It’s A Mighty Thin Line Between Art and Hate: Homophobia in Music

13 Feb

Lady Gaga & Katy Perry: Supportive vs. Sensationalist

The use of character and language in music is not black and white; it is a continuum. When is the use of a stereotype or a slur justified? When is it shameless sensationalism? When is it hatred?

The other day I had one of those weird moments of inspiration that turned into a blog post. I was sitting at my desk at lunch, listening to music and browsing the news online. I saw a post about Lady Gaga’s new, very pro-gay song Born This Way while my desktop jukebox was playing the Pogues’ Fairytale of New York. As I was smiling at the transcription of the lyrics to the new song, the old favorite belted out “you cheap lousy faggot.” I winced and thought, not for the first time, “That’s a great song by a great band. Is it ruined by that slur?” I knew what my instinct said, but as a good librarian, I decided to do some research.

I found two great sites that helped me organize my thoughts.

The presence of homophobia in music falls into four categories:

  1. Violent lyrical content,
  2. Homophobic performers,
  3. Stereotypes and trivializations, and
  4. Songs performed in character.

Some music is aggressively homophobic. Dancehall performers like Buju Banton often have violent, even murderous, anti-gay lyrics.  The lyrics of rappers like Li’l Wayne (who chants “no homo” with great abandon) often include homophobic language as well. When the music advocates violence against LGBT people, condemning it is quite straightforward.

Singers with such violent lyrics are often outspokenly anti-gay outside of their music as well. Some performers, however, don’t address gay topics in their music but are very homophobic in their words and deeds. Country performers Big & Rich and Brad Paisley often speak out against gay rights. It’s difficult to condemn their music if it isn’t actively homophobic, but I certainly won’t buy anything performed by someone who uses their fame to advocate against my equality.

The next category is a bit trickier. Songs like the Kinks’ Lola and Monty Python’s The Lumberjack Song use cross-dressing stereotypes but are clearly meant as humorous (and probably ironic). Humor definitely has its place in music; it is very important as we hunt for the demons that we not lose our ability to laugh. Some stereotyping, however, is gratuitous at best. The Dire Straits (more on them shortly) song Les Boys serves no apparent purpose but to stereotype the gay community. There is no artistic merit in such behavior.

Katy Perry is another performer that I put in this category. Her song Ur So Gay is pretty vile, using the word “gay” as a slur while attacking a man for being unmasculine. Her I Kissed A Girl is trickier, but I file it in the no-thank-you category as well. She uses a flirtation with lesbianism as a cute hook, exploiting the gay community with a wink, a nod, and a rush to #1. Treating legitimate exploration of sexual identity as a fairly cruel “experimental game” tips the song into homophobia.

The toughest category to analyze are the songs sung in character. Some performers clearly use the “It’s not me, it’s my character” line as a dodge; the aggressively homophobic Eminem is a perfect example. (Sorry, Mr. Mathers, singing with Elton John doesn’t get you off the hook. Sir Elton’s credibility as a judge of character ended at Rush Limbaugh’s wedding.)

Many great songs are written in character, and it is clear that the listener is supposed to support or condemn the words of the character from the structure and tone of the song. Richard Thompson is a master of this; we are clearly not meant to sympathize with the sociopath whose voice is presented in I Feel So Good. Billy Bragg’s song Valentine’s Day Is Over is sung from the perspective of a battered spouse and is extremely powerful in some ways because of the disconnect between the singer’s gender and the lyrics of the song. The use of a homophobic character in a song could be powerful and educational. Sadly, this is not typically the case.

The prime example of a failure of character is the huge late-80’s hit Money For Nothing by Dire Straits. (I told you they’d be back.) The song repeatedly uses the word “faggot” to attack a singer seen on MTV. Writer and singer Mark Knopfler has defended this by using the character defense. The song is cast from the perspective of a laborer in an appliance store. According to Knopfler, he lifted much of the language from direct observation of an employee in a store. Sadly, there is nothing in the song to provide a sense of context or irony. (Having Sting bleat “I want my MTV” at regular intervals is probably intended as humorous, but it does nothing to ameliorate or contextualize the loathsome language of the narrator.) As an added bonus, the protagonist gets in some pretty racist language as well.

Another point worth making about both Katy Perry and Dire Straits is their decisions to release the song as a single. A song in character as part of a larger work has an entirely different impact than a song heard as part of the pop stream on the radio. Hearing “look at that faggot” as part of the mix of I-love-you’s and why-did-you-leave-me’s legitimizes its use in a dangerous way. Getting your jollies sucking the cherry Chapstick off an unsuspecting young woman’s lips just because trivializes the real struggles of LGBT youth.

So where does that leave me with my longtime enjoyment of the Pogues’ song? Sadly disappointed. It’s very clear that the two protagonists are working-class Brits with a love-hate relationship. Shane MacGowan is as masterful as ever in setting the mood and using language to create tension. One lover calling the other a “lousy faggot” is a very realistic line in context. Is it necessary development or gratuitously shocking? After long analysis, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

As always, I am not advocating censorship. All of these performers are entitled to their opinions and even have the right to put those opinions, howver ill-considered or vile, to music. When that recorded opinion incites violence, however, responsible media should think carefully about airing it. More importantly, good consumers should think twice about where they spend their entertainment dollars.

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16 Responses to “It’s A Mighty Thin Line Between Art and Hate: Homophobia in Music”

  1. Jay February 13, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    Interesting post, Robert. A couple contrary opinions from a more-or-less straight devil’s advocate…

    I’ve always thought of Les Boys as being about a sub-group–European leather gays–as opposed to being about ALL gays. Leather Daddies existed then and now, and were a minority among gay men, then and now. The repeated refrain about being ‘glad to be gay’ and the gentle tone of the song makes it sound more like a wistful evocation of a specific time and place than like a cruel attempt to stereotype all gays. To me it documents the era just before the AIDS crisis hit, and is a Proustian remembrance of a visually and behaviorally striking subculture that was about to be hit by a devastating epidemic. You are welcome to disagree, but viewed in this way the song has at least some artistic merit.

    Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl is more frivolous, but I fail to see how it is homophobic or cruel. Bisexual and bi-curious men and women are real, and this song is about one straight-identified woman’s enjoyable same-sex kiss. Where’s the harm–is it that some find it titillating and it is therefore exploitative? By that criteria, the movie Frida should be condemned, since Salma Hayek making out with Ashley Judd is certainly titillating. Is it that some gays, lesbians, and straights are annoyed by bisexuals and those who are questioning or experimenting? If that’s the case, then your ‘no thank you’ to this song smacks of bi-phobia.

    Thanks again for the interesting posting. It led me to a mini-Pogues revival, courtesy of YouTube, so it did me some good beyond provoking my Satanic advocacy.

    • rhulshofschmidt February 13, 2011 at 1:45 pm #

      Glad you enjoyed the post, Jay. I didn’t expect universal agreement (heaven forfend), and your thoughful analysis is greatly appreciated.
      I’ll accept your review of Les Boys. Especially considering the timeframe of the recording, viewing it as an evocation of a sub-culture is quite reasonable. I suspect I’m filtering my ability to enjoy that song (and indeed much of Knopfler’s work) through the lens of Money for Nothing.
      I strongly disagree with you on Ms. Perry, however. I agree that there is plenty of room for titillation in art and that there are many people who reside at the center of the Kinsey scale. I truly did not intend to present anything bi-phobic. Perry’s song, especially paired with the irksome Ur So Gay, smacks (no pun intended) of opportunism and exploitation. I don’t hear any joy in the lyrics, frankly. Your mileage may vary.

  2. jenny68 February 13, 2011 at 1:50 pm #

    Great post Robert- I totally agree and have been railing on about misogyny in music for years. Thank you for spending time on derogatory lyrics towards the LGBT community. Lyrics and language are catchy, I personally don’t think songs like that are any sort of entertainment. Just posturing, and shock value. At the expense of someone else.

  3. Jay February 13, 2011 at 6:52 pm #

    Agreed that the pairings make the songs I was defending less defensible. Money for Nothing sounds worse and worse with each passing year, and Ms. Perry turning the strangely ubiquitous disparagement ‘that’s so gay’ into a song, even as parody, is dismaying and contemptible. We still differ on the acceptability of using sex to sell–consider Madonna’s long history of sexual self-exploitation–but my bias is to defend description and avoid prescription, and varying mileage helps to keep the world interesting.

    Thanks for the reply, happy birthday soon, and glad to give you a perspective that might make Making Movies a less distasteful CD for you.

    • rhulshofschmidt February 13, 2011 at 9:07 pm #

      Ah, Jay, how I miss having these conversations in person. Thank you for the minor redemption of Making Movies, still a sentimental favorite, and for the birthday wishes.
      Cheers, Robert

  4. peter September 30, 2013 at 4:45 am #

    les boys and money for nothing are songs framed from life experiences, that is all, nothing more nothing less, you are bent on seeing more than there is; especially coming from a first rate song writer like mark knopfler you expect to hear songs about life and not hemmed in by the PC police.

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt September 30, 2013 at 8:29 am #

      Sorry, Peter, but even a first-rate songwriter (like Shane MacGowan in the example that frames the post) can make an awful mistake. If you read my post carefully, you’ll see that I give Knopfler full credit for writing an observational song and singing it in character. Sadly, that did nothing to diminish its negative power. When it was a hit, having the words “look at that faggot” spew out of radios everywhere dehumanized gay people and emboldend bullies and homophobes. Regardless of his intent, the power of Knopfler’s words was intensely negative, especially because he chose to release the song as a single. I’m not hearing more than was there, I’m directly relating the impact of that song on me and millions of others.
      You’ll also note (in the comments) that I agreed to cut Les Boys some slack. Sadly, Knopfler damaged his credibility so badly with Money For Nothing that it’s hard for me — and many others — to hear him sing anything about the gay community without believing the worst. That apologists like you (and, sadly, Knopfler himself) cannot understand this speaks to the blindness that too often comes with privilege and a depressing lack of empathy.

      • Vasilije November 24, 2013 at 7:24 am #

        I’d be willing to bet a good amount of money that gay people weren’t as nearly offended by Money for Nothing as you seemingly are. Knopfler isn’t aplogizing, he’s explaining the story because the song and what’s sad is that he needs to explain it to people like you.

      • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt November 24, 2013 at 8:16 am #

        For what it’s worth, I’m gay. I don’t claim to speak for all gay people, of course, but I was very offended as were MANY of my friends and acquaintances, both gay and straight. The song has been surrounded by controversy for nearly 30 years specifically because so many people were justifiably offended. The radio edit of the song (which was the version included on the band’s greatest hits package) deletes the entire verse, so the band and their label at least tacitly accept the criticism.
        I never said, however, that Knopfler was apologizing. In fact, he and keyboardist Guy Fletcher have gone out of their way to refuse to apologize and to play the victim. I called him an apologist (“one who offerse a defense of a position”) for taking that stance. The difference is rather important.
        What is truly sad is that I have to keep explaining this, despite a very carefully structured post and clarifying reply. That you can defend the arrogant BROADCASTING of hateful language all in the name of making an ironic buck speaks to your privilege and ignorance.

      • Noah James Brandemihl January 24, 2014 at 3:32 pm #

        Although I can clearly see why someone would initially be offended by “Money For Nothing” just because the mere use of that word can make someone cringe. But, in my opinion, it was very easy to tell that Knopfler was singing from a character point of view. What makes it seem like that to me is the fact that he is stating that playing music for a living is “Money for nothing.” Obviously, that wouldn’t be his real opinion on the matter. I feel like the entire song is meant to be full of hypocrisy, which is lost on some who aren’t used to his songwriting. Many, if not most of his songs are written from an outside perspective. I am not arguing that the song comes off as homophobic and inappropriate, because it definitely does. What I am arguing is that this song is clearly from a character perspective.

  5. Clemens Niederberger January 9, 2014 at 11:18 am #

    Interesting post!

    English is not my native language and I had to look up »faggot« first before I could follow the discussion… I will certainly hear »Money For Nothing« from a different point of view now (I never liked the song very much in the first place because I thinks it’s boring musically speaking)…

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt January 9, 2014 at 11:48 am #

      Thanks for your comment – I’m glad the clarification was helpful. It is a very disappointing song on many levels.

  6. Robert Hulshof-Schmidt January 24, 2014 at 4:09 pm #

    Noah, I agree that it is clear that Knopfler was singing as a character in “Money For Nothing.” That’s why it’s in the songs-in-character section of the post.

    I appreciate that you acknowledge that the song reads as homophobic, because it absolutely does. I never thought — or said — that Knopfler was presenting his own views. I do, however, strongly question his use of harmful language in a song that he and his band and his label promoted — very successfully — as a single.

    By lionizing that character without clearly creating the sense of irony he supposedly intended or any implied condemnation, he contributed significantly to the overt homophbia of the time and made a lot of people’s lives much harder. How sad that he STILL will not make any apology or acknowledgment of his actions and their impact.

  7. Jude March 24, 2014 at 2:52 am #

    Late comment, but I disagree with you on Fairytale of New York. As you probably already know as you seem to be a fan of The Pogues, Shane’s songwriting very often captures the harsh realities of lower-class British life (see “The Old Main Drag”). This naturally often meant crossing borders set by political correctness. I probably just give more allowance for art to cross those lines, but thought I’d chuck in my two cents anyways.

    It seems to me that “Fairytale of New York” is supposed to do what Shane does best. Like you said, centre on the lower-class. But more so, Fairytale of New York is about Christmas for the lower classes. This song is so beautiful to me because I feel that it stands out. Every other Christmas song on the radio is about typical Christmas stuff. Roaring fire, big tree, family together, lots of presents, happy times. The Pogues stepped outside that and instead presented what it’s like at that time to be a poor, young, lower-class couple. They’re alcoholic, possibly drug-addicted, possibly estranged. Kirsty and Shane effectively give the listener an insight to this sort of under-privileged lifestyle. All the lyrics/dialogue works towards this, and I feel it’s very believable. Including the “faggot” lyric. While I imagine it must be quite difficult for a gay person to hear, I just feel like it would be a lot drier and less effective if the word were left out. I mean, it’s a bit like the use of the word “nigger” in movies like Django Unchained. It’s not that Quentin Tarantino is indirectly insulting black people. It’s used as a tool for insight, to authenticate the film and drive home what it was like in that era. A drunken young low-class British/Irish person would probably quite commonly have used words such as “faggot” in aggressive fights with their partners, especially in the 80s.

    I understand and respect your viewpoint, but I just don’t think the song would have as much merit as it does if Shane had excluded that word, I think it’s a great way of showing the harsh and gritty reality of the situation.

    Also, I’ve encountered people who make the argument that the line would be a lot less defended had it said “you cheap lousy nigger”. That’s true, it would be a lot harder to defend Shane had he said that. But that’s not because of the word. It’s because the word “nigger” isn’t as common as “faggot”. When I say that, I mean that “nigger” was never used as a general insult. I’m highly doubtful that at any point in time, a drunken lower-class white girl ever insulted her drunken lower-class white boyfriend by calling him a nigger. That’s why it’s less offensive to the public when Lil’ Wayne says “nigger” in a song. Again, that’s just my view on things. I’m sure people disagree, but that’s just how things are with everything. Hope I might have helped ease your conscience next time you listen to “Fairytale of New York”, and have a great one.

    • Robert Hulshof-Schmidt March 24, 2014 at 7:33 am #

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I agree with much of what you say (although, of course, not quite all…)

      As I hope I made clear in the post, I do agree that Shane wrote the song in character. The characters are rich, complex and gritty; I also appreciate the unusual darkness in a Christmas song. The word choice is entirely believable. I disagree that it’s necessary. It’s rare that a whole song hangs on a single word choice, and this doesn’t feel like one to me. I don’t think Shane or Kirsty were being malicious or conciously homophobic. I do wish they’d picked any one of dozens of other epithets that would have worked in that space.

      I agree that the word substitution game doesn’t work here. Using the N word would have been gratuitous and unbelievable. That said, I don’t agree that the word has lost any of its power. I think you underestimate how pervasive it was in it’s heyday and just how common it still is in some circles. It’s become toxic in polite company — as well it should — but as long as there is prejudice and bigotry the language of hatred will still be used. Li’l Wayne gets away with it because he’s part of the community that the word targets. I’m not a fan of reclaiming insults as a sign of power, but I know many in the black community who do. Many LGBT folks have reclaimed the word “queer” which is fine for them but too painful for me.

      In the end, I still like Fairytale, it’s just hard to hear that one line.

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  1. Music Posts from The Solipsistic Me « Music and Meaning: The RBHS Jukebox - April 9, 2011

    [...] It’s A Mighty Thin Line Between Art and Hate: Homophobia in Music [...]

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