Let the Music Play
We cannot allow touchstones of popular culture be erased from history just because the person who created them was "problematic"
First it was names. Then it was statues. And now it’s…….rock and roll?
The New York Times actually published a real column by a real person, Jennifer Finney Boylan, asking if rock songs should be “toppled like Confederate Statues.”
Seriously, they printed this.
The past several years have seen a reassessment of our country’s many mythologies — from the legends of the generals of the Confederacy to the historical glossing over of slaveholding founding fathers. But as we take another look at the sins of our historical figures, we’ve also had to take a hard look at our more immediate past and present, including the behavior of the creators of pop culture. That reassessment extends now to the people who wrote some of our best-loved songs. But what to do with the art left behind? Can I still love their music if I’m appalled by various events in the lives of Johnny Cash or Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis? Or by Eric Clapton’s racist rants and anti-vaccination activism?
Of course, there is no easy answer here.
Actually, yes there *is* an easy answer here an it’s obvious to anyone with a clue.
Rock and roll (and let’s be real, popular music in general) has been full of people who admittedly, did terrible things. Jerry Lee Lewis married his underage cousin. Ozzy Osbourne at the head off a live bird. Michael Jackson. R. Kelly. Don MacLean. The list goes on and on and on and on….
Does that make their art less impactful? Does that make me like their songs less? No, it does not.
The idea of equating art of any kind to statues of Confederate leaders is beyond bizarre and a comparison that defies logic. Listening to a song on the radio, or watching a YouTube video is not only not in the same ballpark as a marble monument to Robert E. Lee, it’s not even in the same galaxy.
I want to live in a world where I can be moved by art and music and literature without having to come up with elaborate apologies for that work or for its creators.
But does such a world exist? It is hard to think of some of our greatest artists without also thinking of their messy, sometimes destructive lives. In so many cases, it’s the very chaos of those lives that has helped create the art. It’s easy to romanticize that chaos and to ignore the wreckage artists can leave in their wakes.
There is never a time where it is “hard to think of some of our greatest artists without also thinking of their messy, sometimes destructive lives.” You know what I think when “Billie Jean” comes on? I think “damn I love this song” and turn up the radio because I am a normal, well-functioning adult.
Perhaps Finney should instead turn her angst to the content of the music instead. When she complains about “American Pie” in the context of Don MacLean’s alleged spousal abuse, where is the outrage regarding lyrics glorifying drug use, alcohol use, violence and sex? That has far more impact on the downstream culture than what any of these folks did in their public and private lives. Finney finds time to complain about the Rolling Stones “Brown Sugar”, and yet contemporary songs like “WAP”, “Peaches”, “Way 2 Sexy”, “Positions” and a bunch of other songs that are hits of more recent origin. Does Finney have beef with those songs as well, or is she primarily more focused only on rock and roll.
And you know what? I don’t care if those songs exist. There are songs that I enjoy that people might consider “problematic”, either because of their content or because of the person that created it, that somebody, somewhere probably thinks should be “cancelled”.
I mean…. “Cherry Pie.” Who doesn’t know what that song is about?
Then there’s a certain Nine Inch Nails song about obsession and self-hatred that has…..uh, problematic lyrics that you don’t know what to play or (watch the video, for that matter) with any sensitive folks or children.
Hell, if Finney wants to talk about the “problematic” nature of Johnny Cash songs, I can think of a few songs that happen to be fantastic.
Where Finney seems to go wrong is the assumption that people hold rock and pop stars up as “heroes.” I don’t know anybody who thinks that Elvis, Cash, Lewis, MacLean, Jackson or any of these people are heroes. I think that most (again, well-adjusted) people enjoy the art without building statues to the artist. Much in the same way that artists from Beethoven, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson and others had “problematic” episodes in their life that influenced their work.
We cannot allow touchstones of popular culture be erased from history, as Finney seemingly implies, just because the person who created them was an asshole.