I don’t know if you’ve had the misfortune to become familiar with this hit single from Robin Thicke called Blurred Lines, but I’d rather keep you safe from it if I can. The thing is, it’s bad music. Like bad in both an objective aesthetic sense, but also bad in a ethical evil sense. The blurred lines the title refers to are those of consent, and the speaker comes down clearly on the wrong side of them. The bad news, though, is that the song is also as catchy as one of Robin Thicke’s myriad social diseases. It’s in my head right now.
As a feminist and a more or less good person, this forms an issue for me. Because I still turn it up when it comes on the radio. (And yes, I listen to top 40 along with my college radio and NPR. I’m an open minded sort.) I know that it’s bad music, but I enjoy it anyway. I’m not exactly a music nerd either; I enjoy music rather a lot, but I don’t form opinions. I’m a rather casual listener, not heavily invested in the industry. So there’s no emotion in it for me – there’s just things I enjoy and things I don’t enjoy.
Literature is quite different for me, though. I am a writer. I am invested in the industry and I do get emotional. I’ve had to walk away from conversations before I got too irrationally steamed. So when a bad book is popular – like 50 Shades of Grey – I get mad. The thing is, it’s bad in both an objective aesthetic sense, but also bad in an ethical evil sense. I take so much issue with it that I could rage on it for a while, but I don’t want to go… there. And when people know it’s bad but enjoy it anyway, I get mad. I think less of them.
And only now, because of Robin Thicke, do I realize how unfair that is. I know this isn’t pretentious enough, but I think a big part of the purpose of art is to be enjoyed. Successful art is that which is enjoyable enough to have an audience, whether that audience is ironic or earnest. So, while I do hold that objective standards exist, I realize that they are not the end of the conversation. Neither are moral standards.
I get angry when film reviewers rate violent movies lower because they were too violent; it seems emotional and unfair (you knew what you walked into, sorta thing). These movies, I argue, are not glorifying violence, simply depicting it. But when a book like 50 shades depicts misogyny, I can’t give it the same benefit of the doubt. Now that might just be a weird thing about me, in that I hold misogyny and racism as entirely worse than murder, but I’d rather see gore on the floor than a heroine return to an abusive relationship.
But the reasons are the same: moral outrage. I and the critics feel that the quality of a work of art is diminished by its moral lacks, and that therefore enjoyment of it is somehow wrong. But I’m starting to think that, in this world, any enjoyment is a thing to grab hold of.
(Digression: Once, when I was in film school, I was talking to a friend of mine about why we wanted to make movies. I ranted passionately about shaping a better world, inspiring generations to greatness, making a mark on history and signing my name. I thought of art as a superpower to be used to bend reality to your will, to carve it into a shape you prefer. After too much of this, I realized I was talking too much and I asked my friend what motivated her work. “I don’t know, she said. “I just want to make people happy.” I felt like such a jerk, and rightfully so.)
So I guess I think its okay to enjoy drivel like Robin Thicke, as long as you do it critically. It’s even okay to enjoy 50 Shades of Grey (though its destroying the publishing industry, I swear it).
I just think we should have the decency to be ashamed.
They do a good job, and it’s only degrading to men, which is totally okay.