Offensive musicians are banned while comedians get a finger wag
Before Action Bronson even stepped onstage at Dundas Square, there was outrage across Toronto. And before he could ever deliver his “hateful” lyrics, he was banned. His name can be added to a list of countless other musicians banned from public venues.
But for comedians, it’s not the same. JFL42 has come and gone, and public outrage has been, for the most part, subdued.
This difference is tricky to square. Is comedian Bill Burr’s “I can think of a couple reasons to hit a woman right off the top of my head!” less provocative than Bronson’s “Then dig your shorty out cuz I geeked her up on molly”? The difference is, at the least, faded.
Why then, does the public strive to block musicians, but not comedians? Perhaps it’s because a laughing crowd is less intimidating than a mosh pit, but this seems awfully trivial.
Let’s be clear, both musicians and comedians have faced public scrutiny. But the reason for the difference in impact may have more to do with the performer’s defence.
While every artist reacts a little bit differently to public outrage, there aren’t thousands of ways to defend provocative artistic expression. Looking at enough interviews side-by-side, there are really only two: “this is a work of absurdism” and “this is an artistic approach to tackling real issues.”
In comedy, the default is absurdity. For example, Dane Cook, playing a crude and uninhibited lunatic, will never make a pointed comment in his entire life. Assured by his insincerity, the audience can’t be offended too deeply.
It’s only when a comedian openly declares that their views are politically pointed that they encounter major pushback. George Carlin jumped in this shark tank early on with his “Seven words you can’t say on television” routine, which overtly criticized censorship by the FCC. Carlin will never say he was just being silly, he was serious—he chose controversy.
Music is reversed. Being politically pointed makes you less vulnerable to public attacks, not more. Consider the difference between Kendrick Lamar and Eminem.
Certainly, both rappers are coarse, but Lamar is understood to be conveying the reality of urban poverty. Given the long history of music as a voice for the downtrodden, Lamar is granted artistic license.
Absurdist music gets different treatment. When Eminem defended his lyrics as “tongue-in-cheek” in a 2013 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, it did little to quell public outcry. In Toronto, Eminem was nearly barred from a performance in 2000 following the debut of his song “Kim,” in which the artist “fantasizes” about torturing and murdering his ex-wife.
So our “acceptable” standards are a little inconsistent. As far as the masses are concerned, comedians are absurdists until self-declared political and musicians are political until considered by the public to be absurdists. In short, comedians have to choose to be controversial; for musicians, that decision is made for them.
I should say that this take does not capture the feelings found on modern university campuses. Last month, the decidedly-apolitical comedian Jerry Seinfeld claimed that he has felt pushback from college audiences. However, this is another topic altogether.
Off campus, comedians are generally permitted the “it's just a joke” defence unless they openly declare otherwise. But for musicians, the public decides. If the public doubts that a musician’s vulgarity is backed by a political message, the hammer comes down.
In the case of Action Bronson, his white complexion and ginger hair instantly divorce him from other hip-hop artists, like Lamar, when it comes to making statements on race politics. Without a plausible social critique behind his lyrics, Bronson was the target of inquiry. Without a defence stronger than saying that Torontonians “have their panties in a bunch,” Bronson was the target of outrage—and a ban.
For comics, the conversation never gets this far. Unless they overtly declare a political stance, their material is received as unserious and dismissed on the same grounds.
This may help to explain why offensive musicians cause more of a splash. While the public can “expose” a musician as controversial, comedians do it themselves. While musicians will fight claims that his content is offensive, comedians often consider offense to be the point.
None of this stands for all musicians or all comics. In addition to the campus cocoon I already named, public opinion is far from consensus. Nonetheless, while envelope-pushing lyricists have to face the music, most comics can laugh it off.