One of the most widely-read and influential pieces of music criticism in 2013 was not written by a music critic – its author possesses a master’s degree in sexuality and public health, works in the field of reproductive justice, and had written little about music before the blog post in question was published. Despite this, Verónica Bayetti Flores’ post entitled ‘Wow, that Lorde song Royals is racist’ – which argues that ‘Royals’ is ‘deeply racist’ because its singer doesn’t care for a list racially-charged signifiers of material wealth – not only (in the words of its author) ‘BLEW. UP.’ but also set the frame through which Lorde’s song ‘Royals’ would thenceforth be analysed, inspiring an endless series of rebuttals along the lines of ‘Nah, that Lorde song “Royals” isn’t racist’.
Of course, ‘Royals’ wasn’t the only song from 2013 that engendered controversy along the three most salient axes of contemporary identity politics: that is, race, gender, and sexuality. We were also preoccupied by whether Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was an example of rape culture, or whether the twerking in the video for Miley Cyrus’ ‘We Can’t Stop’ was cultural appropriation or sexual empowerment. The controversies that raged about these songs were also focused on their content rather than their forms or context, and were motivated by a strong feeling of outrage that usually culminated with the work being labelled with a pejorative (‘rapey’, ‘deeply racist’, etc.). Tiny Mix Tapes’ Benjamin Pearson has characterised this form of engagement with music as ‘offense criticism’ – criticism that analyses its object in terms of a given politico-theoretical worldview, and finds the artist morally culpable when the object does not live up to the critic’s standards.
Pearson’s own article is not without its problems – it is, at points, as hastily generalising and glib as some of the criticism it responds to – but it does identify and name a disturbing tendency. Offence criticism is, first and foremost, hasty criticism; it responds to art not through careful analysis of the work’s intention, but rather by searching selectively for evidence of thought crimes. Thus Bayetti Flores’ analysis of ‘Royals’ singles out certain signifiers of wealth (‘Cristal, Maybach, diamonds on your time piece’) while ignoring others that have little to do with hip-hop culture (‘blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room’). Bayetti Flores also fails to question her assumption that ‘Royals’ is a swingeing critique of conspicuous consumption, when there is little textual evidence to suggest that it is. (‘That kind of luxe just ain’t for us’ is hardly Karl Marx.) The original blog post also conspicuously ignores the context of the song’s composition and production, and the (still open) ethical question of whether a teenager from New Zealand should be held accountable for the way her work is received by adult audiences in the United States. Most tellingly, though, Bayetti Flores completely ignores the song’s form – and the minimalist production and sub-bass heavy beat of ‘Royals’ sounds like nothing if not a love letter to contemporary rap music.
The fundamental issue with offence criticism is that it has no definition of the role of the work of art, beyond examining art against a checklist of -isms to determine whether or not it is politically right-on. This seems to miss the point, since art isn’t solely made to educate or to conform with pre-existing political ideologies (although plenty of art, good and bad, has been made for these purposes). It might be hard to pin a univocal meaning to Lorde’s song ‘Royals’, seething as it is with the tension between asserting one’s personal anti-consumerist ethos and the allure of luxury goods and the lifestyle they promise, but it is precisely this tension that the song aims to explore. While it’s a near-certainty that race, gender and sexuality will continue to be flashpoints for musicians and critics alike in 2014, we can only hope that, in future, those who are poised to vent their offence will first pause to consider whether the offence is warranted.