It’s not enough to say that Bruno Mars loves women. He adores them, almost achingly so. The Hawaii-born singer-songwriter presents himself as a musical good guy: the kind of guy who’d charm your parents and impress your friends. He’d look good doing it, too. Looking good is an essential part of being Bruno Mars.
Bruno’s foundational tenet is simple: make women happy. Hits like “Just the Way You Are”—re: “when you smile, the whole world stops and stares for a while”—cast him as a sensitive romantic, while songs like “Grenade” present him as faithful and true, ready to endure grenades, bullets and other existential threats in the name of love.
Bruno has no need for fucking bitches or getting money; that’s not his shtick. Unlike, say, Snoop Dogg—with whom Bruno recently released “Young, Wild & Free”—Bruno’s masculinity isn’t contingent on virility, wealth, or excess. Instead, Mars strives to balance dreamy Mr. Right with attainable boy-next-door. He performs a masculinity defined by, and produced for, his perception of what women want. So far, his formula’s worked. With his latest single set to make an appearance in the upcoming Twilight film, Bruno shows no sign of slowing down.
Of course, not everyone loves Bruno Mars. Perhaps no one has made his disapproval more explicit than hip-hop wunderkind Tyler, the Creator. In his award-winning “Yonkers,” Tyler raps of his desire to “stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus, and don’t stop until the cops come in.”
These words intend to shock us, but underneath the initial surprise, the feud makes sense, and the questions of masculinity and morality it raises extend far beyond the musical world.
But first we need to meet Tyler Okonma, the twenty-year-old Californian behind the larger-than-life Creator persona. Tyler’s a member of Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, an alternative hip-hop collective. As Odd Future’s de facto leader, Tyler best represents the group’s proclivity for yuck-inducing pranks and more-than-aggressive lyrics. Think Johnny Knoxville meets “Law and Order: SVU.” Think rape, murder, and violent homophobia.
Critics question whether Tyler goes too far in establishing himself as a provocateur. His lyrics objectively cross lines—re: “victim, victim, honey, you’re my fifth one,” and more. When feminist-minded musicians Tegan and Sara denounced Okonma’s lyrics, he whipped out his Blackberry for a quick Twitter response: “If Tegan and Sara Need Some Hard Dick, Hit Me Up!”
Let’s be clear: casually rapping about violence against women is more than just bad taste: it’s not okay, period, and I cannot emphasize this fact enough. But even as a feminist, I don’t believe that Tyler, the Creator really wants to rape and murder people anymore than I believe “With You” made Chris Brown the best boyfriend ever. Tyler likes to make funny faces. He wears tie-dye shirts. The New York Times called him “goofy.” I might be afraid of Tyler’s lyrics, but (at least for now) I’m certainly not afraid of him.
Like Bruno Mars, Tyler flaunts his masculinity. But whereas Bruno sees what women want—or what he thinks they want—and tries to sate it, Tyler takes what decency dictates and does the opposite. Bruno’s masculinity relies on PG-13 sex appeal, but Tyler’s “sexuality” effectively neuters him. Rape is about power, and Tyler’s constant use of rape as a trope reflects how he defines his own power: freedom derived from his blatant disregard for societal decency. Tyler just wants to be young and wild and free—and it’s a pity he manifests that in such an utterly problematic way. Through his lyrics, Tyler (unintentionally or not) disenfranchises victims of rape, murder, and hate crimes, creating a world in which violence is a tool to create shock, not a problem to be solved. But Tyler’s masculinity, contingent on freedom from consequence, opposes Bruno’s masculinity, contingent on pleasing girls, women, and critics. Hence, perhaps, the sentiment in “Yonkers.”
It might be a stretch, but maybe Bruno and Tyler have something to teach us about our own crisis of masculinity here at Yale. Because some of us shock with sex, too—re: “no means yes” and “yes means anal.” And in doing so, we unintentionally create a world in which violence against women is a tool to create shock, not a problem to be solved. And some of us believe that a Better Yale is a more conservative Yale, too, with a culture that aims to please girls, women, and critics.
I don’t claim to know what Yale needs. But I do think Tyler, the Creator has something to teach us when he raps: “I’m a fucking walking paradox.” Because we’re all paradoxes, really. Even in music. Even at Yale.