Should We Turn Down "Turn Down for What"?

Do you mind if I take this opportunity to complain a little bit about music and lyrics? You don't? Okay, good, because I want to comment briefly on DJ Snake and Lil Jon's single "Turn Down for What" (2013). At first, I wasn't even going to bother with it because, let's face it, I'm interested in what people have to say and this song doesn't say anything, really. If you're interested in the lyrics, I'll post them here for you: "Fire up that loud / Another round of shots / Turn down for what". That's it. No joke. And I'm acting like I'm going to write a post about its meaning.

In all fairness, maybe I should point out that this song falls into the electronic/dance genre, so the argument may be made that the main point of the music is primarily dancing and not necessarily sending verbal messages. Its focus is on encouraging physical movement via the musical impetus provided by DJ Snake, so Lil Jon's addition via the lyrics is really just there as an added instrument and not as an appeal to any sort of rational communication. And I will admit openly that I have no appreciation for or comprehension of electronic, dance, dub, "trap", or any other other kind of music out there that emphasizes bass beats and whatever else is involved in producing the seething, sweating behemoth of modern clubs and after-hours raves. I am in many ways musically challenged, and I have off-beat, eclectic tastes, and I primarily enjoy individual songs for their lyrical content rather than for their musical qualities. So, if DJ Snake's music is good to dance to for those people who enjoy that kind of thing, that's wonderful. I guess my question is, if you just want to dance, then why do these kinds of songs need any lyrics whatsoever? If it's "all about the music", why don't you just let the music speak for itself? Classical music is "all about the music", and it gets along just fine without any lyrics whatsoever. Why can't this sort of electronic music do the same?

If we really want to look at the lyrics to "Turn Down for What", it is possible to actually say a couple of brief things about it. Before Lil Jon joined DJ Snake on this project, the only lyrical addition was the phrase "bang the underground". I'll leave it to your own interpretive skills to uncover the meaning of that one. Lil Jon, however, said that he wanted to make the song "hip and current", and the phrase "turn down for what" was what came to mind. With a few additional lyrics, the song had become "hip and current". So what is "hip and current" to Lil Jon's mind? Well, turning music up really loud and drinking a round of shots, that's what. And they'll turn down for what? ..... Nothing. The answer is nothing. They'll turn down for nothing. Nothing and nobody is going to make them turn the music down. Music and drinking is what is hip and current nowadays. It's not that different from what's been hip and current since the ancient Greeks, really. What might be a little bit different, however, is exactly that Nothing obliquely referred to by Lil Jon. The nothingness of the lyrics reflects the nothingness of what's hip and current, the nothingness of the kind of lifestyle that revolves around loud music and drinking, the nothingness of the kind of lifestyle that refuses to live for anything else. There is a great, big Nothing at the center of this song that reveals itself in the lack of meaning in the lyrics themselves. There is a stubborn desire to leave rationality and responsibility and reality behind in favor of the thoughtless, euphoric, chaotic lifestyle that is measured in individual experiences of pleasure rather than a unified life ordered to a purposive end. There is an escapist mentality that truly wants to believe that "nothing matters", that our actions can be separated from their natural consequences, that our lives can be freely shaped from moment to moment as we please, that doing what satisfies the senses is enough to satisfy the whole person. This is truly what is "current" and "hip" nowadays, and it is one of the most dangerous states of apathy one can possibly get into. As Josef Pieper brings out so profoundly in his essay on love, "The true antithesis of love is not hate but despairing indifference, the feeling that nothing is important. ... The radical attitude of 'not giving a damn' in fact is in some way related to the state of mind of the damned." This escapist fantasy, this wishful thinking that wants to reduce to "nothing" the most profound and meaningful created thing in existence, namely, the human person, treads on the path to damnation, where, in fact, this fantasy will become a reality. In Hell, you can truly become Nothing.

This isn't to say that electronic music is inherently bad or anything of the sort. But we do need to recognize that many genres of music -- pop, rap, rock, country, punk, even classical -- tend to get attached to a certain lifestyle. All of them create and promote and maintain an ideological lifestyle that many listeners, especially the young, identify with in the same way that they identify with the musical genre. The music becomes a mode of personal self-expression, and the lifestyle publicly reinforces it. This is a far from unfamiliar experience for most people, myself included. I've been a punk rock fan since high school, and I wore the black eyeliner and studs and chains and safety pins and combat boots. It was a means of identifying with what moved me emotionally, and publicly attached me to the music I listened to. In fact, most of the time nowadays when I receive comments such as "I wouldn't have thought you were a punk rock fan", what people really mean is "You're not dressed or you don't act like someone who listens to punk rock". For me, the clothing was a mostly harmless phase, but there are a lot of other less harmless ideologies and lifestyle choices attached to punk rock that could have landed me in a world of hurt if I had chosen to pursue them. I'm sure you can think of a genre or two on your own, regardless of their musical merit, that have claimed their fair share of both bodies and souls.

Are the musicians that produce this music responsible for their fans' actions or the lifestyles that are created around them? Not necessarily. But it is important, both as musicians and listeners, to be self-reflective when it comes to the music that we feel defines us. Our lives are not nothing; the things we do really matter. Are your musical tastes and influences shaping you into the fullest human person you can be, or are they relegating you to the base, the animalistic, and the escapist? Then you can decide whether you should be turning down for something.


The point of this blog is not to tell anyone what they should or should not consider entertaining, nor what films, books, lyrics, or television shows are morally or artistically good or bad. The point is to engage with the stories that are creating our culture on an intellectual level, to meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts. Once you know what's in the entertainment you imbibe and you're aware of how it may be shaping your perceptions of the world around you, well then, imbibe away!

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely fascinating, isn't it? Music has a way of touching our souls in a way that no other medium can claim, not even tv. In fact, media moguls use music to evoke deep emotions during movies, using lyrics, beats, notes, whatever they can to get you emotionally involved in the meaning-ful/less plot. I too think the best thing we can do about it isn't to NOT watch or listen, but to watch/listen with great attentiveness and discernment in order to "meet the morals with our minds before they go to our hearts." Thanks for this!