Music, Lewdness, and Money
As a classical composer, I receive by e-mail each month a link to my statement from the Spotify online music streaming service showing how many people listened to my music through their site the previous month, and in what countries they listened, and other statistics. This month I pulled up my statistics report, and at the top of the web page was a photo of their “featured artist,” someone named “Megan Thee Stallion”, a female rapper born in 1995, according to Wikipedia. Beside her photo, it said that her music is being heard, on average, by 10.44 million listeners every month. Many of those can be assumed to listen to her more than once a month, so that implies many multiples of that figure in terms of the number of streams. (It did not show her complete statistics, which would include that number.)
Out of curiosity, I went to YouTube and listened to a few of her “songs” – I would technically call them “recitations,” since they are spoken, not sung, albeit over a simple musical figure of a few notes repeated over and over to a drum beat. I do not recommend that you repeat this exercise! Never have I been so shocked by something, presented as popular music, so sexually explicit as most of her lyrics were. Maybe I’ve just been sheltered. The lyrics were absolutely X-rated, profane, and explicitly pornographic descriptions, no holds barred, and the video images involved were, let’s just say, immodest in dress, with simulated sexual gyrations (I will not call it dance). The most troubling question hung in my mind, not so much as to the fact that someone would create this to begin with – pornography has been around a long time -- but as to how and why so many millions of people are now choosing to listen to it. I certainly did not hear anything in the musical aspect of it that would cause people to want to hear it “in spite of” the lyrics. Other Christians, less naïve than myself, probably would not be as shocked. Blasé, they have already resigned themselves to it as a new cultural norm.
The next day, as if to bring further home the point, my university (where I am a professor of music) sent me an enthusiastic e-mail advertising our upcoming, 19th annual, official campus concert, featuring… guess who – this very person as the main performer! We are talking ivy-league, buttoned-down, seemingly highly cultured students, perhaps many from Christian families. At least a good number of them in my classes have names like Mary Margaret and Joshua that one might imagine coming out of churched backgrounds, but perhaps some of these will not attend the concert. However, in order for this event to be advertised to take place in our 14,000-seat basketball gymnasium, it can be inferred that this performer is already known and popular among plenty of our students, and that this is what many of them are apparently listening to outside of class. In fact, on Amazon, one of Ms. Stallion’s albums is to be found in the “Off-to-College Essentials” collection. I cannot tell you how this saddens me. But I will be retiring at the end of this year, and unless I am delusional in romanticizing the past, can still vividly remember the Oxford-like atmosphere on campus when I was hired 32 years ago. No doubt, there was no shortage of sin then, but it would not likely have been advertised as a public concert by the administration. Looking back only 18 years to the early days of this campus concert series, it featured such artists as “Counting Crows”, with such shocking lyrics as “Sha-la-la-la-la-la-la”; and Brad Paisley, with the scandalous, “She’s a warm conversation that I wouldn’t miss for nuttin’.”
There is currently no mandatory rating system for music in America, like our movie rating system. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) offers a completely voluntary “Parental Advisory” label that performers can choose to put on their music, or not. However, Ms. Stallion, for example, was not using it on her YouTube video pages, which another label says have 725,000 subscribers. At least on Amazon, the word “[Explicit]” appears after each album’s title. However, the RIAA site does not have any specific description of what constitutes “explicit”, and further offers the disclaimer that, in spite of the word “parental”, the label should not be taken as a guideline for who should listen to the music: “A determination that a sound recording contains PAL Content is not a statement as to whether the sound recording is or is not suitable for particular listeners.” This is expressly different from movie ratings that suggest what age viewers should be, as in “PG-13”.
It is always tricky to speculate about musicians having monetary motives, and only God knows the heart. Even in my area of classical music, where little or no living can be made without teaching, one could say that the motive to earn tenure in order to keep one’s teaching job might influence the type of music one might compose. In Contemporary Christian Music, one can see the commercial pressures and influences upon its writers, often having to keep up with the changing styles of their secular counterparts, only with Christian lyrics. In such a case as Ms. Stallion’s, one can speculate that she has clearly found a lucrative commercial market in which to financially exploit a debased society, whether by calculation and premeditated intention, or by coincidence. In interviews, she states words to the effect that she is just naturally a sexually free spirit, which seemed to imply that she did not contrive her style to make money but was just in the right place at the right time. Who knows?
What we can say is this. If music is a business and a product, as it often is, its creators must have a challenge not to let commercialism enter their thinking while creating it. It is even possible that during the Renaissance, when composers were employed by the Church to write their music, maintaining their employment was still a kind of financial influence; they had to please the local pastor or bishop to keep their position. However, centuries later, chant sung anonymously (and by an anonymous composer) and sung for no pay by volunteers from the back of the church now feels to me perhaps the least commercially influenced music I know. I do not mean to demonize all commercial motivations, by any means. It is not necessarily mutually exclusive to create genuine art that happens also to have a commercial appeal to consumers. I do look at my own statistics, as I said at the outset, hoping to make a little money. However, the music in heaven will finally be redeemed in respect both to money and to ego. If angels or saints make music for us, I don’t think they’ll expect to be paid or even praised for it, but will give God all the praise. It will be all the more wondrous in how glorious, clean, and perfected it will surely be. I can hardly wait to hear it.