Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Tyler, the Creator vs. Lars Von Trier: Offensiveness Smackdown

First things first. You know racism, sexism, homophobia and all that? Yeah, well, those things all suck. They're just bad, no ifs, ands or buts. And when I say "bad", I mean the bad kind of bad, not the good kind. And when I said "bad" that time, I mean the same thing.

However, this does not necessarily mean that saying racist, sexist and homophobic things is inherently bad. For instance, there's this song called "Springtime for Hitler", which is incredibly anti-Semitic, but is, nonetheless hilarious. This is not to say, as post-modernists do, that art must be judged purely on its artistic value and not it's political value. If a work of art talks about racial issues, than it's a political work of art, and the politics must also be judged. But, things do get a bit more complicated.

You have ironic racists and you have people who use irony as a cover for genuine racism. You have crazy harmless people and you have crazy dangerous people. You have art that is meant to shock, and you have art that is meant to convert. And you have those Andy Kaufman types who are to obtuse that you can't quite tell what they're trying to do. And in those instances, you have controversies.

For today's smackdown, we look at two recent controversies involving offensive art. The first controversy takes the form of an epic hip-hop feud between rapper Tyler, the Creator and Canadian indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara. The second controversy takes the form of an epic hip-hop feud between Danish film director Lars Von Trier and whoever it is who runs the Cannes Film Festival.

First let's take a look at Tyler, the Creator. His controversy arose from his songs which have a tendency to include sexist and homophobic lyrics. Here, for example, is "Tron Cat" from his latest album, Goblin:

Pretty strange. And pretty misogynistic and homophobic. While, somehow, being simultaneously pro-cetafur. Anyway, the oeuvre and critical sucess of Mr. the Creator ticked off Sara Keirsten Quin, the Sara half of Tegan and Sara. This is understandable, since Tegan and Sara are 1) women 2) gay and 3) not cetafurs. Ms. Quin ushered in the aforementioned epic hip-hop feud by posting "A Call to Change" on the band's website, saying
"As journalists and colleagues defend, excuse and congratulate ‘Tyler, the Creator,’ I find it impossible not to comment. In any other industry would I be expected to tolerate, overlook and find deeper meaning in this kid’s sickening rhetoric? Why should I care about this music or its “brilliance” when the message is so repulsive and irresponsible? There is much that upsets me in this world, and this certainly isn’t the first time I’ve drafted an open letter or complaint, but in the past I’ve found an opinion – some like-minded commentary – that let me rest assured that my outrage, my voice, had been accounted for. Not this time."
The first thing that is apparent about Sara Quin's response is that she clearly has no understanding of how to conduct an epic hip-hop feud. The way you go after a rival artist is to release a "diss track" in which you rap about how your opponent is a total fag.

That being said, she does have a point. Critics do have a tendency to pardon homophobia and misogyny in music, and hip-hop in particular, which they would never do with racism. And dropping mad beats shouldn't excuse dropping horrible lyrics. In a way, the popular critical response to this sort of thing is not only sexist and homophobic, but a bit racist, since it assumes that black people just can't help themselves and so who are we to criticize them for homophobia and misogyny.

But I'm not sure that Lady Q picked the best example. Someone like Jay-Z, who raps about pimping in order to give himself street cred to cover up the fact that he's a rich businessman, might be more worthy of condemnation. With Tyler, the Creator, he's either playing a character and deliberately trying to shock, or he's genuine. If the former is true, his popularity stems from the fact that his listeners know that misogyny and homophobia are wrong. Otherwise they wouldn't be shocked. If the latter is true, then he's a cetafur, and probably crazy.

Our next controversy magnet is possibly crazy but probably not a cetafur. But, if you take him at his word, he is a Nazi. Here is Lars Von Trier's controversial speech at the Cannes Film Festival:

Now, if you take what he says here completely straight, the man's a monster. And the fine folks at Cannes certainly felt that way when they launched their epic hip-hop feud, saying:
"The Festival de Cannes provides artists from around the world with an exceptional forum to present their works and defend freedom of expression and creation. The board of directors profoundly regrets that this forum has been used by Lars von Trier to express comments that are unacceptable, intolerable, and contrary to the ideals of humanity and generosity that preside over the very existence of the festival. The Board of Directors firmly condemns these comments and declares Lars von Trier a persona non grata at the Festival de Cannes, with effect immediately."
Once again, they neglected to engage in the proper hip-hop feud etiquette by rapping about how Lars Von Trier is a fag. But they did bar him from ever entering films in the festival again and he was kicked out of a restaurant.

Now, the response to both this and Tylergate has involved a lot of impassioned defenses of "free speech". "Free speech" typically means allowing people to say what they want, but some people seem to believe that "free speech" means forbidding people from complaining about music they don't like on their blog, or forbidding film festivals from deciding which films they want to screen. Technically, that sort of thing should be the opposite of free speech, but whatever.

In the case of Larsgate, the whole persona non grata thing and the banning from restaurants thing does bring up some issues relating to free speech, but I don't think too many people would mind if Cannes banned a genuine anti-Semite from participating in the festival. For instance, if, hypothetically, Mel Gibson made a movie and tried to air it at the festival the folks at Cannes would certainly be justified in turning him down, or, at the very least, not giving him a standing ovation. Oh, wait a minute.

Unlike standing ovation recipient Mel Gibson, food non-recipient Lars Von Trier was likely kidding when he made his anti-Semitic remarks. He has a reputation of making dour, serious, pretentious movies and then giving light-hearted, jokey interviews that make fun of his film-making reputation. Earlier in the interview, he said that his next movie was going to be a three-hour porno about the schism between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches. Then there's the whole "I thought I was a jew, but then I found out I was a Nazi" thing. When he gets to the "I understand Hitler" bit, Kirsten Dunst starts to get weirded out, and Lars reassures her "there will come a point at the end of this", suggesting that he had a clever punchline in mind that he forgot. So really, it's just a bombed joke rather than serious sentiments.

Or is it?

The big problem with both of these things is that the artists are straddling this line between irony and sincerity, and it's not quite clear which. Maybe Tyler, the Creator really is a misogynistic, homophobic cetafur, or maybe he's a cetafur who's pretending to be misogynistic and homophobic. Lars Von Trier has made a career of never being clear whether he's being serious or not. For instance, Von Trier claims that the reason he's never been to America is because he's afraid of flying. Yet one of his first films was this music video.

As "Springtime for Hitler" shows us, fake bigotry can be perfectly enjoyable. But when people straddle the line like this there's always a danger that you'll inadvertently defend Carlos Mencia because you've convinced yourself that he's being ironic. That sort of thing can make it hard to judge whether Tyler and Lars should be buried or praised.

But, as this is a Smackdown, we must declare a winner.

And the winner is . . . well, actually, there is a way to distinguish irony from sincerity. You can ask them. When Siouxsie Sioux got in trouble for wearing a Nazi dominatrix outfit at a concert, she apologized and clarified that her intent was to do a bdsm cosplay thing, not to endorse Naziism. Varg Vikernes, on the other hand, can go fuck himself. So to decide whether Tyler, the Creator and Lars Von Trier are rotten bigots or subversive geniuses we better see how they handled their respective epic hip-hop feuds.

Lars apologized for his behavior, saying “I like provocations when they have a purpose. And this had no purpose whatsoever,” and “the Holocaust is the worst crime against humanity that I can remember”. Most importantly, he said “I’m not Mel Gibson. I’m definitely not Mel Gibson.” He didn't rap about how the organizers of Cannes are fags, but I suppose this is the next best thing. And it does provide further evidence to the "I was trying to tell a joke and forgot the punchline" theory.

Tyler responded to Sara Quinn by tweeting "If Tegan And Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!" Now that's just pathetic. It would be one thing if you rapped about how Tegan and Sara were fags (which would be factually correct), but tweeting? Come on! Lars Von Trier wins!


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