For better or for worse, the past few years have been unprecedented in terms of challenging our collective (and individual) naiveté when it comes to the fallibility and moral bankruptcy of public figures. We can thank the ongoing shenanigans of Trump and his cast of soon-to-be incarcerated cronies for much of our evolving pragmatism as it relates to our perceptions of those in positions of power and influence. Though we still reserve the right to be disappointed by the deviance, deception and dubious ethics that exist at the highest levels of our social and political order, far fewer revelations of wrongdoing seem to shock our senses these days.
The same holds true for those we follow, support and admire in the entertainment realm, of course. For several years now, for instance, fans of Michael Jackson and Woody Allen have likely tussled with reconciling both icons’ alleged transgressions of child sexual abuse. For many, Jackson’s and Allen’s purported crimes have arguably impacted how they interpret their respective artistic repertoire. Do they listen to Thriller or watch Annie Hall through a different lens now, if they even still consume these widely hailed masterpieces at all anymore? Most likely and invariably, yes, they do.
For music fans, like all of us writing and reading these pages hosted here at Albumism, the past few weeks have been particularly trying, thanks to reports that have surfaced about the dubious, destructive and downright repugnant behavior of Jussie Smollett, R. Kelly, and Ryan Adams. For me personally, it’s the latter storyline that strikes the loudest, most deflating chord.
I and, by extension, Albumism, have been champions of Adams’ music for many years, dating back to his initial breakthrough as the frontman of Whiskeytown in the mid to late ‘90s. But last week's revelations about his alleged manipulation and victimization of several of his fellow female musicians—including his ex-wife Mandy Moore, LA singer-songwriter on the rise Phoebe Bridgers, and an aspiring teenaged bass player—have prompted me to more seriously contemplate my relationship with his music. Going forward from here, will I continue to listen to his music as fervently as I have in the past? If I do, will I listen differently? Will I never listen to him again as a silent protest of his alleged actions? Will Albumism ever publish anything about his music ever again?
More broadly speaking, I’ve been preoccupied for the past week or so in re-examining how the "personas" of artists impact how I interpret, embrace, or condemn their art. I've had the same questions swirling in my mind in the past, when it comes to artists like the aforementioned Michael Jackson, Woody Allen, and R. Kelly, not to mention the likes of Bill Cosby, Chris Brown, Morrissey, and Kanye West, among others. How do I rationalize my relationship to art when the artist in question says or does (or allegedly does) something reprehensible or harmful to others? Are art and the artist who creates it inextricably intertwined? Or can you separate the two, embracing the former while dismissing the latter?
I’ll admit that I haven’t yet fully come to grips with all of this, myself. Also, in the absence of proof of crimes committed by Adams, at least not yet, many of my feelings remain confined to gray areas, resigned to ambiguity—albeit with more than a twinge of pessimism—until there is more clarity and closure about the truth. And my uncertainty likely explains why I’ve been so curious about how our readers and staff feel about what has transpired in recent days. Not surprisingly, our Twitter thread about Adams invited a wide spectrum of public opinion on the matter, with some commenters defiantly vowing to be done with him and his music forever, while others expressed quite a bit more forgiveness and openness to preserving his music in their lives.
I'm done with him. He's been removed from my music library.— C Edd Mushy (@C_Mushy) February 17, 2019
I’ll continue to listen to his music. However, I would not be interested in meeting him personally or espousing the virtues of his talents to friends, as I have been doing for years. I’m separating the art from the artist.— Jay Alayia (@KingOfUnderware) February 18, 2019
I haven't listened to him since learning about this, and he is one of my favorites. I heard he could be an asshole but this takes it to another level.— suzanne hornbacher (@suzhornbacher) February 19, 2019
And today, I’ve asked the Albumism staff to weigh in with their thoughts about how we reconcile the art we love when the artists in question do the unthinkable or unforgiveable. Can we, as listeners, as music aficionados, draw a dividing line between the music we love and the musicians now perceived as dishonorable or do the two straddle the same line that cannot be pulled apart? Check out our writers’ candid perspectives and be sure to share your own sentiments in the comments sections below.
With the recent news shining light on the disturbing and often illegal actions of superstars like R. Kelly and Ryan Adams, it’s natural to ask, “do we continue to celebrate this person for their contributions to music?” But that shouldn’t be the only question.
First, can you accurately classify someone as a genius, if part of their career involved silencing other artists? Sure, Ryan Adams has released some pretty compelling country-rock music. But is it better than the music he kept several women from releasing through his abusive behavior? The experiment doesn’t work when half of the data is thrown out.
Second, why are these people entitled to act like monsters? Impossible to say, but by continuing to give artists the benefit of the doubt, promoting them, and rewriting their history, despite countless voices crying foul, it only proves that men can and will get away with whatever they want. When protecting people like Adams, we’re only letting sentimentality for art override compassion for real human lives.
More frequently than I’d like, I’ve had to confront separating art from the sketchy deeds of some of its creators. There seems to be a sliding scale in which we are more forgiving of those whose fame has shot them to the upper echelon of their art form.
Elvis Presley’s courtship of a then 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu barely ruffled feathers, but Jerry Lee Lewis’ marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown sank his career and rightly so. The fact that Brown was Lewis’ relative made his offense seem worse than Presley’s, but both relationships were inexcusable. Yet, the King got a pass.
While the transgressions of artists range from immoral to downright reprehensible, we each have to deal with our hypocrisy in how we judge those who commit heinous acts. I honestly struggle with some artists more than others. I never had much love for Ryan Adams, so casting him aside was not difficult and was much easier in light of the recent revelations. Woody Allen was hard for me because Manhattan and Annie Hall are two of my favorite movies. After the Soon-Yi debacle, I continued to watch these movies, but it took me years to finally say, “Yo, I can’t anymore.” I took back Bill Cosby’s invite to the cookout years ago, when it became his passion to tell black people how they should comport themselves. When his misdeeds saw the light of day, it was a bridge too far for many. His case is cut and dry for me, but some still defend him and hail all of his philanthropic work, which should not be ignored.
This is a hard question to answer and I don’t think there is necessarily a right or wrong answer as to whether or not we should still enjoy the work of these artists. My biggest issue continues to be my own hypocrisy. Depending on what the particular artist’s work means to me does play into whether or not I continue to listen to their music or see their movies. It’s shameful, I know.
I can easily separate Michael Jackson’s music from the sideshow his later years became. The same cannot be said for many others whose work simply did not move me. Unless an artist commits an act so horrible that there is no coming back, it’s all about the personal connection to that particular work. I wish it wasn’t true. I wish I wasn’t a hypocrite.
It can come as a sickening blow that moment you realize the musician you’ve admired might be a scumbag. I’ve spent dozens, if not hundreds, of hours cozying up with the discography of artists whose music I thought I was so deeply connected to, only to awaken to news one day that made my perceptions unravel.
Over the years, I’ve seen musicians be accused—or sometimes just be so plainly guilty—of unsettling behavior that calls into question who they are at their core: How can such seemingly exquisite art emerge from these disturbed minds? Is the music genuine? And, perhaps most alarmingly, what does it say about ourselves if we found the music so relatable? The feelings of correspondence, it seems, only heighten the betrayal.
In the mid-90s, I learned a beloved indie band forced out their bandmate for being gay. That was an instant dealbreaker for me. Their music lost all previous appeal and I never listened to them again. I couldn’t respect, let alone support, such hateful conduct. On the other hand, I’ve seen singers who commit much milder offenses, like belittling fans as part of their show banter or storming off during a performance. These acts, while immature and sometimes annoying, are relatively harmless and more readily forgiven—at least by me.
Ultimately, I think we all have our thresholds regarding the behaviors we will tolerate or excuse, but once those boundaries are violated, can anyone feign easy listening to their fallen idols?
As a woman, I’m a captive audience member to culture. The world I exist in as a writer and consumer was built and designed by men, its fatal flaw. I used to separate an artist from their art on a case-by-case basis. But the reserve of information on cover-ups to save a man’s image, to make more money, and the violent sexual behavior of men in power across all industries has changed my mind.
I believe one piece of art can change the world and the person making it matters equally. We see the commentary on reality through their eyes. And as the news continues to unfold, my trust in men keeps unraveling. Cutting them off and saying goodbye feels good.
What to do when one of your favorite artists is a piece of shit? Nothing.
I don’t know.
We all have had this feeling when we find out (via TV, social media, whatever) that an artist (probably male) who we very much love is being accused of something horrible. They (probably a “he”) said some racist, ableist, queerphobic or misogynist (very likely if it’s a he) shit in the past. Or maybe, they’re (he’s) a sexual abuser. Whatever “it” is, it fucking sucks.
Are all those songs just lies? Or have there been red flags all along? Questions we ask ourselves. Answers differ with each case and, most likely, with every listener. After the immediate self-questioning, the following part might be the hardest. What to do. For serial abusers or seriously dangerous personalities, I must say, there’s only one next step. Cut the support. Stop buying, streaming and all that. It must go without saying in most cases. Why give room to these people?
But then what to do with the music we already own, the music we already love? It’s not that simple. One thing we need to do is ask ourselves, one more time: why give room to these people?
Can you separate the artist from the art? Hypothetically, yes. Personally, it's not that easy. For me the endorsement of art is the endorsement of the artist. And while the actions of the artist can now taint our beloved memories, you can't separate them.
Does that mean that once an allegation is made you should mute them? Again that will be a personal decision, and it should come down to whether the allegation has merit and evidence. Is it credible? In some instances the answer is instantaneous, others require investigating and bearing the evidence out. Once that is done, depending on what you discover and what is proven (or not) will determine if you can or should continue listening and supporting a favorite artist or whether you should box up and delete that catalog.
But I can't wholeheartedly, on one hand, believe artist X is guilty of atrocious behavior or crimes and on the other hand still think song Y is my jam. That just makes me equally complicit. And I certainly couldn't justify supporting any new product or project from them if I felt that way.
Another day, another scumbag male artist is exposed for being a sexual predator hell-bent on doing everything in his power to manipulate and exploit the women in his sphere of influence for his own disgusting ends. The list is long and ever growing.
But what do I, as an avid music fan, do about it? Do I smash my vinyl, snap my CDs and delete my MP3 files?
It is much easier for me to get irate about the artists who are revealed to be abusers that are still alive—the here and now brings a vehemence that burns brighter and more violently. There are undoubtedly artists I have left behind and deleted but how can I, for example, square the circle of James Brown’s predilection for violence against the women in his life, with the grooves that changed my world and form the basis of so much of the music that I love?
The honest answer is that I can’t. Despite being a man who fiercely rejects sexism, racism and all acts of violence, I find myself able to separate the art from the artist in some cases, leaving me wishing I had the moral rectitude to banish every demon as each revelation comes to light. All I can do is resolve to do better, be stronger and deny the monsters access to my ears and my mind.
I strive to judge music on its merit alone. But that changes when it's proven that the artists behind the music have done something heinous. My response in those cases varies depending on how severe the offense is. For some artists, I look for them to show accountability, accept any legal consequences and refrain from repeating the offense before I continue to enjoy their work. But for others, the first offense is reason enough to withdraw my support.
As a teen I loved many bands, but two of my favorites were Guns N' Roses and Led Zeppelin. My love of those bands was always complicated, though. Axl Rose wrote the racist/homophobic "One in a Million" from G N’ R Lies (1988). He promoted the work of Charles Manson, by putting one of his songs on The Spaghetti Incident? (1993) covers album. And there was Rose's general disrespect for his audience, starting shows when he felt like it. Led Zeppelin was similarly problematic for me upon reading Hammer of the Gods, a Zeppelin biography that depicted the band as misogynist animals.
It took a while to reconcile my love of the music and my hatred for the actions, but ultimately I chose to separate the behavior from the songs. Axl Rose is an immature, selfish person I would never want in my personal life, but I enjoy his music and respect that he's allowed to make choices, even if I don't respect them. And with Zeppelin, I like to imagine that the surviving band members have matured, and would make different choices now than the ones they made as younger men. It's not to excuse their behavior, but rather to allow for, or hope for, human growth.
I felt like I knew these bands, so at the time these transgressions felt like betrayals. But the reality is I only knew their music and everything else I thought I knew was a mix of imagination and reading. Not just with these artists, but with all artists. I now accept that I don't know the soul or character of any musician. They might seem like good people or bad people, but without knowing them personally, they're really just imaginary friends. But my love of their music is real, and that's what I cling to. The rest is unknowable to us, the fans, the strangers.