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.
| 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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