When Does Art Simply Go Too Far?
Published: Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
When does an artist cross the line between sharing something personal, and over-sharing to the point of discomfort? And when do we, as journalists and even casual listeners, actually have the right to ask that question of the artists themselves?
The reason I ask is because of rapper Angel Haze’s new song “Cleaning Out My Closet,” a freestyle over Eminem’s classic track, from her upcoming mixtape Classick. As the familiar melody kicks in, Haze tells a disturbing and deeply personal story of rape, and as listeners we are—in this case—clearly expected to accept this as reality. She goes into detail about her attacker, and over the course of four minutes, recounts her story as a cathartic way of coping.
“Cleaning Out My Closet” is blunt and to the point, a difficult listen for sure and not a song listeners will be likely to return to more than a couple of times, save for to appreciate its boldness. It stands in stark contrast to the work of, say, Taylor Swift on her new album, Red—an album on which the no-longer-country star “quirkily” takes her exes to task for treating her so rudely.
Swift claims she won’t disclose who each song is about and fans coo about how cute it is that she’s being so coy, but I think it’s a total copout after several albums worth of material exclusively devoted to trashing the people she once dated. What she calls art, I call prepackaged charm.
Haze, on the other hand, is no stranger to putting herself fully on display. On her excellent mixtape Reservation, released this summer, the 21-year-old rapper spits with the fury of a deeply wronged woman. It’s both a mature and animalistic sound, an experiment in profound expressionism that borders on disturbing but more often simply entrances with its lyrical mastery and simplicity.
On “Cleaning Out My Closet,” however, some critics have already argued that Haze has gone too far, but it’s a tricky question due to the very personal nature of its subject matter. Who is an outsider to tell an artist what he or she cannot speak about in music, no matter how disturbing or unpleasing the topic may be to observe?
It’s a fine line that music journalism often stumbles on, especially when it comes to female artists. Men—save perhaps for Frank Ocean, whose inclusion of masculine pronouns set the rap world aflutter in July—are rarely criticized for their music’s subject matters. One Direction repeatedly uses the line “tonight let’s get some,” on their new song, which has been embraced by Top 40 and their very young and impressionable fans without any major outlet taking the group to task.
In the music world today, there’s something totally refreshing about a rapper actually delving into a topic this profoundly raw and real. Rather than dropping a boastful track ala Rick Ross, a song about drugs ala Lil Wayne, or a verse that tries to sell listeners Ciroc over and over again ala Diddy, Haze has taken the time to carefully craft a portrait of a damaged artist. It’s brutal to listen to, but more than adequately rips open some preconceived notions about what women in music should and should not be discussing in their songs.
Haze performed at several big name showcases at last week’s CMJ Festival in New York City, but based off video footage from the events, the audience didn’t vibe with her in any meaningful way. Perhaps audiences’ expectations about music have been so lulled that any songs that don’t incorporate the big themes of today’s popular music—think drunk weekends, lots of money and success, and falling in love—merely fall upon deaf ears.
Angel Haze has a story to tell, but first, she has an audience to recondition.