Monday, August 29, 2011
With its thirtieth birthday now a month gone, MTV shows no sign of pulling its head out of its own... well, you know. The network's version of "controversy" used to actually reflect a dynamism in music that MTV was okay with. Given, the executives' and programmers' comfort with music and culture's leaps forward in the '80s and '90s was always uneasy. But there was once room enough for the Nirvanas of the world, for the Chuck D's and Lauryn Hills. These were acts that caused controversy to an end--normally discussions over the role of music in the world, leading into issues of race, youth, gender, sometimes class too.
That side of MTV died a long time ago, and it was strangled by a broader consolidation in the music industry--the inability to evolve with the Internet, the rise of Clear Channel, the buying up of independent labels by more powerful entities. Really, one can't call the shenanigans that drop every year at the Video Music Awards controversy anymore--staged immaturity is more like it. Kanye West's stunt two years ago, rushing Taylor Swift's acceptance speech was a good example. The anti-Kanye backlash notwithstanding, it was sound and fury signifying nothing.
But the big news from last night's VMAs was Tyler the Creator's big win for Best New Artist. Tyler, of course, is one of the main movers behind Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Controversy certainly continues to swirl around the group's graphic lyrical depictions of rape, gay-bashing and other sundry varietals of violence. Now those lyrics have the rubber stamp of the highest heights of the mainstream.
Never mind that Odd Future have put zero sweat into the underground hip-hop community, unlike most other talented MCs who have to climb a real ladder and figure out what does and doesn't work before hitting the big-time. On the contrary, the group simply started releasing stuff online. Pitchfork seized on their material, and now MTV. Talented they most certainly are; that can't be disputed. Their credibility at the grassroots, however, is thinner than that of Vanilla Ice.
And really, the corollary is telling. One of the most common explanations for Odd Future's lyrical content is that they're simply parodying the white hipster disconnect with rap. It's a flimsy excuse, if for no other reason than it puts the white middle-class at the center of a style that has always been rooted in the struggle against invisibility for young working people of color.
Still, if this is the rationale for OFWGKTA's existence, then it's enough for MTV. The music business has always found it easier to reward music that fits within the confines of stereotype than that which breaks down boundaries. Tyler and the rest have spent the past year being sealed the bubble of the biz so that they haven't had to face the pressure from their peers they may otherwise have to. This is the icing on that cake.
As for Tyler himself, he has always compared Odd Future more to the shock of the Sex Pistols than any other rap act. That's informative. The more vile elements of the Pistols' shock aesthetic were challenged--specifically the swastikas. It's harder to challenge someone, however, when their whole existence as an artist is artificially reinforced by the industry's own predilections. Tyler also has said that he's wanted a VMA since he was nine. That in itself is a deal with the devil, and the devil is always glad to have an extra soul in its clutches.
My article on fighting hate in music, which specifically takes up the meaning of Odd Future, will be published later this week on SocialistWorker.org.