Monday, July 4, 2011

Freedom of Speech and Taking Responsibilty

Today, I just want to appreciate Tim Minchin’s willingness to consider the impact of his lyrics. This interview with Tim Minchin, by Dan Savage, was posted a couple weeks ago, but I have been thinking about it, and decided to highlight it for today’s post. I will post the parts of the interview I found to be the most compelling, then post a couple of the songs mentioned. (Saving “The Pope Song” for another day, because that one is so penetrating, there is much to be considered.)

Here is the address for the whole interview:

This excerpt is what I’d like to focus on for this post:
DS: There was a shitstorm at my paper when I posted—and this is really reaching back to some of your early stuff—"Fat Children" on our blog.

TM: Oh, yeah, Jesus! I didn't know that caused a shitstorm at your paper, but I did drop that song and stop performing it because, well, I'll tell you why after you tell me what happened.

DS: Some folks thought it was bullying. I thought it was tough. But the shitstorm left me wondering how you, as an artist and a satirist, balance your clearly empathetic, humanistic side, you know, the part of you that writes passionate and funny songs about the Palestinians ("Peace Anthem for Palestine"), about women's rights ("Confessions"), and gay rights ("I Love Jesus"), with your role as a satirist? Being a satirist requires taking the piss out of people. But being a humanist can get you boxed into this corner where you're not allowed to be "mean." How do you balance that? And now that I know you're not performing "Fat Children" anymore, I have to ask why.

TM: Fuck, I love talking to you. I stopped performing that straight after the first tour because I didn't want everyone to look at the fat people in the room and think, they must be hating life. It was the same reason I dropped the word "nigger" from my song, "If You Really Loved Me." To be fair to myself, I understand the history of that word, but I didn't understand it quite deeply enough, but I wasn't unaware at all of the history of that word in all its power. You don't hear that word in Australia outside of hiphop. It's not like anyone calls a black person that word here. It's just sort of a hiphop gangster word. There's lots of highly offensive lyrics in that song, and so I wrote this lyric, "We go together like a cracker and brie, like racism and ignorance, like niggers and R&B."

DS: Oh my god.

TM: You can imagine how that went down. My point, which is clear when that lyric is taken in context with the rest of the song, was that racism is the result of ignorance, and yet the R&B industry promotes the use of this word. It doesn't matter. It wasn't good enough. I got in trouble and dropped it because the people who got cross at me were right. As an empiricist and rationalist, it's incredibly important to be able to learn, to admit when you're wrong.

DS: And so what about "Fat Children," then?

TM: I don't mind offending people if I know how to defend my song, you know? I've got a case brought against me by some idiot with the Australian Human Rights Commission for religious prejudice because "Pope Song" was played on TV in Australia. And I would go to the highest court in the land to defend that song—not that I'll need to, because it defends itself, because it's very well thought-out and clear. Everything that I could possibly say about that song is in the song. It's got its defense built in. "Fat Children" is a funny song about not overfeeding your children. It's not a song about fat people. It's a song about people who are abusing their kids by forcing a choice on them and not helping their kids make the right choices. But, fuck, I just didn't feel comfortable doing it. I just didn't care enough about the issue to sit in a room knowing I was making the overweight people feel sad.

DS: How do you pick and choose whom to make feel bad? I mean, clearly you're willing to really scald people of faith, as we call them here in America.

TM: [Laughs] But I don't, actually. I mean, "Ten Foot Cock and a Few Hundred Virgins" was pretty mean, and that again was early on, but if you think about all my songs I've written about religion since "Ten Foot Cock," they're all specifically addressing the place where erroneous belief meets discrimination and prejudice. When I'm being mean about religion, I'm being mean about where religion goes wrong. I'm not just being mean to people for having faith. I think about this shit a lot. But to bring it back to what you were saying, I do want to be a humanist, and I do want to point out to people that beauty is in the real world and not in the fake one, and how the language of spirituality is empty. I mean, I'm not on a mission. I'm on a mission to just play fun gigs and make people have a fucking riot of a time. But the bigger my audience gets, the more I have to take responsibility for what I'm saying. And I guess that's the short answer. At some point I have to decide whether I'm going to be one of these comedians that says the unsayable for shock, or whether I'm going to be a comedian who says stuff he can back up intellectually in an interview with someone on the phone five years later. What do you think about "Fat Children"?

DS: Some parts of it made me go, "Whoa." Some of the lyrics—"Your 6-year-old miniature Jabba the Hut, eating half-melted Mars bars from the folds of his gut..." Ouch.

TM:[Laughs] That bit's funny.

DS: And, "Diet Coke is not the way back." Smart, true, you can't say that here. But I've watched people feed doughnuts to their obese children and felt myself getting angry—as a parent, as a human. I travel a lot for work, and I go through airports and see parents feeding their overweight kids Cinnabons that are bigger than their heads, and I think, "What are you doing?"

TM: I know. And I did write that song from an honest place of horror. And also because I get it. I don't suppose anyone would look at me and think I'm fat. But I've got my own issues with my body, and I've spent my whole life finding it difficult not to eat too much. And I work, and work, and work, and work, and run, and run, and run, and all this and I'm still a pretty chunky guy. And I was trying to write a song that was like, no excuses, no excuses, no excuses. If you put in more calories than you put out, you get fat. But you don't want to bully your own audience. And a satirist's job should be to pull down the people who are pulling down others. You pull down the church for fiddling with kids. And you pull down the church for discriminating against gays. You've got to decide where you're going to use your poison pen, and I decided pretty soon after I started performing that song that I didn't want to bully fat people, because most fat people are sad.

DS: It's still up online, still on YouTube.

TM: Ah, yeah. Look, I'm not trying to pretend it didn't exist. I just stopped performing it. And some people like that song. And some people are upset by it. And people can listen to it if they want. You're not putting people in a room and then trapping them there while you abuse them.

Today is the 4th of July, when we in America celebrate our many freedoms, one of our favorites being freedom of speech. I find if refreshing to hear an performer say, "it's incredibly important to be able to learn, to admit when you're wrong." Most of us are so defensive when we know we are right, and by god, we will NOT be censored. I liked reading about how Tim Minchin chooses when it is worth it to be offensive, and when it is worth it to make a change.

Fat Children:

If You Really Loved Me: (self-censored)

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