Archive for August, 2021

[Editor’s Note: I wrote this essay a long time ago but never published it. While I am supportive generally of the changes brought about by the #MeToo movement, I never liked some of the conclusions people came to about due process, work relationships and the burden of proof for a single accuser. And I totally reject the conclusions people made about art created by troubled characters. But I did not want to seem like I was attacking a necessary improvement in the way we treat women. Nevertheless, I was forced into thinking about this again today as a horrible accusation surfaced against Bob Dylan. I wrote about Dylan in this essay not knowing anything about his private life but realizing that his lyrics could be interpreted in troubling ways … and now they probably will be. I’m not commenting on what his lyrics mean in regard to today’s news, but the new allegations did make me wish I’d published this article in the first place rather than sitting on it. My feelings have not changed, nor will they change if this story gets worse.–ER]

Imagine in the future that some scientist effectively invents a cure for cancer or some other debilitating disease ravaging the world, and that this scientist then is charged with some horrific crime–murder, rape or child molestation. Would we stop using the cure?

Of course we wouldn’t.

That invites another question: Is it possible to separate the misconduct of an artist from his or her artwork?

Of course it is.

This might seem like a callow way to introduce a story about pop songs, which many people consider to be disposable cultural items, not life-saving medicine. It hardly seems like a fair comparison, saying the artwork, music, film of someone who has committed a crime or some other serious moral trespass is in the same category. I ask in this article: Why is it not the same thing? If a piece of important artwork enlightens, instructs or shows people truth in a way they can’t get elsewhere, why is that piece of work suddenly to be shunned because the artist, who is human, was found to be guilty of common human moral failures or even a crime?

This brings us to the subject of Michael Jackson, a giant of pop music who for years was chased by rumors that he had inappropriate sexual relationships with children. Ten years after his death, we are forced to confront the testimony of two of his victims in the recent HBO documentary Leaving Neverland. I admit to not having seen the movie, though for my purposes here, I’m assuming the accusers are telling the truth and that the King of Pop abused his power as a star to manipulate families and groom boys. It’s fairly clear he created a cult of silence to shroud his criminal sexual advances and these kids paid the price for our star worship. (For a long time, I doubted these rumors simply because I saw inconsistencies in the stories and I believe celebrities are probably more regularly subject to blackmail than most people realize. Innuendo is enough to harm a career, something most blackmailers know. But I can believe the accusations of two men with consistent stories.)

The journalistic chorus that rightly condemned Michael Jackson has also largely turned against his music. The refrain goes something like this: “How can we listen to songs like ‘Beat It’ and ‘Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough’ without thinking now only of Michael Jackson’s sexual preying on children?”

Truth: I can ignore it easily, and I do. And I think it’s a stupid question. Why shouldn’t I keep going to a well that offers me inspiration? Why shouldn’t I enjoy the fruits of Michael Jackson’s best self while condemning his crimes?

I think the reasons people think otherwise have to do mainly with their misconceptions about art, what it does, what it should do, what the role of the artist is as communicator and what the audience’s subjective biases are. Also, there’s a useful psychological term called “parataxic distortion”—the tendency to create fantasies about people based on our own biases. We might assume falsely that a famous person is also a rich person or a moral person or a superhuman person. When these expectations fall short, we turn violently against the people we unfairly built up.

Because they often bring joy and delight, release and enlightenment, artists have since forever been forgiven for things they do in private, at least until recently with the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the #metoo movement. It’s been an open secret that many rock stars pursue underage fans. Artists of many stripes are almost expected to be substance abusers, many times because their image as renegades pushing the emotional and moral boundaries in their lifestyles allows us as audience members to use them in our fantasy lives. Most of us are not going to be able to live the way Mick Jagger does, but we use him to daydream. The music is both a purgative experience for us and an accessory to these fantasies.

Our need to believe the myths about the artists we love sometimes means we are not listening closely to the messages they are conveying to us or seeing the art for what it is, much to our detriment. It’s unjust to the artists, whose aims in creating are, in my mind, usually completely misunderstood. Human beings are compelled to create. Innovation is part of our biology. Stories are something we tell instinctually. Sometimes we are rewarded for these efforts, but there’s no guarantee, since art and music are both ruthless business and fad. The idea that art–with all its complications and labor-intensiveness and lack of rewards, with its failures and frustrations and idealisms crushed and realized–is simply an easy way for an artist to womanize or, at its worst, some sort of substitute for rape, is ridiculous. (It’s the power that comes with success that ought to be on trial, not the art itself.)

This question always brings me back to Woody Allen. In 1992, his girlfriend Mia Farrow caught him with nudes of her adult adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. He was later accused of molesting his daughter Dylan when she was 7. I don’t believe the latter accusation, but let’s put that aside. I have a big family and some members are adopted. Were I to pursue an erotic relationship with one of them, just because I didn’t really see them as my kin, I would likely find myself shunned by my family and society … and for good reason. In Woody Allen’s perception, he simply fell in love with his girlfriend’s adult adopted daughter. But he was considered a parental figure in that household and he caused pain among her confused siblings. It was a selfish, narcissistic, indefensible act.

So why do I keep watching Woody Allen movies? Because I think his work is better than he is.

The chorus says now that we know Woody Allen has committed transgressions, his work must be an advertisement for those transgressions, propaganda that’s slowly inuring us and lulling us into a state of acceptance of dirty old men, normalizing their perversions, and causing further harm to the victims.

This argument is nonsensical to me.

The fact is, many of the object lessons I got in life about Pygmalion relationships–the problems you encounter when old men try to mold and shape sexualized young women into good partners–are lessons I got watching the best Woody Allen dramas. His films in my mind are often warnings against the kind of behavior that Allen himself fell prey to. One of the most tragically overlooked films in his oeuvre is Husbands and Wives. Not that people didn’t see it–they simply looked at it the wrong way. That movie is about humans’ foibles and denial, and their ability to lie to themselves about the nobility of their actions. The movie explicitly warns the viewer about the disaster awaiting a character who runs off with a young girl. Allen did not follow his movie’s own advice (the Previn scandal happened the same year the film was released). The most superficial reviews took cheap pot shots at Woody Allen’s character hanging around the school waiting for his young student, not seemingly aware that Allen was satirizing the idea.

Louis C.K. is another artist whose work is now being dismissed because it seems in retrospect to rationalize his creepy behind-the-scenes behavior (he confessed to asking women if he could masturbate in front of them and was rightly drummed out of polite society). His film I Love You, Daddy never saw the light of day, as early reviews suggested it tried to excuse dirty old man behavior.

But in the work of C.K.’s that I’ve seen, I see him sending up and satirizing bad behavior more than defending it. His FX show Louis was a revelation to me in many ways, mostly in the way it deconstructed the comedy TV show format, often dispensing with plot lines in midstream to follow some new idea. I learned new artistic conventions watching his show, ones I might use in my own work. This is medicine to me. I will use it and build on it, the same way others used Michelangelo’s foreshortened human limbs in painting. Why are these conventions no longer available because their maker did something bad? Why am I not allowed to study and replicate a piece of portable culture? 

The reason seems to be hysteria: Somehow, say the pundits, we will all become communists if we drink the bad water and perverts if we watch Louis. There must be secret hidden sex offender messages in both Woody Allen’s and Louis C.K.’s work, right?

There was one particular cringeworthy scene in Louis, in which he attempted to force himself on his sometime girlfriend (played by Pamela Adlon) which garnered the reply from her “You don’t even rape well.” This scene was hard to watch before Louis C.K.’s sex scandal and I’m sure is now interminable. But if you walked away from it thinking “Date rape isn’t so bad,” there’s probably something wrong with you. Adlon’s character was clearly saying “no” and Louis C.K. wanted the audience to know her fear. You can complain that he tried to put it in a comedic context, but his work was experimental that way. He was not mocking a victim.

Alt rocker Ryan Adams has also been recently taken down for alleged abuse of females he dated and mentored (and for corresponding with sexually suggestive messages to a fan he likely knew was underage). The revelation had some critics going back and deconstructing his lyrics looking for heretofore undiscovered misogyny. Not surprisingly, they found some. If you want to find something like that, you probably will.

But if you really want to go down this road, you have a lot of work to do. Rock music, especially that of some of its brightest lights, is filled with unapologetic misogyny. A friend of mine once forced me to noticed that a Bob Dylan song was basically a put down of some woman. If you go through Dylan’s work and are predisposed to find it, you might be forced to go beyond this vernacular voice of backroads America and realize that in many, many instances he is speaking to a female, one he has a sexual relationship with or wants a sexual relationship with. He is very often down-dressing or patronizing this woman, poking holes in her fatuousness, a popular thing at a time when America was taking its ugly mask off. What critics won’t do is see it the other way: that the subjective point of view of Dylan the horndog is dismissing or deconstructing a woman he’s sexually attracted to and not being honest about how his desire is shaping his perceptions of her or how her “fakeness” might have something to do with the world of male desire she’s trapped in, forced to negotiate, because of people like Bob Dylan. We don’t ever look more closely at Bob “Countertransference” Dylan. Meanwhile, what is “Sister Christian” but a guy trying to seduce a virgin by mocking her religion? That song is played everywhere because to most people it’s about being a teenager and losing your innocence, not as the rapey song you might hear if you were so predisposed. Why is this song more acceptable and ubiquitous than “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” or “When the Stars Go Blue”?

If Ryan Adams’ music is suddenly a code for rampant sexual misconduct, we’re going to have to widen the net and be honest about lyrical content everywhere. It’s not going to be pretty. Sacred cows are going to be slaughtered and people are going to have to re-examine their favorite artists, likely even the ones whose music has brought them clarity, beauty, and mercy in a life full of sadness and disillusionment.

Should I ask people to stop listening to those artists? I’ve noticed that even feminists were loath to give up David Bowie when the unsavory notes about him and baby groupies followed his death. Is Space Oddity now a child molester song? (Let’s not even get started on Led Zeppelin.) Why don’t we leave rock music alone for a while as we address the hypocrisy of Anne Sexton fans? This Pulitzer Prize winning giant of poetry not only molested her daughter but indeed wrote fine poetry about it–using the art exactly in the way Michael Jackson is accused of doing but really didn’t. It has never been suggested that we stop reading her. She has things to teach us about mental illness and, again, to people who see culture as part of a discussion and a way of discussing morality freely, even broaching taboos, to a lot of people her work is, again, like medicine.

I’m not an Adams fan. I only know the song about blue stars. This is one of those inescapable songs you hear in grocery stores, a song whose sentimentality and simple charm seems to make it special to an awful lot of people–helps them get through the deaths of grandparents and that sort of thing (if you believe comments on YouTube). In other words, they think this song is important. I find the song affecting and I do not see why I must be forced to listen to it as an advertisement for woman hating or date rape. When I hear a compromised artist make something pretty, I don’t often ask myself if I’m being seduced into his criminal world. I instead think: This might be the good part of a person with flaws. This might be his ideal self. A representation of what he most wants to be, not what he is when he’s trying to fuck a fan or otherwise taking the most advantage of babying celebrity, in which bad behavior is often coddled and appreciated (it makes good copy).

The obvious question people might ask, then, is this: Are we enabling abusers if we keep buying their art, which keeps them powerful, keeps them in the black financially and helps them pursue their abuses, crimes or predation? This would be a better question if it were not so incomplete.

I told a horribly prescient joke on this blog a few years ago in the form of a fake headline: “Amy Winehouse’s Grammy Win Garners Her Millions of New Enablers.” How ethical was it, mon lecteur, mon frere, to keep buying Winehouse’s albums, as great as they were, knowing that she was getting enough money from them to destroy herself with drugs? This question is not a red herring. The thing that might have saved her life was to freeze her out of polite society, the same way we did Louis C.K. But we didn’t do that. Nor did we help out famous addicts Kurt Cobain or John Belushi by performing an intervention and shunning their work. That’s because we selfishly take what artists make and figure it belongs to us after that, no longer to them. We demand that it is ours to dance to, ours to get married to, ours to endure breakups with. Great art always becomes personal to audience members, whether it’s a song, movie, painting or poem. It’s OK. That’s what artists often hope for. It is likely what Ryan Adams hoped for. We don’t throw away the music thinking of who it is helping or hurting. It has become medicine to us. We won’t deny it to ourselves.

Which brings me back to Michael Jackson. Simply put, he’s dead and we cannot enable him anymore by buying his music. Are we enabling rapist Roman Polanski? Yes. And yet his film The Pianist was an important artwork despite that. (My personal wish for Polanski is that he be given the ability to keep making films … in prison.) Are we enabling Woody Allen? I don’t see how we are. He’s not been credibly accused of child molestation, just of being vile and emotionally abusive to his family. If he says something important, I’m going to consume his artwork. It makes me a better person having perspective and perhaps the ability to work makes him a better person.

Michael Jackson made enormous innovations in music, juxtaposing different genres, putting out ingenious arrangements that people will borrow from freely for years, breaking racial barriers in music and on the radio. The clarion call to reject his art now makes an insipid argument that he has invented some sort of coded “pedophilia music”–that we are all in thrall to a “child molester beat.” Again, this is the viewpoint of the hysteric, who likely doesn’t understand his own neuroses or the panicked way in which he synthesizes himself with his cultural landscape. Michael Jackson wanted to make good things that lasted. His tendency to create, his desire to create, was based in something good. We can see that for what it is without denying or lying about or covering up the bad thing he also was.

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