Ignorance Taking Form as a Need to Identify with Music

Screen shot from video for Formation
Photo Credit: Robin Harper/Beyonce.com

This post was sparked by a conversation between a White friend of mine and a White woman about Beyoncé’s song Formation. The woman believed that many White people felt betrayed by Beyoncé because her newest song did not allow for White people to relate to it. Additionally, this woman believed that the song depicted Black people as dominant (but she also believed the song had nothing to do with race). Although she did not fully consider Beyoncé’s intent in making the artistic decisions she did, her discussion of the relationship between White people liking music with White people relating to music is certainly thought-provoking and I believe deserves consideration.

For those who study music, we often separate the enjoyment of music from our ability to relate to music. For example, I really enjoy listening to Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat Major but I in no way can relate to that piece of music. I am primarily a woodwind instrumentalist and although I can appreciate the piece as a musician, I have no experience to relate to. Now one can easily attempt to make the argument that popular music is different from classical music in that it begs the listener to relate to it. I simply refute that argument by saying that my favorite song is 25 or 6 to 4 by Chicago. That song has absolutely nothing to do with anything other than someone not being able to sleep at night, a concept I am relatively unfamiliar with seeing as I get 8-10 hours of sleep every night.

Music is interesting however, in that it may make both explicit or implicit cultural references. A song like Beyoncé’s Pretty Hurts explicitly calls out the objectification of women:

Blonder hair, flat chest
TV says bigger is better
South beach, sugar free
Vogue says thinner is better

It is made perfectly clear that Beyoncé is attacking society for objectifying women based on appearance. Other songs make cultural references in much subtler ways. For example, Barry McGuire uses accents and percussive elements in his song Eve of Destruction to aurally paint a picture of wartime. One can almost hear guns and marches in his song. This representation is not because of the lyrics, but rather the music itself.

If people in the world are like this woman and honestly believe they need to relate to the lyrics of the music, I believe that they need to be educated on both music as an art form, and also on the cultural elements present in the music. One’s ability to relate to the music is almost irrelevant. The argument posed is simply a way to claim ignorance as an excuse of disliking or not understanding a cultural stance. Rather than admitting that she doesn’t understand the racial (under)tones of Formation, this woman chose to falsely make the claim that music should be relatable (assumedly by either everyone or even just White people).

Ultimately, my argument remains that music, like all art forms are not always for every person to relate to. Sometimes, it’s for the artist themselves. Sometimes, it is for certain listeners to relate to. Sometimes, it is to call out specific instances of injustice. You can enjoy all of it even without relating to (or even understanding) all of it. I wonder, though, if other people share this viewpoint. Also, what is the best approach to take on educating people like this woman? Is it to teach them that all art forms can serve various purposes to different people? Or is it to teach them about their implicit beliefs and about cultural shifts? I tend to think a combination of both would be most effective.