Music on Trial: Popular artists are all about that bass, and lyrical freedom

Miley, Britney, Kesha and Justin Bieber are widely controversial artists. They have each had their ups and downs, including run-ins with law enforcement, questionable personal choices and provocative projects. Many people recognize the influence of celebrities and heavily criticize those who put forth a negative image.

It seems quite logical that the more popular an artist, the more widespread his or her message will be and the more influence it will have on the general population. The phrase “it takes a village” holds truth in that everyone has some impact when it comes to shaping Generation Z. But should impact necessarily mean responsibility, particularly in a society that values so highly rights to speak and act freely?

In arguments against publicizing negative celebrity viewpoints, critics often cite the popularity of certain artists as reasons to be careful of the images and ideals they put forth, but what this criticism fails to recognize is the volatility of the music industry. Can you say you knew Meghan Trainor six months ago? “All About That Bass” is controversial in many ways, and yet it has been near the top of the Billboard Top 100 for 18 weeks, while Miley isn’t on it at all.

Let’s take a second to talk about why “All About That Bass” is arguably problematic, for those of you who are shaking your head saying, “it’s a beautiful song about body image; what’s your problem?” One of the lyrics mid-song says, “I’m bringing booty back/ Go ahead and tell them skinny b*tches that . . . No, I’m just playing.”

So, yes, she took the time to acknowledge that she shouldn’t be skinny shaming, but there are two problems. First, “no, I’m just playing” is so quiet it is practically background noise – an afterthought – thoroughly undermining the work it does to save Trainor from her own implied prejudice. Second, it is sort of like saying “no offense.” Has anyone ever done that to you? “No offense, but… you could stand to participate/exercise/work harder/do better/etc.”

Trainor did not expect the song to go anywhere and wrote the “skinny b*tches” lyric as a joke. So how do we account for negative messages that are spread by artists who had no idea how popular their songs would become? What responsibility do musical artists have to the community? It’s a tough question to address, but let me try.

Music is art. If we lump music in with other arts, rhetorical and visual, we should treat it as such. There are paintings and novels galore that tell gruesome stories, use vile language and depict sexual activity or violence. Other media explore elements of sexual and physical subjects through erotic poetry, nude figure drawing and even pornography. The complexity of, and emotional reactions to, this provocative subject matter lead artists to continually experiment with it in their work.

The music industry is primarily different from these other media because music gains popularity in a way that no other medium does. It is easily accessible via the Internet, the radio and almost any store’s PA system. Musicians are the face of their art like no other creator. We make excuses for actors, because, generally, they didn’t write the film. Authors tell stories which rarely have visuals, and books are not often forced upon people we college kids are in a special, controlled environment.

Given the freedom of speech and art of expression, along with the fact that no other industry operates quite the same way music does, I think it is only fair to allot musicians the same artistic freedoms other artists receive. If you don’t like the music, you can choose not to listen. If something like “skinny b*tches” stirs the pot, as it has, we all have the opportunity to express our opinions on the matter in order to learn what to watch out for the next time a well-intentioned artist with a foolish lyric or two comes along.

christeg@stolaf.edu

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