Yesterday over at Grantland, Steven Hyden wrote an op-ed that looked at our relationship with problematic musicians. He compared and contrasted the domestic violence issues of Chris Brown and John Paul Pitts of Surfer Blood, bringing in R. Kelly’s statutory rape allegations as Kelly is headlining the Pitchfork Music Festival this Sunday. He went on to claim that there’s some sort of magical formula we all carry around in our heads that essentially weighs the egregiousness of a musician’s actions with how much we like their music, and the outcome of this determines whether we allow ourselves to like something or not. For whatever reason, the twittersphere was set ablaze by Hyden, who spent what must have been an unenviable afternoon fending off angry attacks from fellow writers, a few of whom were prominent members of the music media.
On one hand, I get where Hyden is coming from. When a prominent artist makes a record, there’s a carefully-crafted PR narrative that emphasizes a story arc leading up to the record that’s at least as important as the music itself. In many instances, a record is the culmination of a sales pitch made to listeners, meant to position a musician as an interesting and unique figure. We’ve been conditioned to think of musicians as people who are authentic, their art an extension of their soul. If that system creates a situation where the reason your name is in people’s mouths is because of something bad you did, that’s on you. Your acting like a shithead doesn’t make you a victim. Sure, nobody took John Lennon to task for beating his wives at the time that it happened, but there weren’t any outlets uniquely suited to discovering that information and then disseminating it then, either. Times change, and with them change our standards.
Instead, what troubles me about Hyden’s piece is its complete failure to acknowledge the different contexts surrounding Brown and Pitts and their actions. While it’s horrific what Brown did to Rihanna, his treatment by the (largely) white media has undeniably been different from that given to Pitts. Where Pitts was given significant real estate by sympathetic music writers to explain himself, Brown was vilified across the board by the media. Writing for Noisey earlier this year, cultural critic Ayesha Siddiqi wrote of Brown, “It’s not that Brown doesn’t deserve criticism for his especially obnoxious proclamations or indelicate public appearances; the message that we as a society will emphatically reject a man for violence against women is long overdue. But the media’s reluctance to cover cases involving white celebrities charged with domestic abuse means that it isn’t yet our message. Certain narratives have cultural salience and others don’t, and the distinguishing condition happens to be race.” Brown fulfills a pre-existing stereotype that holds black men as dangerous and violent, and the babyfaced, indie-rocking Pitts becomes a tortured artist with a set of “issues” to “work through.” Why Steven Hyden is painting these two musicians' treatment as similar at all is vastly more important than the fact that disliking their records might make him feel good about himself. By failing to acknowledge the greater cultural elements at play, Hyden is squandering the potential of a wide-reaching and extremely well-read platform to point out something fucked up in society, instead taking the lazy, unhelpful way out and resorting to navel-gazing. A problem cannot be corrected if it is left unacknowledged.
While narrative might be more wed to a record’s content than ever before, people have been asking questions similar to Hyden’s ever since the first time a dickhead did a thing that people liked. Lots of people—especially artists—are dark, and sometimes we find things out about them that we’re not happy with. If someone’s acting like a bad person, by all means call them out on being a bad person. However, it’s equally important that we separate the art from the artist and judge them as two separate entities. People watch Chinatown all the time even though Roman Polanski is a monster. Thriller is still a great album, regardless of Michael Jackson's questionable character. Try as we might to ignore them away, bad people will still exist. If you want to actually make the world a better place, don’t just say, “I disagree with this person’s actions and therefore cannot tolerate their art.” Engage with their work, and place it in a context outside of yourself. Good critics say, “This is what this means to me.” Great ones say, “This is what this means to us.”
Drew Millard is an Assistant Editor at Noisey. He's on Twitter - @drewmillard