Messed Up


Good question from Philip in the comments section of my Kanye/Harry Allen post:

We ran a jokey piece about the Kanye outburst over on Rhapsody, and couldn't publish a shockingly high proportion of readers' comments due to racist sentiment, including use of the N-word.

Question, possibly tangential: where does the Black Lips' dude's repeated use of the F-word (in his screed, posted on Brooklyn Vegan, explaining how and why he got his ass whooped by Wavves and/or Wavves' people) figure into this phenomenon? My gut reaction is that when the representatives of "indie culture" (allegedly a fairly benign, center-left community -- hell, even Black Lips are NPR-approved []) feel no compunction about dropping F-bombs, we shouldn't be so surprised about the N-bombs flying through mass culture. Whatever kind of "performance" it may or may not be, it's absolutely dispiriting.

I had a similar reaction--I was surprised that few people seemed to cringe at Jared Swilley of the Black Lips' repeated reference to Wavves as a f-ggot (BV's YouTube linking of the f-word notwithstanding). But then again, I wasn't really that surprised. Perhaps the policing of language and profanity--even as it borders on hate (or unless it is uttered as hate?)--now seems like the pastime of a passing generation.

It reminds me of the much-discussed reluctance of the Times to call the excellent Toronto band Fucked Up by their name. How can we even hope to guard against offensive speech nowadays? I find the whole idea of profanity in a digital age, or at a moment when speech becomes "public" in all these new and once-unimaginable ways, to be somewhat quaint and outdated.

I wrote about bands giving themselves unprintable names last year, with Fucked Up being one of the best examples. But as I observed then, there is a line, however faint, that discerns good from bad taste. (For some, that line was band names like AIDS Wolf and Jay Reatard.) In the case of Swilley, the Kanye tweeters et al, I don't have a sense yet of whether this kind of cyber-hate rhetoric is merely questionable taste, or a new, perilous kind of web-permissiveness. Along these lines, it was interesting to see the recent cyber-bullying bill essentially get laughed off the floor. If we assume that people online are always merely blowing off steam--if we think that public speech on the Internet is somehow informal, less important or not really "public"--then will we eventually lose sight of the very ideas that necessitated the creation of hate speech codes or primetime "adult language" warnings in the first place?

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.
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