Whether you love them or hate them, it’s difficult to deny that Odd Future as a collective have charisma and chemistry. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that their live presence at October 12’s sold-out First Avenue show was actually somewhat endearing. As we watched members Left Brain, Hodgy Beats, Domo Genesis, Mike G, and leader Tyler, the Creator bounce across stage in brightly colored t-shirts and jerseys, yelling, cursing, crowd surfing, wearing towels on their heads and taunting the crowd, I couldn’t help but feel like these kids would probably be super fun to hang out with. They hardly stood still the entire time, and made me as an audience member willing to risk a few bruises or broken bones to get up there and party with them.
I don’t call them kids to be demeaning—the average age of Odd Future is like 20 years old, and their youth and perhaps naïveté certainly come through in their stage personas.
So how can you naively rap about rape and violence and the other themes that largely shape Odd Future’s music, and certainly their public image? Plenty has been said about the intention behind these lyrics—is it to expose the harsh realities of lower class life? Is it because they do or do not condone rape? Is it a metaphor? Is it art? Does it raise awareness—even if by accident?
Whether you do or do not hold Odd Future accountable for the violent nature of their work, there’s something about it that gives the impression of a bunch of teenagers sitting around talking (and in the process creating) in language that for whatever reason—be it demographic, geographical, or just coincidental—happens to come naturally to them. What I’m saying is, I highly doubt any member of Odd Future is offended by a casual among-friends mention of wanting to rape a woman, whereas the same person might have a sickened reaction to learning that someone actually was raped.
What I’m saying is that the way we speak to people who know us well, who give us the benefit of a doubt when we say something a bit off-color and who generally share the same values, lifestyle, background, and sense of humor as us may not be offended by certain speech that is generally considered to be offensive outside of that intimate context.
For example, a good (straight male) friend of mine once went out with us wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with what appeared to be hand-painted flowers, his first name in scrolling letters, and the name of whatever tropical vacation destination happened to be selling them as souvenirs. Almost impulsively I commented, “Man, that shirt is so faggy.”
That is a word I hardly ever use, and which I think is a horrible slur in almost every context, and obviously I would never want to insinuate that being gay was bad or lame or whatever other connotation it might give off and I would never say it to an actual gay person; I felt immediately regretful, worrying that someone overheard me. My friends didn’t bat an eyelash—they laughed, even—but had I said that in front of a group of strangers it might inspire a very different reaction. Now imagine if I said it in front of hundreds of thousands of people. Some would be inclined to give me the benefit of a doubt, some would laugh it off, some would take me seriously and identify with what they perceived to be my homophobic stance, and some would surely blacklist me and call me evil. Given the obviously tight-knit relationship among the members of Odd Future—very obvious at their live show and clearly indicated in any biog you might read of them—I wonder if all this rape talk might have come from a similar place, only unlike my flippant comment in the D’Amico dining room, their words are recorded and distributed all over the word.
And yet the question remains—is that okay? Was my comment offensive—even wrong—no matter the context; my friends just tolerated it because they knew I didn’t mean anything by it? Or does it become offensive based on how my audience interprets it, with those knowing me less and less like me more inclined to interpret it negatively? What is the weight of intention versus interpretation? If I said, “I don’t like your favorite song” you could be offended by that, but I could say, “I don’t like (insert racial minority)” and you may not flinch. Does it matter if I meant it from a place of hatred or bigotry, or is it enough that I said it at all?
When it comes to Odd Future the same questions apply. Assuming they don’t mean what they say sincerely, can they be faulted when an audience unfamiliar with the intrapersonal dynamic that generated it is exposed to what they say? Or, when it comes to offensive lyrical content, does interpretation trump content? I don’t have the answer, but I will say that watching the five young men pal around on stage sheds a bit of light on the personalities that perhaps shaped their lyrical content and it all seems a bit less serious and sincere than on their stripped-down, sometimes grisly recorded efforts.
Whether there is an appropriate place in popular music for words and themes like those they use or whether they’re wrong altogether, I left the show thinking, simply, that people need to give Odd Future a break. Maybe the performers should shoulder some or even a lot of responsibility for the offense caused by their lyrics, but after seeing Odd Future live and watching an excited crowd who seemed to agree, I’d say it’s more likely that they’re a bunch of fun-loving, super-talented kids who happened to catch a break than evil rapists trying to promote their pro-violence agenda.