On the final song of Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly – ‘Mortal Man’ – a potent question is asked: “When the shit hits the fan, are you still a fan?” In other words, when the artist does something you might regard as immoral, despicable, criminal or wrong, is it okay to keep on listening? Does it change the way we perceive the music?
These questions can be regarded in light of recent allegations that Michael Gira of Swans raped singer/songwriter Larkin Grimm, an artist on his record label Young God. She has since gone on to write a song, ‘I Don’t Believe’, dedicated to those who have been sexually abused. Her resolve to put this song out is especially venerable and makes for an important listen, but what of Gira’s music? Some fear that his band Swans and their musical catalogue could be – if one believes the allegations – tarnished by his actions, and it’s certainly hard to disagree: who wouldn’t feel put-off knowing that the man behind the dark beauty of Swans committed an act of this kind?
It is an issue that is perhaps more prevalent than it should be, in all walks of the creative world, and beyond. Some recent examples might include Rolf Harris, who through his conduct made sure that very few people will listen to ‘Jake the Peg’ again, if anyone ever did, and Ian Watkins of the Lostprophets, who destroyed the band itself and made their angry-emo slightly too uncomfortable to revisit. But why do we feel this way? After all, most songs by these kinds of artists don’t convey messages of an immoral nature at all.
often the “crimes” of the artist do not render the importance of their creations necessarily void
Sometimes an artist’s actions can render their art hypocritical; an example being U2. Despite Bono preaching his heart out about humanitarian values, he decided to move U2’s publishing royalties to the Netherlands to avoid tax, undermining an important social duty that us mere mortals have to adhere to. This led to protests at their 2011 set at Glastonbury; evidence of discontent over their two-faced insincerity. More menacingly, the esteemed novelist and social rights campaigner Arthur Koestler, once described as “on par with Orwell”, was a serial rapist, and behaved contrary to the principles of humanity and integrity that he advocated. In these cases, the art is clearly devalued by the behaviour of the creator, justifying the rejection of it.
But often the “crimes” of the artist do not render the importance of their creations necessarily void. The problem, as in the Gira case, is that listeners feel uncomfortable at the idea of appreciating the work of a person who has committed an act that they find morally reprehensible. Some would regard this as slightly unjustified: for example, the artist and typographer Eric Gill, creator of the Gill Sans font used officially by the BBC and the London Underground is generally believed to have serially raped his own daughters and, by some accounts, his dog. Nevertheless, his artwork is still acknowledged by critics to have cultural value and his font is widely used (granted, the activities of a typographer are very rarely common knowledge).
in some cases, moral deficiencies are vitally important to the music and the struggles they are trying to express
It may then be acceptable, at least to some degree, to draw meaning from the art of a morally corrupt figure. Flicking through online opinion forums, is seems that a lot of people advocate this kind of separation of the music from the artist, but draw a line at serious crimes such as rape and paedophilia. This way, artists who have behaved a bit dubiously (most of them) will be free from criticism. However, thinking this way puts the debate down to subjective moral opinion, as it is unclear where to draw the “acceptability” line. Also, ignoring the moral deficiencies of the artist distorts the reality of the musical context – in some cases, particularly with many hip-hop artists, moral deficiencies are vitally important to the music and the struggles they are trying to honestly express.
One stance on the issue would be this: if the value of the art has been undermined to the point of hypocrisy, like Bono’s tax avoidance, then “not connecting” with or rejecting the music is justified. Where there has been no obvious infringement on the integrity of the music itself, then one has no choice but to base the decision on subjective morals. It is worth taking into account, however, what the artist is trying to convey and not just blindly rejecting it in a knee-jerk reaction. Messages and meanings are concrete, singular and immediate, and have at least some value regardless of the moral persuasions of their author.
So, “When the shit hits the fan, are you still a fan?” Yes, but only if there is still undigested musical value, whether one simply wants to enjoy the sound, or gain a deeper insight into the minds of real people.