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Harry (Haz) Salvesen muses over whether the artist is a law unto themselves or whether their legacy is inherently tied to their interactions with wider society.
Allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment have rocked the music industry in the past few years. High profile celebrities including Ameer Vann, R Kelly and Michael Jackson have all been the subject of media scrutiny. However, in responding to such allegations in an often personal and attacking manner, the media has often succumbed to “cancel culture,” casting intense social shade onto artists and their audiences even if allegations prove to be baseless and purely due to an insatiable appetite to police the moral compasses of complete strangers.
A cancel-culture commotion doesn’t usually do anything for me, to be candid. Although, I do feel that amongst the commotion, this time around, mainstream media and often amateur Twitter journalists have alluded to quite an interesting issue of philosophy: Can art be separate from its artist, or is the character of an artist so intimately intertwined with their art that the two are inseparable?
Over the years we have seen leagues of seedy individuals in the music industry: on stage; behind the scenes; or maybe even left uncredited. While ex-BROCKHAMPTON boy band member Ameer Vann stands as a fairly-new artist, there’s an abundance of acclaimed musicians who have been accused or convicted of unsavoury acts: Frank Sinatra, Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, John Lennon, Jimmy Page and Marilyn Manson, just to name a few.
While musicians are made popular for making a piece of auditory art, they’re not made popular for terrific life decisions or morality.
But I do understand at least part of the general concern. For one, when these performers make chart-topping music, they also become public figures and everything that they do or have done while they exist in the eye of the public is scrutinised. Second, it may feel heart-breaking when you personally find out one of the musical engineers behind your cherished records might harbour regressive views towards oppressed minorities, or even moonlight in illegal activities. And thirdly, there is undoubtedly an incredible amount of influence and power that stems from popular culture and this has the power to influence a lot of people, especially children and young adults who have grown up in the digital age we are a part of. Popular culture, of course, stems from much more than popular music alone. For example, sport is of acute cultural value in Australia and too comes with no shortage of incredibly successful, albeit controversial acts. Consider the recurring homophobic comments of Israel Folau or Margaret Court. Popular sportspeople, musicians, or indeed any persons of merit or cultural relevance, may (and unfortunately often do) use their platform to extol perverse messages or life philosophies in their press coverage.
The growing concern is that unassuming consumers may somehow take that life philosophy and mould it to their own. Emphasis is needed on the word may, because there are no dependable figures that I can extrapolate out to prove such a thing in a quantitative, numerical way: for example, the number of people that listened to NWA’s “Dope Man” actually ended up selling drugs. Even if there were a study it would have to prove the statistic is causation and not simply correlation.
Kendrick Lamar, on his final track off his record To Pimp a Butterfly, challenges his own audience, asking:
“If the shit hits the fan
Are you still a fan?”
If there is some point where, for whatever reason, you find the artist to be morally reprehensible, do you still enjoy their music? Do you still follow them? Can you still enjoy the art?
Of course you can. Ideas explored and within music are static, can be perfect, and messages employed in a record can mean a certain thing no matter what way you look at them; they don’t change over time. They’re just that. Whereas a person may be inconsistent: a person can change their mind; a person in your eyes could change from being good to being bad, in your eyes.
And the world is filled with people who you might deem reprehensible, whose moral compasses do not align with your own. And some of these people are sportspersons you celebrate, some national icons, and some are behind your favourite albums. More often than not, these people are not looking out for your personal moral values in how they live out their lives. Conversely, we as an audience don’t watch their sports games, watch their shows or listen to their music out of a general curiosity for their daily routine or inner thoughts. We consume their art because we enjoy its content, its thrill or we enjoy its melody; we enjoy the stasis of what it represents. So, I beg the question: why should we care if entertainers become or have ever-been immoral people? Not one of us is perfect, so “may he who is without sin cast the first stone”.
At the end of the day, if morality is what you’re really after, pick up a book or written piece by Plato, Aristotle, maybe a bit of Socrates or Rousseau. If you want entertainment, watch a sports match. Pick up an album. Watch a film.