Courting Controversy

The panoptic gaze of social media is a minefield.

Between excessive political correctness and the swarm of hashtags from gluten-free activists, there are whole audiences dedicated to being offended. Author Bret Easton Ellis termed it “Generation Wuss”- the overly sensitive generation who grew up online, and now, lay poised, waiting to pounce on internet comment sections everywhere. Whether casting themselves as bastions of morality, or manufacturing outrage at the next whatever-gate scandal, people love being offended. There used to be a much more interesting public enemy, which for a long time ranked highly on conservatives’ hit lists: music.

Controversial music can be a catalyst. It can push new cultural precedents, create new language, and is often assimilated into social landscapes. Our dwindling attention spans may mean those effects are fleeting in today’s day and age, but they never used to be. Maybe we’re just desensitized now, but there was a period when musicians were notorious for sparking widespread religious, political, and sexual debate. Folks really got riled up about it, actively protesting because of musicians, as well as against them.

Dissatisfied teenagers lumped their insecurities aboard the rebellion train, however misguided it may have been. This meant that parents were often casualties, caught up in the throes of teenage angst. It was the age when iconic music videos and tales from live shows created mythical personas for musicians. There is understandably deflated panic when Wikipedia can tell you that the lead singer of your favourite death metal band is a part-time insurance salesman from Connecticut. So what ever happened to controversial music?

There will always be contrarians, deviants and sexual provocateurs, but we seem to have become far more tolerant of outliers. It was one thing to be a fringe dweller in the pre-internet era, but it was something else entirely when one of these characters penetrated mainstream culture. We’ve had a mixed bag of activists, exhibitionists and professional pot-stirrers wield cultural sway. Consider the influential heft of early troublemakers like David Bowie, Prince, Black Sabbath, and Kiss, and more modern serial offenders like Madonna, Eminem, and Marilyn Manson. These are all culprits of controversy in one way or another, whose actions and images rippled beyond the realm of music. They encouraged and often forced public debate, and were deplored by the trio of authority: parents, priests and politicians.


All that friction seemed to amount to something before; so what changed? A lot of the controversy may have been the result of us short-sightedly squinting at things through a pinhole camera, whereas the wide-angle lens of the internet has opened that scope up infinitely.

Maybe we’ve just internalized and progressed beyond the sort of issues musicians tend to raise. Barriers have been broken and arguments evolve; the current one seems dominated by gender politics and rooting out bigots before ushering them to the gallows of public shame. Creating simmering public dialogue through music has cultural merit, and the shift away from that also means some adolescent rites of passage are being missed out on. You haven’t seen bewildered disappointment quite like a father who had to hand over his hard-earned money for an album featuring a pale, red-haired man with breasts on the cover, to appease his teenage son. By comparison, it’s Miley Cyrus causing the most fuss at present. And if that’s the best attempt at controversy we can muster, well then we just aren’t trying hard enough.

About the Author

 Michael is a copywriter based in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Prone to escapism, his mind resides elsewhere, trying to find solace in the cinders of youth. He’s a Nintendo nerd, berry fanatic, and well on his way to becoming the male equivalent of a crazy cat lady. Since getting his hands on The Pixies’ Doolittle at the tender age of ten, music has remained the only constant. Grafting meaning to memory, it’s the breadcrumb trail back to oblivion.

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