A teenage musical phenom records songs and videos on his computer, builds a dedicated fanbase through the quasi-meritocracy known as the Internet, and shortly afterward skyrockets to mainstream superstardom. We’ve seen this movie before, some of us even in 3-D: it’s called Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. But with next week’s release of one of the year’s most anticipated albums, Goblin, this might also become the story of Tyler, the Creator, the leader of the notorious, iconoclastic L.A. rap group Odd Future.
To speak ill of Tyler right now – let alone compare him to The Bieb – is enough to give plenty of music critics heart palpitations. Over the past year or so, Tyler and Odd Future (birth name: Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All) have existed beneath a halo of buzz, composed of countless Wu-Tang comparisons, a few Sex Pistols comparisons, and an avalanche of online thinkpieces, most of which delve into some Very Important Questions. Can mild-mannered people enjoy violent music? What happens when an up-and-coming musical artist bucks the label system and uses the Internet to distribute music for free? What happens when adult white music critics create the critical narrative for a group of black teenagers? And also, are we allowed to like artists who glorify rape, as Tyler and his OFWGKTA cohorts do? This last question has been, arguably, the stickiest of the lot. And what’s made me feel more uncomfortable than any of Earl Sweatshirt’s verses have is that, with a few exceptions, it’s been asked and answered almost entirely by men.
This shouldn’t be terribly shocking. Much like filmmaking, composing, and the World Beard and Moustache Championship, music criticism is still an overwhelmingly male-dominated sphere. There are, of course, plenty of terrific female music writers challenging this imbalance, but the fact is that we are still in the minority, both at music magazines and in the publishing world at large.
And now, here’s a statement that I can’t back up with a pie chart, but hear me out: I suspect that women also read music criticism less than men do. I have developed this hypothesis through two highly subjective measurements: the feedback I get from my own readers, and conversations I’ve had with some of my best female friends over pizza. My findings: most of these readers are guys, and most of my best female friends don’t read music writing on a regular basis. I find this troubling and, as a woman who walks around in a near-constant state of stupefaction over all the wonderful things my male and female colleagues write about music, I don’t understand it. I tried to come up with a theory: Is it the inclusive notion of critical objectivity? For some women I talked to, this seemed to be the case. I asked some of my feminist friends: Are you less likely to read music reviews because the tone of their address often presumes that you already agree with male-defined value judgments about What Is Good, and as someone critical of all systems of male-defined hegemony, you don’t feel addressed by them because you don’t agree with what you’re already presumed to agree? “Mhmmmm,” almost all of them said. I wished they could have elaborated, but their mouths were full of pizza.
As a critic, I so badly want to eradicate this imbalance, to make more women write about music and to make more women feel more represented when they read about it, but I fear that the recent beatification of Odd Future is not helping either of these causes. This is because so many of the things written about them simply reflect back at female readers and listeners dynamics already prevalent in our misogynistic culture: how rape is constantly trivialized and misunderstood, and how speaking and writing critically about violence against women often precludes women other More Important conversations happening elsewhere.
In the past six months alone, the news in this country has felt a little bit like dialogue lifted from a Margaret Atwood novel. There was of course that ridiculous phrase in the wholly ridiculous HR-3 (the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act) – that the bill’s prohibitions don’t apply “if the pregnancy occurred because the pregnant female was the subject of an act of forcible rape.” In one fell, adjectival swoop, the bill’s authors (spoiler: two white dudes) reinforced on the House floor the idea that rape isn’t a big deal unless it’s “forcible rape,” and, for that matter, that there can be a type of rape that isn’t forcible. There was also a much-criticized New York Times piece in which a reporter (also male) recounted the gang rape of an 11-year-old girl in terms that felt more critical of the victim than her assailants (“They said the girl dressed older than her age, wearing make-up and fashions more appropriate of a girl in her 20s.” “Where was the mother? What was she thinking?” a neighbor wondered.) And the Internet flooded with loathsome comments at the news of journalist Lara Logan’s sexual assault in Cairo, some of which cost war journalist Nir Rosen his job at NYU’s Center on Law and Security. It feels almost surreal to have to ask, but which do you think is more distressing: the fact that someone felt the need to create an online poll asking “Is Lara Logan to blame for her sexual assault?”, or the fact that over 5,000 people (52%) answered “yes”?
My point is not just that people say all sorts of detestable things about women and rape, but that the boundaries of these conversations are largely defined and policed by men. To be fair, there are plenty of men doing vital and wonderful work to question and challenge sexism and the boundaries of rape discourse. But women’s voices are vital in these conversations, too, and sometimes I fear they get drowned out when there are too many male voices in the mix. These conversations also become stratified based on gender; we saw it pretty clearly in the things written about Julian Assange in the wake of the rape accusations against him. Those who wrote about the Assange accusations and what they revealed about rape culture (like online activist Sady Doyle) were often seen as writing about an outlying, niche “women’s issue,” while those who could “see past” the rape issue were able to debate “masculine” issues like democracy, privacy and freedom of the press.
I see this same stratification happening in the conversations surrounding Odd Future, too: those who reject their misogynistic worldview are seen as squeamish or easily offended – niche, feminist critics with opinions that don’t reflect the music establishment at large. Obviously, unlike Assange, no one’s implying that the guys of Odd Future really are rapists; they’re making art that highlights lurid and graphically detailed rape fantasies. And music critics haven’t exactly glorified this aspect of OFWGKTA’s music; in fact, most have written (and some very compellingly) of their uneasiness about enjoying songs that seem to revel in violence against women. And yet, after these internal debates, they all seem to come around, to say that the rape imagery is something we should “look past,” and that once we do, we’ll see the true value of Odd Future’s music. The near-unanimous opinion can be most pithily summed up by the title of the NPR Music article (written by a woman, Frannie Kelley), “Why You Should Listen to the Rap Group Odd Future, Even Though It’s Hard.” And though Kelley’s piece seems to be arguing against people who disagree, I’ve yet to hear a convincing argument as to why we shouldn’t listen to Odd Future.
Having spilt over 1,000 words on them at this point, I’d be lying if I said I’m not intrigued by Tyler and the rest of Odd Future: there’s something exciting about their gleeful commitment to DIY ethos, their embrace of the macabre, and their rebellion against the materialistic status quo of mainstream hip-hop (“I created OF ‘cause I felt that we were more talented than 40-year-old rappers talking about Gucci,” Tyler raps on the lead-off track on his mixtape Bastard). I think that most of their intrigue, though, lies in the critical narrative surrounding them; I’m still largely unconvinced that any of them are great emcees. Maybe Goblin will change my mind, but I have to say that I anticipate its release with a bit of a wince. I see the beginnings of a new, more inclusive and heterogeneous type of music criticism developing online (this especially feels true this week, after the release of the late feminist rock critic Ellen Willis’s collected essays and a highly publicized conference about her legacy), and I want as many women to enter that conversation as men. How do we make this happen? I think we can start by carving out more space for dissenting opinions, holding two-sided discussions about misogyny in music, and – though I realize I haven’t helped further this seemingly impossible cause – find some other artists to write about who aren’t Odd Future.