Like all forms of language, song lyrics have the capacity to evoke emotion, incite debate, and of course, offend. Offensiveness is mostly a topic born from subjectivity. What someone might find offensive may be different to what I find offensive, and vice versa. Whilst I do not for a second believe that anyone’s offence to a certain lyric or song should be taken lightly, I believe that any offence caused by music can be valuable, when thoroughly considered. Music certainly can be offensive, but sometimes we need it to be.
Music is a form of art and its intention, depending on who you ask, is not just to please but to draw attention to social, political, and cultural matters. For example, Jay Z’s 2017 song ‘The Story of O.J’ is undoubtedly offensive to some. Littered with racial stereotypes and accompanied by minstrel cartoons that poke fun at the African-American community, the track is intentionally racist and offensive. But, that’s entirely the point. What better way to draw attention to the offensiveness of racism than to whole-heartedly emphasise full-frontal racial prejudice. Jay Z makes people uncomfortable, he makes people offended, and by doing so makes huge socio-political statements.
That being said, there are certain lyrics that are universally considered offensive. There are offensive lyrics that exist because they were born out of inexcusable prejudice rather than artistic endeavour. N.W.A’s blatant misogyny, Eminem’s homophobia are examples of contextual wrongdoings and should be criticised for that. Whilst it is important to call out unnecessary offensive lyrics in the modern era, we have a responsibility to acknowledge a history of misogyny, racism, homophobia in music, and to learn from these evils rather than gloss over them and pretend they never existed. Also, it is important to note that offensive lyrics are still rife today. There are clear examples of offensive modern lyrics, such as Pitbull’s (please excuse me for reminding you of this song’s existence) ‘Timber’ lyrics “I have ’em like Miley Cyrus, clothes off/Twerking in their bras and thongs, timber/Face down, booty up”.
However, there are other instances where this boundary of offensiveness is blurred. You may say that Nicki Minaj panders to the misogynistic ideals of the outdated male gaze in ‘Anaconda’, whilst another may say that she is exercising her freedom in expressing her female sexuality. This is where ‘offensiveness’ becomes subjective, with different age groups, genders, races and cultures often colliding on what is and isn’t offensive, it becomes impossible to police the vast range of moral compasses.
Ultimately, to censor music in any sense, in my opinion, could only have negative effects. That is not to say that we should not be offended by certain material, but that offensive lyrics need to be publically criticised to show what is morally suitable. To censor music is to stunt creativity, to hinder important discussion and to spark division. If we have problems they need to be talked about in conversation to be rectified or more thoroughly understood, not swept under the carpet.