Media is an unavoidable juggernaut of influence that both grows from our society and feeds back into it. When media professionals create, they are essentially either nurturing or poisoning society through every creative decision.
Through the history of storytelling, enormously talented people have helped to shape public opinions and sensibilities. Ancient kings and queens used to hire bards and pay them handsomely to entertain the masses with songs about their great empire. These rulers hoped to sway public opinion and create a narrative that would endure beyond their reign, and storytellers were one of their most powerful weapons. That tradition still endures in most of the world, though it’s draped in layers of subtlety and complexity.
I write this from the perspective of a budding bard who has been hired by all sorts of figurative kings to help tell the tales of their conquests. I primarily direct music videos and commercials, but I’ve spent years working in Television, documentary film, and the performing arts. I’m frequently asked to use my skills and talents to promote ideas, music, and brands. I work a lot and most of my experiences have been amazingly positive. I’ve worked with hundreds of talented, motivated, hard-working, gifted people, and I’ve studied them closely along the way.
Occasionally, however, I decline a project. Let me explain why.
As a matter of policy, for a number of reasons, I generally don’t mix my professional work with religion or politics. There’s a critical point where my beliefs and my professional life intersect, however, and that’s what this blog post is all about.
First, let’s talk about where I’m coming from, and what all of this is based on. I know that it’s increasingly uncommon and increasingly unpopular, but I believe in God. I believe God is our creator and someday will be our judge. I believe that this life is both a test and a lesson. It’s a time to grow in our ability to become more like God is, to learn to love others, and to grow in the face of adversity and overcome challenges. I believe that families are sacred and that our relationships with other people are one of the most critical aspects of life.
I believe that everybody is accountable to God for their time and talents – God gave us life, gave us each unique propensities, interests and strengths, and I believe that he will hold each of us accountable for how we use those gifts during our time on earth.
Statistically, a large portion of you are shaking your head right now, convinced that I’m an idiot. Or maybe I’m only mislead? Maybe you’re concerned that I’m dangerous and am going to try to force you to live your life like I do. Maybe you’re angry with me for being so narrow-minded. Maybe you’re ordering a copy of Marx on Religion right now (Die Religion … ist das Opium des Volkes; “religion is the opiate of the masses”), planning to have Amazon ship it directly to my office, which you somehow got the address for by using some stalker-fu. Maybe you think you’re the one who’s going to change my worldview with the same argument that convinced you to whatever your belief system is.
I’d be happy to discuss your beliefs and ideas with you, but let me assure you that I’m not a danger to you. I’m not trying to be annoying, I’m not going to assume that you’re wrong and I’m right, I just might not want to work on a given project with you. I don’t want to use my time and gifts to make something that I don’t feel will be a positive influence on society. You may have identical goals, but a different idea about what is positive and what isn’t. Let’s discuss some specific ideas.
Words influence our thoughts. Thoughts influence our feelings. Feelings influence our behavior. Our behavior influences society. Words are powerful. I’m generally opposed to profanity and obscenity, as well as shallow, bigoted, hateful or offensive language. Let me quickly define some terms as I view them:
Profanity: Speaking lightly of sacred things, thereby rendering them profane.
What is sacred? To me, things like sexuality, the human body, life, death, people, women, men, and the beauty of cultural diversity. Can you think of at least two profane ways to say each of the items in that list? Yeah, so can I. That’s what I view to be profanity.
Obscenity: Moral repugnance. In the context of words: offensive language.
When language is intended to offend, it causes negative societal ripples. When sacred topics are discussed with profane language, it causes negative societal ripples. Those words are everywhere. We’re constantly hearing them, and the power of those words is an eroding influence that weakens our sensibilities and our sensitivities. Yes, they’re already out there and I have no practical influence to speak of in terms of how people choose to speak. But it’s still seriously important to me.
Encouraging positivity by discouraging profane and obscene words can feel a bit like trying to keep the ground dry during a rainstorm: it’s basically futile. However, if a raindrop is falling within my reach, I’m still going to stop it from landing.
Here’s where it gets more tricky, though: I’ve made music videos for songs that have four-letter words in them. Am I a hypocrite? Yeah. I’m imperfect. Also, I choose my battles and I have a hierarchy of priorities.
Take rapper RA Scion for example. His lyrics are consistently filled with integrity, knowledge and positivity. I feel that he has a tremendous amount of good to share. Sometimes, profanity is the best way he knows how to share his message. I wouldn’t use the words he uses, but I respect the intentions behind those words. Both his music and (more importantly) his life are filled with community awareness, critical thinking, intellectual exploration and moral positivity. I’ve never met anyone who knows RA Scion and dislikes him; and a lot of people seem to know him.
In contrast, compare RA Scion with any one of a large number of pop icons who represent no moral authority, seek to do no good in the world, are entirely self-interested and largely dishonest in the way they represent their lives. Their lyrics may be squeaky-clean and have zero objectionable content, but they’re as nutritive to the soul as a rice cracker laced with arsenic. RA Scion will be the first to tell you that he has a few rough edges (as do I, as do you), but his lyrics are like 11-grain organic, locally-made bread that you can only buy at the farmer’s market. If a loaf of that bread occasionally has a few grains of sand mixed in with the flour, I’m still going to encourage people to buy it instead of Arsenic Rice Crackers™ because only one of those foods was made with good intent.
“Sex sells!” you cry out. If you ask me to put a scantily-clad, busty vixen in your rap video. I’m not likely to do it. A few seconds (or minutes) of some sex bomb parading around on screen might get you 4% more views on YouTube (I’m making that number up out of thin air, but you get the idea). That 4% is worth it to you, so you want that sexy scene in your project.
I have a wife and she means everything to me. I’m also a human with raging hormones that need to be kept in check if I want to stay mentally faithful to my wife. I don’t want to even give a second look at some other woman’s exposed legs, though my hormones might argue otherwise. I’m constantly battling off thoughts that I’d rather not have, choosing to stay faithful to my wife and keep her at the direct center of my life. I don’t watch videos that have sexy women parading around, and I certainly don’t want to make that kind of thing. It takes an incredible amount of energy and attention to produce media. Consider a few steps that I need to go through to get you those extra views on YouTube:
I need to sort through dozens (if not hundreds) of model/actress portfolios to find the right person for the part (meaning that I’d be looking through tons of photos of scantily-clad women, which I really am not interested in doing in the first place). I need to carefully select wardrobe for the actress and hire someone to handle the logistics of styling that wardrobe. I need to hire a makeup artist and a hair stylist to make her look as good as possible while she bounces around the set. I need to coordinate a time to shoot her segment, shoot as much footage of her as possible during that shoot, and spend hours carefully scrutinizing the footage to find the perfect moments that will essentially hope to persuade people to lust after her and entertain some dirty thoughts. (Right about now, some of you are thinking, “Man! I need to become a film producer!” But I digress.) All of this would presumably be in the interest of making money and becoming more famous. It would also provide me with an enormous conflict of interest that I just don’t want to participate in.
A huge amount of effort goes into media production, and you literally cannot pay me enough money to persuade me to set aside my morals. That’s a job I’m not going to do. It’s not like I can just quickly wave a magic wand and you have your sexy lady prancing around in your music video. I would have to invest huge amounts of time and resources into each project, and deeply enter the minds of all potential audience members that I can imagine and create a sequence that will hope to (in essence) persuade them to mentally cheat on their wives. I’m just not going to do that. I’m not even going to get close to that.
I had a great experience with Theoretics when making the music video for “Go.” We had the opportunity to feature a dancer, and the band and I all agreed that we didn’t want that dancer to be a chance to use sex to sell records. We picked Spencer Abrom, a highly-talented dancer who used his talents in amazing ways and added a huge amount of energy and a great vibe to the project. I’m not going to say that Spencer isn’t sexy, but if you’ve seen the video you know what I’m talking about.
I recently worked on a project with another musician who contracted me to make a music video based on a very positive and fairly innocuous theme. We talked extensively about the project, which metaphors we’d use, what shooting styles worked for the project, what kind of feel we were going for, etc… and we eventually made up a contract for me to produce and direct a video for his song.
Though we were on the same page in practical terms, as the project developed it became clear that we weren’t morally aligned. He explicitly told me late in the project that he wanted the video to be as close to porn as possible without being porn. I told him clearly that I wanted it to be nothing like porn, and as far from porn as possible while still conveying the metaphors that we were trying to convey.
Do you see why I’m writing this? I want to avoid that kind of situation whenever possible. It’s an enormous conflict of professional interest. My job was to make the best music video possible for him. He wants as many views as possible, he wants as many record sales as possible, and he wants to build his fan base as much as possible. He felt that the best way to do that was to make something incredibly erotic; but he didn’t say that right off the bat, and it created problems.
We were already elbow deep in the project when this became a topic of discussion and I could only tell him that I was going to continue with the look and feel that we had initially set out to do (ie, one that wasn’t erotic). He constantly made efforts to push me to sex everything up as much as possible and I pushed back, doing everything I could to make something for him that didn’t go against my core beliefs. It was a constant struggle, down to the final few rounds of editing decisions, and generally was an experience that I want to completely avoid in the future. If he had discussed his ideas more explicitly in the first meeting I would have told him that he needs to find someone else who is a better fit for his project, and everyone would have been happier.
I also am not interested in using my talents to promote drug abuse. Here is a ridiculously short list of a few drugs that I consider to be damaging to individuals and society as a whole:
- Psychotropic drugs
- Misuse of prescription drugs
Am I going to point my finger at you, condemn you to hell and tell you that you’re a worthless human if you use any of those? Of course not. You have your own talents and you’re accountable for your own time. I wish that you’d take better care of your body and not drown your sorrows in escapism, but I also understand that I’m part of roughly 0.01% of the world population that doesn’t drink or smoke.
I have reasons for living my life the way I do, you have reasons for living the life you do. I respect that. I also hope that you’ll understand that I’m not going to help promote something that I feel is damaging. “It’s harmless!” you tell me. Ask me sometime about the history of violence and abuse and embarrassing deaths in my long lineage of alcoholic ancestors. I’m not going to help you promote your song about getting high or drunk. I’m sorry. I still respect you, but let’s do another song instead of this one.
Violence & Gore
I love action, I love martial arts movies, I love a good drama or a good thriller film. Good stories often revolve around tense or highly dramatic situations, and those moments sometimes involve violence and gore.
I also see people in real life who kill each other, fight each other, talk about hurting each other, and it all makes me physically ill when I think about it too much. I frankly wish that everyone would be a lot kinder and gentler to each other. I don’t want to promote violence, but I recognize that showing violence in media can sometimes have a crucial influence on people to persuade them that war and cruelty are horrible things. Unfortunately, the same visuals can have the opposite effect on other viewers.
There’s a subtle line somewhere between portraying violence and glorifying violence. I’m not interested in using my talents and time and energy to make it look really cool to kill people. If you’re looking for that, I’m neither interested in it nor very good at it. You should find someone else and call me for the next project.
For example, when we made “Jekyll & Hyde: The Music Video,” Dr Jekyll kills himself at the end by stabbing himself through the stomach with a piece of broken glass. We did it in a way that made it look as undesirable as possible, and the general tone of the piece was intended to be a cautionary tale to warn people against drug abuse, excess, and violence.
Did I contribute to the world for good by framing that story the way I did? I don’t know, but I sure tried to.
I’ve left out at least a half-dozen major moral areas that might be objectionable to me, and might not be the type of project I am interested in taking on. I don’t think that I need to spell it all out for you, though.
My general rule is that I want to use my time and talents to make art that makes the world a better place. You may have similar goals to mine but a totally different definition of what is good. I respect that difference in our viewpoints.
Let’s get together and find common ground, but I have certain lines that I don’t want to cross. If you’re looking for someone to do something that I’m fundamentally opposed to, you’re honestly better off finding someone else for that particular project. Call me on the next one, and I wish you the best of luck in the meantime.