The emotive power of music isn’t a phenomenon that needs explanation or justification. It’s clear that the reason music shows up in every culture in the world is because it is a shared language that has the power to move people, says Justine Cullinan.
There are strong correlations between how we see ourselves and our taste in music. But what does our taste in music imply about us? If I’m a Chris ‘Breezy’ Brown fan, does that mean I support violence against women? If I listen to Iggy Pop, am I endorsing drug use? If I buy a ticket to Justin Bieber (and admit it), am I suggesting that it’s ok for my niece (who is a massive fan) to drive recklessly and assault people?
It is important to separate the artist’s work from who they are as an individual. The relationship between a musician’s work and their beliefs is necessarily a closer one than say what an accountant produces and their beliefs. A musician’s ideas and personal experiences often go into the music they write and perform. It is that emotive and personal expression that makes us listen to and declare our love for it. Some people have an easier time separating who they are from what they do. It is prudent to afford that privilege to musicians as well.
Looking beyond the realm of music, most people don’t buy into a person or a brand wholeheartedly. We are critical consumers who watch carefully when brands produce products that don’t fit into our frame of reference and we criticise changes we don’t like. We don’t believe in every policy that the political party we support puts on the table. We don’t agree with every decision our parents make and we don’t like every song an artist produces. We are constantly filtering information and making choices that reinforce our sense of self. Who we are is constructed, not inherited. The music we like is not a vote of support for the artist’s personal decisions and actions in his or her own life. I like Chris Brown’s music, but I don’t support his views on women.
If we look at the number of Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA) complaints that are raised by the South African public, lots of people are concerned about what DJs say on-air. The BCCSA’s registrars are a busy bunch of people responding to and making judgements on complaints across more than 235 radio stations. But the public seems to be silent on the actual music that is played on radio stations. An on-air presenter can be taken to task on a balanced discussion around a contentious issue, like breastfeeding in public or the death penalty, but very few people stop listening to a song like Chris Brown’s ‘Ayo’ or stop buying tickets to see him perform live. So what’s the difference?
The difference is that our on-air presenters are our friends and companions and their role is to represent the diverse views of the audiences they talk to and are doing a job when they are on-air. Their radio show is what they do. Who they are, and their personal beliefs and actions, needs to be on their own time. If we start passing moral judgements on individuals whose work we consume, then we are going to come up against some complex dilemmas that imply we are prescribing a level of normality that a diverse population will never be able to comply with as though there is a singular moral code, which is simply not a reality.
When an artist’s actions in private echo into the public sphere, such as they did with Chris Brown, each one of us has the choice to listen to that music or not. That is a choice we are empowered to make because it is not prescribed and pre-decided as ‘right’ by a greater body of people. We can make up our own minds, and we should apply thought and consideration to that privilege. In a recent survey conducted on hollywoodlife.com over 70% of respondents agreed that Chris Brown should clean up the language in his music. And in his personal life, unto a billionaire bad boy, is a beautiful little girl born. And Chris is feeling bad about the lyrics in songs he can never take back. Good luck to him on Royal’s 16th birthday.
Justine Cullinan (@shoeshanista) is station manager for 5FM