On controversy as liberation and the musicians who exploit it.
Confession is suicide. — James Baldwin
Every law is illegal — Bob Marley
What music do you want playing on your first day of freedom? What song do you want to live in when you leave the flesh? What sin haunts that song and threatens to make it illegal? Brother, where are you? I heard that you came this way.
Black slaves would sometimes play dead to escape bondage, and emerge as runaway corpses, so the idea of dying as a form of social climbing or reprieve from oppression could be a black thing, but the notion of death as catharsis is universal. There are those philosophers who inculcate in the concept of dying in this life and being reborn in it as an evolved expression of your soul and purpose. We have no formal instructions for that process, however, no one tells you exactly how to join the living dead, probably because if we had a method for that kind of resolution we would expend all of our energy avoiding it and self-soothing ourselves out of the grand duty of healing. By now, we’ve exceeded the flesh and established digital death cults, floating mass graves on the Internet. We meet and ingratiate or disgrace one another’s avatars as we pose the constant threat of mutual ego debt to each other, and some personalities are just too expensive and unhinged for our neat and petty categories. Indebtedness to them is forced ego death, so we assign these difficult personalities crimes, and disappear them as punishment. Of course this only makes the contrived villains more visible, more alive, and more in command of those who aim to condemn them.
(Robert Johnson, guitar cocked like a gun)
I’m starting to believe, because I love the kind of truth telling that is often considered as intrusive as a debt when it arrives, that the new slaves can only free themselves through these digital suicides that are not suicides but confessions and their gauntlets extended like escape routes. Preempt the betrayal that is having your deepest secrets and thought crimes used against you by volunteering them and using them against yourself. What then can the angry mob of haters and detractors do, besides stand agape on the threshold of your revival. In this way, by acting as your own decoy, you can save yourself and leave the site of your subjection for someplace where your sins are respected and outlived.
James Baldwin’s version of the spiritual “Precious Lord” is the beginning of this maneuver struggling to come into conscious thought through sound. Here the soul is preemptively stepping out onto a tightrope unaccompanied by anything but tone, and asking take my hand, and lead me on, in the same timbre it has testified, I preferred to be around the criminals and sinners, as Jimmy explained once. He’s on his way to his promised land, a ruins, where he can express pleasure and torment without judgment and wobble on his high wire until it snaps into snare and netting. The sanctified have nothing on the damned. Robert Johnson steps in, me and the devil, walking side by side. The Delta blues tradition is one of confessional suicide. Bluesmen and women lean into the sweetness of evil and become irresistible. You listen eagerly and love the devil and want to walk there too and wonder what you’d have to confess to get on their level: the lord holding one hand, the devil clasping the other and walking you across yourself to yourself. Do not worship me and do not pity me, the blues demand. I am terrible and I am the ideal, they snicker. Worship me, pity yourselves for being so narrow as to kill your saviors with judgement. Hip Hop comes in and glorifies decadence so well we forget the difference between danger, pleasure, and depravity and all the antiheroes die on our tongues as we recite their anthems back to them in unison. Keep your glory gold and glitter, MF Doom inverts, and we suffocate him with praise and imitation. He’s a self-proclaimed villain chased into an iron mask for finding hype anathema. He can’t escape hype so he defies identity. He can’t leave the mask but he died and left us its legacy of open secrets.
In rejecting the terribleness within and around us, we amplify it, and we turn those who seek divine reassurance that they are still human in the face of intrusive thoughts and actions, crimes, deceit, merging with machines or memes— we turn the people facing guilt for these forces into indelible icons akin to Christ, we give them god complexes simply by giving up on them when they are in the middle of their hardest lessons. Such is the ritual of getting off the plantation, and getting off stage. No one gets off on good behavior, but if you’re evil or bad enough, you might die your way off. Michael Jackson took badness and made it into a virtue for a time, promising in such a needy, hopeless, promiscuous manner I’m bad, I’m bad, begging really, to be seen. We revel the outlandish theories that he faked his death, not out of shame or repentance, but because he was bored with the themes of life above ground: good, evil, and oblivion being the dominant themes. Who’s bad? He coaxed, and when the people decided he was, there was freedom in that rejection—pain, turmoil, but finally freedom. He had already confessed and tried to get out and failed, this was his second chance at public anonymity.
In a world of hostages to the ever flickering virtue signal, cherish the appeal of evil, the spectacle of it. The entertainers who are ostracized and adored at the same time and band together like a pack of strays, are baiting and daring you to finish the job of letting them off the plantation assembly line. Ever since Kanye stepped out with his array of ghastly outcasts to promote the album meant to elegize his mother, I’ve been thinking about how the only liberation of this age is to cancel yourself over and over in a looping will to power. Hurry up and tell all of the secrets people could eventually use against you, admit to your bad deeds, indulge them, enhance them, love them, respect them, they are going to liberate you from other people’s needs and pedestals and opinions.
We pretend to love heroes, but we only respect sinners and villains. Villains are honest, and more powerful, sometimes even more endearing for being so helplessly themselves. No one can take them down, they are already down, they can only improve. Ye went on to set himself on fire beside all the undesirables he had invited to the show. They were there to help ruin him into invincibility. If you think he cares whether you think he’s good or evil, you’re the pawn, as expendable as the flame thrower. He would do anything to trick you into watching his persona die, so he can have a life again and regain a personality and sentiments and gestures that aren’t rehearsed or numbed out by scrutiny. Fanatics are boring and a little psychotic. Entertainers have one option in the face of them: to be a disappointment, to blemish their reputations in public. The entrapment remains, even then, that even when ruined they make some of the most satisfying music in the world and are inundated all over again by unworthy enemies called fans. What can we do about the fact that some criminals have beautiful singing voices? Should we outlaw singing? Maybe we can outlaw remorse or lament. Should we get out of the shadow of their music? Or should we join it and do some crimes that make us worthy of some blues.