Art is a risky business. You sculpt your little creation, craft and fine-tune it, then send it into the world to be dissected by strangers. No matter how hard an artist tries to control the meaning of her work (and few try very hard), art has a notorious ability to mean different things to different people. That’s one of its most celebrated qualities: its slipperiness and multiplicity, its ability to spawn new lives in other times and places. That isn’t to say art can mean anything at all, only that it carries surpluses of meaning.
Sometimes that surplus makes for happy surprises; other times less so. Blandness is a charge that artists often level at their critics. Bad intentions is one that critics sometimes hurl back.
Such was one of the curlier moments in Apra Silver Scroll winner Lorde’s swift ascension up the US singles charts, when her song Royals was labelled racist. First, last month, an associate professor in feminism and critical race theory: “so f—ing racist”. Then, last week, a blogger for a feminist website: “deeply racist”. Debate bubbled away on the blogosphere before being hauled into the mainstream by Time and CNN.
The gripe was the song’s references to gold teeth, Cristal champagne and Maybach cars, expensive things often glorified in commercial hip-hop. But Royals mentioned them only to dismiss them, along with other symbols of conspicuous consumerism. “We don’t care,” Lorde sings, “we aren’t caught up in your love affair.” A gesture of youthful rebellion to her fans, but to Lorde’s critics an echo of a long and unseemly tradition of contempt for “black music” in America, suffered by blues, jazz and hip-hop.
RIDDLED WITH RACISM
No one likes being accused of racism – except, of course, the most blatant kind of racist. Indeed, that’s why we use the word, because we want people to stop doing racist things. It’s a speech act, an intervention in the world, using words instead of muzzles, fists or handcuffs.
It’s also a word that needs to be heard, because – let’s face it – the world is riddled with racism. And few people made that case as potently as Lorde – Audre Lorde that is – the black American poet, writer and activist (1934-92). Responding to the prejudices of her day, she called for the intelligent expression of anger, encouraging the oppressed and their allies to speak up against the forces that held them down.
Yet Lorde was highly attuned to how incredibly complicated it all was. She was, in her words, “a black lesbian mother in an interracial marriage”, so she understood that we don’t inhabit a single identity, that we are each an intersection of many identities: race, class, gender, sexuality, age, health, culture and so on.
She also knew the political claims each identity generated were in constant danger of trampling the claims of the others. There could be no magic solution, no neat algorithm for unpicking these Jenga-like towers of overlapping rights. All we could do is express contempt for injustice and, if we stepped on someone’s toes in the process, be ready to learn from them.
In a 1981 speech, where she highlighted racial inequalities within the feminist movement, Lorde said, “The angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying. When we turn from anger, we turn from insight, saying we will accept only the designs already known, deadly and safely familiar.”
The critics of Lorde – the singer – certainly took up the call to anger, as they should in the face of racism. But the quote above also mentions “precision”, and on that score her critics didn’t do so well.
What got my goat was the way they pressed so hard for their interpretation of Royals, as if the song could be reduced to a single meaning. Such absolutism is a dangerous game in criticism. To steal a line from JL Austin, it’s not things but critics that are simple. So, if a critic denies too strongly art’s surplus of meaning, denies that a song could mean something more to someone else, then critique risks becoming just another form of prejudice.
That’s exactly how those two critics, neither of them black, put themselves in the awkward position of publicly presuming to know what an entire community would or should think.
But would black Americans be offended by Royals? Maybe some. But maybe others wouldn’t link their racial identity so closely to the flashy affectations of commercial hip-hop. Maybe they would identify instead with other forms of hip-hop, or other genres of music, or indeed no music at all. Maybe some would listen through a merger of identities, through youth, class and gender. Maybe some wouldn’t draw the same inferences from the lyrics. Maybe some just wouldn’t care that much. I don’t know the answer, nor would I ever presume to know too strongly.
Audre Lorde once said: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.” Commercial hip-hop is one fantasy to crunch a people into, but the alternative is to see them as their own narrators and translators, telling and interpreting the story of their lives.
The same goes for Ella Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde. Her experience, an ocean away from the US, was also in danger of being overrun. Her defenders took to the blogosphere to craft many sensitive rebuttals, but a few fell into the same trap as her critics, retreating smugly to certainties, fighting censure with censure. Some commentators even argued that the accusations were indicative of everything wrong with contemporary feminism, called “shrill” and “hysterical” for good measure. The conclusion was that feminists ought to focus on other things, like class, as if facing up to the complexity of human life can only make us blind to its parts.
In this internet age, songs and blog posts travel far and fast, accumulating new meanings wherever they land. There are many ways to be right. So the challenge is not to overcome disagreement, but to learn to disagree well, to disagree in ways that worry injustice.
“We are not perfect,” said Audre Lorde, “but we are stronger and wiser than the sum of our errors.”