The Music and the Man – can they be separated?

Not so long ago, a music journalist by the name of Chloe Papas wrote a scathing review of an album by Chris Brown. It went viral very quickly and has already attracted comment from plenty of sources. Myself, I found it via Facebook, and couldn’t help but notice the comments left by other users. For every ten or twenty people that found the review hilarious, there were a number who had decided that Ms Papas was ignorant on the subject of music, because Mr Brown had sold millions of records, or sometimes simply because “dem tunes iz da shit.”

It was very easy for me to find this review amusing. I don’t personally like Chris Brown’s music, so was able to enjoy the blunt put-downs. I also believe that domestic violence is thoroughly reprehensible and so could sympathise with Papas’ moral outrage. A lot of commentators have argued that this wasn’t a review of the album, rather a call to boycott an artist of dubious character. To address this quickly: the first three paragraphs deal with the album. Granted, they make a very blunt and opinionated review, but I’ve read far worse in my time. Papas’ mistake – perhaps – was to attack Brown’s criminal history in the last paragraph-and-a-half.

Which brings me to my question: can you enjoy the music made by somebody who you otherwise find morally repugnant? Can the art and the artist be judged separately?

There are, of course, more complicated examples. As a lifelong fan of The Who, I found myself in a very awkward position when Pete Townshend was investigated on charges of child pornography. In the wake of child abuse allegations, many Michael Jackson fans must have had the same dilemma: these people make music that we enjoy…but they may also be guilty of awful crimes. In the end, when neither were found guilty, I’m sure many people felt a bit of relief that they could continue to enjoy Pinball Wizard or Billy Jean without the neighbours giving them disapproving looks.

Going further back, history offers many examples of great music made by people you probably wouldn’t want to bring home to meet your folks. Carmina Burana is a thoroughly enjoyable and rowdy cantata – great fun to sing for the choir – but there is still much debate over whether Karl Orff was a Nazi sympathiser. Richard Wagner’s work, though admittedly more of an acquired taste, is widely respected despite the man being openly antisemitic. It certainly doesn’t do your public image much good when notable fans include Adolf Hitler.

Perhaps you’re still not feeling slightly awkward. Perhaps you conveniently don’t like any of the above, and so it’s easy to dismiss them as I did Chris Brown. But I bet you enjoyed a Disney film or two. Picture those childhood memories, those brighty, cheerful animations…now how do you feel about the rumours of their creator being a lifelong antisemite? Could you bring yourself to watch Steamboat Willy again if the rumours turned out to be true?

Another question is, of course, where we draw the line. Wagner, for example, published an anti-Jewish essay (under a pseudonym) and I think we’d all agree that racism in any form is a vile thing. But what about someone like Mick Jagger, arrested on (apparently slightly dubious) drugs charges? Or someone like Pete Doherty, who became more famous for drug-related antics that for actually making any music? The law tells us and we go on to tell our children that drugs are bad (m’kay), but should we boycott their music because they were caught with them? What about people like Roger Waters, who have a reputation for being quite difficult to work with? Should we boycott their music because they weren’t very nice to their bandmates?

There’s no single, easy answer to this, and I don’t presume to be able to provide one. (You should come and join me up here, it’s very comfy on this fence…) When analysing your own moral consistency, you could be very clear-cut and stop listening to any music made by anybody you consider to be A Bad Person, but you could find yourself missing out on a lot of beautiful music. Can you judge them separately? And if not, what criteria do you use to define A Bad Person? It’s important to realise that the waters get very muddy very quickly, and so I’ll leave you with something to make them even muddier. Firstly, please enjoy this rather lovely tune from the Beach Boys’ 20/20 album:

And secondly, who do you think that was written by?

Answer: Charles Manson.

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