How Do We Move Forward When Every Artist We Love Is ‘Problematic’?

Dealing with 'problematic' and 'cancelled' acts is deeply personal and inevitably flawed, as we struggle to outwardly perform an impossible role: the ethical consumer.

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Morrissey, once a bastion for self-styled sensitive misfits and outcasts, is now a deep disappointment for most fans.

In the past year, the 60-year-old’s support of the far-right For Britain political party has ramped up — a party that even Nigel Farage, as The Guardian point out in a large feature on Morrissey’s political turn, admits is filled with “Nazis and racists”. Recently, he’s shown up on late-night TV wearing For Britain badges.

The former The Smiths frontman also been a vocal critic of the #MeToo movement, repeatedly insinuating that sexual assault victims — including children — “had to be aware” of the situations they put themselves in. Not only have Morrissey’s headline-generating views become difficult to ignore, but they feel impossible to reconcile with what he means to many.

The Smiths’ four albums intertwined an innate loneliness and sense of disconnection with codified queer shame and outright political anger at Thatcher, the monarchy, and the meat industry. Romantic loss and socio-economic bereavement were tied together by weariness in Morrissey’s voice across their oeuvre, singed with sparks of aggression.

In short, it’s music perfect for nascent experience, when you’re in the comedown of realising both people and the world can, and will, let you down — that even you aren’t immune to pain. But that same outcast spirit has led Morrissey down a different path, and when bigmouth strikes again, it’s clear that Morrissey’s loneliness has long curdled his spirit.

Melbourne queer punk duo Cry Club spelled it out on their recent single ‘Robert Smith’, singing “tell Morrissey he’s become everything he told us not to be” (Smith, as far as the band are aware, remains solid). Talking to Music Junkee, Cry Club’s guitarist Jono says The Smiths were pivotal for him as a teenager. For him, both Johnny Marr’s guitar skills and Morrissey’s politics spoke to him, leading him to the DIY punk communities he’s existed in for the past decade: now, he feels close to betrayed.

“[I think it hurts so much] as it’s the cognitive dissonance — of knowing that someone once represented something, then they have turned so hard the other way,” he says. “It’s a confronting thing, especially if we’re thinking about what our own values are.”

For Jono, he just can’t listen anymore, though recognises it’s not the same for everyone. “I have so little time for that, ‘separating the art from the artist’ thing because I see those things as being linked,” he says. “My appreciation of someone’s art comes from not only the art itself but how it interacts with the context of them as a person.

“There is the scale between, say, a Taylor Swift — someone who has fumbled into poor choices — and then, someone like a Morrissey wearing a ‘For Britain’ badge at a show, a Party started by an anti-Islam Politician,” he continues.

“There is a difference between those two things, but I don’t think either party shouldn’t be held accountable for their actions. Especially in the world that we’re in now where [with] the amount of media there is to consume, you can be picky, you can choose and you can also choose the media that represents you in a way that we couldn’t do before.”

What is that scale, though? Morrissey is, if anything, an easy artist to leave behind: his politics seem so fundamentally antithetical to his original appeal that it’s hard to find a reason to continue supporting him, his famous laments now stinging with resentment and anger. Then again, as The Guardian point out, Morrissey’s anti-immigration views may be bolder than before but can be traced across his career, having spoken out against a “black pop conspiracy” against The Smiths during the band’s last years, and flirting with nationalist imagery and lyrics in the ’90s.

Morrissey is, if anything, an easy artist to leave behind: his politics seem so fundamentally antithetical to his original appeal that it’s hard to find a reason to continue supporting him.

“It’s interesting that so much of what Morrissey and The Smiths represent is even out of their own hands,” says Jono. “It could be that people wanted to believe that they were a certain thing.”

Perhaps he always represented something he himself wasn’t, and that when artists reveal ‘their true selves’ through actions or statements, maybe the image has just shattered. But it remains unclear how to manage that disappointment, how to channel it: dealing with ‘problematic acts’ is deeply personal and inevitably flawed, as we outwardly perform an impossible role: the ethical consumer.

‘I’ve Seen This Happen In Other People’s Lives, Now It’s Happening In Mine’

What do Taylor Swift, Sticky Fingers, Kanye West, Kate Miller-Heidke, Morrissey and Sheppard all have in common? All have been cancelled in the past few years. Yet here they still all are, either having weathered the storm or, in the case of StiFi, circumnavigating it, selling out stadium tours by directly emailing fans and promoting new work without press contact.

The short-hand for dealing with a ‘problematic’ act is ‘cancelling’ them, a term so vague its aimlessness that it’s proved alienating for both the left, who find it myopic and actionless, and the right, who are terrified by its open-endedness.

‘Cancel Culture’, in its nexus, proposes that we can leave behind institutions, corporations, and individuals who have acted in their own interest above others.

Dealing with ‘problematic acts’ is deeply personal and inevitably flawed, as we outwardly perform an impossible role: the ethical consumer.

Cancelling applies across all situations. Alleged sexual assaulters such as Louis C.K. and Michael Jackson have been cancelled alongside the once-apolitical Taylor Swift and artists like Grimes, whose relationship with technocrat Elon Musk saw her delete the word ‘anti-imperialist’ from her Twitter bio, and Lana Del Rey, who is currently dating an Instagram famous cop, upsetting many within her left-leaning fanbase.

Sometimes, a cancellation is as small as a perceived personal slight. Earlier this week, Ariana Grande fans tweeted #LizzoIsOverParty after it (falsely) appeared that Lizzo did not credit Grande as a featured artist on a remix of her song ‘Good As Hell’.

According to the The New York Times, “Everyone Is Cancelled”, meaning no one really is. Which is true: it’s a fact we’ve had to reckon with as the likes of Louis C.K. return to work once the dust settles, or as West’s Jesus Is King reaches #1, even as public sentiment towards him is middling at best.

Divesting from artists on a mass scale has proved near impossible, and as the Times points out, we’re usually ready to support again after either time or a carefully worded apology. An artist’s streams might go down or they may lose a fan or two, but it’s unclear what accountability looks like post-cancellation.

For example, would accountability look like Kanye West denouncing Trump? Or Miller-Heidke rescinding from representing Australia at the 2019 Eurovision competition, in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement — or other anti-BDS artists, such as Nick Cave, changing tack?

And if they don’t do so, then as individuals do we merely refuse to support their future releases? But if those artist’s actions don’t contradict with their art in the way Morrissey’s political views do with The Smiths’, is it even reasonable to expect them to hold your own beliefs, just because?

Taylor Swift is probably the most obvious example. After years of silence to the point where she became a symbol of white supremacy for neo-Nazis, Swift last October denounced the Republican party and President Trump.

Over the past year, Swift has since become much more outspoken on social issues, particularly LGBTIQ+ ones. In interviews, Swift says it’s due to a growing imperative, in wake of how her silence had been interpreted as pro-Trump and anti-LGBTIQ by both the public and her inner circle. Parting ways from her country label surely freed her up, too. Even for all the genuine good (and financial support), it lands as a branding exercise as much as a moral one, where being un-cancelled could double as a move away from her reputation era.

Without a clear practice or method for what we want and how it can be sincerely delivered (if at all), there’s a backlash — a cancelling — against ‘cancel culture’ across not just from the right, but from the left, too. Just last week Obama said cancel culture lacks nuance, and Charli XCX (partially in response to a Music Junkee article, no less) claimed it’s provided a slew of “fake woke” posturing online, where calling out “problematic behaviour” is used primarily to create personal clout above cultural change. This was retweeted by alt-right figure Ben Shapiro, of all people.

Both have a point, to a degree. It can be frustrating for the term to apply to such a scale of offences: sexual assault and questionable brand partnerships are not equitable, though it’s unclear if anyone sincerely claims they are.

Cancelling is also, of course, used ironically, or with an awareness of its contextual levity or severity: it’s rarely meant as literally as Obama imagines it to be.

And Charli is right in that cancelling can be a tool for clout; earlier this year, the now-defunct INTO published a widely derided think-piece in part about Grande’s ‘transphobia’ based off the fact her cis-male friend wore a wig in the ‘thank u, next’ video. An absolute straw-man argument, it was clearly commissioned to generate clicks and build upon an on-going conversation about Grande’s relationship to blackness.

If an artist’s actions don’t contradict with their art…is it even reasonable to expect them to hold your own beliefs, just because?

On the other end, fan bases of Grande, Lizzo, Lana Del Rey and Swift have all attacked journalists this year for writing fair criticism by unearthing ‘problematic’ past tweets as a light form of doxxing, doing little but drown out the original conversation.

But there is power within cancelling beyond clout. Talking to the Times, media studies academic Meredith Clark called cancelling “ultimately an expression of agency”: it is a way to make a stand on a personal level, and to express dissatisfaction in a world where forces of oppression are widely known but remain brazen and unchecked.

Accountability, however, is hard to install on a larger scale. Very few acts have disappeared or dissolved completely after serious allegations of sexual assault or damaging behaviour: those who have, interestingly, come from queer and punk communities.


PWR BTTM. (Photo by Ebru Yildiz)

PWR BTTM is one of them. In 2017, the queer punk duo dissolved and their music was wiped from streaming services after multiple allegations of sexual assault emerged around lead vocalist Ben Hopkins. Their music and public-facing persona promoted safe-space, queer friendly punk; the allegations destroyed that image, rendering the band’s music completely devoid of purpose.

Their label effectively erased them from the internet, leading to conversations about how the harsh penalty — a rare actual cancellation — related to their queerness: it seemed their audience were able to hold them to a higher standard, having been sold lies of sexual/gender freedom and respect.

As Spin‘s Jordan Sargent wrote at the time, it was hard to not be cynical: not only did the band not practice what they preached, they actively used a social movement to get ahead. “How much of the band’s politics were sincere,” he wrote, “and how much of it was the reading of a moment, the formulation of a marketing pitch that very nearly worked?”

Even if an artist says the right things, it’s the actions that matter. It’s easy to celebrate someone finally calling themselves a feminist; it’s harder to critique them for aligning with a company famous for exploiting its workers. Cancelling, on a mass level, rarely works: we as individuals have to decide where to draw lines.

If Not Cancelling, What About ‘Muting’?

Earlier this year, Spotify introduced a mute function allowing users to ensure songs by artists they didn’t like or didn’t support would be skipped in playlists. It came during the peak of the #MuteRKelly movement, after explosive documentary Surviving R. Kelly detailed the many allegations of child and sexual abuse leveraged against the singer.

Previously, Spotify had informally de-playlisted Kelly and late rapper and convicted abuser XXXTentacion from their curated playlists, citing revised guidelines around ‘music that promoted hate speech’, which previously was used around music promoting white supremacy. The move was criticised for being a case of ‘what-about-ism’, and was reversed after Kendrick Lamar’s representatives reportedly threatened to pull his music from the platform.

The mute function was a compromise: it placed the onus on the individual to not provide (minuscule) streaming revenue from the artists they’d prefer to not support. De-platforming an act is complicated by the reality that we digest music outside of our own streams — does muting R. Kelly mean refusing to dance to ‘Ignition (Remix)’ at a party, or is that just self-serving and performative? What difference does that actually make, if you aren’t monetarily supporting the artist in that moment: are you protester or party pooper?

Polling the office — Junkee Media, not surprisingly, is populated by left-leaning people — saw people overwhelmingly say they would continue dancing. The reasons were varied, but mostly came down to passive experience: if it comes on and they want to dance, they’ll dance, but are not going out of their way to do so.

De-platforming an act is complicated by the reality that we digest music outside of our own streams.

‘Peer pressure’ was cited too, with people deciding on what to do via context, and those who vehemently wouldn’t dance said it was out of personal experience: it simply doesn’t sit well with them, but wouldn’t make a “big scene” or “try to shame people” in the process.

But most said it was a question they hadn’t had to consider in years, with Kelly, in their circles, being removed from most party playlists. If people stop dancing, it stops playing, which suggests we’ll hear Michael Jackson in public spaces for years to come.

Beliefs Or Bops?

No-one has been cancelled more often this decade than Azealia Banks. Despite her many, many controversies and abhorrent statements over the decade, Pitchfork recently called her debut song ‘212’ the sixth best song of the 2010s.

“Although her personal controversies have largely overshadowed her music by now, this singular track can still raze anything that dares get in its way,” writes Marc Hogan. But for many, those controversies are too hard to ignore. Where to begin?

Banks has repeatedly called her gay-male audience and flight attendants ‘faggots’, for starters, while critiquing misogyny within their community; a few weeks back, she said HIV-preventative drug PrEP+ causes cancer, encouraging users to seek help for ‘sex addiction’. She’s supported Trump, hurled racist abuse at Zayn Malik, called Ireland is full of inbreds, and alleged that Kesha is falsely accusing Dr. Luke of sexual assault, among many other incidents.

The tipping point is different for many: for Adelaide Fresh 92.7fm producer Zane Dean, there were two. The first was a last-minute cancelled set at Future Music Festival in 2013, which was deeply disappointing.

“The second was when she said some of the most abhorrent stuff I’ve ever seen about Zayn Malik,” he says. “She’d said plenty of problematic stuff up until that point, with varying levels of justification (she often has a point when discussing racial issues) but that tirade against Zayn was so incredibly inappropriate and indefensible.”

“I continue to listen to the music, but it’s a very detached listening experience these days…  [There have been] so many awful, awful moments. it’s so hard to reconcile that when you really do love the music on its own merits. it can often create quite an uncomfortable listening experience”

As opposed to someone like Morrissey, Banks’ comments don’t directly relate to her music, which leaves many in this middle-zone — it’s easier to separate her art from herself. The same brazen energy carries across both her personality and her music, but ultimately she’s not rapping about LGBTIQ rights or sexual assault; there’s an obvious divide between the two topics. But unlike many other artists, her personality is held against her genius.

In an excellent Pitchfork op-ed, Morgan Jerkins writes about how Banks is held to a higher standard than other artists, in large part because she’s a black woman. Comparing Banks to Kanye West, Jerkins notes the way the media de-centres her talent for her ‘insanity’ is part of a larger trend.

“[Unlike West], her audacity is often compartmentalised, deemed appropriate through the music (which often has been critically praised) but not through her unfiltered interactions with the world,” they write.

“[A] male status in the world not only allowed [West and other male artists] to be accepted as successful artists, but it afforded them fluidity in this genius-madness dichotomy. There seems to be a bit less of that among black female creators; look at how the genius-madness scale has tipped within conversations about Nina Simone and Lauryn Hill over the years.”

The leeway we give artists, as with all people, depends on their status: their gender, race and class. It works both ways: the disappointment fans feel when West or Banks support Trump is due to a feeling they, previously so articulate on politics, should know better. They’re held to a higher standard than many of their white contemporaries.

Azealia Banks

This promotional shot of Azealia Banks has routinely been used in articles about her behaviour.

The Personal Is Political

The underlining, painful truth within conversations over how we consume art is that, despite how much we love it or find it personally important, it’s almost never essential to our life.

Issues of ethical consumption are usually complicated by issues of accessibility and economic ability — it’s much easier to avoid plastic and slave labour when you’re wealthy, for instance. But the process of ethically consuming art and not supporting artists with ‘problematic’ views is complicated by our personal relationship to the text, rather than an actual reliance on it. Considering how music is imbued with meanings and memories outside of the artist, the practicality of a ‘mass cancellation’ appears impossible.

Take Chris Brown, a clear-cut case if there ever was one. Since pleading guilty to charges of felony assault against then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009, Brown has repeatedly shown little remorse other than as to how it has affected his career. Where rehabilitation allows for the idea that humans can be ‘un-cancelled’, it’s generous to allow it to Brown.

Nkayla, a journalist, tells Music Junkee she is no longer the “mega fan” of Brown’s she was as a teenager, but continues to listen to his first two albums with a mixture of guilt and confusion. It’s not that Chris Brown and Exclusive contain unparalleled genius, but they do hold unforgettable moments — in the sense that Nkayla refuses to forget them.

As with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski’s continued successes, people are willing to separate art and the artist.

“My cousin and I were best friends growing up, absolutely inseparable when I was living in New Zealand [with him],” she says. “Our favourite song was ‘Yo, Excuse Me Miss’, from Chris Brown’s first album. It was our jam, and my cousin even made a whole dance to it one Christmas. When I left to move back to Sydney, he gave me his own copy of Brown’s first album. Sadly, he committed suicide when we were 14. When I spoke at his funeral, I mentioned how that song would never not be special to me. Not long after that, Chris Brown hit Rihanna.”

It’s an extreme example of the mediation we all make as individuals, though the reality is, judging by Brown’s continued success, many simply don’t care. As with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski’s continued successes, people are willing to separate art and the artist, despite the economic link being impossible to sever.

The usual argument is one of ‘what about-ism’: if we ‘cancel’ Chris Brown, will we cancel alleged child abuser David Bowie, too? Michael Jackson? Elvis, for appropriating and profiting off black culture? And what about pedophile philosopher Plato? Won’t someone think of the canon?

Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson with Wade Robson, who years later would accuse him of sexual assault, as detailed in documentary Leaving Neverland.

Why Does It Matter So Much?

Maybe holding everyone ‘accountable’ would mean burning down every second piece of art — like Hannah Gadsby saying fuck off to Picasso in Nanette, we’d try to find new, overlooked heroes in place of our current flawed figures. The question, of course, is whether it’s fair: supporting an abuser is one thing, but what about someone with disappointing views?

Each day, we compromise ourselves on moral standards: we use plastic, buy from a mega-corporation, and continue to use websites that are actively working against us.

Calling out an artist to do better allows us to hold them to a moral standard we wish we could put onto ourselves, our friends, our co-workers. Asking them to do better, we feel that we’re doing better too, just by asking. Better yet if they succeed, then we do too.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. He is on Twitter.