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When Awful Men Make Beautiful Things, What’s a Fan To Do?

R. Kelly
Mikel Galicia

We asked three of our regular contributors, Taylor Frantum, Preston Jones and Jacob Vaughn, to tackle a tough question: Should we still listen to the music of the late Michael Jackson, R. Kelly or Ryan Adams, three hugely popular artists in the news over allegations they were sexual predators who abused their fame to target women, underage girls or, in Jackson's case, boys? Not too surprisingly, we received three different answers. Got one yourself? We'd like to hear it in the comments.

Delete, Burn, Don't Reward

Famous and rich people have often done heinous things without consequences. That's the way the world worked: Men in positions of social and economic power ultimately were able to escape real punishment for their transgressions. Some even escaped criticism altogether.

It shouldn't be that way, especially not now. It doesn't have to be.

Roman Polanski had sex with a minor and fled the country. David Bowie faced accusations of sleeping with underage women. Woody Allen did — well, a lot of things. Allegedly. Mark Wahlberg once hurled racial epithets at and beat a Vietnamese man.

In this day of the #MeToo movement, many more men accused of perpetrating abuse in their workplaces have been hammered in the media. Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein's career washed away in a matter of weeks. The open secret of Louis CK’s weird fixation on whipping it out in front of women finally was made concrete, leading to his subsequent transformation into a hacky right-wing comic. R. Kelly has been charged with myriad sexual crimes against underage women. Michael Jackson is being judged posthumously, as the HBO documentary Leaving Neverland purports to shed light on his sexual exploitation of prepubescent boys.

For many fans, the rationale for continuing to consume the art of these (allegedly) deeply immoral, reckless or violent people is simple: Just because they may be bad people doesn’t detract from their work. But here’s the thing: It definitely does. Continuing to consume their work is a two-fold problem. First, they — or in Jackson's case, his estate — profit from the continued consumption of their product, guaranteeing they can continue to live comfortable lives. Second, accepting their art legitimizes their actions and decisions. By lending credence to the lens with which they view and expound on the world, listeners are complicit in their awful deeds. These decisions line their pockets and enable them to continue behaving this way.

Yes, "Ignition (Remix)" and "Thriller" are all-time classic bops. Bowie was a visionary. Woody Allen is, to some people anyway, a fantastic filmmaker. None of that matters. These people have to be held to the same standard as anybody else who performs any type of service in this world. If the guy who fixes your sink kicked your dog every time he came over, no matter how good he is at fixing your sink, you would probably see to it that he doesn’t get to enter people’s homes anymore. The same goes for negligent doctors. Hell, service workers get fired for little more than overcooking a hamburger.

At the end of the day, these artists have (allegedly) misused their platform and done more harm than good. Rejection should become their legacy. Throw away their movies, stop streaming their songs, burn their books. History should remember them as blights on others, not as visionaries. — Taylor Frantum

Ryan Adams
Ryan Adams
Wikimedia Commons/Andy Witchger

It's Not So Simple When Awful Men Make Beautiful Things

The indelible moments spring readily to mind.

The cascading, luminous synthesizer and vocal harmonies throughout “Human Nature.”

The wry, seductive one-liner tucked into “Do What U Want:” “You’re the Marilyn, I’m the president / And I love to hear you sing."

The wistful chorus of “Two:” “I’m fractured from the fall / And I wanna go home.”

All of them gorgeous. All of them now poisoned.

The cascade of horrifying headlines related to Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and Ryan Adams have poured forth with no sign of abating over the last several weeks and months. It is an overdue reckoning, as the music industry, at long last, begins to listen to the voices of those it dismissed for a shamefully long time.

While this slow, gradual shift from willful ignorance to grudging acknowledgment is welcome, listeners are left to sift through their own attachments to the beautiful things made by these awful men.

It’s one more piece of collateral damage from decades of unchecked bad behavior as legions of fans are left to reckon with unexpected consequences from what seemed, on the surface, to be a harmless act of pop cultural participation.

Whenever the latest ugly revelation surfaces, the internet’s impulse is to “delete” or “cancel” the offender, and strike their work from memory, but the reality is not so simple.

It requires the ability to hold contradictory thoughts in your mind: The music can be wonderful, and the person who made it can be a monster. If we truly scour our iTunes libraries and Spotify accounts and remove every problematic artist, what will we be left with?

Trying to equivocate about or look past such heinous behavior also alters our relationship with the music in a way that can’t really be repaired. It’s evident in the growing list of musicians who’ve distanced themselves from R. Kelly, for example — what was commercially expedient at the time for Lady Gaga now seems like a stain upon her career.

How do you listen again, and let the music into your life, knowing what is known now? For anyone with a conscience, it becomes a matter of moral judgment, deciding where your own personal boundaries lie.

Perhaps some kind of absolution lies in the art? I return to the songs: “I got a really good heart / I just can’t catch a break / If I could I’d treat you like you wanted me to I promise,” Adams sings in “Two.”

“Back of the club, taking shots, gettin’ naughty / No invitations, it’s a private party,” Kelly croons in “Do What U Want.”

“Reaching out / To touch a stranger / Electric eyes are everywhere,” Jackson sings in “Human Nature.”

Now there’s a toxic tinge to these lyrics, and even more sickeningly, a sinking feeling of wrongdoing hiding in plain sight. Pop music is complicated by the fact that, often, its most successful practitioners (the cash cows) deftly ride the line between wrong and right, as the whole enterprise is predicated upon slick escapism.
Who cares if the lyrical content doesn’t seem totally aboveboard? Let go, lose yourself in the music and forget your cares for a while.

When the dream curdles into a nightmare, however, the artists can’t be cut off fast enough. And while tours can be canceled, and albums can be scrapped, and record deals dissolved, artists with multiple decades of work to their credit can’t be so easily excised from the collective consciousness.

I don’t want to let the bewitching moments go, but pressing play on these songs, or any others created by now-problematic musicians, feels more freighted than ever. Still, the beauty remains, even as the beasts are brought down. — Preston Jones

Michael Jackson and "friends"EXPAND
Michael Jackson and "friends"
Alan Light/Wikimedia Commons

Too Big to Delete

It's nearly impossible to escape the influence of pop stars, rock gods and titans of the music industry. So stop trying.

Michael Jackson, R. Kelly and Ryan Adams, as well as many others in light of the #MeToo and Times Up movements, have been put on trial both figuratively and literally. The allegations against the artists, true or false, do not have to hinder the likability of their work. Hate the artist, not the art.

At Opening Bell Coffee, a Dallas coffee shop and music venue, owner Pascale Hall and open mic host Steve Jackson put together tribute shows for artists who have recently died. After David Bowie died, musicians banded together for a night of cover songs to honor his music. A year before Bowie’s death, Lori Mattix, a fan, said she lost her virginity to Bowie when she was 14, according to The Guardian.

Steve Jackson says he draws the line on some artists’ indiscretions, but he believes the work can be separated from its creator.

“It just depends on what your position is and what you're willing to accept in today's society,” he says.

Adams, the inventive singer-songwriter, has worked with the likes of Willie Nelson, Tim McGraw and John Mayer. He has also put out 16 albums and garnered seven Grammy nominations. Over the years, however, Adams has seemingly taken a not-so-innocent interest in the careers of young female artists, according to The New York Times, which reported that seven women and more than a dozen associates depicted a pattern of manipulation from Adams.

He allegedly would tease career opportunities while simultaneously pursuing sex from the female artists. In February, the FBI took the first steps in opening a criminal investigation into whether Adams committed a crime engaging in sexually explicit communication with an underage female fan. Online communication between the fan and Adams lasted for two years, starting when she was 14, the Times reported.

Artists do not automatically encapsulate goodness because their work is liked anymore than being a police officer or some other public servant makes someone a good person. People place these individuals on poorly constructed, unbalanced pedestals and act surprised when they come toppling over. Even John Lennon — who partially built a career out of the message of world peace and political activism — confessed to hitting women in a 1980 Playboy article. This does not mean music listeners should try to erase his work from history. All it means is that Lennon, in some ways, did not live up to people’s expectations of him.

Allegations against Kelly have been plentiful since the mid-'90s. Most recently, the singer was charged with 10 counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse involving four women. Three of the women would have been underage at the time of the alleged crimes, according to the BBC. Last month, celebrity lawyer Michael Avenatti said he submitted a video showing Kelly having sex with a 14-year-old girl to the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office in Chicago, the BBC reported. After appearing in court to plead not guilty, Kelly posted bail Feb. 25. Kelly has written and produced songs for Celine Dion, Notorious B.I.G., Whitney Houston and so many others throughout his career.

Two prominent Dallas radio stations, K104 and KRNB, opted to ban Kelly’s music. Some argue that continuing to stream or purchase these artists’ music is equivalent to supporting and funding their actions. If this is the case, it seemingly had no impact on Kelly, who at first struggled to pay his $100,000 bail, 10 percent of his $1 million bond. Between mismanagement, hangers-on and bad deals, Kelly’s attorney, Steven Greenberg, told CNN his client “really doesn’t have any money at this point.”

Mel Arizpe, a local karaoke host and musician, says artists like Kelly are a guilty pleasure for her. She says she started watching Surviving R. Kelly, the docuseries depicting women’s allegations against the R&B singer, but could not finish it because it was too disturbing. None of Kelly’s songs have been pulled from catalogs where Arizpe hosts karaoke, she says.

People who choose to sing songs by controversial artists are not doing so to support the writers’ personal lives, Arizpe says.

“I think you should be able to listen to what you want to listen to and see what you want to see,” Arizpe says.

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The most recent swarm of allegations against Michael Jackson are detailed — uncomfortably detailed — in Leaving Neverland, a two-part documentary in which two men, now in their 30s, depict a long-running sexual relationship with the one-time “King of Pop.” The Jackson estate denounced the film as another attempt to exploit and cash in on the late pop star.

If true, the allegations against Jackson are unforgivable, Steve Jackson says, but he thinks it would be silly to pretend his work was never created. Like Kelly’s, Michael Jackson’s music has been banned from radio stations in New Zealand and Canada, according to The Guardian.

People cannot easily eradicate these artists from music history because they have made too much of an impact. To truly “cancel” these musicians would mean to cancel all the work they have influenced or taken part in over the course of their troubled careers. And canceling all the artists who have worked with the alleged criminals would be like canceling Roseanne and not letting the rest of the cast carry on the show as The Connors.

Should we also destroy every movie Harvey Weinstein had a hand in? No, because that would negate all the other hard work people put into those productions. With today’s increasingly heated political climate, it is only a matter of time until everyone is controversial. — Jacob Vaughn

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