Anyone following the political news this Wednesday learned of a fresh controversy at the White House: Michelle Obama had invited a vile, thuggish rapper to a poetry reading. Everyone who follows music laughed out loud at who this sinister figure turned out to be: Common, the cuddly Chicago artist who’s appeared in Gap commercials and Tina Fey movies and even visited Sesame Street. He’s pious enough to have once released a single called “I Used to Love H.E.R.”—his own conservative lament that hip-hop had turned toward violence and nihilism. Charges of thuggery were mostly just typical, cynical point-scoring by people who know precisely how easy it is to convince some Americans that a black rapper they’ve never heard of is a violent goon. It’s a familiar political move that has a strange side effect: I’m actually pretty sure that every last bit of grandstanding about offensive music has only wound up making music more offensive than ever.
You can trace this back to 1985, when Tipper Gore helped instigate a Senate hearing on “porn rock,” indecency, and the possibility that subliminal satanic messages were coded into pop records. The proceedings were goofy and alarmist; the main thing they demonstrated was the organizers’ hilariously tenuous grasp on the music in question. But music lovers took from them a lasting and significant lesson: that objecting to lyrics was the province of censorious busybodies with no idea what they’re talking about. To this day, anyone criticizing a record on moral grounds risks being told that they “sound like Tipper Gore.” (Search her name on Twitter and see.) In the decades since her investigations, musicians and listeners have spent so much of their time defending the concept of art and free self-expression—against attacks that range from the clueless to the opportunistic to the borderline racist—that some of us have been trained out of bringing our own disapproval to bear. If talk-show blowhards and fearmongering local-news producers will invent bogus reasons to consider music depraved, why fuel the fire by giving them real ones? We reach our own informed conclusions about art that’s homophobic, misogynist, or otherwise ethically unpleasant, but the world conspires to make us feel silly about sharing them.
Don’t misunderstand: Music lovers are and have always been more than capable of working through moral quandaries publicly. They just tend to do it in a way that’s nuanced, argumentative, and worth protecting from grandstanding outsiders—for the same reasons we don’t let toddlers join in presidential debates. The best evidence conservatives could find against Common was a poem in which he expressed mundane anti-state sentiments, nothing you wouldn’t hear at a tea-party rally. But hip-hop fans had already helped shame the rapper into renouncing a genuine problem with his catalogue, one conservatives can’t mention: a scatter of homophobic insults he’d dropped during the nineties. And last week, critics took to the task of dismantling the juvenile misogyny of a new record from an underground rapper called Tyler, the Creator, too many of whose lyrics involve first-person depictions of rape—but when his Boston record-signing turned into a mob scene, it drew out the usual appalled tut-tutting about hooligan rap fans. It’s the kind of thing that only makes reasonable criticism rarer. None of us wants to sound like those people.