I stopped buying CDs about seven or eight years ago. I didn’t stop listening to music, obviously, but when the iPod and iTunes started to become viable alternatives, it just didn’t seem necessary to buy a physical CD. For a while I lamented the demise of cover art, but I got over it. When I was in high school, though, Columbia House and BMG were the way to get your music. They were always offering some insane deal of between six and twelve CDs for the price of one to get on their monthly membership. I signed up for Columbia House and got the twelve CD deal. I can’t remember all the music I got, but I think it included the Counting Crows, maybe REM, the Cranberries, Phil Collins, Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits…and Dr. Dre’s The Chronic.
Until they got smart and imprinted the explicit lyrics sticker in the cover art, the warning was just a sticker on the outside of the CD. I simply transferred the explicit lyrics sticker from Dr. Dre to Simon and Garfunkel and my problem was solved. Fool anybody, right? I don’t think I knew anything about Dr. Dre other than I’d heard “Nuthin but a ‘G’ Thang” on the radio. It became a guilty pleasure for a nice Christian kid to be bumpin’ Dre in the car as I cruised to 7-11 (even though it was only a block away) for a Super Big Gulp.
It’s difficult for me to separate my feelings about “inappropriate” music from the Christian moral standards by which I judged both it and myself (while still listening to it). I do think that to a certain extent despite background, that type of music is popular because it is transgressive, yet it can be separated from the self. In other words, I can listen to it without it being a part of me. I can live vicariously through the music, through the “profane” language, through the sexual explicitness, through the demeaning treatment of women and figures of authority without actually being that way myself. I told myself that it was just the music that I liked, not the lyrics. But that’s not exactly true, is it?
The debate over the influence of media is not new. Video games, comic books, music, and movies have all come under fire for negatively influencing people (often children, although I think focusing on kids is an excuse to ignore the equally complex influence on adults). With the lines drawn, there are those who suggest that these media “desensitize” people to social norms, thus increasing their chances of in some sense mimicking what they see, read, or hear. They point to the most transgressive elements of these media and seem to have ample evidence for their claims. On the other side, defenders show that the vast majority of people who consume these media don’t become “bad” people, so that it’s not possible to single it out as the cause of transgressive actions. They might even contend that without such “outlets” to blow off steam, people might even be more transgressive.
The “truth” lies somewhere in between. Ignoring the question of the ethical responsibilities of the media producers—a significant discussion, although I’m unconvinced of any lasting ethical standards where capitalism is involved—it would be ignorant to assume either that we can posit a self that exists in the world but is unaffected by it, or that we are passive automatons with no ability to filter the information we receive. What is most interesting to me now is how music, as a media in and of itself, is inherently transgressive, or has the potential to be. It is the fact that a series of musical notes can circumvent the normal process by which we like to think we reason and interpret our world. We even identify certain types of music with particular emotions, as if these were inherent to the music itself, because of their ability to produce those emotions within us. When language is then added to music, it adds a message that can become self-founding because it is processed in an emotionally-supported environment transcending the context of its production.
At some point, I was found out and probably threw Dr. Dre away out of guilt or fear of punishment. But there would be others over the years. I had a complicated relationship with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Alice in Chains, Onyx, Wreckx-N-Effect, and many more. I have long since stopped beating myself up over my musical choices. However, there is still a sense of guilty pleasure in the sensory reception of transgressive action, even if it is as artificially constructed as killing zombies (just as a hypothetical, of course). The way for us to “humanize” music, as well as other media, is not to come to an answer about its societal or individual role, but to take a step back regularly and cognize our complicated relationship with it, recognizing the variegated functions it performs in our own lives. This will neither assign it wholly to the moral realm nor separate it completely from it.
I’ll talk more about specifically religious functions of music this week as well. Until then, any thoughts? Does/should music have a morality?