Last week, I bought a tiny portable MP3 player to replace my big old busted one. I’d gone without music on my commutes, rides and runs for a while there, maybe two years. I liked being out and about in the world without tunes in my ears. I seemed to take in more — see more, hear more, observe more in general. There were no soundtracks to my travels, but I had other things going for me: I noticed some subtly striking people, eavesdropped on a few dramatic conversations, heard some phenomenal busking, and caught important announcements about rerouted trains.
A few weeks ago, I began to envy all the subway riders with white wires falling from their ears. It all started with a man I saw on a downtown 1 train. It was late at night and the man seemed to have just gotten off work on the subway tracks; he wore heavy boots, dirty jeans and a reflective safety vest, and he carried a lantern. His arms and face glistened. And he was listening to music, hip-hop from what I could hear. But he wasn’t just listening to music. He was singing and bopping along with it — dancing, really — and he looked as if he felt extremely good. At the very least, he didn’t care too much about restraint, about playing it cool in the sleepy car. That, to me, is an enviable state. How many of us are really spontaneously ourselves — happy, mad, or whatever — when we travel alone on the subway?
“…yuh brain will get float in/with the big millie fourteen/meh gun carry copper, no calcium, no protein/so yah dead when eh soak en/when meh did ah run town wit meh gun in meh short jeans/you there, ah country ah plant green…” — Vybz Kartel, “Badda Dan Dem”
After seeing the man enjoying music on the train, I took more notice of people who appeared to be enjoying themselves and their music as they went about their business. There’s a man I see on a bus I often take; he wears huge headphones and plays his music — jazz, mostly big band — loud enough for others to hear. It’s rare that I see a look as serene as the one on this man’s face.
So I gave in and bought an MP3 player and I’ve been having a fantastic time listening to music — hip-hop, folk, mbalax, steel drum, forró, kaiso, pop, crunk, punk, reggae, reggaetón, jazz, roots, cumbia, mashup, dancehall, you name it — everywhere I go. I don’t notice sights, sounds, or other people as much as I used to, but what I have noticed is that the songs I play most often are those that describe activities and attitudes that are truly revolting. Truly. It’s just the nastiest, most wrong stuff I’ve been listening to — mostly about murder, guns, and violence; the glories and intricacies of wealth, pimping, prostitution, and women’s bodies and bodies alone; women’s greed; and a few other vulgar subjects.
If I want my interests and entertainment choices to somehow reflect my politics — if I think women are valuable people; if I think gun laws ought to be far more stringent; if I think courts ought to regard pimps as they do rapists — if I have any principles at all, I should not be listening to this music. But “should” is a tricky word and some of the music I’ve been listening to while I walk, ride, and run seems produced to have the effect of a highly addictive stimulant. I can’t stop listening. Or I can but I don’t want to. All I’m able and willing to do is wonder how it is that something so wrong can sound so, so right.
What I’m Not Talking About
I’ve gotta get something out of the way: I might be talking mostly about dancehall and crunk, but I’m not talking about music that contains anti-gay lyrics. Beenie Man, Buju Banton, and a few other dancehallers have been censured — by both venues and sponsors — for lyrics that promote violence against gay men and women. That music, which made headlines three years ago (making it about as dated as my current tastes in music), just isn’t what I’ve been listening to. Not as far as I understand my favorite songs’ lyrics (real Jamaican patois is practically another language, so I can’t say I always understand everything I’m hearing). And I’ve also gotta say that the songs that promote violence against gay people — Buju Banton’s plodding “Boom Bye Bye,” for example — tend not to be good. Actually, those songs are just all around bad. Not just hateful, but musically inept.
What I Am Talking About
What I am talking about, again, are songs that glorify violence and, when they’re not reducing women to their most intimate parts, refer to them as hos and generally make women out to be stupid money-grubbers who are good for sex and little else. Men get it too, in different ways, just not in most of the music I’ve been listening to.
There’s a Three 6 Mafia song from six or seven years ago that I recently rediscovered; it’s titled “Sippin’ on Some Syrup” and I think it might describe an orgy featuring one drugged woman. “Orgy” might be too generous a word. It’s probably worth noting that these are the guys that appeared in Jackass: Number Two in order to watch Johnny Knoxville and his gang drink horse semen. (It’s also probably worth noting that I think the Jackass movies are absolutely brilliant.) My point is that I know that there is something seriously wrong, in so many ways, with “Sippin’ on Some Syrup.” But it’s got an amazing sound, hypnotic and tight, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to stop listening to it because my conscience tells me to.
I say I’ll be damned, but what I really am is uncertain as to whether to listen to and — more to the point — enjoy lyrics that describe points of view that don’t jibe with my own is to endorse those points of view despite my thinking self.
If It’s Not in Poor Taste, I’ll Make It So
It’s not just that I enjoy music that describes bad stuff. Even if the lyrics are vague to me in word or meaning, I’ll assume the worst and enjoy the song even more for my especially salacious sense of the lyrics. Case in point: a song I heard often on the streets of Port of Spain, Trinidad when I was there visiting family in 2000: Grenadian soca artist Tallpree’s “Old Woman Alone.” Except for the names of a few Trinidadian towns and an isolated word here and there, I barely understand one phrase of the song. But knowing soca’s calypso roots, and knowing how cleverly raunchy (and, incidentally, political) calypso can be, I assume the song is about a man’s willingness to have sex with an old woman as a favor to her and as a macho way to show his own, um, openness to women. I have no idea whether that is what the song is about. But I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly what the song is about and I like the song more for my possibly inaccurate sense of it. I like it for dealing in taboo. If it does. And why shouldn’t there be songs about virile twenty-something-year-old men having sex with elderly women? Don’t most people want some one way or another?
A better and no less dated example might be Vybz Kartel’s “Badda Dan Dem.” Here, Kartel brags about shooting down his enemies; his patois is thick and like most patois, full of humor and incredible imagery, if you can catch a word. In one of the stanzas, Kartel describes shooting the song’s addressee with his gun, a “a big millie fourteen.”; he says the gun’s bullets are copper, so they’re sure to shoot dead. I’m taken with the stanza’s last two lines: “when meh did ah run town wit meh gun in meh short jeans/you there, ah country ah plant green.”
I have no idea whether I understand those last two lines correctly, but what I hear is Kartel describing himself ruling the town (in his short jeans), carrying a gun, and imagining that the person he looks to kill would live on in the trees fed by the victim’s corpse. As I write these words, I see how awful Kartel’s images are no matter whether I have those last two lines right. Good rhymes and beats don’t get the song — or my conscience — out of trouble.
A Raspberry to Conscience. For Now.
Years ago I went to a concert — a multi-day, muddy, packed concert — Woodstock ’94, to be exact. I remember watching The Red Hot Chili Peppers play; I was close to the stage and needless to say, everyone there was jostled around, some more violently than others. I noticed one kid — he was short, thin, as high as everybody else was, and dancing around in a verging-on-moshing sort of way. He bumped repeatedly into a much taller, larger man. About halfway through the Peppers set, the large man — in my mind’s eye he’s bald and wears a goatee — seemed to have had enough. He put one hand on each of the kid’s shoulders to steady the little guy. And then he pulled one fist back and shot it forward, socking the kid directly in the face, hard. The kid stumbled back and then bent forward and slowly stood upright and lifted his head. His mouth and jaw were covered with blood. He looked at the man who’d just punched him, puffed his cheeks, stuck out his tongue, and blew the big guy the biggest, best raspberry I’ve ever seen, especially impressive for all the blood and head-shaking involved. The big guy looked stunned. And that was it. The little guy continued dancing, blood dribbling and swaying about in long, gooey tendrils. The big guy left him alone after that.
There was a way in which the little guy seemed to really enjoy his own humiliation. The moment was just too good, too raw to engage his sense of what was good for him. I was sure he wanted to get socked again.
I think I might know the kid’s enjoyment — or something like it — when I happily mouth the words to certain songs, the ones I’ve been playing over and over. In the moment I’m listening to them, I really don’t care how offensive and ethically bankrupt the lyrics are. I more than don’t care. I want more: more clever, more crude, more taboo, more.
— Suzanne Menghraj