The HBO program Silicon Valley has a recurring joke. Every time some eager young Zuck pitches a business idea, he caps it by promising to “make the world a better place” through whatever inscrutable software enhancement he’s trying to sell – “through Paxos algorithms for consensus protocols”, “through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints . . .” and on and on. It’s pretty funny.
Faux-philanthropy is not just for incel code-ninjas. By the time the man-caves went silent and the wide screens had cooled from the martial-monetary orgy of Superbowl 2018, Budweiser had spent 5 million crisp, Christ-like dollars reenacting its donation of $100,000 worth of water to communities in the path Hurricane Harvey, Dodge had explained that its road-hogging trucks were basically the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and T-Mobile had fearlessly allied itself with non-racist babies. The Age of Aquarius, suspiciously polished but still heart-meltingly pure, has finally dawned upon us, just a half century later than previously announced.
And now, this week, the corporations are coming for our criminals. On Thursday, Spotify, the nation’s second most popular music streaming app, announced that it will no longer allow the promotion of music made by R. Kelly and XXXTentacion, an R&B singer and rapper, respectively, who have been respectively (and credibly) accused of statutory rape, beating a pregnant woman, and a cornucopia of related anti-social behaviors.
According to its new “Hate & Hateful Conduct” policy, Spotify has taken these steps because “We believe in openness, diversity, tolerance and respect, and we want to promote those values through music and the creative arts.” The policy defines hate speech as any that promotes or incites violence towards people or groups because of “race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability.” This much, perhaps, is easy enough to parse if you’ve got the accumulated experience of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-Defamation League, Color of Change, Showing Up for Racial Justice, GLAAD, Muslim Advocates, and the International Network Against Cyber Hate, all of whom are lending Spotify a weathered nostril in sniffing out hate speakers / singers.
The more novel move is Spotify’s statement that when “an artist or creator does something that is especially harmful or hateful (for example, violence against children and sexual violence), it may affect the ways we work with or support that artist or creator.” OK, well, I won’t wear myself out arguing that child abusers or rapists have some God-given right to have their songs promoted by Spotify. And while it’s absurd to imagine that Spotify will be able to apply this new rule with anything approaching fairness, unless they really start combing through the biographies of hundreds of thousands of flawed, bullying, predatory artists, R. Kelly and XXXTentacion have made enough money from their music already, and I don’t much care if they make any more. They seem like pigheaded assholes.
But there is something significant here – another acknowledgement that in the age of Trump, BLM and #MeToo, the culture wars are paramount. It’s no great discovery that things matter a lot more to us when there’s a war on about them, and right now we’re fighting a lot over culture. Spotify is placing a new version of the bet that consumers want their purchases to somehow matter, to nudge the nation towards their preferred moral promised land.
Now, perhaps if more culture warriors had some active front upon which to wage war, apart from the charred, utterly meaningless trenches of social media, we wouldn’t be so tempted by the opportunity to patronise woke corporations. Perhaps. But since the lion’s share of our most vocal warriors are keyboard-killers only (rather than HAWC volunteers or job-retraining mentors, say) at least we can now switch our $9.95 automatic monthly debit to a group of shareholders who care – who really, honest to god, deep down care – about making the world a better place.
A cynical observer might wonder whether these large, focus-grouped, PR-advised corporations are using social justice gestures like a matador’s cape, to distract morally-minded consumers from the anti-corporate sentiments that buoyed the recent campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. But this is America, and cynicism is un-American. So, then, here we are, simple and true: automatic debits and political activism. Grimes and Elon Musk. Two thousand and eighteen.