On discomfort with entertainment

AZ1XOjJCAAAgir_.jpg_largeLemme tell you an uncomfortable story.  I don’t particularly like this story but it’s relevant so I’m gonna.

It is, oh, probably late 1998 sometime.  I’m in my first quarter as a grad student at the University of Chicago.  There are a lot of things I was good at in college; going to parties was never really one of them.  It is odd, therefore, that I am at a party right now, and furthermore a party full of people who I only barely know, as our program has only just started, and– wonder among wonders– I am having fun.  Quite a bit of fun, as it turns out, as several other people at the party have turned out to be huge fans of late eighties and nineties-era hiphop, and it is blaring on the stereo as our story begins.  I am sitting next to another guy who has also just started at U of C and is loosely in the same Divinity school program I am; I haven’t talked to him in many years, but I suspect he is either a college professor or a stylite now.

(EDIT:  Looked him up.  College professor.)

We are having a grand old time.  Pimpin’ ain’t easy by Big Daddy Kane comes on the rotation.  We both have the song memorized.  We are rapping.  There is nothing better than Divinity School students rapping, by the way.

Do you happen to know this song?  You may know where I’m headed right now.  I need to emphasize this:  we are being loud.  It’s a loud party, mind you, but we’re on our third or fourth song in a row at this point and whoever is choosing the music is clearly egging us along.

We hit this verse:

I see trim and I bag it, take it home and rag it
The Big Daddy law is anti-faggot

There was not actually a needle scratch at that time, and the party did not actually come to a screeching, silent halt.  That said, the beat drops away for the words “anti-faggot,” so they’re especially pronounced and hard to miss.  But the two of us stopped, as what we had just said hit both of us at the same time, just in time for the next few lines of the song:

That means no homosexuality;
What’s in my pants’ll make you see reality
And if you wanna see a smooth black Casanova — BEND OVAH!

“My God, that’s terrible,” one of us said.  I think it was me.

That was fifteen years ago (Jesus!) and I’m still more than a little ashamed of it.

Relevant:  the hostess of the party was the first out lesbian (first “out” person of any gender, actually) who I’d ever called a friend*.  I’m going to say this now without any idea of whether it’s actually true, but it was my perception at the time: IU had had a decent-sized gay community, but there was an unofficial “gay dorm” at IU and while I had known a couple of gay people through class I didn’t hang out with any of them.  Alicia and I were talking about working-class lesbian bars during our first conversation, so the atmosphere was a trifle different at U of C.

(* 24 HOURS LATER EDIT: this is not true; I had at least one good friend who identified as gay in college. I had forgotten because the last I checked she was dating a guy. But in college she was definitely at least mostly into girls.)

Also relevant:  I’m pretty sure it was her music collection we were listening to.  There’s a small chance she’ll read this, as we’re Facebook friends; she can correct me if she wants. I don’t remember paying any particular social penalty for what happened– I’m pretty sure she and the other guy are still friends, and no one appeared to get mad at us.  But it stuck with me anyway.

Here’s what got me thinking about this story, and yes, I’m using Scalzi to generate a post again.  I’ve talked several times around here about where my personal lines are on what sorts of entertainment and what sorts of businesses I’ll support with my money.  But John’s focus on what “problematic” (his word) artifacts you have enjoyed got me thinking. This isn’t about refusing to see Mel Gibson movies or eat at Chick-Fil-A; it’s about stuff that I know is fucked up and I like anyway.  I can’t really listen to Big Daddy Kane anymore because the subject matter gets to me.  But I can’t stop myself from rapping along if, say, something comes up on random play– and I should point out that It’s a Big Daddy Thing and Long Live the Kane remain on my hard drive, along with no doubt any amount of other problematic rap songs, a lot of which don’t have “It was 1989!” to excuse them any longer.

I dunno.  I don’t play them around other people and I won’t be letting my son listen to them.  I don’t– well, not often– deliberately choose to listen to them.  But it ain’t like it would be difficult to hit delete and I haven’t done that yet either.

The last time I read The Lord of the Rings I did it with a particular eye toward looking for racism.  I know that Tolkien catches a lot of abuse for the racism in his books and having read them a thousand times I find it overblown.  One of my other favorite authors, on the other hand, is H. P. Lovecraft, who was undeniably a big ole’ racist and I love his stories anyway.  Then again, they’re both dead, and they’ve both been dead a long time; long enough that if I’d used extra Os in the first long there nobody would criticize me for it.  Does that excuse them?  Does it excuse me?

I dunno.  I hope so?

(Also: While a lot of the music I was listening to in late elementary and middle school and high school and since then was horrifyingly homophobic and sexist, I feel compelled to point out that I was eating up the anti-white/Afrocentric stuff just as much as everything else.  Professor Griff got a lot of rotation from me back then, along with X-Clan and a few others.  So I didn’t necessarily shy away from stuff that was critiquing me.  I don’t know what that says about me or if it’s relevant but I may as well throw it in.  I would not be the person I am today if I hadn’t started listening to Boogie Down Productions in fifth grade.  Hiphop, for whatever it’s worth, is baked into my soul in a lot of ways.  That includes both the good stuff and the bad.)

(Also also: the most recent example of liking problematic things?  True Detective, clearly, which was, to put it charitably, unkind to its female characters and utterly dismissive toward people of color.  I recognize these things, will not argue with people who disliked the show because of them, and loved the show regardless.  Which is an expression of my own privilege, granted.  I’m recognizing it, admit it, and… don’t really know what to do about it, if indeed I even need to.)

4 thoughts on “On discomfort with entertainment

  1. Its amazing to me the stuff that slips by the personal censorship. I love HPLC but understand that a lot of the racism is a product of the settings of his stories and sadly cement the period realism. Musically, theres a lot that gets glossed over from my collection if Im mp3 J ing. I am more embarassed by my loretta lynn and conway than my NWA though.

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  2. There’s enjoying something while acknowledging its problematic parts, enjoying a thing while ignoring its problematic parts, and enjoying a thing because of its problematic parts. All we can hope for is to do more good than evil in the world, try to repair what evil we’ve done, and be aware. Lovecraft gets more of a pass from me than modern writers who are racists, misogynists, or homophobes. It’s hard to be more evolved than your time. Though some people manage it, I certainly don’t. People are flawed. Perfection only exists in Mathematics.

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