The Tough Questions Vexing Pop Music Listeners What happens when your favorite musician appropriates your culture, or is accused of sexual assault? NPR's Michel Martin speaks with The Washington Post's pop music critic Chris Richards.
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The Tough Questions Vexing Pop Music Listeners

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The Tough Questions Vexing Pop Music Listeners

The Tough Questions Vexing Pop Music Listeners

The Tough Questions Vexing Pop Music Listeners

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What happens when your favorite musician appropriates your culture, or is accused of sexual assault? NPR's Michel Martin speaks with The Washington Post's pop music critic Chris Richards.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today, we're going to turn to a subject that seems to come up more and more these days, which is what do you do when you find out that one of your favorite artists is not the person you thought or hoped she was? What if that artist has been credibly accused of doing something terrible? Or maybe that artist seems to support political views that you find abhorrent. Or maybe that artist seems to be borrowing a little too freely and casually from a culture that's not her own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHAKE IT OFF")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) 'Cause the players gonna play, play, play, play, play. And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake. I shake it off. I shake it off.

MARTIN: Kind of like that.

So this is something that Chris Richards has been thinking hard about. He's the pop music critic for The Washington Post. He organized his thoughts about this for a recent piece called "The Five Hardest Questions In Pop Music." And he was nice enough to come by to help us sort this out.

Chris Richards, thanks so much for joining us.

CHRIS RICHARDS: Glad to be here.

MARTIN: So we can't go through all the five questions that you tried to answer, which includes, you know, what does it mean to be a sellout this days? Or is it OK to listen to an artist's unfinished work after he or she dies?

So - but I'm going to focus on the two of the ones that seem to come up a lot, particularly for those of us in the news, which is, first of all, R. Kelly, all right? What more need be said? He's been credibly accused of sexual misconduct for years now. He's not - certainly not the only one.

What do you do about an artist like that?

RICHARDS: I think it gets to this slippery white whale of a question that haunts everybody involved in cultural criticism, which is this idea of separating the art from the artist. Can we somehow enjoy the work that a person has made when we object to how this person has acted in their private or public life?

The answer that I sort of reached in my story is that it comes down to how we want to listen to music privately or publicly. Privately, I think, if an artist has been a huge part of our lives, they're always going to reside in our mind in some way, right? And listening to their music in private, I think, is OK.

But when - decide how we're going to approach their music as a public individual, it becomes different. You know, I don't want to stream that artist's music because it's going to stream revenue into their pockets. I don't want to buy a new album by this artist. I don't want to buy a concert ticket. If I hear this artist on the radio, I'll turn the radio off. If I hear them on the dance floor in the club, I'll walk off the dance floor.

I think this idea of sort of separating the art from the public circulation, if you will, is sort of an action that we can take if we feel, you know, that this artist has done something so objectionable that we don't want to engage with them anymore.

MARTIN: So in your piece for The Post, you also bring up something called cultural appropriation. And I think this is the kind of thing that gets discussed very much in academic settings and has now really become part of mainstream conversation.

You talked about the difference between making art and taking art. And you know, give us some examples of that.

RICHARDS: Sure. Well, I think cultural appropriation is - you know, in pop music, it's when you reach across race or class lines for new musical ideas. And deciding whether that's acceptable or not might come down to whether the artist is taking something or making something. Personally, when I hear Taylor Swift rapping or I hear Justin Timberlake beatboxing, that sounds like taking to me. It sounds like a wink to the audience, a sort of superficial juxtaposition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK YOUR BODY")

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE: (Singing) Better have you naked by the end of this song. (Beatboxing).

RICHARDS: When I hear on the other hand the Talking Heads play an Afro-pop rhythm or I hear Beyonce sing a country song, that sounds to me more like making, the idea of borrowing from another realm of music and integrating it into something new that we haven't heard before.

Of course, we make this distinction as individual listeners, which is why I think this question is so tangled for us and whether or not it even exists - it's because, you know, where we fall personally in that distinction. It belongs entirely to us.

MARTIN: That's actually when it's tricky because I think there are a number of, say, African-American artists through the years who've excelled in classical music. I mean, that's technically not their culture, and nobody says to them you're not allowed to sing, you know, Wagner.

So what's the difference?

RICHARDS: I think the difference maybe is an imbalance of power. You know, when we get past the taking-verse-making sort of axis, you can ask yourself is the artist profiting in a way that artists who are being borrowed from are not? You know, is the appropriating music directing listeners back towards its original source? And maybe most importantly, does the appropriating artist fully understand their relationship to the culture that they're cribbing from?

And I think that's where you get into the sort of stickiness with a lot of white rappers today who - rappers like Iggy Azalea or Post Malone who have immense success on the pop charts but seem to sort of - very much like interlopers when they give interviews and talk about their relationships to hip-hop at large.

MARTIN: Yeah, you said, look, white rappers are by far the most flagrant appropriators on today's pop charts. Why do you say that?

RICHARDS: I'm not saying that being a white rapper makes you a lesser rapper, but being a white rapper does set you up for success in a way that isn't the case for, you know, rappers of color. And this is...

MARTIN: So Jessye Norman certainly didn't take anything away from the German canon. In fact, you know, she's actually fluent in German and French and Italian and all these other things. She certainly isn't taking anything away from them. But you're saying that Iggy Azalea - some of these other folks - are kind of blocking out other people who could rise.

RICHARDS: It very much could be that case. And I also think that having some kind of literacy and understanding of the culture that you're borrowing from is essential.

You know, take Post Malone, who's a white rapper from Texas. Immensely successful - one of the most profitable artists of this year - you know, had a chart-topping album and everything. Last year, he said in an interview, if you're looking for lyrics, if you're looking to cry, if you're looking to think about life, don't listen to hip-hop.

Now, this quote went all across rap Twitter and rightfully so because, obviously, rap music is lyricism. It is sorrow. It is, you know, contemplation. So for an artist to be so successful in a genre and not really have an understanding of the culture that he's already such a big part of, that should maybe set off flags for certain listeners.

MARTIN: I know some people will be listening to our conversation and they'll be like really, seriously? Leave me alone. It's the weekend. Could I just please relax...

RICHARDS: Right.

MARTIN: ...And just let it wash over me? Why does everything have to be so hard? And you say...

RICHARDS: Yeah, I mean - well, you know, ignorance is bliss, but it's incredibly hard to stay ignorant in the information age, right? I mean, suddenly, we're learning things about our favorite artists that we wish we never knew. And I think we - as individuals we struggle with how to act responsibly with that information - as listeners as as human beings.

The thing that makes pop music pop music is that we listen to it together. But that said, you know, pop music would mean nothing to us if we weren't able to filter it through our individual tastes. So trying to square those two ideas is what makes these questions so impossible to answer. It's why we keep going back to them and wrestling with them and trying to find ways to sort of cope.

And in my piece, I said I don't have surefire answers to any of these questions, just tactics that might help you, as an individual listener, get closer to a truth that makes sense to you.

MARTIN: That's Chris Richards. He's the pop music critic for The Washington Post.

Chris Richards, thanks so much for talking with us once again.

RICHARDS: My great pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DADDY LESSONS")

BEYONCE: (Singing) Daddy made me dance. Daddy held my hand. And daddy liked his whiskey with his tea.

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