How Do We Reckon with Great Music by Terrible People?

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The post How Do We Reckon with Great Music by Terrible People? appeared first on Consequence.

It’s Consequence’s 15th anniversary, and all September long we’ll be publishing a series of retrospective pieces encompassing our publication’s own history — and the entertainment landscape in general. Today, we’re opening up a discussion about how we decide to cover artists and their music — or not — when it all goes wrong.

When it comes to language around acceptable behavior, there’s a tendency towards binary thinking, as if breaking a taboo were the same as flipping a switch — “yes” to “no,” “politically correct,” to “politically incorrect,” “uncanceled” to “canceled.”

But that’s not exactly what happens. Let’s say, for example, that a great songwriter — a songwriter we all love — has been accused of something that a lot of people think is terrible. It could be violence or prejudice, racism, sexism, fascist politics, homophobia, transphobia, or sexual misconduct. It could be open to debate or interpretation.

When first we learn of such a transgression, each of us makes our own calculations. How bad are the allegations? How many? How credible?

Inevitably, a certain number of people drop out of the fanbase, while others double down. Sometimes, the accused faces legal repercussions, maybe even going to jail. But the world has more scandals than prison sentences, and mostly the stars press onwards, neither canceled nor uncanceled, diminished but not gone.

Everyone has their own idea of ethical music consumption, and there’s oceans between “proven guilty” and “perfectly innocent.” Consequence wrestled with this putting together our list of the 100 Greatest Albums of All Time. We asked ourselves how allegations of misconduct had changed our relationships to beloved music from important artists we’d covered frequently during our 15 years as a publication. We didn’t always agree. There’s no right answer.

So instead, let’s talk about that diminishing effect. Let’s talk about the patterns of how audiences respond in different situations, and those moments when a unified fanbase suddenly disagrees.

The Names of the Alleged Victims Shouldn’t Matter, But They Do

In August 2022, four women accused Win Butler of harassment as well as predatory and abusive behavior. One person also alleged sexual assault. Butler’s on the road right now with his band, Arcade Fire, and reports suggest he’s received warm welcomes from well-attended houses.

Comparisons are difficult and unfair to survivors. But in terms of repercussions, this has obviously been a very different situation than Marilyn Manson, who was dropped by his label, his agency, and his longtime manager in 2021 after being accused of sexual misconduct and assault by over a dozen women. True, he was nominated for a Grammy for his work on Kanye West’s DONDA, but that hasn’t translated to a lucrative tour, or even much more studio work. Manson’s old fans seem to have turned on him en masse.

It’s also worth considering Ryan Adams. In 2019, seven women said he offered to help their music careers, pursued them sexually, and became vindictive and emotionally abusive if spurned. He was also accused of contact with an underage girl, though the FBI cleared him of that charge. Many of Adams’ old collaborators repudiated him, and he issued a series of apologies of varying quality before disappearing for a couple of years. Now he’s returned with a comeback tour, though his audience is smaller than it used to be.

Then there’s Mike Milosh, the musician behind the R&B project Rhye. Milosh has seen almost all of his professional opportunities dry up after one alleged victim came forward.

Butler, meanwhile, has thus far weathered multiple accusations of misconduct. With so much history suggesting at least short term consequences for others, why is Butler different?

Perhaps it’s in part because his accusers weren’t themselves famous. Manson’s misconduct was first brought to light by Evan Rachel Wood, and soon afterward model Ashley Morgan and Game of Thrones’ Esme Bianco followed with allegations of their own. As for Adams, his ex-wife Mandy Moore and songwriter Phoebe Bridgers were among those who addressed his misconduct. Milosh was accused of grooming and sexual assault by his ex-wife, the former Nickelodeon star Alexa Nikolas.

We all make our own calculations when allegations are levied against public figures. But for some percentage of fans, anonymous and uncelebrated accusers are more easily dismissed.

Some of this is natural, if disappointing. When we can put a face to an accusation, we are more likely to believe it, and to sever our relationships with an artist’s work.  Perhaps it shouldn’t work this way, but it does.

Fatherhood, Fascism, and Kanye West

The six-album run between The College Dropout and Yeezus helped define an era of hip-hop music. But we’re way past that now. West is undoubtedly disturbed. From the time that Kim Kardashian started dating Pete Davidson in 2021 until their breakup nine months later, Ye embarked on a ruthless public harassment campaign of his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. He directed his social media followers to target the comedian, posted bullying messages pointed at “Skete,” and mutilated effigies of Davidson in his music videos. He claimed to be doing this for the benefit of his children, even as he dragged them into the tabloids.

His mental health issues can stay between himself and his therapist, and his ethics are a matter for his pastor. But West is one of the few billionaires in the US, and his actions can quickly become a matter of public policy.

Politically, he’s perhaps the first international superstar artist since Salvador Dalí to flirt so openly with fascism. Ye has been persistent in his admiration for Trump. One of his publicists threatened a Georgia election worker in an attempt to overturn the 2020 election on Trump’s behalf. And during his own brief 2020 presidential campaign, West questioned the effectiveness of vaccines and suggested that abortion was white people engaging in Black genocide.

On the other hand, West has perpetrated no felonies and committed no physical violence. He is also inarguably one of the most important musicians of his generation. For many people, that’s enough. But your relationship to his music might change when you remember that streaming his catalog comes with real moral risk. Most of the other people we’ve discussed can’t do anything too broadly dangerous with your money. Kanye can.

Does Consensus Require a Guilty Verdict?

Today, there’s little debate on how to approach producer and murderer Phil Spector. As the pioneer of the “wall of sound” approach, Spector’s work with The Crystals, The Ronettes, and Ike and Tina Turner dominated a decade of pop music, and he followed those accomplishments by producing The Beatles’ Let It Be, solo records for John Lennon and George Harrison, plus Leonard Cohen, The Ramones, and more. Lennon called him “the greatest record producer ever.”

In 2009, he was convicted of the 2003 murder of actress Lana Clarke, and some 12 years later he would die in prison of COVID-19. Our relationship with Spector remains uncomplicated, in part because he was the producer of the songs, not the face, and in part because he cannot financially benefit now that he’s dead. There’s no compelling reason to boycott his music.

The thing is, people had known for years before the murder that Spector was a truly terrible person. His ex-wife Ronnie Spector, leader of The Ronettes, wrote in her 1990 memoir that he was controlling and abusive. She alleged that he had imprisoned her inside their home, and that it took the help of her mother and a broken window for her to escape and file for divorce.

If more people had paid attention to Ronnie Spector, Lana Clarke might still be alive today. As it happened, it took a high profile trial and a guilty verdict for many fans to understand what kind of person made those beautiful records.

That word, “guilty,” seems to be an important step in achieving true consensus.

In 2019, R Kelly was arrested and charged with racketeering, sex trafficking, and the abuse of dozens of women and girls. But few who had closely followed his career were surprised. In the 1990s, Kelly married a then-15-year-old Aaliyah. In 2008, he stood trial for child pornography, and escaped justice under questionable circumstances that eventually led to bribery charges.

That doesn’t mean the 2008 trial didn’t matter. Kelly’s 2007 album Double Up was his sixth-straight record to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart, while his 2009 album, Untitled, debuted at No. 4. Credible accusations of child pornography reduced him from a superstar to… well, still a star. It wasn’t until the 2019 trial that he would lose the rest of his fanbase.

Even then, his streams briefly skyrocketed following the guilty verdict, though that increase came from an extremely low point. If you talk to enough people, you might be unlucky enough to hear someone say that Kelly was framed, or that his many, many accusers lied for personal gain. He still has 4.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify. But those streaming dollars will go towards restitution for his victims. Besides that, his music has been scrubbed from corporate playlists, commercial spots, and the rest of mainstream pop culture.

Kelly is in jail for crimes he clearly committed; the world has treated his legacy accordingly.

Time Only Moonwalks in One Direction

MJ the Musical is a big Broadway hit. Audiences love the same thing that critics hate: an uncomplicated celebration of a complicated man. The show includes bits of 37 songs, while leaving out that other thing that has defined Michael Jackson’s legacy: the allegations of pedophilia.

Such a musical was unimaginable when Jackson died in 2009. By then he had weathered two separate child abuse scandals a decade apart. Law enforcement declined to charge him the first time in the 1990s, and after the second set of allegations in 2002, he was acquitted on all counts in 2005.

While much of his original fan base is gone for good, over the last decade plus, Jackson’s reputation has been greatly rehabilitated. Perhaps we can understand why.

It helps that Jackson was never found guilty. Also, none of his accusers were well known. While he had relationships with dozens of young boys, child stars including Corey Feldman, Aaron Carter, and Macaulay Culkin have all said they weren’t molested or mistreated by Jackson. And of course, Jackson is dead; even those who harbor doubts about his innocence can rest assured he won’t be the one spending their money.

I also think fans are making calculations about Jackson’s tortured early life. “I had a terrible childhood,” he once said. “All of that performing. All that recording. The fans took over my life. I never got to play. It was awful.”

He attempted to recreate the magic of childhood with his Neverland Ranch, and by scheduling play dates with real children. Perhaps that is all he did, or perhaps he committed heinous violations. There’s no answer at the end of the book. But it’s worth remembering, art is a refuge for the damaged and broken. It’s not politics, we don’t demand our artists be saints and we may not like that anyway. Was Jackson innocent or guilty? Not many people on this planet know for certain. But did he use music to try and relieve his own pain? And can those of us seeking escape find our own solace? As long as the answer to those questions is, ‘Yes,’ the unanswered questions won’t receive the same weight.

Redemption Song

Even the best apologies will not be universally accepted. However, there are still times when the culture at large seems to forgive, if not forget.

John Lennon is one famous example. Lennon admitted to being physically abusive with his first wife Cynthia Powell, and cheated on her often, including with Yoko Ono. He was also open about his personal failings and desire to be a better person, at times claiming that the song “Getting Better” expressed his progress. In 1980, he told Playboy“I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman. I was a hitter,” he said. “I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women. That is why I am always on about peace.”

This is reprehensible behavior. Though there’s no forgiving how he treated Powell, his acknowledgment of wrongdoing and commitment to reform aided in his redemption arc. It’s not a matter of fans forgetting the past, but of giving weight to the ideas of acceptance and rehabilitation.

After his divorce from Powell, Lennon appeared to have earnestly traded in violence for peace. That did not make him an angel; there are plenty of reports from those later years of him being arrogant or rude. Hardly admirable, but something more easily forgiven.

Next Verse, Same as the First

It is not easy to start a conversation about a problematic genius, and it’s almost impossible to end it. Some of these dialogues have been going on for centuries.

German composer Richard Wagner wrote 13 operas, but today he is chiefly remembered for three projects: Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), a four-opera cycle which launched the epic fantasy genre and anticipated J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the RingsTristun und Isolde, which introduced modernism into music; and the vile antisemitic essay Das Judenthum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music).

Wagner first published the essay under a pseudonym in 1850 before reprinting it under his own name in 1869. At the time, he was one of the most famous composers in Europe, and what followed might sound familiar: The essay caused a sensation. Prominent intellectuals penned damning critiques. Even so, his popularity hardly wavered. After Wagner’s death in 1883, his disciples across the continent trumpeted his operas and pretended the essay didn’t exist.

That might have been the end of it. There isn’t much evidence that Jewishness in Music inspired the next generation of German antisemites, and it’s doubtful that Adolph Hitler read it. But after the Nazi rise to power in the 1930s, Wagner was held up as a hero — an officially sanctioned “Germanic” composer — who was used as a cudgel against Jewish musicians, liberal intellectuals, and other so-called “degenerate” artists.

Wagner wrote Jewishness in Music to settle scores with Jewish composers he didn’t like, and he never advocated for violence. But his association with one of the most horrifying events of human history has made his clear antisemitism harder to dismiss. How do we weigh his artistic contributions — the inventions of musical modernism and fantasy epics — against his prejudices? Can you be a good person and still enjoy “Ride of the Valkyries”? What are the ethics of performing his operas today?

In Israel, none of his works were publicly presented until 2001, when conductor Daniel Barenboim played a surprise encore from Tristan und Isolde. In breaking this decades-old taboo, reports suggest that most of the audience reacted with a standing ovation. But many booed, banging the doors as they stormed out of the concert hall, shouting, “Jews out!” and, “Fascist!”

It would be more than a decade before anyone tried to bring Wagner back to Israel. An official performance was announced in 2012, but fell apart following sustained pressure from protestors. No public production has been attempted since.

150 years have passed since the publication, under Wagner’s own name, of Jewishness in Music. We have been discussing how to reconcile his genius with his antisemitism for over 150 years, and we are as far away from a consensus as Wagner’s land of Nibelheim is from Earth.

So it will go with some of the conversations of today. We will pass these headaches down to our descendants. Like us, they’ll argue because they care. And like us, they’ll find at the end of those dialogues that some of our fellow music fans are simply beyond our comprehension.

How Do We Reckon with Great Music by Terrible People?
Wren Graves

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