I used to love when my local coffee shop played Grimes, but when “California” came on the other day, the ethereal pop song had lost its appeal. It reminded me that Grimes recently defended her billionaire boyfriend Elon Musk against accusations of union-busting and tried to justify his donations to the Republican Party.
Of course, no woman ought to be blamed or expected to account for her romantic partner’s business dealings. But I still felt odd sitting there in that coffee shop, trying to reconcile my love for the album Art Angels with the fact that its creator is now dating a guy who called the rescuer of those Thai boys a pedophile. Should my distaste for her boyfriend’s actions taint how I feel about her music?
Whether we should separate art from artist is an increasingly relevant debate in 2018. Although Grimes is one of the more innocuous examples of a “problematic fave,” how do we reckon with the seemingly endless revelations that some of pop culture’s most beloved entertainers are racist? Sexist? Homophobic? Physically, sexually or emotionally abusive? Is it possible to separate the artist from their work in a post-#MeToo world?
I once worked with a girl whose favorite artist was R. Kelly. She didn’t want to talk about the reputation of the man himself; she insisted she just liked his music. And sure, the “Ignition” remix might be a jam, but you’d have to play it pretty loudly to drown out the decades’ worth of abuse allegations. In the case of R. Kelly, it seems that more and more people are willing to concede that enjoying his work is tantamount to letting him off the hook; Kenyette Tisha Barnes gained considerable traction with the #MuteRKelly campaign, and Spotify removed his songs from its curated playlists, albeit only temporarily. (In my own life, I find it fairly easy to avoid his back catalogue. Lady Gaga’s “Do What U Want” came on at a party last weekend, and I was relieved to hear it was the version featuring Christina Aguilera, not R. Kelly, so I could dance guilt-free.)
Of course, the transgressions that lead to one being labeled “problematic” exist on a spectrum, and there is a world of varying degrees between “defending a boyfriend’s questionable actions” and “reportedly has a cult of sex slaves.” Every week brings a new rallying call to cancel a celebrity on account of his or her behavior, from Kanye’s comments about slavery being “a choice” to Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn’s old tweets in which he made crude jokes about, among other things, pedophilia.
“If we dig deep enough into anybody’s past, we’re sure to find something that could put them on blast long enough to create damage to their careers,” writes Panama Jackson for Very Smart Brothas. “I’m left realizing that who I support at 9 a.m. can change entirely by noon. And if you know folks ain’t shit, how can you support them without having to equivocate and create justifications?”
So where is the line? According to some people I asked, confirmation bias plays a part in how likely they are to forgive or condemn to a celebrity’s behavior. “It depends on whether or not I actually like them and their work,” says author Chris McCrudden. “One dumb tweet from Alfie Deyes: cancelled. One dumb tweet from Bette Midler: well, we all make mistakes.”
What also comes up in these conversations is a push-pull between wanting celebrities to be relatable and human, and wanting them to be pop culture paragons of virtue who lead by example. Yes, everybody makes mistakes — but not everybody has millions of fans and followers who hang off their every word. We shouldn’t be surprised when an influencer who rose to fame doing prank videos or makeup tutorials posts something ignorant or offensive, but we should pay close attention to what they do next.
“It depends on how they deal with it,” says writer and podcaster Alice Beverton-Palmer. “Do they listen, take steps to educate themselves, donate to relevant causes? People should be allowed to come back from saying something stupid, but they should do it with grace, and they shouldn’t get endless chances.”
Avoiding cancelation requires a willingness to learn, grow, and show contrition, but precious few public figures seem to know how to go about doing that. In some cases, their cultural cachet also appears to be a factor: The longer and more illustrious the career, the less likely it is that valid criticisms will reach them. But I’d argue it’s important that no one get a free pass — and that it’s possible to hold two realities in our heads at once. For example, I doubt anyone would disagree that Germaine Greer has made crucial contributions to feminism, but more recently she has adopted an exclusionary stance regarding trans women and has even victim-blamed some of the women who came forward during #MeToo. This doesn’t invalidate or undo the important work she did earlier in her career; it simply means that Greer’s is not a voice we need to hear in gender discourse right now.
Ditto for Morrissey: It is possible to view the era-defining early hits of The Smiths as existing apart from the singer’s recent tendencies to sympathize with white nationalists like Tommy Robinson.
It’s also worth noting how disconcerting, even hurtful, it can feel on an individual level when somebody whose career you have followed and supported does something to let you down. After reports surfaced last year of Joss Whedon’s hypocritical, performative feminism, I felt like I’d learned something seedy about an uncle. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my favorite TV show when I was growing up, and now I was hearing that the person who created these wonderfully compelling, complex female characters might be just another toxic man who saw women as objects. But to let that ruin the impact and legacy of Buffy would be to disregard the performances of its amazing female-led cast and hard work of writers like Marti Noxon and Jane Espenson.
A celebrity’s work doesn’t exist in a vacuum; for every performer, there is a small industry operating around them, and when that musician or actor is “canceled,” those people are at risk of losing their jobs. This is something that Netflix clearly understood and sought to avoid when it made the decision to fire Kevin Spacey without also punishing the innocent people he worked with on House of Cards. That show is getting one final season, enabling the cast and crew to finish telling their story free from any negative associations — a creative choice which might also have aided Arrested Development’s long-delayed fifth season, the promo for which was derailed by the media’s interest in Jeffrey Tambor’s rumored misconduct.
I didn’t make it past episode one of that season, partly because leading man Jason Bateman really showed his ass by steamrolling his female co-stars in that infamous New York Times interview, but mainly because the allegations that have plagued Tambor make it impossible to innocently laugh at the escapades of the Bluth family. Every time he appeared on screen, I felt complicit. And that’s the problem; when you engage with someone’s work, you are supporting them whether you like it or not. And the longer we continue to reward these people with our time, attention and money, the easier they will find it to evade the consequences of their actions. Aren’t our resources better spent on the myriad artists who don’t inspire anger, debate and conflict?
Ultimately, there is no single right or wrong way to feel when someone who inspires us turns out to be awful. As comedian Hannah Gadsby pointed out in her comedy special Nanette, Picasso was both a misogynist and a vitally important figure in art history. One doesn’t erase the other; we must hold both truths in our minds. And considering the current rate at which celebrities are being exposed, it looks like we’re going to have plenty of opportunities to practice that particular mental exercise.
Photo by David M. Benett via Getty Images.
Philip Ellis is a freelance writer and journalist from the U.K. You can follow him on Twitter @Philip_Ellis