Content and Character: Why Do We Selectively
Boycott Artists in 2018?
And what makes ‘special’ musicians worthy of a hall pass?
The #MeToo movement has seen artists’ conduct and character come under greater scrutiny than ever. While abhorrent behaviour has landed many an artist in hot water before, the ramifications were often short lived. Recently, the consequences have begun to seem more appropriate.
Kevin Spacey has been fired from projects and edited out of films. PWR BTTM were dropped from their record label after widespread reports of unsolicited groping and sexually aggressive behaviour at their concerts. Closer to home, Sticky Fingers have experienced backlash for accusations of racism, homophobia and misogyny.
This modern phenomenon focuses on how the work of an artist, irrespective of its merit, can be tainted by the character of the individual who created it. Essentially, the artist themselves matters more than the content of the art.
However, when we enter into the discussion of perceived character versus artistic intentions, this conversation becomes a minefield. In the 1980s, as evidenced by the formation of The Parents Music Resource Centre, the focus was directed towards the actual content of the music. Due to the underlying assumption that young people are heavily influenced by the content of the entertainment they consume, this was seen as more important.
It was in the resulting court cases, aimed at censoring and banning various artists (hilariously referred to as ‘The Filthy Fifteen’), that we started examining the relationship between an artist’s character and the character of their art.
This is where the concepts of persona, role playing and intent become critical. At what point is a song misogynistic, as opposed to being about misogyny? To what degree do an artist’s intentions matter when evaluating the nature and meaning of their work? Does any of this matter, or is it simply about how we react?
Earlier this year, in the aftermath of the triple j’s Hottest 100 of 2017, various individuals voiced their opposition to Kendrick Lamar’s Humble being voted number one. Most stopped short of accusing Lamar of misogyny, but the overarching narrative was that it was problematic. However, it seems wilfully ignorant to suggest that Lamar is referring to women at all; the song structured around verses of elaborate boasting and a chorus that reminds himself to not get carried away and to, wait for it… be humble.
Of course, one could still chastise Lamar for his vocabulary (inside and outside the chorus), pointing out that the word is offensive to some people and carries with it connotations of sexism and disrespect. However, to subscribe to this belief would be rather fundamentalist and restrictive. If using a word no matter the intent and context is enough to be problematic, then the idea of storytelling, or indeed any sort of transgressive discourse, would be too.
Within this framework, even writing from the perspective of a villain would become the act of being a villain.
Nick Cave’s career provides an interesting parallel to this discussion. For decades Cave has been one of Australia’s favourite sons when it comes to homegrown artists; he’s critically acclaimed, resilient to trends, and a singular talent. He’s also no stranger to controversial subject matter and colourful language. On his album Murder Ballads he chronicles pretty much every manner of killing imaginable in graphic detail; just look to Stagger Lee for a particularly nasty and illustrative example.
“Yeah, I’m Stagger Lee and you better get down on your knees
And suck my dick, because if you don’t you’re gonna be dead”
Said Stagger Lee
Well, Billy dropped down and slobbered on his head
And Stag filled him full of lead
To be clear, I’m not suggesting Nick Cave is a monster because he writes songs about monsters. But this is exactly the point – why do we give some artists the benefit of the doubt, yet for the slightest infringements in terms of lyrical content, attempt to undermine others?
What it comes down to is that we believe Nick Cave when he tells us he’s a storyteller. When he writes a song about murdering a woman on the banks of a deserted river, we examine it for deeper meaning. Hell, in that case we gave it an ARIA Award. It’s important we extend that same disposition to artists, and indeed genres, that we may be less familiar or comfortable with.
The act of boycotting an artist because of their actual behaviour is different, and something that needs to be evaluated by individuals in accordance with their own beliefs. I wouldn’t presume to lecture anybody on this subject, but when it comes to judging an artist based on the content of their art, be sure you realise that expression isn’t the same as confession.
By Alastair Cairns