I was chatting with a former swing dancer yesterday, and I was a bit shocked when she explained one of the main reasons she quit dancing.
“I couldn’t believe people were dancing to songs like ‘Violent Love’ and ‘Christopher Columbus’ without thinking!” she commented disdainfully.
In a way, I could see her point. Especially in ?ber-politically-correct San Francisco, it DOES seem surprising that a largely self-proclaimed-liberal crowd wouldn’t even flinch at dancing with songs that seemingly make light of or even glorify rape or white oppressors.
I say this only partially tongue-in-cheek, really. On one hand, I consider myself a liberal by almost any standard… but in San Francisco, I’d probably more accurately be seen as a moderate-conservative kinda guy. But even I have to admit the irony in dancing to many of the same songs every week and not giving one iota of a thought to the lyrics that I’m dancingly-intepreting.
When chatting with the woman quoted above, I politely noted that the songs in question were mostly penned in a much different, earlier time. Back then, I argued, in literature and music and so on, words that’d be understandably offensive by today’s standards (like “negro”) and sentiments that’d seem old-fashioned at best today (like male dominance in the workplace and in the bedroom) were then viewed as inoffensive. Trying to interpret the songs out of their historical context, I suggested, wasn’t very useful or even important.
This didn’t convince her, however. She replied that, “Well, there’s nothing saying we have to play those songs today!”
I’m still not so sure. I listen to Wagner even though he was disgustingly anti-semitic. And more relevantly, I still get a kick out of songs from old musicals that — while clearly misogynistic — are still a lot of fun to hum 🙂
My love for the music — taken apart from its writer and lyrics — may seem nonsensical to some, but as a musician and a dancer, I feel comfortable isolating and enjoying it.
What do you think? Should older songs with racist/misogynistic/downright offensive lyrics still be played? Do we have at least an obligation to THINK about what we’re humming or dancing to? At what point does the de-contextualizing of our art stop making sense?