I used to work a lot of weddings at a popular winery. One of the songs I heard most — and I mean most, as in regularly, even as a first dance track — was “Every Breath You Take” by The Police.
For those who don’t know, this song is pretty blatantly about infidelity and the ongoing surveillance of a former lover. Sure, it’s got a catchy melody and Sting is, well, Sting, but even the musician has wondered why the hit has been treated so positively. It’s a sad, sad song that chronicles cheating, stalking, and more … a wedding classic.
Yet, in the wake of revelations about pop music stars like the late Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Ryan Adams, and more, the above seems pretty petty — forgivable, even. The real issue lies with artists attached to really disturbing, criminal behavior. Culture critics have wrestled with this for decades: Can we separate the artist from their actions?
In the post #metoo era, the answer should be a resounding no. Is Thriller still a musical triumph? Undoubtedly. Is “It’s Your Birthday” a guaranteed party-starter? Sure is. But they’re also the work of predatory people who have seriously hurt a lot of people.
I’m not asking you to flee a clothing store because “Billie Jean” is playing or cancel your lunch at an area restaurant because “Same Girl” is emanating from the speakers. But I am suggesting that we acknowledge the larger picture, especially when it comes to pop culture icons. These are public figures that need to be vetted not just because of the massive optics they gobble up but the relative power their camps wield and the monetary value they hold.
We pick at politicians daily, why not the same for the most popular musicians? Unfortunately, the worst people are also capable of attracting the most diehard of fanbases. Toxic souls attract the same and they often like to crowd the same ship, even if it’s sinking (I’m trying mightily not to get into politics here).
Sweeping things under the rug never works, which is why, in the modern era, we simply can’t separate the music from the artist. There’s too much at stake. Hearing the work of troubled artists on your favorite streaming outfit should spark lively conversation. It should invite debate. It should welcome questioning.
But the line must be drawn at some point. Some elements of bad boy culture will likely always exist in music, at least some genres. A fist-fight or drug-related run-in with the law doesn’t warrant a complete change of faith. But when your favorite act repeatedly breaks the law and builds up a barrier to protect and perpetuate those actions for ages, it’s time to listen differently.
Standing by a favorite musician with a questionable past should always be for a better reason than “I don’t know, I just do,” or, worse, “they’re misunderstood.” The latter is often offensive, especially in retrospect. If a particular track conjures up some past memory of a charming school dance, an adventure with a friend, or cross-country road trip, great. Make that memory the music video to that particular song and file it away accordingly. Just don’t lose sight of the overarching context that that particular artist now inhabits and recognize that when you first adored the song, you didn’t know better.
But you know better now. Sweeping things under the rug never works, which is why, in the modern era, we simply can’t separate the music from the artist. There’s too much at stake. Hearing the work of troubled artists on your favorite streaming outfit should spark lively conversation. It should invite debate. It should welcome questioning.
I find it interesting that we tend to struggle with music more, myself included. It’s as though because we still hear the songs, the spirit is still alive and well, whatever the dark subplots. We have little trouble tossing past big names aside—Pete Rose, Lance Armstrong, Dick Nixon, Bill Cosby, etc. A song is timeless, some argue, regardless of the writer. I would almost argue the opposite. Because a popular song recirculates so often, it practically provides cover for poor behavior.
What to do then? Listen not passively, but with conviction. Rid your playlists of these types. It’s a matter of pennies in most cases, but the decrease in plays does send a message. You can also hoist up those in the industry that have been on the wrong side of a lot of this madness as a conscious form of countering. The Kesha’s, Amber Coffman’s, and the MILCK’s of the music realm (sadly, this list could go on and on). If you like an artist like Anohni, back them not only for their sound, but the greater context they perform in (in this case, the decidedly tougher task they have navigating the industry as a transgender person).
Know that it’s an industry that spawns tremendous hearsay and rumors but as soon as verdicts are dealt out and real testimony becomes established fact, your hero on stage may no longer be fit for the job. Track the work of organizations like Calling All Crows and Women In Music. Listen to the social media cries of your favorite indie artists working within a framework that’s historically toxic and see where they lead — ideally, if serious enough, to court, leading to some form of change within the industry.
And listen responsibly.
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