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Taking sides: Does a performer's personal behavior matter?

To the delight of many aged indie rockers, veteran Ohio rock heroes Guided By Voices are scheduled to stumble onto the 9:30 Club stage tonight. Some Click Track contributors (not naming names) have struggled with the band because of singer Robert Pollard's reputation as a bit of jerk. (Or worse.)

But should an artist's personal life matter when we're deciding what to listen to? Can we forgive artists for being jerks? Should we forgive them for being criminals? We tackle the dilemma in our weekly Taking sides column.

Chris Richards: Before he was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008, defending R. Kelly's indelible contribution to R&B was hard work. At parties, I'd be quick to blab endlessly about this guy's strange, staggering genius -- and such blab would often elicit squirmy body-language and yucked-out faces. Meantime, party chatter praising Michael Jackson never raised an eyebrow.

I think it's because Americans drew a clear line between Michael's tribulations and Michael's music. We were simply unwilling to let go of those amazing songs we grew up with. Would R. Kelly have enjoyed the same luxury if he had penned his greatest tunes before he was swarmed by allegations? I think so.

Allison Stewart: I'm really guilty of this -- I have a total inability to separate. If I know someone's horrible, it ruins them forever. Being a criminal, however, isn't necessarily a deal breaker. Are we talking a Gary Glitter-type criminal, or a did-a-lot-of-drugs-in-the-'60s type criminal? But Van Morrison-like awfulness? Day in and day out? Forget it.

I think it depends on the type of singer, too, and what we expect of them. I can enjoy a Madonna song or a Kanye West song thinking that they're dreadful people, because I don't have much invested. I'd hurl myself off a cliff if Bruce Springsteen was mean, but that's because his songs mean something on a personal level, not just as entertainment.

David Malitz: There are obviously different levels. Being a jerk is almost a pre-requisite to being one of my all-time favorites. Bob Dylan, Mark E. Smith, Lou Reed -- they can be as surly and aloof as they want and it will never bother me. When it gets to criminal activity things get a little blurrier. How many times was James Brown arrested for domestic violence? But that didn't mean he didn't continue to be revered. If his musical output wasn't so legendary that probably wouldn't be the case.

It gets to the point where the better the music, the more you forgive. So maybe it's just best to leave the two as separate as possible instead of trying to come up with a "morality scale." I still listen to John Phillips, after all.

Aaron Leitko: If we only listened to music by upstanding individuals who never allowed money or fame to lead them astray, well, there wouldn't be much to listen to. No more James Brown, that's for sure. We'd have to be content with The Osmonds, 24/7 (Hey, they could rock).

People are okay with musicians being difficult personality-wise -- they don't have to hang out with them or drive around in a van with them. They just watch them on stage.

And is Robert Pollard really a jerk? I can't say. I've never met him. I like his songs, but the Guided By Voices concert experience can sometimes feel like a rock-and-roll booze-cruise for mid-to-late-thirties men. (Former WaPo pop music critic David Segal didn't see it that way.) It's all up to your own tastes, I guess. After all, it's only Pollard's liver that has to do the suffering.

In the case where artists cause physical harm or suffering, I think it's difficult to justify staying a fan.

By Click Track  | October 21, 2010; 2:20 PM ET
Categories:  Taking sides  | Tags:  Guided By Voices, James Brown, Michael Jackson, R. Kelly, Van Morrison  
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I've been forgiving Lou Reed for being a jerk for decades. If he bit the head off a living chicken or something of that nature, I'd reconsider.

Posted by: MyPostID27 | October 21, 2010 11:15 PM | Report abuse

You've never met Bob Pollard and yet you put him in some article talking about kiddie porn freaks? Are you well?
I have met Bob many times. I avoid meeting most musicians because some of them are jerks (or are just having a bad day on the road) and I'm really there to see a music show, not to personally interact with the band. However, Bob is so accessible to his fans that I literally ended up getting dragged to meet him. Since then I have met and talked to him many times and he has been a universally nice fellow. He has a quirky sense of humor that some folks don't "get" and back in the olden GBV days had some issues with former bandmates, all of which are more or less resolved as shown by last night's show which was opened by John Petkovic's band (John being one of the GBVerde musicians who left the band years ago in a less than amicable fashion). John and Bob had nothing but nice things to say about each other last night.

Posted by: getjiggly1 | October 22, 2010 7:54 AM | Report abuse

Sometimes it's really hard to separate the performer from things they say outside of music. For example, I think Freddie Gibbs is one of the best rappers out there today, but I've had a really hard time listening to his music after he was quoted saying this:

"He saw a dollar-sign opportunity. I ain’t no racist m*therf*cker, but it was the Jew in him."

That's about as ignorant and offensive as you can get. Imagine if he had said [insert name of any other minority] instead of Jew. Anyway, point is, it's offensive on a personal level, and I can't really listen to his music with a clear conscience anymore.


Posted by: agl132 | October 22, 2010 9:56 AM | Report abuse

I agree with "getjiggly1" on this. It's really very ridiculous to lump Bob Pollard in with people who are known criminals because of his reputation as "a bit of a jerk." The basic question posed in this post is a worthwhile one, and there is good reason to consider not supporting artists who are known to assault women or commit sex crimes, but I think it's totally silly to make some vague statement about Bob P being a jerk and then go on to talk about guys who clearly were involved in truly sketchy and criminal behavior. What does one have to do with the other? There are so many many artists, musicians and otherwise, who could be considered "jerks", but if you're worried about that then how can you appreciate any art without doing a full background investigation of each artist? That's a ridiculous proposition and I think it's best to separate art from artist, as much as possible, except maybe in cases where the behaviors in question are unequivocally bad and not just personality/character issues.

Posted by: mhandle | October 22, 2010 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Sorry, but I'm going to have to vote for:

Robert Pollard is a jerk
x Robert Pollard is not a jerk

In fact, he is a nice guy, very unselfish, a prince in my book.

About three weeks ago, I misplaced, lost, tossed, (I don't really know) an envelope containing tickets for 5 upcoming GBV shows. News of my stupid fan trick got back to Bob, and he sent word to me not to worry. 'He can get you on the guestlist for all the shows you lost tickets for except Columbus and NYC.'

This came from an artist in the middle of kicking off a reunion tour. He didn't have time to worry about some absent-minded fan down in Louisiana. But he did.

Fortunately, I didn't have to take him up on his super thoughtful offer, I was able to buy replacement tickets here and there. This is the first time I have mentioned Bob's offer to anyone, it meant the world to me.

If this is an act of a jerk, rock and roll could use a bunch more.

Semper Bob

Posted by: Homeskillet | October 22, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

I didn't find anything objectionable in Van Morrison's interview. Sure, he has a reputation as an old curmudgeon and having stage fright (in the past?) but that doesn't really detract from the music for me. I think he is a very private guy, but so is Tom Waits and he is a compelling performer too. As for others, a detestable (in a criminal way) background matters to me, but personal choices (such as Chrissie Hynde's PETA involvement) don't matter much to the music.

Posted by: billr4 | October 22, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

I agree with everyone who thinks it's unfair to lump Robert Pollard in with these other folks. I've never met the man, but I've seen him in concert probably a dozen times and I've seen firsthand just how gracious he is with everybody. It's not at all uncommon to see him hanging out with his fans before the show--signing autographs, drinking beers, just chatting about music, whatever. I've never approached him myself because that's just not my style--I don't need to know him personally to enjoy his music. That said, I've always felt like if I were to approach him he would be as gracious with me as he is with everyone else.

Posted by: anoneponymous | October 22, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

why is Bob Pollard included here? Because he likes to drink during shows? He was kind enough to sign my record yesterday which is more than I can say for most people...

This is the first I hear of Pollard having a reputation as a jerk and I've been seeing these guys live since about 1995.

Posted by: hutch3 | October 22, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Glad to hear all this positive testimony on Pollard's behalf. I heard the show last night was aces, too.

But we weren't lumping him (or other alleged jerks) in with alleged criminals. We were hoping that this post would help spark a discussion about where fans draw the line between their favorite artists' personal lives and their work.

That said, Homeskillet's story is pretty wonderful.

Posted by: ChrisRichards | October 22, 2010 1:58 PM | Report abuse

I also have never heard anything bad about Robert Pollard, WHATSOEVER . . . unless we are being the morality police and judging people for drinking too much. Usually "personal behavior" refers to actions that harm other people. Especially in the context of rock and roll.

Posted by: William_in_DC | October 22, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

WHat are you talking about Chris? I mean its a pretty clear smear as you guys wrote:

Some Click Track contributors (not naming names) have struggled with the band because of singer Robert Pollard's reputation as a bit of jerk. (Or worse.)

Reputation as a bit of a jerk or worse?

You really ought to take all references to Pollard out of this story cause its a bunch of malarkey.

Posted by: hutch3 | October 22, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

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