Recently, Jann Wenner, the co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation member, released a book entitled “The Masters”. This book featured his interviews with rock legends who have become his friends. There is no arguing the influence the subjects of this book have had on Rock music. However, when questioned why there were no Blacks or women, his flippant, obnoxious, and frankly stupid response negated two demographics of rock 'n' roll's history as if they did not matter. He took his experience, privilege, and influence to brush off legends - whether he chose to acknowledge them or not - that built his career. It was an unfortunate reminder of how someone we hold in high regard can disappoint us in such a poignant and profound way.
He apologized, but apologies from people who should have known or done better are tiring and ring hollow. In an age of “cancel culture” one can argue it’s all gone too far, and everyone is too sensitive. Still, one can counter-argue that human progress demands we hold people accountable for being an ass, especially when it involves them being inappropriate, discriminatory, or cruel.
Music is everything. Nothing runs without it. People may love movies, but music fuels films and sets the mood, the tone, and the post-viewing euphoria that stays with us when we leave the theater. Our cars, stores, and restaurants have music blaring through speakers. Even parking lots have music playing. Music is the thread in the fabric of our existence.
For this reason, it is painful when a musician or prominent music industry member does or says something incredibly out of pocket, especially when that action or those words target the demographic of a fan.
Upset that your favorite artist has been accused of rape or other abuse? Perhaps a White listener quietly grimaces at being the target of Rap’s ire or jokes. Or a Black woman, hearing and seeing both the misogyny and the racism. Or, maybe you’re a man acknowledging songs like “Into the Night” and “Seventeen” hit different when you grow up and have a daughter. We’ve all been there, deciding whether or not to give that musician or industry icon a pass.
How do you separate the art from the artist? It isn’t easy, and like musical preference, it’s subjective. What may turn one off forever may only elicit a shrug from someone else who will remain a fan. Some fans will tolerate a lot from an artist until some line is crossed. For others, the artist may get “three strikes”; others may never care what the artist does if the music still moves them.
I write this article not because I wish to have arguments or make readers uncomfortable about their (or my) lack of empathy for the decision to abandon or continue to support an artist. It is more to hold ourselves accountable for the artists we support (and the excuses we make for them), the ones we don’t anymore, and if we are being hypocritical for shunning one and not another who may allegedly engage in similar behavior.
For example, I will never again purchase anything from a famous producer/artist/entrepreneur because of his alleged tendency to punch women. But do I have a weakness for a deceased Soul legend who was also accused of abuse and will sing his songs at the top of my lungs? I do. Also, I shrugged at a music icon’s questionable relationships with children because I wasn’t convinced; however, when a modern R&B singer was called out for manhandling underaged girls throughout his career, I stopped listening to his music well before he was convicted.
How do I reconcile that?
Sure, there are the details and whatnot, but the issue remains the same. Some music legends and noted professionals are documented criminals, abusers, pedophiles, racists, and misogynists. They can be horrible people whose fame frees them from the usual judgment and scrutiny. Clearly, we are not holding them to a higher standard, and even at their worst, few musicians are ever entirely “canceled”, as people in other professions often are.
Are we allowing them to be incredibly flawed because their artistry got us in touch with our deepest emotions in a world of shallow talk, questionable “celebrities”, embellished life stories, and photo filters? Are we allowing them to be awful because we gave them the power to captivate us at our most raw and vulnerable? Do we say, “BUT…they did xyz for this, that, or the other…” and that makes it all okay? Have we decided that an artist’s music or positive actions supersede anything else that makes them a terrible - or at least, a less likable - human being?
Using the prior example, a song from the deceased Soul legend was the first song I ever learned to play on my chosen instrument. My family would play his music at our gatherings, and we would dance and sing along. Was he abusive? Allegedly, yes. BUT did he stop a possible riot? Yes. Because his music tugs at my heartstrings and he is an icon in my community, will he get a pass from me while the alleged lady-punching producer will not because he did not have the same impact on my life? Apparently, yes.
That was tough to type. I despise hypocrisy, but I just displayed it, didn’t I?
This piece is not offering an answer; just thinking out loud and working through it. It wasn’t a particular moment that brought this topic to my mind. It’s a daily thing. The rock singer who assaulted underaged fans. The Blues legend who built that legacy on the backs of Black artists but has said some racist stuff. The Hip-Hop star who went way off the deep end and alienated just about everyone. The wealthy, iconic Hard Rock band that outright plagiarized other artists. The cantankerous Rock guitarist who legally adopted a minor so he could have his way with her. The mild Country hero who made nasty slurs to Charley Pride back in the day. The late Rap star that regularly beat his wife, a woman who was also his caregiver. The Metal drummer who abused children. Then there are the ones that are just jerks, treat their fans poorly, and say mean or stupid things to be disruptive. We could go all day with this. And the more varied your musical taste, the more distasteful acts you will find amongst your musical heroes. It can be a real bummer.
But how does one turn their backs on an artist who may have stopped someone from taking their life, written their wedding song, inspired a life change, or reminded them of a beloved person who has passed on? We don’t. Musicians allow us to live or relive a moment that touches us significantly. This differs from changing a makeup brand when you learn they test on animals or pulling your support from a candidate because they used your donation to buy themselves a platinum pen set.
This topic gets even more complex when you throw an entire band into the mix. A solo artist is easy; if they do or say something terrible, they may ruin their career. But a band with someone caught or arrested doing something evil can, at best, taint or, at worst, destroy the collective band members' years of hard work.
I was a superfan of a band for several years, loving their songs and live shows, which were always so inclusive, energetic, and fun. However, one member was caught on video saying something I didn’t appreciate. And, over time, I watched and listened to its lead singer say increasingly polarizing things, culminating in him finally doing and saying something unfortunate that could not be excused. Yes, he apologized, but I was done by then. I went from a superfan to giving away the band-related merch I had accumulated, including a one-of-a-kind shirt specific to him that had another band member's autograph and that of a bass legend who rarely made public appearances. I could not in good conscience wear it anymore, even though this band reinvigorated my passion for being a musician, and they performed the most cathartic shows.
During their original touring days, I was at so many shows front and center that a band member thought he knew me personally when I ran into him at an airport. He thought he knew me, but I clearly didn’t know them like I thought I did. However, when one of their songs comes on the radio, I will enjoy it. I will remember the great shows, the good times, and how they influenced me as a person and musician. I would like to forget how those shows got darker and more unpredictable to where I was unsure of my safety and when it eventually went sideways.
When they decided to do a reunion tour, some friends of mine couldn’t wait to go. Me? As far as I was concerned, that band had enough of my money; I had zero percent interest. My friends knew why, but it didn’t stop them from wanting to buy a ticket. People expect you to understand clinging to an artist but may not extend empathy when you articulate why you no longer or would never. It further demonstrated that most people don’t care about an issue unless it touches them personally. I wonder how many folks who attended that reunion tour are still mad at Beyonce’s infamous Halftime show a few years ago.
How do they reconcile that?
Will you ever cut an artist off like that crappy friend who abused your trust even though they may have walked you through the fire?
Separating the art from the artist is like that complicated relationship you dismiss until that vulnerable moment when you know nothing else will hit the mark or scratch that itch. Any regretful thought that comes with that regression is between you and that place in your heart the artist touched and still gets you all in your feelings.
Musicians are humans. Sometimes painfully so.
Apparently, we listeners are, too.
About the Creator
Gen X writer of published music reviews now putting my fiction, non-fiction & the occasional poem out there. Every piece I write, regardless of genre, is a challenge accepted, and crafted with care and love. Sit a spell & enjoy!
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!