Can You Support Bad People That Make Great Music
  • WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 17, 2016

  • Posted by: Mike Montemarano

Is it right to separate music for its artistic value from questionable/despicable acts of those who create it? Time and time again, the moral integrity of many musicians are often called into question based on some sort of incident, affiliation, or even sometimes fiction regarding certain actions, influences, and conduct they may or may not have been a part of. Kanye West just released his new album but has also caused ire with misogynistic lyrics and his Twitter claims of Bill Cosby's innocence. This calls into question what responsibilities we have as consumers and supporters of music in regards to the people who make it. Is it okay to consume music from those whose moral backgrounds are questionable, shady, or outright morally wrong, or does this in turn affiliate us with whatever idea or action caused the moral interrogation in the first place?

People, in attempts to confront the problematic nature of the way artists may act in private life, mislead themselves by denying the reality that morally reprehensible people are capable of doing good things and creating good art. Perhaps it is also important to separate artists' personal lives from the moral questionability of art itself. The way we solve the cognitive dissonance that comes with musicians who are bad people is through a line, a threshold, which is very hard to pinpoint but which some people do and do not cross according to mass reactions.

One of the most frequent moral panics surrounding ethics in music is that society is negatively influenced by music which can be considered dangerous for young listeners who may not understand the purpose for which certain symbolism, sarcasm, and irony is used in music. This especially comes to light among songs that deal with sexuality, political subversion, and behavior deemed antisocial by dominant mainstream audiences.



Jello Biafra, frontman of the Dead Kennedys, appeared on Oprah Winfrey to discuss the issues of organized motions dictating the "moral" impact which music may have on youth is a form of censorship, which can lead to a dangerous impact on free speech. Biafra's lyrical content is violent, involves rape and sexual abuse, government sanctioned murder, racist slurs, and fascist imagery. The intent of the music is not in any way to condone morally reprehensible behaviors and as a whole the Dead Kennedys represent a landmark moment in the punk rock movement that fueled musicians for decades to come. Parents, however, had concerns over the way in which Biafra's music influenced the moral fibers of the social world due to the great exposure and acclaim the Dead Kennedys received.

From a distant perspective, music can be morally bad, music can be morally neutral, and it is very much dependent on context. Some context dhas to do with what actions and identities artists have in their repertoire, and it's important to keep in mind an artist's intentions in life to get a full context of the art itself. John Lennon's legacy has never been recontextualized despite his abusive relationship with Yoko Ono, one in which he beat her (among many other women), cheated, and was an allegedly absent father. He openly admitted the violent tendencies he had towards women, but this did not stop the massive imprint his musical career continued having as a part of the 60s counterculture. People had the capacity to separate the morally reprehensible behaviors of Lennon from the work he created.



There are times where it becomes difficult to find any contextual connection between the moral upstanding of an artist's private life and the music they devote themselves to. Regardless, artists often find themselves punished in the forms of de facto censorship and boycotting of their music.

Neofolk icons Death in June were held under fire after releasing album art which included lesser-known fascist symbols, despite the band openly stating that these symbols were not relevant to their politics, and that they were very much anti-fascist. These symbols also contributed little if anything to the listening experience of their music, which taken out of context does not promote fascism in any way. Despite this, Death in June received a loosely organized mass boycott in both attendance at live shows and in their music consumption.

Mark Kozelek, better known for his project Sun Kil Moon, has more or less been sabotaging himself due to his brash and condescending behavior offstage towards interviewees and other bands. Does this detract from the quality or artistic value of his music? No. Are people less likely to support him at a consumer level? Most likely.



In a sensationalist world, we view well-renowned musicians in the limelight, and all of their immoralities are sure to surface. In some ways, it's probably a good thing that some of these well-renowned musicians who do atrocious things have lost all of their support, especially at a consumer level. Some people don't deserve to be supported even if their art is "great." At the same time, it's important for the sake of free speech and media literacy that people take the time to look at the context and artistic value behind each piece of art they wish to expose themselves to.

Ethical standards are hard to keep consistent, and many ethical judgments are made independently and in the moment. I don't think it's fair for any one person or group people to pass judgments on the decisions people make regarding what they listen to, so long as the music itself does not have intentions which are morally reprehensible, and they don't intend to use music to harm others in some way or another. Maybe I value free speech too much, I don't know.

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