Controversy has always been a consuming influence when it comes to art, and when it comes down to the performing arts, music is certainly no exception. From N.W.A.’s “F**k tha Police,” “Killing an Arab” by The Cure and more recently, Kanye West’s religious ambitions highlighted in his last album, the lyrics of songs have often garnered a great deal of public attention, whether it be positive or negative. While many controversial songs are intended as forms of protest, symbolism or are outright misunderstood, the media has been continually critical of “inappropriate” tracks, despite the relative success many, like those by Eminem, seem to achieve.
A well-recognized image in the world of music is the black-and-white parental advisory warning label commonly found on album covers, and Eminem’s work is no exception. Surprisingly, this label is a relatively new form of control in the music industry. Following the campaign of parents unnerved by the sexual nature of the Prince & The Revolution song “Darling Nikki,” a rudimentary music warning label was commissioned by the Record Industry Association of America in 1985. The label we are all familiar with today was introduced in 1996, and since 2011 has been adopted by online music stores and streaming services. While the label is effective in distinguishing explicit content from the rest, it is also suggested by Jon Wiederhorn of MTV News that, “artists have been only too happy to have their albums labeled, figuring kids who want graphic material will see the sticker as incentive to buy the disc.”
With another parental advisory sticker to add to his collection, Eminem released his 11th studio album, “Music to Be Murdered By,” on Jan. 17 with no prior announcement. “I’m contemplating yelling ‘Bombs away’ on the game / Like I’m outside of an Ariana Grande concert waiting.” These lyrics, which were featured in the opening track of the album, were then followed by the sound of an explosion, apparently referencing the Manchester bombings which took place at an Ariana Grande concert in 2017. Lyrics like these are not unexpected for an artist like Eminem, who has a history of controversial lyrics, such as those found in his 2000 song “Stan.” But not surprisingly, these lyrics have since been heavily criticized as being insensitive, unnecessary, disrespectful and insulting. The verses were called “unnecessarily hurtful” by the mayor of Manchester, and the former partner of one of the victims of the attack noted that they were “dragging the victims’ families and Ariana back into a very dark time.”
While it is absolutely fair for these lyrics and others like them to be deemed as inappropriate, they should not deter other artists from releasing seemingly controversial music in the future. Lyrics like these may appear disrespectful at first, but can be powerful in attracting attention to causes that society needs to examine. Oftentimes, it’s the job of various art forms to do this. Art in all forms has always been critical in sending messages and symbolizing certain influences in culture which are often ignored by the public. Controlling what artists say in their songs is not only a form of limiting free speech, but also a reduction of the freedoms and liberties artists enjoy in creating important and relative masterpieces.
In a response to the controversy regarding his new music, Eminem claims that his words have been taken out of context and that his lyrics fit into the wider theme of violence in his new album, which advocates for stronger gun control laws by designing lyrics to “shock the conscience, which may cause positive action.” Beyond this, it has become obvious that a majority of listeners do not share the ill opinions of the album that critics do; the album topped both album and single charts in the United Kingdom. As written by Ellie Tordoff, “art allows us to give form and meaning to emotions and allows us to focus on certain issues of a social or political bearing.”
David Hatami is a sophomore majoring in political science.