Tyler, The Creator and the Question of Offensive Art
A lot of ink has been spilled on Odd Future, Tyler, The Creator and the difficult balance of liking music while being disgusted with its contents. Most recently, Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara asked in an open letter on the band’s website, “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?”
Her questions are fair ones—particularly with so much of Tyler’s scorn aimed at gays and women. There’s also plenty of vitriol for Jesus, other rappers, Bruno Mars, the white kids who listen to his music and his father. It’s an angry album that declares “God is the cancer” and “rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome.” Tyler employs the worst possible cop-killing, misogynist, Nazi fantasies to piss off his critics, and raps about his critics calling him out on it: “Oh that’s a triple three six, isn’t he a devil worshiper? / Cause I’m too fucking ignorant to do some research? … What you think I record it for? / To have a bunch a critics to call my shit a bunch of horrorcore?”
Of course, he saves some of the worst missives for himself, as the entire record is a raging therapy session with his own conscience. He calls himself a “Grammy-winning schizophrenic fucking orphan,” while his alter-ego Tron Cat says, “Tyler you’ve obviously got some fucking problems.”
And as much as any innovation in the music, it’s the lyrics that have had a number of critics tripping over themselves to sing Tyler’s praises. He’s saying horrible things, but he’s saying them artfully. There have been few better articulations of uncontainable anger and self-loathing in any genre since NWA came on the scene. And with Ice Cube making terrible kids movies, it’s no wonder that music writers have taken up the Odd Future banner. Tyler has even recorded his own version of “Fuck the Police.”
Of course, getting caught on the anti- side of any particular rapper isn’t enticing. When Fox News is able to stir up controversy over a White House invitation to someone as positive as Common, it’s hard to get fired up about a hate-spewing emcee. And there’s the Johnny Cash line of defense, arguing that when he sang “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” we didn’t get confused that Johnny’s actually condoning murder. Tyler raps explicitly that none of this is real—he’s not going to kill anyone and that “If anything happens, don’t blame me, white America.”
“They don’t know me; they don’t get it,” Tyler added to The New York Times, speaking of his critics. “Weren’t they 18 years old at some point, just having fun?”
But NWA’s beef with police brutality and Johnny’s role-playing are still so much more justifiable than the nihilist venom coming out of Tyler’s mouth—there’s having fun and digging at your critics and there’s the contents of Goblin. I think Sara’s right to jump off this bandwagon.
It’s not a terrible thing for us to be shocked every once in a while, and Tyler, The Creator and the rest of Odd Future are a reminder of very real anger. And to be fair, most of the critical acclaim hasn’t been blind in its praise. But I still can’t join in the refrain. There’s too much real hatred of gays and women—and everyone else—in the world to give a free pass when it pops up in music.
Tyler may have made something artful and original and clever, but that doesn’t make it good. It’s a shame that his rise to fame has been predicated by his ability to shock. His talent is undeniable, but a huge part of what makes any art compelling to me is what it says. Even the most evil ideas can look pretty.