyler and Odd Future claim it's all artifice, a mirror of teenage rebellion, the equivalent of Beavis and Butthead saying “he said ballcock.” You know, just kids acting out for a thrill. And it might be. But for MTV, Sony, Fuel TV, and others to promote what they are saying without comment is another way of saying “It's OK to think that stuff”and it's OK to live that stuff.

This isn't a call for PMRC-style censorship or that stupid anti-rap stuff promoted by conservative talk show hosts, but more a call for real thinking about what kind of atmosphere is getting created. I think its fine for Odd Future to make the music they are driven to make. But there has to be a discussion that goes with it—what does it make you think about? What are the consequences? What are you left with when the last notes fade out? And can “good” music that is so bleak and retrograde in its thought process, that is either an elaborate subterfuge of “fake” emotions or the unfortunate residue of a damaged heart, really be all that “good”? Somebody needs to talk to these kids about this. I don't think they are in the mood to listen right now, (you can see for yourself here ) but you never know how things can change.

I guess I owe my niece an apology. And a note of thanks—old folk's thinking should never be allowed to get too old.

Tony Are is a writer, critic, and occasional musician who lives in New York City. He started playing in bands in 1967 and finally gave up in 2003. Now he sits in a rocking chair and tells the young whippersnappers how much better it used to be in his day. His poetry is at http://tonyare.weebly.com/index.html.

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