Pop Culture Honey Badger
Azealia Banks may not have many defenders these days. Since arriving onto the scene at age 17, she’s burnt a few, many, most bridges in her young but incendiary career.
From hits like “212,” “Chasing Time,” and “Yung Rapunxel,” Azealia has since descended into a strange social media presence marked by her “support” of Donald Trump and her production of various Periscope and Instagram videos that showcase a meandering, sometimes incomprehensible logic. In one notable example, she conducts a surreal version of a Khan Academy lesson on Santeria, eschewing Khan Academy’s trademark digital blackboard for a piece of poster paper hanging out-of-focus on a wall that could be spattered with dried chicken blood while beside her sits a jar filled with daggers and what appears to be either a replica or the actual dried, decapitated head of at least one chicken.
In perhaps her most infamous social media post, from late December of 2016, Banks takes a sandblaster to a closet caked with what she describes as three-years’ worth of chicken blood that is the result of her at-home Santeria sacrifices. Tamer videos from earlier in 2016 consist of her pontificating on the state of the music industry between bites of what appears to be a ramen noodle dinner.
In sum, Azealia’s career has undergone a noticeably precipitous decline over the past couple of years. No longer gracing the covers of Vibe, Billboard, or Playboy, she now commands a platform consisting mostly of social media posts more reminiscent of your average high schooler (albeit with more chicken blood) than a Billboard Best New Artist award winner.
And yet those video posts do reinforce Banks’ renegade aesthetic. Her most recent music video, for “The Big Big Beat,” may further reflect her change in fortunes—it showcases far lower production values than something like either “Chasing Time” or “Yung Rapunxel”—but it benefits from those lower production values because it represents a return to an aesthetic much closer to her breakout hit “212.” Of her more flashy and expensive videos, “Yung Rapunxel” is by far the best and most represents her aesthetic, that of the renegade iconoclast smashing a middle-fingered fist through pop culture’s stained glass virtues. But videos like “212” and “The Big Big Beat” suit her far better by showcasing an indifference to the trappings of megabudget superstardom.
The social media posts, in which Azealia may appear with a yellow scarf tied around her hair, generally unkempt and devoid of makeup to cover blossoming acne outbreaks, can therefore be seen as commensurate with Azealia’s most appealing aesthetic. Less a testament to how far she may have fallen, Azealia’s consistent social media presence could instead represent a reassertion of what separates her career from those carefully guarded ones of Iggy Azealia, Rihanna, Beyonce, et al.
While it’s true that overlong social media video diatribes alone cannot constitute a musician’s career, in 2017’s media landscape they certainly reinforce one. This kind of social media presence is necessary for what Bret Easton Ellis describes as a “post-empire” celebrity imprint—that is, a form of celebrity that is indifferent to the carefully crafted and closely guarded “empire” celebrity persona commensurate with an earlier era that has mostly beached itself on the shores of Millennial social media culture. Azealia Banks is, in this view, a queen of post-empire celebrity: brazenly broadcasting her opinions on everything from other musicians, the industry as a whole, and the 2016 presidential election without any concern for how this might impact her career or (the ultimate faux pas) the campus safe-space social justice warrior culture so easily triggered by dissenting opinions and offensive vocabulary.
In an article appearing in Vulture in 2015 titled “Has Azealia Banks Trolled Her Way Out of a Career?” writer Lauretta Charlton predicted Banks’ imminent career demise, suggesting that it was, if somewhat unfortunate, at least deserved. After chronicling then-recent outbursts in which Banks used derogatory language, notably calling some “faggots” and accusing others of “trolling for dick,” Charlton wrote that Banks “didn’t admit to doing anything wrong or—heaven forbid!—apologize.” With no sense of irony, Charlton then recounts Banks’ follow-up to one of her outbursts and the predictable ensuing clamor surrounding it: “All I had to do was say one word and I moved a whole community. What weaklings!”
Banks’ response was in essence asking whether a single defamatory statement should really be capable of inducing adults—I want to stress: adults—to cry out in a chorus of wounded despair, triggered by a five-foot-three self-professed bisexual with a transgender brother and a host of gay back-up dancers who happens to use the word “faggot” or any other number of epithets. Banks went on to say “I’m not a weak bitch, being called a dyke or a nigger does absolutely nothing to move me.” But Charlton, presumably like most of her readers, inhabits a new world in which words do absolutely everything to move and to trigger and to hurt—words in this world are no different from Patrick Bateman’s ice pick being drawn across the tender flesh of one’s delicate psyche.
In a world where striking offense represents a cultural affront on par with shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater or ‘Trump’ at the Tony Awards, offensive speech now occupies a place once reserved for physical acts of violence. Speech acts that violate the new rules of social propriety have become an occasion for collective outrage, replete with calls to castigate the speaker and banish them from the social circle in order to reaffirm the ever shrinking and increasingly restrictive boundaries of normative behavior. This is, after all, the era of likability, when both fictional characters and entertainment personalities must be both likable and relatable, which is little more than a process of continuously reaffirming our comfort while excising any potential threat of discomfort. Likability and relatability feed a cultural narcissism that wants only to see itself wherever it looks—a desire for constant reinforcement provided by art that borders on propaganda, forever reaffirming the same refrain through carefully manufactured tropes and declarations of only the most suitable ideas and values. By continually jettisoning her likability in favor of conflict and outspoken brashness irrespective of the consequences, Charlton contends that Banks has compromised not only her career (possibly true) but also her art (impossibly false).
Consider that Charlton describes Banks as having “always been a provocateur” and that Banks’ music made the behavior “tolerable—or at least more so than it is now.” In other words, Charlton calls into doubt the aesthetic quality of Banks’ music as a result of her public statements such that the music is only “tolerable” because of its “spellbinding output and scintillating potential.” While it is undoubtedly true that Banks’ career has been adversely affected as a result of her public statements, that doesn’t also mean that her art, with respect to its aesthetic merit, should or can likewise be similarly affected. Rather, in this instance we should ask what it means to conflate ideology with aesthetics as Charlton does here, causing her to ask of Banks and her art: “just who this is that we’ve been championing”?
The answer to Charlton’s question is: the same person we were championing since before Banks inundated us with her ongoing social media feuds. Beyond the fact that Banks has voiced only her opinions—that’s opinions, ladies and gentlemen—occasionally peppered with comical threats that, put into context, are intended as ribald jokes, the issue of whether or not she voices a disagreeable ideology is irrelevant to the question of the aesthetic quality of her art. We don’t dismiss the artistic merit of The Great Gatsby because it reflects a nativist, anti-Semitic ideology, and we similarly accept the cinematic value of Birth of a Nation (1915) despite the fact that it venerates the KKK as a valiant preserver of white identity.
Ideological considerations exist independent of aesthetics, and whether or not The Great Gatsby, Birth of a Nation (1915), or Broke With Expensive Taste are valuable works of art is either true or false irrespective of the ideologies of either their text or their authors. Likewise, whether they are ideologically sound (either with respect to the consistency or veracity of their argument), is either true or false irrespective of the aesthetic merit of the art. Put another way: whether you agree or disagree with its ideology has nothing to do with a work of art’s aesthetics, and whether you believe a work of art is aesthetically sound has nothing to do with its ideology.
What makes Azealia Banks so interesting as a pop culture personality, then, is that she is a reminder of this distance. Banks is not the carefully managed corporate celebrity who measures every statement lest the wrong words incite a social media conflagration and demands for an apology. Rather, she flagrantly dispenses with those behavioral expectations and says, with refreshing honesty, exactly what she thinks and feels with respect to just about anything that may cross her mind. She is the consummate anti-politician, anti-celebrity voice. What’s more, and perhaps most importantly, Banks’ response to any backlash is most often either a hostile refusal to apologize or a bemused meditation on our reactions: “This stuff is all so effortless. Sheesh. How I manage to make international news from the comfort of my toilet seat is honestly beyond me. I’m not even doing anything … at all.”
Azealia is simply messy and difficult to categorize. She’s brash and confrontational and refuses to abide by the celebrity rules of conduct to the point where she clearly delights in pissing on them and laughing at us as we react with shock and horror. That alone might make her a valuable pop culture figure, but when coupled with her raw talent and artistry, it makes her uniquely invaluable and worth reserving a place for her among the vanguard of pop culture artists—especially when today’s pop culture landscape so vehemently eschews dissent from the accepted rules of convention and thrives on only the most artificial of collective outrages.
Should artists never be permitted to use the words that the “progressive” language police has deemed forbidden? Should artists never upset the social contract that demands they uphold the Slate-Huffington Post-Vulture behavioral code of conduct, lest they become the subject of a “You Shouldn’t Listen To Azealia Banks. Here’s Why” headline? I.e., should art forever attend to the corporate bottom-line?
It’s worth considering what such a world would look like. Would it be a landscape populated with Beyonce’s carefully constructed, focus-group tested protest statements? Just provocative enough to grab headlines and garner acclaim but never be pulled from Walmart shelves? Does forgetting to tell Jay-Z to pull out make you the goddess of maternity?
Would it look like Taylor Swift’s milquetoast teen rallies? Or Miley Cyrus’s Molly-fueled, Maury Povich-style rebellion, lacking in anything other than a “You don’t know me!” contrarian identity politics?
These days Lady Gaga performs Super Bowl halftime shows, and her earlier provocations were primarily sexual-orientation based anyway—valuable, but far less compelling in 2017 in the age of court sanctioned gay marriage and Milo Yiannopoulos.
Adele, Amy Schumer, and even Axl Rose now trade on fat-shaming victimhood, even though Adele at least manages to sing the same, albeit impressive song over and over on each successive album. Amy Shumer meanwhile manages to have forgotten how to be funny, if she ever was.
Nicki Minaj and Rihanna are too monolithic to represent anything even moderately dangerous or counter-cultural, if Rihanna ever did. Or tried. Or wanted to.
Eminem still has bite and can still take a battering ram to culture’s sacred cows, but he seems relatively disinterested these days, preferring sporadic, targeted outbursts when the mood strikes.
And remember when punk rock used to be dangerous? These days Green Day is more apt to appear on Broadway than at The Knitting Factory. Rock n’ roll, or what passes for it, mostly consists of arena performances by Imagine Dragons and Coldplay, and even Marilyn Manson appears stuck in an anti-Christian rut, threatening to become a parody of himself even if his music remains strong—how many more times will tearing pages from a Bible shock us, Marilyn?
There is today a pop culture vacuum marked by the absence of the combative, sledgehammer-wielding culture critic who is willing to challenge the cultural orthodoxy, no matter how recklessly or petulantly. It is into this void that Azealia Banks stepped, and what makes her so compelling is that she isn’t so much following in anyone’s footsteps but capering over and across them in her own frenetic, haphazardly possessed dance. She is something of a woodland sprite disregarding the pre-tread conventional path while gleefully desecrating the carefully manicured landscaping to either side.
Artists like Banks, then, do more for the culture than the campus safe space social justice warriors who venerate only the pre-approved, properly appointed opinions dispatched from the towers of corporate celebrity. Artists like Banks instead force us to revisit those habituated beliefs that have become dogmatic in their unquestioning cultural acceptance, and in the Age of Trump, wouldn’t it would be nice to have Azealia back on the media stage, in the studio, and at a microphone?
If we want to better understand and counteract Trump’s media presence and the malleable perceptions of the voting base that voted him into power, it would be nice to have an artist, and not a bloviating real estate mogul turned politician, constantly reminding us what the new rules of media engagement are. And Banks is the best artist for that role not in spite of but because of how uncomfortable she makes us and how occasionally disagreeable she may be—that discomfort is what makes her so instructive and provides a course-correcting voice telling us all to get the fuck over it already.
You may not like that fact that Azalea uses the words “faggot,” “nigger,” and “dyke” with unabashed impunity, and you may disagree with her contention that “faggot” refers only to men who hate women and not a person’s sexual preference, but that shouldn’t make you afraid of either an open discourse on the subject or its expression in a work of art. Absent the ability to explore any and all ideas, in particular within art, those ideas threaten to proliferate and fester within the culture without interrogative critique. Art and free expression unmask ignorance—they don’t reinforce it.
For proof, look no further than the rise of Donald Trump, the “anti-politically correct” politician who merely trades on a certain kind of ignorance fostered by a culture that made a false idea of free speech (that Trump says whatever he wants and is therefore speaking truth to power) saleable to a legion of supporters who confused Trump’s willingness to say anything as a mark of his honesty and integrity. Eager for untrammeled expression of any kind, Trump’s supporters never paused to consider that he was telling them only what they wanted to hear just like so many other countless politicians who say one thing but believe and act in accordance with another set of principles. And for proof of this, look no further than Trump’s nonexistent border wall, his tax cuts for the rich masquerading as a health care bill, and his Goldman Sachs-rich administration appointees.
Perhaps a little more open and frequent cultural discourse, and not an authoritarian and public upbraiding for any misplaced statement that offends or triggers our emotions, might have reduced or eliminated Donald Trump’s ability to exploit an ignorant vision of a straight-talking leader. Unlike Donald Trump, whose insatiable desire for affirmation compels him to say whatever is most immediately expedient to garner applause and adulatory cheers, Azealia Banks actually does say what she thinks and believes, even when it will most clearly displease her audience. Her audience is that social media-based echo chamber millennial, and she’s smart enough to know that they don’t want to hear her endorse Donald Trump, attack Beyonce, call women cunts and men faggots and slit the throats of chickens in her Harlem apartment—but she does it all the same, and she unapologetically broadcasts it because that’s what the face of freedom of expression and not giving a fuck looks like.
The lesson of Azealia Banks is not a cautionary tale of an artist who “trolled herself out of a career” but rather what happens while we’re all still smarting from whatever someone said that upset us: The world marches onward, indifferent as always to our all-too-precious sensitivities, and sometimes it elects Donald Trump president. In a young Banks’ own words, “Trying to be all PC … is not good for culture. Censorship is boring. Censorship is trash. Television and movies are … boring now because of it. No one can say anything anymore” (THR).
Except that Banks says anything and everything, and while the new culture warriors of Vulture et al. may see in Banks’ recent retreat from the media stage a victory, for the culture and for us it counts as a defeat. That is, it counts as a defeat unless you prefer to be insulated from ideas and expressions you don’t like, or unless you prefer Donald Trump’s ersatz version of free speech, and the world that elected him, instead.