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.
- Homophobia in Music from About.com’s resources for LGBT teens
- Songs With Homophobic Lyrics, a MetaFilter page started by a researcher
The presence of homophobia in music falls into four categories:
- Violent lyrical content,
- Homophobic performers,
- Stereotypes and trivializations, and
- 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.