Online Class Discussion #7 is open for comments March 20-26. The rubric I’ll be using to grade your participation and a description of these assignments is available here.
In Online Discussion #5 many of you said that gender didn’t matter, that music was just music. However, music is made by people, and people are complicated.
A person is made up of all their experiences, their desires, their memories, their bodies, and the vast array of their interactions with other people in their world: talking to people, of course, but also observing people, reading their books and articles, listening to their music, watching their dancing, studying their paintings and sculptures, and living and working in the buildings they created. Each person is a multi-faceted, multi-layered, ever-changing array of all these factors.
Because each musician is a different person, that means that he or she makes different musical choices, and their unique, individual perspective on the world affects our listening experience. At the same time, we also—as oversimplified as it sounds—think about different people in different ways. A 40-year-old, healthy, white man doesn’t live the same life as a 90-year-old, ill Asian woman, and we don’t treat them the same (you’re less likely to help the man walk across the street or carry his groceries than the woman, for example). And so, if you heard a piece of music sung by the man—knowing everything that you do about 40-year-old white men from your life experiences, movies, books, TV, etc.—and that same piece of music sung by the woman—which would also tap into every experience you’ve had with old ladies—your experience as a listener would be different.
Examples of musicians’ identities affecting our listening experience
Does the singer’s gender affect the way you react to words that are sung (female vs. male)? Here, the song “Say My Name” is performed by women (Destiny’s Child, 1999) and again by a man (Sick Puppies, 2001):
What about an artist’s age (young vs. old)? Here’s the song “Hurt,” recorded by Nine Inch Nails (1994; the singer Trent Reznor was 29 years old at the time) and later by Johnny Cash (2002; he was 70 and died the next year):
Or their race (white vs. black)? Here’s Chuck Berry’s song “Roll Over, Beethoven”, which was a big hit for The Beatles. (Berry just died on Saturday, March 18, at the age of 90)
Ok, so musicians are people. Thinking back to Online Discussion #3, we experience a whole orbit of ideas set in motion by the music we hear, and that goes beyond the sounds—our own past experiences as people, our ideas and beliefs, and what we think about the people making music (whether consciously or not).
The morals of how we listen
What would it take for you to stop listening to a musician’s work, boycott their concerts, or encourage others not to listen to them? How does your moral philosophy affect what you decide to listen to (or do you compromise your ethics for music that just sounds really good)? Are certain actions forgivable if the musician is good enough? Let’s run through a few scenarios…
Do a musician’s public or professional choices matter? Say, if Beyoncé, Kanye West, Sting, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj, Seal, Lionel Richie, 50 Cent, Erykah Badu, Michael Jackson, James Brown, or every major act in the 1980s performed private concerts for dictators or governments who starve and oppress their citizens, should we think twice about supporting their work? Just as we saw under the patronage system (Online Discussion #1), concerts help show how powerful these rulers are, and by performing for them, these artists are helping to cement and proclaim that power. (All of these stars have performed exclusive concerts for oppressive dictators, by the way).
Does a musician’s private life matter? Does it matter if they sing about their sexual prowess in their songs, turning their sexual identity into a public issue (say, R. Kelly)? Does their private life matter if it strongly contradicts their public persona (e.g., Michael Jackson was a champion of children’s rights but dogged by accusations of pedophila throughout his adult life)? What about if their music has nothing to do with their sexual identity, but the sex acts they engage in are considered immoral or illegal (e.g., Henry Cowell, an American classical composer who was arrested for having oral sex with a man in 1936)?
Or, what if a musician does things that are admirable? Does this make their music more worthy of our attention (e.g., U2, the Irish band which has been heavily engaged in humanitarian work for a few decades)? Is Beethoven more remarkable and his music more important because of his physical handicap? Or is Clara Schumann’s, since she was a woman who challenged the patriarchy and simultaneously was a devoted wife and mother?
What if a musician’s work or their public persona completely contradicts who they actually are—or the heartfelt “self-expression” they exhibit is really someone else’s creation? So much happens behind the scenes in pop music that comprises an artist’s public identity or image: making them sound the way they do by writing lyrics and producing tracks, making them look the way they do through fashion and styling, making them have a particular persona through interview coaching, scheduling appearances at certain events, creating beefs with other artists, or selling photographs to tabloids. An “artist” is oftentimes actually an army of several dozen people working together to create a coherent marketing product (that happens to include music). For example, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Kelly Clarkson, Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, Kesha, Pink, Nicki Minaj, David Guetta, The Weeknd, Fifth Harmony, Maroon 5, Ace of Base, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears are all pop artists who present distinctly different personas and musical identities to the public, but much of their music is all written by the same handful of song writers: Max Martin and Dr. Luke, often working together, or Karl Martin Sandberg. Max Martin’s writing credit discography ranges from Bon Jovi to Ariana Grande; Dr. Luke’s is similarly prolific, including Three 6 Mafia and Weezer. Other ubiquitous songwriters who have created the musical identities of headlining artists over the last 30 years include Babyface, Pharrell Williams, RedOne, Rick Rubin, and Sia.
Since the 1960s, the use of pre-recorded backing tracks for all or some of the sounds that comprise a “live” performance has become nearly ubiquitous (including vocals, backing vocals, instrumental tracks). There are many possible permutations of this, described here and here. To some degree this makes sense, since performers can’t dance and sing well simultaneously (think about what happens to your voice when you try to talk while jogging or doing jumping jacks). Sometimes “live” performances are completely fake, as with this list of examples from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Beyonce, Eminem, Nirvana, Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson, and Jay-Z. And “Lip Sync Battle” was so popular on Jimmy Fallon that it’s now its own spin-off show hosted by LL Cool J–it’s as if we love the energy and illusion of performance but not necessarily the music making.
This is a poorly titled blog post—it’s a yes/no question (rather than something open-ended), and it’s a leading question. The answer is “yes”; of course it matters who musicians are as people. Their identities determine what their music sounds like, how it is perceived, and their role in society. The title question necessitates some follow-up questions: When does it matter who a musician is as a person? To what degree, in what circumstances?
A better title for this online discussion might be “The Moral Ethics of Listening.”
Questions to get the conversation started:
- What responsibilities do you have as a listener/consumer?
- What would stop you from listening to a musician’s work? Where does your sense of morals in this regard come from?
- Who has the right to say what music is acceptable to be heard?
- What advantages are there to having a more complete understanding of who a musician is a s a person?