Are we bad men for listening to bad men’s music? | The Man Project

5 mins read

“Jesus, why can’t these men just fucking behave?” That’s what my dear friend, Rebekah, said when she read the news about Ryan Adams’ sexual misconduct allegations in February. Then she promptly removed all of his music off of her Spotify account.

I asked her if it was a difficult choice. She quickly responded no.

“How can I continue to listen to him, knowing that he’s that kind of person?” she tells me. “It’s just like why I won’t eat at Chick-fil-A, and I won’t shop at Hobby Lobby, because I am morally against what they stand for. I feel like I have to do that. If I’m going to talk strongly about it, then I have to take some sort of action to back that up, too. So it was like, ‘Okay, there’s another one I’m done with.’”

I reached out to Rebekah not long after the Adams accusations came out because she was the person who introduced me to his music, right after his debut solo album, Heartbreaker, came out in 2000. I was instantly hooked. And I’ve collected everything he’s ever done since then. I’ve even seen him in concert. So hearing the news about Adams was—please excuse the pun—heartbreaking.  

Of course, Adams isn’t the first music artist to be hit with the #MeToo movement. R. Kelly’s been battling allegations of sexual abuse for years before #MeToo was a thing. And most recently, the controversial Michael Jackson documentary, Finding Neverland, aired about the late pop star’s alleged sexual misconduct with two young male fans.

As Rebekah put it, “It’s finally hitting all of the spheres. It started with movies and TV and news anchors. And the one that boasts ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll,’ that industry is finally getting hit with this too. It’s about damn time.”

But for some reason, I’m struggling with this. Not because I don’t think there needs to be some long-overdue changes to the way women are treated in the music industry. I very much do.

It’s a much more selfish reason.

Unlike television and movies, music has permeated my life much more intimately than other media. And the artists I grew up listening to have helped make me the man I am today. John Lennon, for instance, was a major influence on me growing up. I related to him in ways I’ve never been able to relate to any other artist. He, like me, came from a dysfunctional family. His father abandoned him, his mother was in and out of his life, and he was raised by his aunt. I had the exact same experience. He was an angry young man who used music, art, and writing as a creative outlet for his anger, sadness, and pain. I escaped from reality when I was younger by immersing myself in art and listening to The Beatles. John Lennon helped me get through my childhood. But he also treated his first wife, Cynthia, terribly. Should I stop listening to Lennon’s music because of this? I don’t know if I can.

I know, I know, this is a weak argument, you are probably saying. The cheating and abuse Lennon did to Cynthia, and most likely other women as well, though terrible, are different than Michael Jackson’s child pornography allegations or R. Kelly’s rape charges, and even Ryan Adams’ alleged misuse of power and abuse toward women. Or are they?

In the age of #MeToo, no shameful act toward women, no matter how major or minor, is too small. And I understand why this has to be—so that the unfair treatment of women in the entertainment industry can stop. Go big or go home.

But does it make me a bad man to listen to the music of men who have behaved badly? What does it say about my character? Should my music choices be a reflection on the kind of person I am? Can’t I listen to an artist without it making me a supporter of the crimes they’ve committed?

Here’s the thing. As I’m typing this, I’m flipping this scenario on its head. What if an artist I listened to was a racist, an anti-Semite or a homophobe? How would I feel then? Would I continue to listen to that person’s music?

In my head, I just answered yes without hesitation. But as I think more about it, I’m honestly not so sure. And I’m Jewish, so the anti-Semite thing should hit close to home.

This gives me pause for two reasons. The first is I wonder why I was so quick to answer yes for those three things, but I struggle so much with my decision to listen to artists who have treated women badly. The second is the idea that great art is created by tortured artists.

Let me explain.

The music industry, as Rebekah pointed out, is based on the whole “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” premise. It’s ingrained in our culture that bad things happen when it comes to this industry because it’s in the tagline, right? Does it make it right? Of course not. Do I support sexual misconduct and discrimination against women? Hell no. But the idea to abandon what’s been so shoved down our throats for decades is harder to swallow because, well, it’s just “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”

The second part of this, the idea of the tortured artist, the person who creates great art but is plagued with personal demons, is another popular trope ingrained in our society. And that this person’s art comes from the emotion experienced by the struggles of the artist who’s suffered from pain, loss, and terribly hurtful habits that he doesn’t know how to stop.

As I’ve grown older, I realize that the idea of rock and roll, of rap, or of pop music being about bad behavior is an outdated one. Also, there are plenty of male and female musicians out there—as pointed out by writer and musician Robert Burke Warren on Facebook—who are not misbehaving and deserve of our money, time, and ears. And I, along with other men, I’m sure, have clung to this myth since I was a kid.

The other day, just to see how it would feel, I put on some Ryan Adams. It was his second solo album, Gold. It had been a while since I listened to his music. And to be honest, it didn’t connect with me the way it used to. Maybe because when I did listen to it, when his songs were the soundtrack to that particular time in my life, I was younger, more naive. I was in my early 20s, single, and trying to figure out dating and relationships. Adams’ songs reflected my own emotions about women and heartbreak and longing. But like my friend, Rebekah, I’ve grown out of his music for the most part. I’m now happily married, with two kids, a mortgage, and pets. I’m no longer happy to be miserable. Unlike a lot of men in the music industry, I’ve grown up. Now, it’s time for them to grow up, too.

If you, like me, struggle with whether you can still enjoy art by men who behave badly, watch this video from PBS. It’ll give you some perspective.

Charles Moss is a freelance writer based in Chattanooga with bylines in The Atlantic, Slate, Washington Post, VICE, MOJO Magazine and other publications.

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