Self-expression and rebellion through in-your-face style, I get behind
I feel under-qualified to criticize, explain, or justify this video. Seriously. And I’ve felt this way since I started writing in this blog… What do I know about hip-hop music, really? Who am I to react, qualify or claim to understand a culture that is so decidedly not my own? Who am I to write these things? Much of the music I love the most comes from the lived experience of struggle and pain of folks from marginalized communities… and I feel so presumptuous, sometimes, as a straight white male, trying to understand or explain that very real experience.
But there is something so lively, electric, and vibrant about the rebellious, in-your-face approach to self-expression, and I love it. Major Lazer’s recent video for the song “Aerosol Can” displays, to me, an aggressive counter-culture aesthetic and prodigious brilliance in its lyrics and its presentation that I find energizing and life-affirming. Although there’s a sexism in its lyrics that many would find offensive, and it bothers me too, I don’t think that means the song should be rejected wholesale.
I love videos where the lyrics are visually depicted in the video, and this video achieves that to brilliant effect. A man with a full body tattoo literally writes every lyric of the song on the white walls of an empty room. The black, sharpied lyrics are animated to move in time to the music, which is frenetically paced to keep up with rapped lyrics by Pharrell that are simply a rush to experience at once. The sound of an aerosol can spraying paint, the digital sound of videogame mainstay Mario, and a fantastic rhythmic beat are integrated into a mix that is unparalleled in its energy and vivacity.
Major Lazer is a collaborative project that’s always been anchored by the Philadelphia DJ Diplo, who’s been mixing top-quality electronic, dancehall, and digital reggae music for years. He recorded the first full album under the moniker Major Lazer at the historic Tuff Gong studios in Kingston, Jamaica, a place associated mainly with the golden age of Bob Marley in the 1960s, and more recently, was the site of Snoop Dogg’s short stint as a reggae artist under the name Snoop Lion. Major Lazer albums are accompanied with cartoon-ified artwork, and are associated with a complicated, radical story involving a zombie-war veteran Jamaican C. I. A. operative with prosthetic laser arms. They are intense, energetic, but brilliant in a way I’ve rarely seen.
The lyrics here are rife with drug references and intentional absurdity, onomatopoeia, scatting, references to brands and commercial tropes, and street language. And I find myself asking…why do l like all this so much? The answer is simple: the song is just very damn cool! I think it’s good, at it’s most basic level, that people should be encouraged and supported in expressing themselves in ways that make people feel uncomfortable. If we all lived in monotone square houses, in the suburbs, commuted to faceless companies and worked 9-5 jobs day-to-day, where would the fun be in life? I, for one, wouldn’t want to live my whole life that way.
Now, I may not have any tattoos, and I may not have lived the crazy experiences or outlandish imagery described here (nor honestly, do I want to…) but at its most essential core, I think the song is an exercise in storytelling. Same goes for the graffiti and public art I see everywhere here in Atlanta. People are communicating their culture, and their personal history and identity, through the bright colors, spray-painted letters, and individual graffiti signatures you find everywhere in public space here. And that kind of self-expression, dare I say “art” is, I think, deeply productive, valuable and inseparable from the urban experience.
I recognize and respect the argument that oftentimes, music of this flavor can be offensive, aggressive, sexist, or violent. But to refuse to allow it to exist is not something I can get behind, and to engage with it on its own terms is really important to the way I approach community life. And it can be difficult to control the feeling of discomfort it can cause in me, but in my experience, it has always been worth it to do so. And that isn’t to say that I will hold back from protesting when it crosses the line. But, there are so many diverse and interesting takes on the human experience, that to close myself off to those that can make me uncomfortable is, to my mind, not really acceptable. And so, I seek it out, celebrate the good parts of it, and jam out to it.
If there’s one thing I can ALWAYS get behind, it’s music that makes me jam out. And this video is definitely one of those. So, thanks, Major Lazer!