If You Are Mad At Western Civ, Should You Be Mad at Pop Music?

Memo to socially conscious students: Dead white male authors and today's pop stars and rappers have much in common.
February 20, 2018

The following is an imagined case that attempts to get inside the head of a bright college student coming into identity consciousness. I hope that this ‘perspective taking’ approach might offer insights and serve pedagogical purposes that would be harder to accomplish in a more straightforward essay.

          Say you are a student on a college campus who has recently been awakened to issues of diversity and social justice. In your First Year Orientation, there was a presentation by a student group called the People of Color and Culture Caucus (PC3) on how Christopher Columbus was most certainly not a hero. As soon as he laid eyes upon a group of indigenous people, he made a plan to subjugate them.

“We give this jerk his own holiday?” you wonder to yourself.

As you sit in the required Western and American Civilization class at your university, you find yourself slowly coming to the realization that the dead white male writers you are reading (Plato, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Melville, Twain) either leave women and people of color out of the narrative entirely or caricature them horribly. The people of color are shallow, sex-crazed, violent savages. The women are servants and sex objects.

You are increasingly woke to how these tropes played a role in supporting colonialism, slavery, segregation, the prison-industrial complex and the election of Donald Trump.

You are making connections and you are starting to get angry. Why do you have to read these imperialists? Does the professor droning on up there have any idea that he is contributing to the ongoing oppression of women, people of color, immigrants, LBGTQ people and Muslims?

You storm out of the lecture hall fired up. You are going to meet some friends in the student center food court for lunch and you want to talk to them about starting a petition that gets rid of the Western Civ requirement.

As you walk into the food court you hear Ed Sheeran’s song Shape of You. This song has been everywhere for months. It’s on at the fitness center, it’s played at parties. You generally don’t listen to the lyrics, but for some reason this time some of the words stick in your mind. The artist is telling the story of strategically leaving the club and heading to the bar in search of female bodies. Does that make him a predator and you and your friends the prey? 

You’re in line to get some juice now, but your mind is tuned in to song lyrics. Plain Jane by A$AP Ferg comes on. You catch the line, “I’mma start killin’ niggas” https://genius.com/A-ap-ferg-plain-jane-remix-lyrics

It makes you a little uncomfortable, but you are focused on the subject of your lunch conversation.

Then you hear, “I fuck yo bitch for the irony.”

At this point, the connections are too obvious to ignore. If you are mad at dead white male authors for their caricatures of people of color as violent and women as sex objects, why are you not mad at pop music for pushing those very same messages?

When you walk into your house, one of your male housemates is staring at the cover of St. Vincent’s most recent album cover Masseduction, featuring a woman bending over in a thong. One of your female housemates says it’s an empowering image, but as you look at your male housemate staring at it and feel him staring at you as you climb up the stairs, you actually feel a little objectified. Does this make you insufficiently empowered? A prude? 

Your little sister calls. She is nine years old and misses you terribly. You hear Plain Jane playing in the background. Your sister raps along with the Nikki Minaj part - “My body shaped like Jeannie, booty dreamy, waist is teeny” – and says that when she grows up she wants her body to be just like that.

You find yourself worried about both body shaming and Orientalist references.

You realize something else. The Western canon has profound power. It has shaped the world we live in, including colonialism in its many forms and with its manifold legacies. But pop music has power too. It shapes the aspirations of your nine year old sister. Shakespeare would exist whether you read him or not. Pop music, on the other hand, is made for young people. If you, your sister and your friends did not listen to these songs, they would evaporate.

If you are organizing against the Western Civ requirement because of its damaging portrayals of people of color and women, should you start a campaign against pop music? 

Class assignment idea: listen to an hour of pop music, the kind played on commercial radio or at the fitness center. Write down how women and people of color are presented. Compare to how women and people of color are presented in the dead white male authors you find most troubling. Are the caricatures more problematic when taught as part of the curriculum or presented in the form of pop music?




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