- Vancouver, British Columbia - This past Friday, I was driving home from my job. Normally, I listen to my iPod plugged into my car's stereo system, but I couldn't find the cable, so I turned on the radio. A couple of unremarkable songs played on, then I heard a new tune come on. It was Kristina Maria's debut single, "Let's Play." I presume that very few people have heard this single, as it is brand new and just debuting on the radio. There was something that disturbed me about it that I feel is representative of what is going wrong with music and art as a whole.
This article is not a criticism of Kristina Maria, as I believe that she is essentially nothing more than a victim of an industry that is so out of touch with music connoisseurs and society as a whole. And while this article's title is "Censorship: Why it can be Good for Art," I am not advocating that Kristina Maria be censored or that any government program be enacted to prevent songs like hers from being written. I want to be very clear about that, since when individuals speak on the topic that I am about to engage upon, it is normally the first strawman accusation that is labeled against them. Instead, I intend to show how art has flourished as a result of censorship, despite authoritarian or draconian measures that were enacted to snuff it out. We are not living in such a draconian time and it does not take a genius to see that music, at least what is coming out from the mainstream industry, is not flourishing.
Now that I have that out of the way, I invite you to watch the newly released music video for Kristina Maria's single, "Let's Play":
As you can see, the video itself is not exactly spectacular and it even looks a little low budget, but she is a potential new pop star, so obviously she doesn't have the label financing behind her like say Lady Gaga or Britney. In fact, the video itself is not entirely racy, which might cause some to ask what's the big deal? What concerns me is the lyrical content of this song. You might think that it is the sexual content and imagery of the lyrics, but this is not even my greatest criticism of this song. We see a complete lack of subtlety or creativity in its subject matter. We all know what it is about: playing in the bed (read: sexual foreplay and/or intercourse). In fact, the lyrics suggest that a threesome is desirable, which probably is for some of that sexual appetite. However, the problem here is that there are no calculated metaphors, no subtle imagery, no creative word play, and no beauty in the lyrics.
Why is this a problem? Because at one time, we used to have love songs where the songwriter or performer would sing lyrics that were full of poetry, beauty, and emotion. I'm not talking about emo lyrics, but I think of a well-covered track like Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Waters." The metaphor here is that one lover will lead the other over the difficult times of life and prevent them from being swept away. There is a commitment that their love will persevere through all challenges and it will still be true. Maybe it is unfair to compare Kristina Maria's debut single to something as legendary as "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," but the distinction that I want to make is that there is good art and bad art. Bad art exists and it should be discouraged, when it is carelessly produced without the intention of developing the artist as an artist. Some art has no business being called art, because it is all business and not art. Not all forms of expression are equal, nor do they all deserve being qualified as beneficial just because it is someone's expression. Thus I have no problem with calling out a song like "Let's Play" for its poor lyrical quality.
If we look at another legendary song like "I Want To Hold Your Hand" by the Beatles, there is a certain innocence to the love and desire spoken of by the songwriter. There is something honest and sincere in the lyrics and while they are not complex lyrics, I can appreciate the lyricism by Lennon and McCartney. You see, there used to be something called a love song in the music industry, but most of what we see today are "fuck songs." Why do I use such vulgar language to describe it? Because ultimately, that is what love songs have evolved to in the 21st century. The songs that are being called "love songs" today are not beautiful, tender, or respectful; they simply filled with explicit or vulgar language pertaining to certain sexual acts that no one would dare share in public. I really don't know many people who kiss and tell to complete strangers on the bus. Instead, we as an audience get songs that have as much poetic beauty as the sentence, "I want to bang you and you're going to like it." I get it. Some people feel that way towards another person, but if no one would ever announce this to someone in public, why is it cool that we're forced to endure such garbage on the radio? These songs don't even bother with metaphors. Neither do they try to write about sexuality in a manner that requires any thought to understand. Ultimately, they say absolutely nothing but how much somone is looking forward to a good shag in a stranger's bed. While I have no evidence to back this up, I suspect that the less the brain has to work to comprehend a song, the less likely it is going to linger or be remembered. In Kristina Maria's "Let's Play," she sings about a "play date" in her room and how she'll bring his "fantasies to life." Furthermore, she says that she'll wrestle around with him and that she'll tie him up in bed and play rough. And to take it even further, she says that he can bring a friend to bed to ensure "triple times the fun." Only a brand new ESL student wouldn't understand these lyrics for what they are.
My criticism about Kristina Maria's song is not the fact that its content is entirely about a sexual romp in her bedroom, but instead that it is so blatantly obvious. So what does censorship have to do with this? Artists generally are uncomfortable with censorship and I have touched on this topic in the past. For many artists, the only obligation that an artist has is to himself and that he stays true to his expression. Any attempt to interfere with the artist's expression is viewed unfavourably and undesirable. However, what I would argue is that we are beginning to see what happens when artists are not challenged by any external, critical pressure on their work.
I was a student of the Russian language in university and while I do not pretend to be a Russian expert, one thing I can remember well is the beauty of Russian poetry, particularly that which was produced during the era of the Soviet Union. For the most part, this poetry was marked by a dark sadness, filled with images of suffering, pain, and cold. Yet, in these poems, there was always something remarkably touching about them. It was not easy to read this poetry without being emotionally affected and I am not normally someone who appreciates poetry at all, nor understands it. Yet, these Russian poets as artists faced a challenging prospect of getting their poetry out, because each and every poem that they released, it was checked by the Goskomizdat, which was the State Committee for Publishing in the Soviet Union. Many poets were sent to Siberia if they refused to comply with the Goskomizdat's corrective instruction regarding their poetry. Many poets were determined that their art would see an audience, thus they were flexible artists and found a way to still say what they wanted to express, while hiding it from the Goskomizdat.
It’s not for us to calmly rot in graves.
We’ll lie stretched out in our half-open coffins
And hear before the dawn the cannon coughing,
The regimental bugle calling gruffly
From highways which we trod, our land to save.
We know by heart all rules and regulations.
What’s death to us? A thing that we despise.
Lined up in graves, our dead detachment lies
Awaiting orders. And let generations
To come, when talking of the dead, be wise;
Dead men have ears and eyes for truth and lies.
Nicolai Mayorov's "Untitled" (1940), translated by Dorian Rottenberg.
Meanwhile, there were other Soviet-era writers, who were so passionate about their ideas, beliefs, and expression that they were committed to continue writing, even if they had little hope of ever being published or approved by the Goskomizdat. One such example is Boris Pasternak and his famed work, Doctor Zhivago. For others, their writings denounced the Soviet system and the lifestyle that resulted from it. Some were forced into exile, others sent to the gulags. Those who remained may have faced death for their "parasitic" literature.
And while I am not advocating censorship in North American society, what I hope to demonstrate is that art is at its best when an artist is forced to measure his every word, stroke, and strum. When an artist does not have to challenge himself by considering the ramifications of the art itself, there is no personal responsibility being taken by the artist. Instead, the artist simply produces something and leaves the rest of society to deal with the mess that has resulted from his terrible art.
Every artist wants their art to have an impact on the world around them and the truth is that art does have an impact; it is just a matter of whether that will be positive or negative. Thus when someone looks at a song like Kristina Maria's "Let's Play" and asks, "what's the big deal? It's just a song," I cannot help but respond by saying it is not just a song. We can't dismiss art as just being art; otherwise singers, musicians and artists would not be doing what they are doing. Ask any budding musician if it would bother them if their songs were just disregarded as trite fluff that really doesn't affect the world around them and nearly all of them would say it would irritate them; the others being narcissistic twits who just want the fame.
In the past, if musicians wanted to write about sexuality, they had to find ways to get it past the censorship board, otherwise it would be labeled as obscene and would never reach the airwaves. They were forced to challenge themselves to be better at their art if they wanted to stay true to their expression. Today, there is little to no restraint any more. Even now on the television, there is little legal ability for the FCC to fine a station for allowing the word "fuck" during live broadcasts, nor during late night programming.
But can we really blame the mainstream music industry for caring so little about music as an art these days? No one buys music any more any way, so what good would it do if people threatened to not buy any music from Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment or Warner Music Group? How can we expect to wield any credibility to demand better of the mainstream music business if we've already refused to support them even when they produced music that was half decent? People come up with all sorts of arguments why they don't pay for their music. Some may argue that nobody buys music any more as a result of music becoming terrible, but I believe in the last two years, we've seen an even more profound decline in the quality of music produced. I used to purchase nearly 50 disc albums per year. Last year, I bought 7. This year, I have purchased one. And I can tell you as a music fan, there has never been a more discouraging time for the future of pop or rock music. We are seeing plenty of exciting new indie bands rise, but there are some days when it would just be nice to hear a good, new pop or rock tune. Yet, there is nothing coming out to satisfying this desire. All we hear are terrible pop tracks like Rihanna's "S&M," Kristina Maria's "Let's Play," Ke$ha's "Blah Blah Blah (feat. 3OH!3)," and Black Eyed Peas' "Imma Be."
Don't believe how bleak it has become? This is brokeNCYE's "Teach Me How to Scream."
God Save Us.