I’ve had this opinion for a while but wasn’t fired up enough to articulate my point. And the inspiration came from the most unlikely of sources. This week rapper Sheck Wes, most famous for getting a bunch of white college kids to scream FUCK SHIT BITCH, has been accused of domestic abuse by his former girlfriend Justine Skye. He may be guilty, he may not, I don’t know. That’s not the point. My issue was the reaction of people on social media. Not because I love Sheck Wes, I could give a shit about him, if he’s a domestic abuser I hope he gets prosecuted for it, but because the immediate reaction on social media wasn’t, “this guy is a terrible person”, it was “Let’s remove his music from streaming platforms and also if you listen to his music you abuse women or support abusing women.” What?
These tweets were at the top of the trend when you searched Sheck Wes. More people agreed with these statements than disagreed. I’m aware that Twitter is the cesspool of humanity, but it also aggregates the opinions of millions of people. It’s not a perfect science but it’s an indicator of public opinion based on what gets the most favorites and retweets.
When did we as a society become unable to separate art from the artist? When did enjoying an album or a movie mean we support all of the life decisions of its creator? I get that times change, famous lives are way more public now, and putting a spotlight on the awful shit some of them do isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you can still hate a musician and love their music (Kanye West). A film director can be a sex offender and still make compelling films (Roman Polanski).
Saying you like a piece of art, be it music, a movie, or a book, means you like the piece of art. That’s it. It doesn’t mean you condone everything that happened behind the scenes or in the personal lives of the person or people who made it Two things can be true at once. An artist can make inspiring content and do unforgivable things. That doesn’t take away from what they’ve created. And for most of the great ones, there’s a debilitating mental illness or litany of personality disorders that make them unstable as well as uniquely talented.
World changing, paradigm-shifting art usually comes from people society usually deems as “crazy”. I put that word in quotes because calling somebody crazy is dismissive, and most of the time it means you simply don’t understand the person. Still, you have to be “crazy” by society standards to have genuinely new ideas and the unrelenting drive to get them produced. Most people don’t want to watch entertainment that challenges their perspective on the world. They want TV shows and movies where the story is easy to follow and everything is wrapped up in a neat little bow at the end. Or music that has a 4/4 beat with a simple melody and mindless lyrics. Everybody goes home happy and our world is the exact same as it was before.
But in order for art to evolve, these rare, world-changing artists need to drag us kicking and screaming into a new era. They need to grab our heads and force us to pay attention to uncomfortable ideas and perspectives that we didn’t know we needed. For example, when we see a movie like Birdman, we can hate it at first because our mind is telling us “this is not at all what I am used to”. But once it ends, it lingers there, burrowing its way into our consciousness and making us look at things differently. Truly great art forces us to confront uncomfortable internal truths. Or produce a sound that our mind rejects at first.
We have well-worn grooves in our brains that categorize and templatize things so we can process the firehose of information we encounter on a daily basis. When something doesn’t align with our idea of what art is or should be, our first instinct is to reject it. It’s why pop music kind of sucks but we sing it all anyway because it’s been scientifically proven that the more we hear it the more we like it. It’s also why you’ll watch a movie that’s a “critical darling” and leave scratching your head, wondering what they saw in it that you didn’t.
The most interesting art, at least to me (it’s all subjective), is an unfiltered look into somebody’s mind. A singular vision that affects you to your core. It’s not always beautiful, and it’s not always enjoyable, but it makes you feel something. It’s undeniable.
You have to have that rare combination of intelligence, unrelenting drive, and creativity in order to produce something like that. But it comes at a price. A lot of the most influential musicians have Bipolar disorder, most of my favorite authors suffered from depression, and a lot of incredible actors have an anxiety disorder. Mental health issues are common amongst great artists, and fame exacerbates the possibility that they’ll fly off the rails. So why do we demand perfection from people who are the least likely to give it to us? And why are we so quick to crucify and condemn them instead of seeking to understand? We need to stop holding them to a higher standard just because they’re famous, and we need to separate their creations from their actions.
Calling an artist a piece of shit for being a domestic abuser is completely understandable. Calling fans of that person pieces of shit for continuing to enjoy that art is the most idiotic thing I’ve ever heard. They are two completely separate things. What that person did before or after or during the production of that art is inconsequential. It can be a positive thing in people’s lives, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it.
There are plenty of exceptions to this rule. By all accounts, David Bowie was a kind, gregarious man and he made some of the most boundary-pushing music ever created. On the other end of the spectrum is Lou Reed, who also made some of the most original, fearless music in history but did heroin on stage, recommended that everybody else use heroin, and by all accounts was a prickly, unconscionable asshole.
Lou Reed would have been shunned from society if he was around in 2019 doing the same shit. In fact, many artists would. Mel Brooks could never make Blazing Saddles because it would be deemed “racist” since now most people can’t separate humor from opinions, which means we wouldn’t have gotten Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Spaceballs, or any of his other classics. They couldn’t even make Ace Ventura: Pet Detective in 2019 because it would be decried as “transphobic” and Jim Carrey’s career would be dead before it ever started. Think about what great comedies or musicians are terrified to be themselves or take risks these days because it’s guaranteed career suicide. I don’t mind hearing negative opinions on things, but calling for boycotts and trying to get people fired because you dislike something is ridiculous. If you hate something, don’t watch it, it’s that easy.
Like the Sheck Wes incident, no matter what the truth is, artists are tried in the court of public opinion and sentenced within hours. Before any of the facts are released and before anybody has a chance to understand the situation and form a nuanced opinion. Not only that but the sentence that’s handed out by a bunch of complete idiots on social media. There is no path to redemption, if you fuck up you are forever banished. Advertisers won’t come near you, people will avoid saying your name like Voldemort, and celebrities will act like you never existed.
As a fan, if you try to protest you risk attracting the ire of the angry mob. Everybody was mocking 21 Savage for his UK heritage with memes which, admittedly, were very funny before they found out he was in real trouble and being treated unfairly. Social media has programmed us to form an instant opinion on these things, and those opinions are usually misguided.
The hypocrisy of picking and choosing who is worthy of redemption is even more infuriating. Chris Brown as famous as ever even though he beat Rihanna half to death. Ray Lewis either killed two people or was standing right next to somebody who did and didn’t tell the cops, yet I see him on weekly football broadcasts. Jon Jones crashed his car into a pregnant woman and we give him a pass because he’s one of the world’s best fighters. I just realized I’m only naming black people and I’m coming off as slightly racist. Tommy Lee beat Pamela Anderson and gave her hepatitis A-Z but is still beloved by rapidly aging 80s rock fans. Elvis Presley definitely fucked a few 14-year-olds yet he’s beloved as an icon. Macklemore has been making terrible music for years yet we let him go unpunished.
Conversely, Kanye West supports the president and he’s demonized by everybody. Louis CK masturbated in front of a bunch of women and people want to ban him from doing comedy. Their decisions are terrible but it’s not assault or murder.
There is no rhyme or reason to who is offered a path to redemption and who is not. Some artists who mess up, regardless of the crime, will be condemned forever and some will still be celebrated in spite of it. Shouldn’t we offer everybody a chance to redeem themselves? This is America, we love a good comeback story. Even murderers get out of jail when they serve their time. But entertainment is different. In the court of public opinion, it’s less about what they did and more about virtue signaling. It’s turned into a “who can be the most politically correct and socially conscious” contest rather than looking at the facts of an issue and having a nuanced opinion.
Is Kanye an asshole? Absolutely. Is Chris Brown a violent, unstable person? Clearly. Are they two of the most talented musicians of this generation? Yes! Being a great artist and a good person aren’t mutually exclusive. Being a well-adjusted human being is counterproductive if your goal is to make something truly original. How can you think outside the box when you live in it? You need to see past the limitations put on you by your environment. And that creativity comes with a price.
If we continue down this road, art will become corporate noise. Boring, bland, lifeless noise that doesn’t offend or inspire anybody. Do you want all music to sound like Imagine Dragons? Or every movie to be PAUL BLART: MALL COP? Exactly.
At the end of the day, we get what we deserve. We can have insane people and interesting art, or boring people and bland art, the more we see enjoying art and supporting the artists as the same thing and holding them to a higher standard the more sterilized our entertainment becomes.
So instead of condemning them, let’s seek to understand them. Let’s stop being so sensitive and go back to the days of enjoying entertainment without having to be a fan of the creators. We’re all guilty of firing tweets out half-cocked to try and ride the trending wave, it’s what the medium has taught us to do, but we need to take a collective breath before making up our minds. And if you dislike something or it offends you, be offended. That’s OK. Don’t try to remove it or destroy the reputation of the person who made it. Free speech means supporting things you don’t agree with, especially things you don’t agree with. Because one day the pitchforks will turn on something you love, and at that point, it will be too late to stop it.