The N-word and Free Music

Hopefully, I won’t write anything with political overtones from now on. That is the problem with politically charged subjects- the overtones. You can’t say one thing you do mean without people hearing a dozen things you don’t. Don’t believe in global warming? Well, you must hate women. Think George Bush’s paintings are cute? You probably think gay people are going to hell. James was recently called a “disgusting racist” because he doesn’t like the extremely white senator Elizabeth Warren. Politics is like a distortion pedal; simple ideas get turned into horrendous cacophonies of meanings.

For example, one opinion I hold but would never share, based on what people might deduce, is my feelings about the dreaded “n” word. It makes me shiver to think of people being fined $20,000 (even black people!) for saying one of the most popular words in pop music. How does treating a word like a monster help the human race? I have heard people say that this one word must remain taboo until the end of time, that it’s horrible connotations can never be erased. But I don’t think that is nature of words. It is their nature to forget, to shed the nastiest of associations with ease. Words are like clouds, shifting and changing, they never stay the same. See the cloud that looks like Hitler? Give it a moment and it will turn into your mother. Likewise, let a word blow around and its meanings will transform.

But I understand when people don’t want the tragedies of the past to be forgotten. I’m not a “let bygones be bygones” sort of person myself. I just don’t think that words should be turned into memorials- that is what stones are for. They record the past and honor it, long after humans have tired of remembering. I would suggest building as many statues and monuments as it takes to honor the suffering caused by racism and make people feel balanced again. But words are for change and fresh beginnings. They should always fly free.

That is why I also believe in free music, free books, free on-line education. I think it would be magical for every last piece of content on the internet to be completely free of charge. The greatest library ever created! Of course, I’m now using a different meaning of the word free, but really, is a heavy price tag all that different from a heavy chain? Is the expense of education really that different from a fence that keeps the “lower” classes out? Does it actually behoove the human race to put a price on goods which can be infinitely multiplied at no cost to the creator?

People are always worrying about the impact free content has on writers and musicians, but before thinking of them, I’d rather think about all the people in the world who have barely enough money to fulfill their material needs. Why should they have to choose between new music and a new sweater when they could just as easily have both? Free content could enrich the world both immaterially and materially. Which would be a great thing, because, financially, life is strained enough. We have to pay just to have place on this earth where it’s legal to stand. Money for taxes or you’ll go to jail. Money for food, money for water. How refreshing that we can still drink our fill of air for free! How nice would it be if music and literature were just like air, there for the taking, no strings attached? I’ve always thought that the emotional health of a society is closely linked to how much free stuff it has to offer. Not the intimidating “free” services of governments and charities, but truly free things, which are shared just for the joy of sharing.

But what about the musicians and writers themselves? Don’t they deserve to be paid for their efforts? I guess so. Still, I wonder… what would happen if every musician knew, up front, that they would never see a penny from their efforts? Would this be bad ? Or good? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be the death of music. People don’t expect to make money from sex, and yet they keep going. Even sex addicts manage to find other ways of supporting themselves.

Sometimes I wonder how compatible art is with capitalism in the first place. Capitalist art is profitable, popular, pleasing. Whatever good or bad appetites exist in society, capitalist art will be there to satisfy them. Whatever values and ideals we share, capitalist art will be there to capitalize on them. I suppose American Idol-type shows are a good example of capitalist art with a little democracy throw in.  Surely a vote is a good way to determine what has value. It worked for Jesus, right?

I think of art as energy, which- like Jesus- comes to us from a different world.  A subtle, ethereal impulse that will one day sink down into the heavier aspects of our culture to change the way we think and dress, the food we eat, the wars we wage. But in the beginning, it’s just a little picture, a story, a song. In essence, art is a new way of looking at things. New perceptions which gradually lead to new possibilities. Before the airplane comes the fanciful dream of flying.

But is it reasonable to expect something so strange and delicate to fend for itself on the streets, to fistfight its way to victory on the free market? Should art have to win the approval of the crowd or else, like Jesus, be crowned in shame? Should art even have to bear the burden of supporting it’s creator?

Many of our culture’s great artists did not support themselves, financially, with their work. Emily Dickinson was supported by her parents, Van Gogh by his brother. Thoreau worked at a pencil factory, and Henri Rousseau at a toll booth. William Carlos Williams was a doctor. Artists can always make money in other ways, or else be supported by others. Why not reinvigorate the ancient ideal of patron, for example?

Still, if artists DO want to make a living from art there are zillions of ways to do it without charging the listener. I once read a book about people making a very expensive expedition across Antarctica who paid for it by removing little chunks of their butt meat along the way and selling them to scientists who were studying the effects of extreme cold on muscle mass. Painful, but still, a win-win situation. Or maybe artists could be sponsored by corporations, the way athletes are.

But to be realistic, whatever the future holds, it can’t be much worse than the current situation. Out of the many musicians I have met, I can’t think of one who makes their living from selling CDs/MP3s. Most of them lose more money than they make. Meanwhile, they are still gearing their work to appeal to the very market which will never support them, losing both money and integrity in one fell swoop. Adding insult to injury, they are made to feel that their lack of financial success reflects the worthlessness of what they are creating. If only they had as much to offer as Bono, they would be living in a castle as well. So, if art was no longer expected to make money, perhaps they would be no richer than before, but at least they wouldn’t have to live with the shame of being a failed human being. They could seek new, internal forms of validation. This would lead to more meaningful art.

Just as capitalism motivates us to make money, it can also discourage us from pursuing other sorts of goals. But we shouldn’t let this happen, because a society in which every person’s goal is to make money will be a very poor society, spiritually and emotionally. I think we should have all sorts of people working for free- not just musicians, but also scientists, do-gooders,  inventors, and more. We need inputs uninfluenced by the market to create a vibrant amount of diversity. In the end, of course, this could only work if the people who do make money wanted to use some of it to freely support others. But I think people would enjoy this. After all, who would slave over a roast turkey if they had to eat it all by themselves?


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