How, if it all, can we enjoy art made by those who’ve harmed others?
It’s a question that, considering the wave of abuse allegations post-Harvey Weinstein, in his and Trump’s America, feels new and immediate. And it is, to some. Good for them. But the concern has always been there, for as long as there’s been creative craft and recorded music.
The sheer volume of recent accusations, largely of sexual impropriety (but including various abhorrent behaviors) has inspired some to describe this moment in time as watershed. And at what cost? As music fans, if our loyalty to records we later learn were created by abusive individuals was, perviously, in any way committed or intense, have been forced to wrestle with the moral consequences. How can we maintain views of ourselves as “good” and still enjoy work from artists we might despise in our day-to-day? Is it even possible? Or must we cut the art and artist from our lives, leaving the merch torn up on our bedroom floor?
Part of the perceived resurgence in the responsibilities-as-consumers debate comes with a feeling of impotence in the face of evil. We can take to the streets against Nazis. We can (sometimes) vote to keep abusers from office. We can rail against whomever on social media. But we cannot, or, could not, stop an abuser from being president. We cannot take a rapist and slam his skull to the concrete. We can’t save anyone, not enough. In this way, what we do in the privacy of our own home, what we listen to, doesn’t matter, and its pure egotism to think otherwise.
Conversely, it matters a great deal—all we can do is shape our own virtuous universe. (These impulses seem contradictory because they are!) Without tangible, verifiable results, doing nothing can seem pretty appealing, but I choose to believe that private choices reverberate outward into culture. In lieu of an interventionist deity steering our hand over the radio dial or Spotify module, or whatever your preferred listening mechanism is, that’s what we’re left with—our small choices, and what we can control.
Various writing on the topic, most prominently, “What Do We Do With The Art of Monstrous Men” by author Claire Dederer in the Paris Review, takes thoughtfulness and nuance to an almost stultifying conclusion. Dederer, though seeming to surround herself with brohemian Facebook jerks and insouciant wine buddies with cruel husbands, takes an admirably inconclusive approach, where known-abuser Woody Allen is allowed to continue working because, at our core, we all might be monsters. It’s both self-flagellating and convenient. I don’t necessarily disagree with her. But if you lean towards a pedantic need for at least an illusion of righteousness, it’s not terribly helpful.
For music fans, the question is complicated by the fact that there are just so many goddamn musicians. We don’t just worry about the Great Artistes, we worry about the actions of our favorite local bands, the mid-tier indie assholes, the punk and emo bands that shaped our adolescence. Often, those people wrote songs that are integral or at least adjacent our own sexual lives. Maybe a DJ saved your life and maybe a song was playing during your first kiss. While Allen’s Annie Hall is unlikely to convince anyone not to kill themselves, Brand New apparently did. I’m not trying to start a trauma competition between the mediums, but I think most would agree that music, the most accessible of arts, cuts across all class and culture lines in its reach. From Led Zeppelin to R. Kelly to Pinegrove, the ground is endlessly treacherous.
The clearest cut solution, when faced with an artist’s deplorable behavior, is to remove the music entirely from your life: Stop streaming their records, erase their songs from your iTunes, never speak of them again. It’s somewhat easier than you’d think. And while a separate issue, the myth of the totally unique musician is a buy-in to the hierarchy itself: With very few exceptions, for every band you love, I can find you one equally good, of similar sound, not populated by shit-heels.
Are you into ‘70s hard rock, but find Jimmy Page’s kidnapping of 14-year-old Lori Maddox beyond the pale? Well, Alice Cooper may be a Christian and a golfer, but his early ‘70s output is stellar and he, by all accounts, is a swell guy. Find the Islamophobia of Myrkur and racism of Iced Earth (or any number of other black metal musicians) gross? Menace Ruin’s combination of folk and pitch darkness has got you covered. Upset at Pinegrove’s completely useless apologia, where singer Evan Stephens Hall proactively attempted to diffuse future accusations by implying that any girl that likes to fuck is inherently a victim? Well, a google search of “Wagon Wheel cover” currently pulls up 4,430,000 results. I’m sure you can find one that scratches the itch. These are easy (and somewhat glib) examples, but what I’m saying is that, given a little effort, we don’t actually have to listen to any abusers.
Of course many—maybe even most—of us will continue to listen to music made by abusers. I don’t begrudge anyone that. Life is arduous and it’s hard to sacrifice comfort, especially when it’s already been paid for and downloaded (streaming is another beast). And, at the risk of undercutting all I’m saying here, I fully believe that Michael Jackson is a problem for which there is no solution I can see.) What we’re dealing with here is ideological choices by degree: How much are we willing to give up? What are our rewards for making those sacrifices?
There is some music that I will listen to at home, under the covers, that I will no longer play at the bar I work at, because of, and for, other people. I don’t fear scolding, but I don’t want to send a message that certain behaviors are acceptable, nor do I want to cause another person grief.
We must operate from the baseline that most outrage is in good faith, that people do not want to hear an abusive band like, say, PWR BTTM, who meant so much to so many, because it genuinely pains them to do so. It’s very easy not to amplify my own compromises to the detriment of others. The way to navigate the ethics of personal music consumption, I’ve found, is to simple tell yourself the truth. I won’t ask anyone to stop listening to David Bowie or Iggy Pop—I certainly still listen to them both—but it’s on us to also remember the names of the then-underaged women they were sexually involved with, the aforementioned Maddox and Sable Starr, to make them as much a part of the narrative of our feelings for an artist as the way those little songs make us feel.
Of course, with contemporary bad actors, those who are still active and predatory, the R. Kellys and indie/emo serial girl toucher du jours, the choice is clearer. Nuance is nice but, conversely, fuck those guys. As I said before, there are other musicians, other joys, always. Don’t let anyone tell you that they’re all the same. It’s dispiriting to have our heroes exposed, but the idea of heroes is dumb anyway. You can only forge an internal existence that doesn’t shy away from moral complications and total scumfuckery in all its incarnations.
We owe it to ourselves, if no one else, to be as heroic as we’re able, even in the privacy of our headphones.