<disclaimer>Before I go any further, I want to stress that I don’t want to imply that I think badly of any of the artists I’m about to mention; I think they are just unfortunate examples of a greater issue. </disclaimer>
A couple of weeks ago, I started noticing a flurry of posts of a new song on Facebook and Twitter amongst my friends. I had never heard of the artist, so I thought I had better check it out. As the resident music-head of most of my friends, I couldn’t be caught clueless! I clicked on one of the links and started listening to it. I was immediately drawn in by the unusually sparse production and the power of the singer’s voice. By the end of the first chorus, I was pretty hooked. Then the second verse started, with a woman singing “Now and then I think of all the times you screwed me over”.
And right there – in that one line – I went from loving the song to cursing it. I distinctly remember saying, out loud, “Dammit! Why did they have to go there?”
So what’s my problem with the song(Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know”, in case you hadn’t figured it out), anyway? Why did I have such a strong reaction?
The answer: In that moment, the song went from being a broody, hurt, suffery message to one of near outright spite. I became almost ill – sick to may stomach in the same way I respond to overt anger, or when I see people being hateful to one another. And all of it was heightened by the fact that the song was, well, it was so damn GOOD. Musically, anyway.
Now, I TOTALLY understand feeling hurt by someone, and writing music about it. Hell, I wrote an entire double album on my 4-track recorder in college after a bad breakup. But as I (hopefully) grow my awareness of how we all affect one another in this world, I’ve started to really look at how powerful and potent music can be; the question is, what are the musicians of the world using that potency to promote? Are we using the profoundly subliminal medium of song lyrics to teach and encourage love, or are we preaching intolerance, hatred, and distrust in our fellow humans?
Over the past 10-15 years, there’s been so much hype surrounding the overtly violent and racial/homophobic/misogynistic content in the hip-hop or death metal genres, but I’m beginning to think that perhaps the most destructive messages are the ones being played on heavy rotation, top 40 radio (or whatever our 2012 version of radio is turning out to look be).
I sing in an cappella group as one of my musical ventures; we tend to do a lot of currently popular cover tunes. Last summer, we all unanimously decided that we wanted to try to take on Adele’s “Rolling In the Deep” – a song that went on to be the #1 song of 2011. We put together an arrangement, and we performed it for our mentor, who is not just a musician but also someone who is a great thinker and humanitarian; one of the reasons he formed the group was to find a medium for people to express joy and a certain human camaraderie.
He loved it and thought it was one of our best songs yet. But then, a few days later, he brought something to our attention that none of us could deny. He had gone back and looked at the lyrics to the song, and was more than a little disturbed by them. I have to confess I was initially really resistant to considering this angle, as I loved performing the song and I didn’t want to stop. But when I really looked at the facts, it was undeniable.
In the chorus, Adele’s backup singers are saying “You’re gonna wish you/never had met me”, in a singsongy, upbeat tone. It’s like sugar-coated revenge, disguised as a song of celebration. Just think of it – thousands – no, millions – of people are roaming this planet, happily singing words of spite and vengeance, and probably have no idea what they are saying. But on some level, they’re starting to associate revenge with something positive. Something powerful. Something to celebrate.
Think about it. When you hear “Rolling in the Deep”, don’t you tap your feet a little? Want to clap your hands when the song breaks down? Do you ever stop to think about what you’re singing? How you are, in that moment, associating your joy with the hurt of another (i.e. the person who Adele is directing her anger towards)?
It really bums me out. Because the music is so good, but the message isn’t something I can align myself with. All of the members of my a cappella group unanimously decided that we could never perform “Rolling in the Deep”, and we felt really good about our reasons, though we were saddened at the loss. I know that I, too, was amazed at how blind I have been. I’ve spent MY whole life singing songs and not thinking about the lyrics, too. I’ve been a willing participant in this musical debacle, but after that experience, I now think very differently about every song I hear (hence, my experience with the Gotye song).
So what now? Well, as a songwriter myself, I guess there’s one thing that i can do: I vow to become the kind of musician who writes songs about things that make people think; that give people hope; that create and build a message that will make the world a better place.
I want my music to be used for good. And someday, I hope that ALL music will do the same.