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Mill On the Music Industry

November 29, 2010
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Mill argues (and I agree) that individuality is an element of well being, and that freedom is essential to human development. He concludes that in order to cultivate persons of genius, society must be allowed to thrive in an atmosphere liberated by ideas:

Persons of genius, it is true, are, and are likely to be, a small minority; but in order to have them, it is necessary to preserve the soil in which they grow. Genius can only breathe freely in a n atmosphere of freedom (Mill 625).

When I consider the soil that must be preserved in order to allow genius to grow, the music industry is one of the first things  to come to mind. Highly influential as it is on modern day society, the music industry upholds a freedom of thought and opinion as well as the expression of various experiments of living – which are just the sort of thing Mill would agree could potentially open doorway to entirely new modes of thinking. It’s not likely that the next political genius will indulge in drinking ‘purple drank’ like Lil’ Wayne or sport daisy dukes with a bikini on top, much like Katy Perry. However, the experiments of living present in the music industry represent novel approaches to lifestyle choices, which could be just the environment needed in order to spawn the next revolutionary political theorist.

However, it is possible that freedom of thought within the music industry is actually detrimental to society as a whole, and working against the rise of genius:

Finally, if by his vices or follies a person does no direct harm to others, he is nevertheless (it may be said) injurious by his example; and ought to be compelled to control himself, for the sake of those whom the sight or knowledge of his conduct might corrupt or mislead (633).

A vast majority of music, although free, has lewd, suggestive lyrics that are potentially corrupting to the youth that is exposed to them. Sexually explicit material and mention of drug usage certainly does its part in creating a free atmosphere. However, lyrics that are inappropriate and even vulgar could actually be stifling the atmosphere needed to cultivate genius. If mainstream music is influential in such a way that it lessens or harms the chances of genius arising among youth in society, perhaps we need to seriously reconsider restrictions on lyrics that are so hot our popsicles will melt.

14 Comments
  1. Sara Mitchell permalink
    November 29, 2010 9:05 PM

    I was very intrigued by this post. The music industry has become increasingly vulgar and explicit in its lyrics and those lyrics are readily accessible on the Internet and in other places as well. However, music played on the radio is censored so that anything too explicit or containing too many curse words are either substituted with words not as bad or blurred out. Mill would very much support the freedom of expression in the music industry about a decade ago. However, in recent years the lyrics have become extremely sexually explicit and are making more and more references to drugs and alcohol. These lyrics are having a negative influence on the youth because they look up to these artists and if they are listening to such vulgar music, they may begin to engage in such acts that are mentioned in the lyrics. Mill would not be in agreement with complete freedom of expression in the present-day music industry.

  2. Valerie Juan permalink
    November 30, 2010 12:46 AM

    Interesting post. I have to say that I agree.
    However, this brings up new questions about ways that we can apply the idea of censorship to other parts of society.
    For example: how shall we approach racism?
    Should we say that it is harmful to others, so it must be banned in order to create a welcoming and open and accepting environment that will foster and stimulate positive attitudes, which may (in turn) lead to great cultural, intellectual, or social accomplishments?
    Or shall we say that it can be an inspiration and is characteristic of a society in a certain phase or era, so it cannot be censored on the grounds of free speech?
    Touchy subjects such as these force people to be careful when walking the fine, fine line between “Freedom of Speech” and the protection of innocence /upholding community standards for the greater good. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made, in favor of one or the other.

  3. Will Butler permalink
    November 30, 2010 12:55 AM

    I think the music industry is a great example of just how serious Mill was about individual rights of speech and expression. I think that he would stand to be appalled by any censorship or editing of artists. Not only is art by its very nature meant to push boundaries, but in Mill’s marketplace of ideas we are free as “consumers” to pick and choose what we deem appropriate and acceptable without outside forces infringing upon our right to choice.

  4. adamkornbluh permalink
    November 30, 2010 10:47 AM

    I’d like to start by saying that this was a fascinating connection of Mill to our modern culture. That being said, I believe Mill would support the free speech given to artists in our music industry. Music is an art that has been around for thousands of years and it is through the freedom of expression that it has advanced to where it is today. Sure, it could be said that suggestive, vulgar lyrics could potentially affect the youth, but I do not believe that these effects are significant. Also, are those who are easily corruptible by the “bad” music the ones that Mill would have contended to be the future geniuses to lead our generation? Overall, I feel that Mill would not support censorship of any kind unless it was so suggestive that it could start riots or an uprising of some sort. To him, the freedom of expression is too important to restrict it in order to be politically correct.

  5. britneyrupley permalink
    November 30, 2010 1:45 PM

    This was a very interesting post, and you brought up good arguments using textual references to Mill. Though, I slightly disagree. Yes, the music industry has become increasingly vulgar and lewd in nature, but I do not think that is corrupting youth (like Socrates was alleged to do) or stifling creativity. First off, all of American youth aren’t necessarily exposed to the music in its raw/vulgar form, they mostly hear the censored versions on the radio (which I think Mill would disagree with said censorship). Those who are exposed to the mention the uncensored lyrics, also won’t necessarily become corrupted, and I think that Mill would actually encourage everyone to listen to all of the uncensored music out there because of the freedom expressed in the lyrics. Secondly, I do not think that vulgarity in music stifles future musical genius, simply because they are not correlated. When a new “musical genius” makes their way into the music scene, they do no sound like anyone or anything that came before them. So, I don’t think that they would focus on previous musical artists and their musical work, but they would rather strive to be different. Therefore, they wouldn’t let someone else’s work stifle them, no matter how vulgar or lewd the material is.

  6. Lorna Malja permalink
    November 30, 2010 9:23 PM

    This post was honestly fantastic! I loved it, and i would definitely have to agree with this! The music industry and its’ artists are getting more and more vulgar and explicit with their albums and songs. I think that Mill would say that it’s their choice to sing about what they want too..because it is them expressing their thoughts and feelings. We are all free and can choose to do whatever we want as long as it is not hurting other people. However, with all of these vulgar messages, it really can hurt others feelings, etc. Nevertheless, most teens love that kind of music and listen to it all the time so I don’t think it is really an issue.

  7. maqianhu permalink
    November 30, 2010 9:42 PM

    It’s interesting how popular culture is so relevant to the political theories we study. In many ways, the freedom of speech has corrupted our mind and lifestyles. We utilized vulgar language and see explicit content way more than we did before, this is mainly due to the public and commercial industries. We often imitate after tv shows and songs we listen to, so our speech has become similar to what are publicized to us. In a way, it is own fault for imitating others, but it is also the industries fault for exposing them to us.

  8. cwatson872 permalink
    November 30, 2010 10:12 PM

    There are some pretty natural parallels I see between what you bring up about the music industry and the censorship of literature throughout the 20th century.

    Some of what are now considered masterpieces of the last 100 years were rejected by publishers or censored due to “vulgar” or “explicit content” – pieces such as Ulysses, Cather in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath and many others. These were pieces that pushed social norms and stimulated societal change and reform – but this wasn’t without some conflict and it wasn’t until some time had passed that the value of these pieces was recognized.

    So, in response to your observations of the music industry, I guess the question just becomes will these pieces come to represent important and beneficial social change 50 years for now or will these pieces be regarded as part of a general social decline – perhaps even dating back to the publication of these once offenses works of literature?

  9. jacobjam permalink
    November 30, 2010 10:50 PM

    I really enjoyed your post relating modern day society to Mills political theory. It brings up a crucial point that continues to bring conflict into todays society. In today’s society music has become more vulgar and detrimental to youth than it has ever been. With all of the lyrics and music videos portraying messages unfit for the ears of the youth in our society, most would question why it is still legal to portray such messages. After analyzing this idea, I must agree that these messages prove beneficial as well. Using Mills theory, I believe that these negatively portrayed messages can allow society to show positive and more important messages. These detrimental lyrics and videos can be used to show the youth how society must be portrayed and how society must act in order to progress and succeed. Society can and will use these messages for the greater good because that is what a good civil society will always strive to do regardless of the type of negative influences pushing against them.

  10. mikeking0717 permalink
    December 1, 2010 1:39 AM

    To begin with, I would like to give you a job well done. Great Blog Post! The most interesting part of all this for me involves the sociological undertones of Mills work. Society provides us with paths of least resistance to follow and get along with everyone, but once in a while somebody like MLK or Hitler will commit themselves to the path less taken. In these cases society is forced to make the decision to keep or squash the rebels. Anyone who has taken a 7th grade level history class can easily see which of the two men was accepted, and who’s ideas were left behind. Today’s music can bring about many reactions from people. Everything from a full embodiment of the patriarchal world rapped about in Eminems lyrics, or a new perspective on how the first amendment should be enforced in respect to minors. The point being, it is O.K. for people to listen to whatever they want because in the end society will retain only what is most beneficial for its survival.

  11. Lorig Stepanian permalink
    December 1, 2010 11:59 AM

    This post is very interesting. I believe that the music industry is one of the most influential institutions present in society today. From the radio, to concerts, to music videos people, young and old are exposed to musicians of all genres every day. Because the music industry is so accessible to so many different groups of people, both young and old, concern regarding the material present has become more and more controversial. Whether I was aware or not, as a child, I was exposed to many sexual, vulgar and otherwise explicit phenomenons due to the music I listened to. Many times my exposure to this content was premature, as I was witnessing booty shaking and barley there outfits in music videos, or singing along to “What’s your fantasy?” at age 11, thinking that it was normal behavior and dress for the majority of adults.

    Although much of the youth is prematurely exposed to adult content, possibly “corrupting their minds” making these individuals interested in vulgar and destructive content at a young age, I do not believe that the music industry is faulty. Although Mill does argue that people can be “injurious by example,” I believe that his proposition to allow the spread of wrong ideas to allow the growth of knowledge is far more important. Whether the ideas presented in the music industry are right are valuable and enlightening is an argument all its own, I do not believe that you can say the music industry is unlawful because it presents harmful material. In the end, no one is obligated to watch or listen to Lil’ Wayne or Katy Perry. One has the freedom to turn off the TV or the radio when they are presented with unwarranted information. In addition, I believe that it is a parent’s responsibility to regulate the content that their children are exposed to.

  12. jaclburr permalink
    December 1, 2010 12:47 PM

    Very interesting connection. I agree that the music industry is certainly a very influential aspect of society, especially on the youth. I even find myself connecting things to songs I like sometimes, or wanting to live a certain way I heard in a song, and then thinking, “is that song really that influential on my thoughts?” It is a difficult debate. On one hand, as Mill would say, these singers have the freedom to say what they feel, and it is up to society to interpret it and agree or disagree. Yet, on the other hand, on young impressionable minds, some of these lewd lyrics can be quite a negative influence. I don’t know what the answer is, but there is definitely an argument for both sides.

  13. Molly Niedbala permalink
    December 4, 2010 11:15 PM

    Mill argues that a person’s saying that certain things are “harmful to society” is itself an expression of opinion – and at that, it should be scrutinized. Who is anyone to say that sexual vulgarity and suggestive songs are not, in themselves, what you refer to as “genius?” I’m personally of the opinion that these songs do, in fact, corrupt today’s youth. But someone else might argue that sexual freedom and expression (and even excess) are good for a person or society. I believe Mill would argue that, because it is only cultural convention that marks the lewd language in some songs as “inappropriate,” those songs should be allowed to be heard and judged on their own.

  14. Samantha Eisler permalink
    December 8, 2010 2:24 PM

    While I definitely agree with what many of the posts have been stating above, I think that Mill’s opinion would be twofold on this subject. One the one hand, Mill feels that we should push the boundaries of tradition, using tools such as freedom of speech and new ideas to do so. Hip-Hop is a great example of this as it has built on hundreds of years of music to form a unique genre. On the other hand, much of the vulgarity in hip-hop can be conceived as harmful to others. Especially to young kids who may not know what certain words mean, but are prone to repeat them and integrate them into their language often. Mill might object to hip-hop in this light as it poses as a possible threat to society.

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