When your favourite singer puts their foot in it, can you separate the art from the artist?
Nothing makes you regret developing a limbic system like celebrities using social media. Now it seems that we can’t go six seconds without seeing a treasured figure’s name trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. It’s a feeling I know far too well; the fading dream that whatever they’ve done can’t be that bad. The slight, admittedly morbid, hope that maybe they’ve just died and left their legacy mercifully untainted. But no, because that would be too easy, and instead you’re forced to watch – Clockwork Orange style – as they do their utmost to permanently stain any love you ever had for their work.
If you’re a music fan then, chances are, that scenario is as familiar to you as it is to me. Artists’ need to proudly present their every musing is not a novel phenomenon. Even before social media reduced the time between thought and public broadcast to nanoseconds, musicians were hardly known for their keeping their opinions to themselves. Over the past few months, however, it seems to be happening with greater and greater frequency. Since lockdown alone, musicians from across the genre spectrum have thrown in their two-cents on a wide range of hot-button issues. In the Britpop sphere, both Ian Brown and Noel Gallagher have been vying for Morrissey’s crown as Manchester’s favourite disgraced songwriter with their defiant stances against mask-wearing and social distancing. Elsewhere, Lana Del Rey capitalised on her last album’s success by lashing out at women of colour in the industry, later posting controversial videos of Black Lives Matter protesters and videoing herself driving with her feet on the dashboard; perhaps taking Born to Die a little too literally. And, while it would be blatantly wrong to say Kanye dipped his toe in controversy this decade, Yeezy has made sure the hip-hop scene gets their fair share of second-hand embarrassment with his relentless tweeting and questionable interviews.
Whether these recent outbursts have been the result of cabin fever, boredom, or just an unfamiliar lack of attention is uncertain. What is clear, however, is that a new batch of fans are now learning how challenging it is to “never meet your heroes” in the internet age. Social media has been run amok with listeners publicly cycling through the five stages of grief. The initial barefaced denial quickly followed by the righteous anger at this trahison des clarcs. The bargaining that perhaps they were misquoted, or even that you never liked them that much anyway. All this eventually subsides into the depressing acceptance that, despite how much you love their work, your favourite musician can be a dick.
Perhaps calling it grief is a stretch, but the feelings aren’t a million miles away. Music is an emotive medium. The connections made with it, and by extension the musician, are genuine – especially those made during the emotionally turbulent times of adolescence. Discovering that the human behind the art holds very different values to you can be a sincerely disappointing realisation. As a dedicated fan of The Smiths, Morrisey’s big mouth has struck more than once. In actuality, it’s put me through the wringer on more than one occasion. His views on race, religion, Harvey Weinstein and more are as easy to find as they are hard to forget. As such, I feel qualified to impart some wisdom onto those less practised in the art of acceptance than myself.
While separating the art from the artist is a common life raft clung to by fans in denial, it is an entirely valid perspective. Further, “the artist” often encompasses far more than the single individual crying “Cancel Culture!” to their millions of followers. Reducing a piece of music to the vocalist alone is hugely unfair; not only the rest of the band, but to every producer and session artist who added their own piece to the auditory jigsaw.
However, even if the words of Morrissey, Kanye, or Lana are what connected you to their songs, then that’s okay too. While they may have created the art, the connections and emotions are your own. To stray away from music for a moment, Mark Z. Danielewski, author of the cult novel House of Leaves, likened the memories made between readers and his book to his child growing up and making friends. “Now and then, my kid’s friends think it’s cool to meet the dad,” he stated in a recent Guardian interview, “but they don’t want the dad hanging around for too long, they’re not friends with the dad; they’re friends with my kid.” In other words, the nature of art as an entity is independent in all except its creation. Once it is released into the world, every person will come to it with their own experiences and take from it something entirely unique to them.I think Danielewski’s philosophy is a healthy one, and one that should also be applied in reverse. No matter how many moments you may have soundtracked to The Queen is Dead, Norman Fucking Rockwell!, or 808s & Heartbreak, reconcile with yourself that those memories are with the music, not the musician. Morrissey wasn’t lurking over your shoulder pointing out each meaningful lyric, nor was Kanye or Lana on hand to explain why each bar was relatable to you. Those connections are between you and the music. No one else.