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In the past I’ve mounted my high horse plenty of times and made ramblings of authenticity and honesty in music. It’s strange that we hold it so highly in regard when judging music considering the concept of authenticity on the whole is fairly subjective. However, whilst I could drone on for ages about artists and their art, deep connections and rubbish about people pouring their heart and soul into their music, it does offer somewhat of a moral dilemma. If an artist is connected so deeply and intertwined so heavily with their art, do I have to like the artist to enjoy it? Now, this isn’t as simple as it sounds, and I am not referring to the denial we all felt when we liked our first One Direction song and had to pretend we didn’t whilst slyly tapping our feet. What I am instead referring to is the instances in the past where it has come to light that the artist in question has committed violent crimes, hurt people or acted generally unethically whilst their music is out in the world.
In my head it is quite easy to take a stand and judge that I will not support an artist who I know has done unethical things. For example, as a once keen Michael Jackson fan I have really cooled off listening to his music after watching that documentary about the accusations against him. Even though it is still unclear whether guilty or innocent, I do find myself hesitating to add his music to my playlist. It just feels sort of wrong to me, to be supporting someone who may have committed certain atrocities. Why should I listen to his music? I’m not sure I want Spotify to be sending my 0.00000000.something of a pence to his estate for royalties. Whilst I know deep down no harm is really going to come from it, I must admit I find it difficult to move past the image of the cruel villain portrayed in a documentary whenever his music comes on. The argument of course works two ways when we consider the instances of maybe perfectly lovely artists whose songs contain not-so-lovely subject matter. This is where authenticity crawls its way back into the argument (as it often does). Often we focus so much on how the music and the artist are linked – what the inspiration behind the song was and what the story is - that it becomes all too easy to tie artists and songs together, whether that’s tarnishing artists with the content in their songs, or tarnishing songs with the actions of their artists. With that in mind it’s fairly easy to begin to draw up reservations about certain music.
Despite all of this, and despite once again wandering into the realms of authenticity, I think we can separate an artist and their music. In part because, well, who has the time? I’ve got a playlist of over 1500 songs that I shuffle through on a daily basis. These songs are those that I enjoy, from old favourites to new entries I heard on the radio once and liked. I am not going to go through every single song and do full background checks on the artists before I decide whether I like it or not. Music garners a natural reaction and that often comes before I even know who the artist is. Whilst I am still reluctant to add Michael Jackson to my playlist that doesn’t stop me from doing terrible moonwalks to Billie Jean or singing along to Thriller. It’s great music, and I shouldn’t have to be robbed of that based on the actions of the artist. I think with streaming services moving people away from the limitations of CDs and vinyls, the way people engage with music is different now. Maybe back in the day I’d have my favourite artists and I’d have stuck with them, spending my hard-earned cash on all of their new releases and merchandise and listening to whatever they had to offer. Nowadays with compilation playlists and shuffle, whilst criticised by some, it feels like there’s less commitment to the artist. It’s more about the music, if I like it I’ll listen and if I don’t I won’t, and I think the simplicity of that means I don’t have to get too bogged down in ethics. Finding the drum beat catchy doesn’t immediately make me an advocate for the actions of the creator.
Despite this, when we hear so many stories about artists pulling from their own lives to influence their music, or their art being a big part of them, it does seem hard to ultimately consider the music and the artist separately, and therefore my conclusion is not that we can, but that we shouldn’t have to. I remember at school learning about how it is basically impossible to be a completely ethical person, especially in the modern world. I remember one particular dilemma presented was something along the lines of a young man who had gone to the effort to buy his girlfriend a beautiful bouquet of flowers, however, unbeknownst to him, harmful pesticides had been used to grow these flowers that had killed insects and polluted a river, and they were transported by a high emissions truck to a flower shop that underpaid its staff. All of this happened completely separately from the young man, so should we consider him unethical for his actions? I think we have to consider music in a similar way. Sure, we could comb through every song and trace it back to its roots, debating morality at every stage. Or maybe we could just enjoy the music at face value and not spend too much time worrying about things that are out of our control.
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