The industry always falls back on the idea that individuals with positive lyrics are boring, weird, eclectic or otherwise unmarketable. When an artist that does have strong moral content in their lyrics comes out it feels as though the music industry is hoping for the worst. These artists “seemingly” are rarely promoted as thoroughly as other artists are.
There is also a lot of debate as to what constitutes as being moral content in lyrics to begin with. For example Public Enemy caused a lot of debate during the late eighties because while their lyrics attempted to uplift black men they also did a lot to demonize every else. On the other hand, conscientious groups such as Sounds of Blackness who offered positivity through the idea of spirituality (though not necessarily advocating Christianity or any other religion) were immensely popular. So were groups like Soul 2 Soul or Groove Theory.
Yet it’s curious though to see their success pale in comparison to Eminem, 50 Cent and Biggie Smalls. All were great artists but none ever stood for anything positive. 50 Cent does have a song that talks about God, and Eminem has “Loose Yourself” which is a very positive and uplifting song in the spirit of 8 Mile, even Biggie has “Sky is the Limit” where he tells his rags to riches story. But no one remembers those songs; they would rather hear “Stan” or “In Da Club” or “Hypnotize”.
The industry seems to be a lot better at promoting songs with strong moral content from artists whose reputations were not built on moral standing to begin with. There are some notable exceptions though; Kanye West built his career on a great song talking about his near death experience, quickly moving into commentary about Black women being materialistic and culminating in a song about Jesus Christ on his first record. Much was made off of gold digger from his second record, a song eerily reminiscent of the version by EPMD for those old enough to remember.
Yet the press wants to talk about Kanye’s antics at award shows and her personal politics. Some of this he brought on himself taking advantage of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to espouse his politics about George Bush. So it’s hard to really consider where Kanye stands on moral ground; though you can hate to love him as he is honest about being pulled in opposite directions, the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other.
I’m not sure that the music industry can really dictate what the lyrics should be in any song on a record if that takes away from the brilliance of the artist. Clearly there are many artists with positive and uplifting lyrics across all genre of music. Everyone who has come off of American Idol is portrayed in a very uplifting and positive way. With few exceptions, for example Ruben Studdard’s first album wasn’t very positive at all and at times digressed, Fantasia did well until she made a record with Missy Elliot. But then you hear “Jesus, Take the Wheel”, and you remember why you watched the show.
Sure the music industry can do more to improve the moral content, and should, but audiences need to make up their own mind about what they want to listen to. It is easy to sit back and allow the music industry to dictate to you what you should like. It is difficult to actually find music on your own, immerse yourself in the culture and go out of your way to support great artist that are working a bar in a rough part of town instead of a large amphitheater. It isn’t chic to attend progressive churches and support the artists that often have free concerts there either.
The real question is why Americans want to pay $20 for a record from an artist that will only have 3 decent songs, out of 18 on a disc. You may as well wait until they come through and see them in concert in hopes of getting a great performance out of them. Why do we defend such artists when there is almost always someone better than they are. We want quality songs, but we have allowed art programs to be taken out of school because we do not want to pay for them through our tax dollars. Great music does come from the streets, but the schools can instill morals, values and ethics as to what one can do with great music. It is not about being a career musician but someone that takes pride in what they do.
With that pride comes lyrics that not just positive, but conscientious and challenging all at once. Then listening to an India Aire album or the next Alicia Keys record isn’t all that different or revolutionary, just another great record by a great artist.