When Spotify added the Block Artist function years ago, this appeared to be in response to the numerous allegations and crimes that musicians had been accused of. From the purported sexual misconduct of Pinegrove’s lead singer to the sex crimes of R. Kelly, the 2010s saw an explosion of attention to the ethics of supporting these artists financially, and even enjoying their art in general, with their transgressions looming large in the minds of listeners. Lines of discourse included: “How can you be a fan of a terrible person?,” “What makes you think that a song is more important than the pain its creator has caused?” and “Doesn’t listening give them a platform?”
These questions come from a moral place, and align, if not explicitly, with the school of thought concerning the calcification of art. Oftentimes, this also comes from an understanding that art is so intrinsically connected to the artist that there is no possibility of separating the two, and that to view or even appreciate someone’s art is to pick a side and stand with them. It’s a sort of low-stakes slippery slope. So, in order to be a good person, it is pertinent that you distance yourself, avoid their output and proclaim your opposition to them if there are any signs of your involvement with their art.
The mindless contrarian, on the other hand, finds that their enjoyment of the art is superseded by their immature glee in consuming something that isn’t “allowed,” something that “they” don’t want you to listen to, and with this nihilistic bend oftentimes the contrarians can convince themselves that the issues are exaggerated or irrelevant. It seems that in this polarization, even if people are forced to join sides, no one actually knows how to solve the issues at hand: issues of sexual assault, of the general perversion of power or, to a lesser extent, violence.
This in and of itself is an issue because, at the surface level, these are the problems that those who opt-in concern themselves with discussing. It is viewed as the unarguable flashpoint, where your position speaks to if you are a good or bad person. This is a correct presumption, and it’s incredibly telling of whether someone is an apologist for that sort of behavior. But it shows that proclivity as an inherently moral one, coming from the distinctly American puritanical impulse. The art itself often takes a back seat and is only a pawn in the overarching dialogue surrounding the person.
Calls to rally individuals to stand in line and dole out punishment to the guilty occur in times when justice appears to not function properly, and there is good reason for people to believe that this is actually the case, especially with the decay of institutions and the race to the bottom of neoliberal policies. This is where the brunt of these anxieties arise from, as well as the disappearance of privacy coinciding with the digital realm increasingly being used as the site of our shared history.
Again, this leads to the decisions that concern our own lives: Should we listen to artists who have been canceled? There’s no answer to this, really.
Regardless of the excuses — that a song is catchy or that what the artist did actually isn’t that bad — making your point through consumptive practices is a new form of protest, and probably ineffectual, especially against those in power who can perform egregious crimes.
Art will always have something to contribute aesthetically, and this is fundamentally divorced from ethics and morals, as we cannot control what we find beautiful and what we find ugly. That’s set early on.
But, with art constructed in a more theatrical framework, we want something different. We want something relatable, and when that has negative connotations through the actions of someone else who we can’t control, then we feel cheated. Narcissism is a powerful force after all.
Daily Arts Writer Vivian Istomin can be reached at email@example.com.