Now that Halloween has passed and the holiday season encroaches upon us, my anticipation for a relatively new “holiday” tradition has begun. Like many other Spotify users, early November is when I begin both eagerly awaiting and bracing myself for Spotify’s 2021 Wrapped. Launched by the music streaming giant in 2015 and originally called “Year in Music,” Spotify Wrapped gives listeners a summary of their streaming habits over the past year. And social media sharing is integral to Wrapped’s marketing model, since Spotify provides graphics about listening stats which can be added to Instagram stories or shared on Twitter.
This social aspect is why some users, including myself, may feel a slight sense of dread as the New Year approaches: What embarrassing realities might Spotify expose about my music taste? I didn’t listen to that many “Glee” songs this year, did I? What about all those late-night study sessions spent singing along to Broadway show tunes? Or, for those of us who pride ourselves on our “alternative” tastes, could we be surprised to find Wrapped reveals our listening habits to be a bit, well, basic?
It’s possible that a few cringe-worthy tracks will end up in my Wrapped playlist. But the musical shame I’m most bracing myself for this Wrapped season is not a question, but instead a certainty: the English rock band the Smiths will definitely repeat as my most-played artist of the year.
My shame about the Smiths has nothing to do with concerns about having cheesy, basic or “bad” taste. They’re considered one of the most influential bands of the 1980s and British music website “NME” ranks their album The Queen is Dead as the greatest album ever. Beyond their sound, they were subversive and anti-establishment during an especially conservative era in British politics, utilizing their influence to challenge then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The working title for The Queen is Dead, in fact, was Margaret on the Guillotine. More personally, as someone who has at times felt isolated by my convictions about animal exploitation, their 1985 track Meat is Murder is a frequent comfort, and one of the only animal rights songs I’ve found to be a pleasant and powerful listen rather than overly self-congratulatory.
Clearly, the Smiths were an important and high-caliber band, both musically and politically. So if it’s not embarrassing taste I’m concerned about, what exactly is my issue with the Smiths topping my Spotify Wrapped once again this year?
It boils down to one name, a name that has probably already invaded the mind of anyone familiar with the Smiths: Morrissey.
Stephen Morrissey, mononymously referred to by his last name, served as the Smiths frontman and is responsible for the lyrics that have resonated with so many from the 1980s through today. This includes those on “Bigmouth Strikes Again,” which Morrissey wrote to poke fun at the music media for overanalyzing everything he said. In recent years, however, “Bigmouth” has become an apt characterization of Morrissey. And I’d wager pretty much every Smiths fan desperately wishes he would just shut up.
Unfortunately, his big mouth strikes again and again. For example, during a performance on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” in 2019, Morrissey wore a “For Britain” badge, solidifying his support for the far-right political party founded by anti-Islamic activist Anne Marie Waters. (Even former right-wing politician Nigel Farage, known as Mr. Brexit, has characterized her supporters as “Nazis and racists.”) He has made disparaging comments about British politicians of color, characterized Chinese people as a “subspecies” and claimed everyone “prefers their own race.” And during the #MeToo movement, Morrissey victim-blamed the survivors of Kevin Spacey and Harvey Weinstein.
The Guardian writer Tim Jonze argues that evidence of Morrissey’s violent views were there in the 1980s, such as his distaste for “Black modern music.” Still, his takes are jarring and almost absurd to anyone familiar with his lyrics or personal life. Morrissey is the son of Irish immigrants. He is also a product of Manchester, arguably the prototypical “working-class” city. He wrote lines such as “I am human and I need to be loved / just like everybody else does.” He embraced sexual and gender ambiguity; for example, he often performed with a bunch of gladiolus flowers, a stereotypically feminine object, hanging out of his back pocket. More than anything, his lyrics were often dedicated to feeling unheard and uncared for by the world. How could somebody who seemed to stand for so many of the right things, to be an advocate for the marginalized, turn out to be so wrong and misguided?
Perhaps there isn’t an answer to that question. But for any Smiths fan that finds themselves as vehemently opposed to Morrissey as I do (which should be every Smiths fan), there’s a more important question to ask ourselves: Well, what am I meant to do now?
This question is not unique to fans of the Smiths. It’s difficult to completely avoid the works of every controversial creator, especially since they exist within all forms of content. Maybe John Lennon or Michael Jackson will feature in your Spotify Wrapped. Maybe Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino directed one of your favorite films. Maybe a book by Margaret Atwood or Isaac Asimov was a transformative read for you. No matter what medium we’re dealing with, problematic artists are prolific — and some of the most prolific artists are the most problematic.
The question is especially urgent if the artist in question is still active, unapologetic and unwilling to change, as is the case with Morrissey. While a casual fan might find it painless to stop listening to them, the Smiths are my favorite artist. Reconciling my hatred of Morrissey with my love of his band is more complicated than purging my Spotify. But even if I won’t stop listening, there are ways to signal my disapproval.
For one, definitely don’t buy his merchandise or tickets to see him live, and don’t support his solo work. That’s easy enough for me, especially since I don’t find his solo work particularly compelling. Next, publicly and firmly reject Morrissey and his views, perhaps on social media or in a college newspaper — another simple gesture. Personally, I’ve also taken to amplifying the contributions of Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr, who composed the musical aspect of the Smiths’ catalogue.
Marr’s political views are much more in-line with my own. He has criticized Brexit and conservative politicians such as former Prime Minister David Cameron and current Prime Minister Boris Johnson. He actually jokingly compared his problematic former bandmate to Nigel Farage when shutting down rumors of a Smiths reunion. The Smiths may be the work of Morrissey, but they are also the work of Marr, so it can’t be all bad; in fact, maybe it’s even unfair to punish Marr for Morrissey’s transgressions. It wasn’t Morrissey that made the Smiths great; it was a collective effort. Occasionally, I’ll even joke that the Smiths were a three-man band, with Marr at the front. Marr is the more talented of the two, anyway.
While the first two steps are targeted at decreasing Morrissey’s influence, the last is ultimately self-serving. It assuages some of the guilt I feel about listening to the Smiths. But denying how integral Morrissey is to their cultural image might be making things worse. I can’t just act like he doesn’t really matter and he will go away. I can’t decrease his influence unless I’m willing to confront it — even if doing so makes me feel guilty.
The issue of what to do when something we love was created by someone we should hate is one almost everyone will have to grapple with at some point. Cutting off financial support — at least, as much as possible — is an obvious answer. But is that really enough? I’m sure Morrissey will be fine without my purchases of t-shirts or concert tickets; I’d imagine he’s financially set for the rest of his life. Besides, it’s not really monetary wealth that makes an artist powerful. It’s their cultural influence. And, although I may be joking, my attempt to lift up Marr as the Smiths’ frontman is equally an attempt to cut Morrissey off from the Smiths and therefore their cultural influence — to guillotine the artist from their creation.
This separation of art from the artist has become a prominent issue for another British media icon last year, although their creation is much more prolific than the Smiths, and might actually be the most popular media creation of all time. Joanne Rowling, famous for authoring the “Harry Potter” series, is anti-trans and severely misinformed about trans issues. She revealed her transphobia over a series of tweets and a blog post titled “TERF Wars” during the summer of 2020. While some Potter fans were in denial and others, unfortunately, defended and agreed with her “opinions,” many immediately sought to separate the author and her transphobic views from the magical series they loved so much.
One strategy employed was facetiously assigning authorship of “Harry Potter” to a number of less problematic media figures. Among them were Hatsune Miku, a Vocaloid pop star, and Daniel Radcliffe, who portrayed the titular character in the movies (and who released a moving statement in support of trans people following Rowling’s remarks). But other fans were quick to shoot down this effort, reminding everyone that Rowling still profited off the consumption of any “Harry Potter” media.
The thought of a Vocaloid writing seven books about teenage wizards definitely made me chuckle. But those who criticized the effort to pretend “Harry Potter” isn’t tied to Rowling are partially right — it is irresponsible. In terms of impact, though, I’m not on the same page. As much as we may feel that our money is the only political currency we have under capitalism, we’ve already made Rowling rich. At this point, targeting her pockets probably isn’t going to accomplish anything. Every person on Earth could swear off Harry Potter tomorrow and she would, financially, be just fine.
Last month, in desperate need of a respite from job searching and adulthood, I streamed all of the “Harry Potter” movies in the span of a couple of weeks. I did feel a pang of guilt, knowing that my streaming was indicating to the service that I supported their hosting of Rowling’s creation and therefore incentivizing future financial support to her, no matter how small that impact was. Maybe I should have waited a few weeks until I could watch it on the DVD set that I already owned so I wouldn’t be creating further demand for her products. But upon reflection, I think my guilt was misguided. Like the Smiths was a collaborative effort between Marr and Morrissey, the Harry Potter series was a collaborative effort of many, many talented people, some of whom have been outspoken trans allies.
More importantly, I’m not sure there would’ve been a difference between me streaming the movies or watching them on DVD, or even watching them at all. What matters more is me discussing streaming those movies with a friend or in this article, or watching a review of those movies on YouTube, or posting a critique of those movies on Twitter. Consuming and sharing media — not necessarily paying for it — is what grants problematic creators power. Whether or not you’ve given them a penny, by consuming their media, you’re extending their cultural influence. This influence is what makes their views so harmful, and potentially dangerous.
Money from Spotify streams isn’t the reason why “For Britain” founder Anne Marie Waters thanked Morrissey for his support after his Tonight Show performance. Money from HBOMax streams isn’t the reason why Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., quoted Rowling in his speech opposing the Equality Act. Withdrawing further financial support is not necessarily the solution to undermining their influence and therefore their ability to harm marginalized people with their views.
If it’s consumption itself that extends influence, then solving this issue does seem fairly simple: Stop consuming it.
But that’s easier said than done. For art that I’m lukewarm about, this actually isn’t a huge loss. But the Smiths, especially Meat is Murder, it would certainly be a huge musical gap to fill. And, as I’ve mentioned before, many pieces of art are a collective endeavor; perhaps the whole of this endeavor is greater than the sum of its parts.
Another uncomfortable reality this solution doesn’t consider is that some bad people have made really important things. For example, 2002’s “The Pianist” is a beautiful and deeply moving film depicting a Polish-Jewish musician’s effort to survive the Holocaust. The movie’s director, Roman Polanski, plead guilty to a charge of statutory rape in 1979 and faces multiple additional allegations of sexual assault. Polanski certainly shouldn’t be supported in making any more movies, but I’m inclined to argue that the importance of “The Pianist” to both cinema and especially Holocaust remembrance means we can and should still watch it.
So we’ll likely keep consuming art made by problematic artists. Still, I think there are things we can do to challenge the cultural influence of creators while still enjoying their creations. “Separating art from the artist” is not the way to go about this; this can prevent us from identifying the ways the harmful views of the artist may have influenced the art. It won’t prevent their influence from growing, but allow it to grow unchallenged, which could be even more harmful. And it’s straight-up dishonest. We shouldn’t pretend our consumption is exempt from extending cultural influence; if we’re going to keep consuming it, we have a responsibility to own it.
What should we do? For one: Reject the views of the artist. Don’t defend them or say they are just senile (SEIZURE WARNING). Emphasize that these views are wrong and, when necessary (as was often the case with Rowling), explain why. Don’t attempt to use the “good” they’ve done, perhaps for animals, to negate the bad. Be cognizant of and acknowledge instances where the harm of the artist’s views has found its way into the art.
On a more abstract level, we should also try to sever the link between the problematic artist and their cultural influence. This is distinct from separating art from the artist; instead of uncritically consuming the creation without considering the creator and their opinions, I’m advocating that we separate the individual and their harmful views from their cultural influence and the power it has afforded them.
I can’t completely explain what this looks like, but I can give an example, and it’s a strategy I used in this piece. Rather than referring to Rowling by her well-known pen-name “J.K. Rowling,” I used her given name, Joanne, instead. This practice is inspired by YouTuber Lindsey Ellis; watching her use it, I felt it somehow helped disarm Rowling. When discussing her transphobic views, we take the focus away from her being J.K. Rowling, author of the most popular book series of all time. Now, she’s Joanne, a cis woman who has deeply misrepresented trans issues. It’s a small effort to remove some of her influence without necessarily separating her from her art. Perhaps I should start referring to Morrissey as Stephen, too.
And to anyone that loves art created by a problematic artist — I’m certainly not telling you to stop. If you can, more power to you. But I’m not going to.
However, we do have a responsibility to those harmed by the artist’s views or actions — sometimes, this may include ourselves — to admit our role in perpetuating their influence and to do what we can to cut them off from it. And to my social media followers: Please, please, please don’t think the worst of me when you see the Smiths at number one on my Spotify Wrapped this year. Trust me, I know Stephen is the worst. But I do think it’s possible to take him down while still enjoying something he was a part of. Perhaps it’s not as effective as completely cutting him off, but it also provides that much more incentive to disarm him. His big mouth is ruining the Smiths for us all, and I won’t stand for that.
Statement Correspondent Mary Rolfes can be reached at email@example.com.