R. Kelly Is The Worst: So What?
Last night, Vulture published a story titled “The R. Kelly Problem,”. It’s an in-depth look at R. Kelly’s new album, The Buffet, juxtaposed with the accusations of sexual misconduct launched at the singer. The entire article revolved around the question: Is is okay to listen to R. Kelly? But beyond just the R&B musician, a larger question begs to be asked — and it often is. Can we separate a person from their art?
Unfortunately, this question is inescapable in our pop culture landscape. Should we watch Woody Allen films, look at Terry Richardson’s photos, or listen to John Lennon’s music when all of them have been accused of terrible crimes? The list of alleged sexual predators and abusers in Hollywood seems endless at times: Sean Penn, Eminem, Bill Cosby, Jimmy Page, Roman Polanski, David O’Russell, Chad Ochocinco, etc.
There’s such a terrifyingly large amount of terrible people creating our pop culture, so it’s often said that if we stopped consuming the work of predators, there’d be very little left to consume. And it’s true. From classical painters to pop artists, it seems like a vast number of men who’ve worked in the arts–and a surprising number of women–have had some sort of scandalous past.
The real problem is that bad people can make good art. “You can despise the individual and appreciate the art, fine, but you need to be aware that you’re making a conscious decision to overlook some very, very bad behavior,” said Jim DeRogatis, a pop culture critic for the Chicago Sun-Times who’s tried to expose Kelly’s misdeeds multiple times. “You’re either ignorant of what he’s been charged of, or you’ve thought it through and said, ‘That all matters less to me than his cool grooves.’ What I want is for people to at least think about it.”
While it’s obvious that good art is rare, should we really hold onto this idea that a good person making good art is even rarer?
The problem isn’t in media specifically. It’s simply that our entire society views morality as a balance. While good contributions can outweigh bad behavior to a certain extent, at some point the work can be poisoned by abuse — like in the case of Jimmy Savile, whose “Jim’ll Fix It” slogan is now just a reminder of the over 500 children he abused. Not to say that one bad action should make someone’s contributions meaningless. Morality is complex, but should men who’ve been proven to repeatedly abuse women be the apex of our pop culture world?
Of course not. But the solution to the problem isn’t as simple as refusing to consume media they’re involved in. The livelihoods of good people can be wrapped up in the livelihoods of bad people. A boycott probably damages some nice people in a video production company more than superstars who make millions upon millions of dollars for existing. There’s no simple solution, just the knowledge that bad people can do some good things–but it doesn’t mean they’re good people.
Vulture writer David Marchese sums it up. “So the answer to the question ‘How do you listen to songs by a singer who may be a bad person?’ is devastatingly simple and sad: ‘You just do.'” Without an overhaul of our culture, there won’t be an overhaul of our media landscape. To survive, divorcing a personality from their work is an unfortunate necessity in consuming pop culture.