The Austerity Program’s Justin Foley Wonders: Is It Okay to Listen to Music Made by People Who You Think Are Bad Folks?
Ho ho ho, it must be Christmas time, because Santa Claus is back on the cover of major magazines. Or, at least, Varg Vikernes was giving me an asymmetrical leer from the cover of this month’s Decibel. I do not envy J Bennett’s charge of having to write that piece – I have met J a few times, he’s my kind of people, and writing this “guess who’s outta jail” bit is a landmine. Still, I was disappointed that he spent more time reporting what was happening in some messageboards than tackling the most compelling question about Burzum and the music community: is it okay to listen to music made by people who you think are bad folks?
Let me say that this goes well beyond Burzum or my like/dislike for VV and his music. I’ve got a number of records made by people who say things I don’t like or do things I don’t like. And I get the sense that a bunch of people in strong, self-identified communities (straight edge, fundamentalist Christian, anarchist, Juggalo, some self-hating mix of all four, etc.) are often uncomfortable with copping to liking music that’s not a part of that shared ethos. So think for a moment beyond the guy peering at you from the top of your mail pile/stuff-I-stole-from-Borders-this-month pile and consider how we separate the artist from the art from the message.
It’s a thorny question. On one hand: if it’s music that you really enjoy, why deny yourself that experience? On the other: why would you want to support someone who inspires ambivalence or even revulsion? I’ve been going back and forth over this in my mind since reading through that article and I think I’ve come to something like a conclusion.
Most clearly, I think people should buy whatever music they can afford that they are curious about. It’s nuts to think or expect that the listener should be fully aware of the intent of something even before they get a chance to listen to it.
But, even further, I think people are perfectly justified in buying something that deals in subjects that are sick, wrong or immoral. In my band I sing a bunch about people dying, doing things that they know are wrong, or treating people in ways that they shouldn’t. Someone might object to that as my saying I’m advocating what I’m singing about and I would rightfully call their criticism infantile. Singers, musicians, artists should absolutely deal with the subject matter that compels them without the expectation that they must only present their own values. And the listener shouldn’t be expected to wade through figuring out if the guy really means it.
But, even further further, I think people are perfectly justified in buying something that they know they find immoral. I’ll be honest – unlike many folk who talk about the importance of values, I actually take values very seriously. I truly believe that the most important thing that what I (or anyone else) do in life is whether or not I live according to my clearly held beliefs. And that may relate to the one thing I love most about music: not whether or not it meets an ethical standard – it’s one of the few places in life where that’s not important. The most valuable musical moments for me, as a listener, have taken me to a place outside of moral judgment – jarred from reality in hearing a part of a song for the first time, pounding the roof of my car as I’m driving and screaming along, overwhelmed at a show by a overwhelming force that changes my sense time and space. And so it’s not a moral consideration to listen to music made by someone who is truly evil to see where it takes me as a listener.
Last, you’ll notice that I said ‘buying something’. It is a weak-ass argument to suggest that the content of music makes it more or less okay to share. The decibel article notes that the head of Earache provided a download link to the new Burzum record, something he does not do for the records on Earache. This may seem outrageous, but it’s not so outrageous that others probably don’t do the same kind of thing: “I’ll happily torrent the RaHoWa CD I got because fuck those guys, but I would never do that for Fugazi.” I say – be consistent, regardless of how much you may like or respect the people behind the thing you’re listening to. (If you read that as a judgment on file sharing, it wasn’t. Read it again. If you still think that’s what I said then I didn’t explain myself well.)
I guess this has its limits, though. Buying music made by people that you really think are evil means appreciating the music they make in an honest way. Seeing them live? Sure, probably. Buying a t-shirt? Well, you gotta draw the line somewhere and that’s about where I would start. It’s one thing to listen to the music for what it is. But you’re moving to the point of advocacy when you’re spending your money or broadcasting what they’re about beyond just that.
And as with all hypothetical moral arguments it’s best to keep some perspective on this. I was in La Guardia Airport the other day with a delayed flight. This guy pulled up to the urinal next to me with a Graveland hoodie, an R Kelly armband, a tattoo across the back of his neck that said “Jerry Lee Lewis” and he was humming a fucking Billy Joel song. I was disgusted as this human billboard of depravity but I just had to know: “where you going?”
“Are you kidding me?” he said. “Thousands of people have lost all hope in an earthquake. I’ve finally saved up enough money for a one way ticket to Port Au Prince where I’m going to help rebuild schools. Good thing I’ve got the new Burzum record to keep me company.”
Germs be damned, I happily reached over and gave him a handshake. “You’re my hero.”
Next week: More Taco Riff Stuff.
Justin Foley plays guitar and sings for the Austerity Program. Their record Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn is out 5/4/10. Visit them online at www.austerityprogram.com. All messages about urban bike riding, vegetarian BBQ and monetary policy will be answered first.