In the midst of the #MeToo revelations I have found myself in a moral conundrum. How do I separate the artists from the art and their role in the art?
This moral conundrum became obvious as I watched Kevin Spacey’s fall from Hollywood grace. It led me to ask, is it still okay to like The Usual Suspects, Seven or House of Cards? The Guardian recently addressed this in a piece entitled, Kevin Spacey deserves to be scorned. But can I still watch House of Cards? In this article, Hannah Jane Parkinson notes that there “is a difference between continuing to support an individual’s livelihood and appreciating their past work”. She points out that “If the work is historic we can view it critically without actively supporting or enabling a dubious character”. Notice, however, that Parkinson is asking us to critically read the text, without the artist’s aura coming into the assessment. Parkinson’s article also addresses the slew of other artists with whom we might have a similar concern: Pablo Picasso, Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Casey Affleck. In a similar article by Wesley Morris in the NY Times, Morris states that “As a nation, we’ve never known what to do with our fondness for the work of men who have become troublesome”. Like Parkinson, Morris notes the difficulty is separating the artist from the art. He notes that “we force ourselves to practice impossible moral surgery that hopes to cut off the artist to save the art”.
However, I think we as consumers have chosen the moral surgery and have chosen to vote with our pocket book. The most obvious example of this might be Woody Allen’s 2017 film Wonder Wheel. Despite what Indiewire called Kate Winslet’s “most powerful, emotionally resonant performance in more than a decade”, the film internationally grossed only 1.4 million dollars. It would appear that after over 25 years of scandalous accusations involving both Soon-Yi Previn and Dylan Farrow, the public have “cut off the artist” despite the art.
This brings us to the #MeToo movement. Although the #MeToo movement has forced people to grapple with their opinions of Actors, Directors, Producers, Painters, and Politicians who have acted atrociously toward women, fans have proven to be selective and conveniently turned a blind eye to Musicians. Sure, Twitter had a meltdown when 31-year-old Drake took 18 year-old Bella Harris out for dinner, and of course Jacob Hoggard has admitted to engaging “in a lifestyle that incorporated certain rock and roll clichés”. It should be obvious to everyone what that means. But beyond that, musicians have avoided the #MeToo gaze.
It seems a week cannot go by without a new report on R Kelly. After a guilty verdict and numerous accounts he is still signed to Sony-owned RCA and still represented by The Universal Agency. Even the most shocking accusations on R Kelly have had little impact on his career and he continues to sell out venues like Madison Square Gardens. The same can be said for The Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ Anthony Keidis. Despite bragging in his 2005 memoir Scar Tissue about his statutory rape of a 14 year-old, the band has continued to sustain popularity. And, anecdotally, what is frightening is how many teenagers have personally told me how much they enjoyed a book in which he seems to brag about having sex with a 14 year-old.
However, the true treasure trove of scandalous skeletons is in the closets of classic rockers. As 70s rock bands toured through the USA, a gaggle of young female fans (groupies) followed. A few specific groupies such as Cleo Odzer (ELP, Deep Purple, Rolling Stones), Cathy Smith (The Band) and Julia Holcomb come to mind. At 16, Holcomb was sexually involved with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler who legally adopted her so, according to Holcomb, she “could travel across state lines when he was on tour”. What about the legendary Chuck Berry’s long disgusting list, including paying a 14-year-old child prostitute? Perhaps one of the more revolting stories involves The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman. The Stones’ bassist was 47 years-old when he met 13-year-old Mandy Smith who reportedly “made him feel as though he had been ‘whacked over the head with a hammer”. They began dating shortly afterwards and were married when she was only 19, and he was 53. As Carly Gillis said in her article Rethinking my rock fandom in the age of #MeToo, “Who cares if Page was a child molester – get a load of that righteous Ramble On solo”. It seems that we are willing to disregard the horrific tales of these stars because of the greatness of their art. It would seem that when it comes to rock n’ roll the “moral surgery that hopes to cut off the artist to save the art” is not all that difficult.
Nowhere is this more obvious than with David Bowie. Since his death in January 2016, we have gifted upon Bowie accolades that include genius. And, of course, musically Bowie changed the landscape, our way of thinking about music, gender, and voice. Certainly the word genius can, and some would argue, should be used when talking about Bowie. His music is the thing of legend. However, during this time of reflection on Bowie’s genius, the #MeToo movement has grown and forced us to consider the nature of sex, stardom and power. And, it is at this juncture where we find a clash of ideals. The clash between legend and sexual predator. Lori Maddox was only 14 years-old when she started to hang around backstage at concerts. It was during this time that she lost her virginity to David Bowie (Later in her teens she would go on to have a long relationship with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page. She was 15; he was 27). Bowie’s attitude towards young girls was not a solitary situation. By the time she was 14, Sable Starr is said to have been with every star including David Bowie. This - of course - was not part of the media’s celebration of his career. This instead, was swept under the carpet and pushed aside as being “from a different time”.
Of course, as a music fan, it would be easy to forget the failures and misdemeanors of these legends. It would be easy for us to leave the past in the past. It would be easy to make excuses for the lifestyles of these famous musicians. It would be easy to separate the man from the art. It would be easy to say “it’s only Rock n’ Roll”. But, if we continue to ignore, what message do we send to young girls in our society.
Recently, I watched Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. In it she attacks the very idea that we put the artists on a pedestal. In her show she notes the idea that “The art is important, not the artist” and that we must “learn to separate the man from the art”. And, that is the very issue that confronts me. As much as I may love the art, I cannot bring myself to separate the two. In the last year, I have consciously went out of my way not to listen to Bowie. While the rest of the world relives his genius, I find myself awkwardly smiling, swallowing my words like they are cold brussel sprouts.
The reason for this distaste is not because I hold myself to some lofty estimation of my gender. I think it is that if I really, honestly believe in equality then there can be no exceptions to the rules. And, that is what Gadsby points out in her special. Artists (specifically male) “are not exceptions, they are the rule. And they are not individuals, they are our stories. And the moral of our story is...We don’t give a fuck about women or children. We only care about a man’s reputation”. Just think about that for a minute. At first we may think that such a comment is full of vitriolic contempt. But, the reality is that this is true. The narrative of rock stardom outweighs the sexual exploitation of a minor. We as a society have chosen musical greatness, and a great guitar solo over even the most basic of humanity. Of course, there are those who will say, I didn’t know about this. Well, now you do. What now? On what side do you choose to stand? There are some that would say, but “it was a different time”. Yes it was. The same argument could be used to defend any number of sexual abuse scandals throughout the world. Would it be okay to ignore those abhorrent actions too? Of course not. Yet, we seem to be okay with ignoring these actions, at least when perpetrated by someone who played guitar, lived on cocaine, and looked good in tight jeans.
Stereo Williams points out that "our culture turns a blind eye" and even "gleefully endorses the hypersexualizing of teen girls'.
We owe it to our daughters to stop.
We owe it to ourselves.
The world of music and media offers us a view of the world like few other arts.