Recently I was walking through the grocery store, wearing headphones that blasted music, and I saw something that disturbed me. It was a young male, who couldn't have been any older than I am, wearing long hair and jeans like any good metalhead should. But what I saw across his chest on his black band shirt disturbed me. It was the logo for the band As I Lay Dying.
As you may or may not know, As I Lay Dying's front man Tim Lambesis was arrested on charges of solicitation to commit murder earlier this year after allegedly attempting to hire an undercover police officer to murder his wife. I was disgusted personally, and I couldn't see how this guy could possibly continue to wear an As I Lay Dying shirt, supporting Lambesis and his alleged actions by proxy.
Then I realized to whom I was listening at that very moment: Michael Jackson.
Twice in his life was Michael Jackson accused of child molestation; once in 1993, and again in 2003. The first time the investigation was determined inconclusive. The second time, he was charged, went to trial, and was acquitted on all counts. I remember the second trial and its public fiasco pretty well. I also remember how the public and the media made a judgment on it almost two years before a jury did.
I'll never forget my mom's reaction at least, which was to severely and harshly damn Jackson with little regard for due process. She decided his music was dead to her, and he himself was a sick pervert not worth being allowed to live in the United States of America. She made up her mind, along with many others, long before Jackson had a chance to fight it out in a court of law.
Personally though, I never much cared. I still listened to Jackson's music. I still listen to it today, and it never registered in my mind that the charges against him should affect my enjoyment of his music in any way. After all, his music has nothing to do with what he does in a bedroom, does it?
But it raises an interesting point: can we separate the artist from his or her work?
My mom would have argued that you can't. Historical evidence would have a different say on the matter though. Take the compositions of Richard Wagner for example.
Wagner was a vehement anti-Semite. Anti-Semitism exists throughout his works, which were favorites of Adolf Hitler, who readily appropriated them for his Nazi agenda. As a Jew, I shudder at the thought of how Wagner was played over concentration-camp loudspeakers for all those suffering to hear.
But history has not damned Wagner for his views or the ways in which his work was put to use. Instead, he is still revered as a wonderful composer who revolutionized opera for the 20th century. The contrast between Wagner's reputation as a composer and as an anti-Semite has even been played for jokes on shows like Curb Your Enthusiam, but few would legitimately attempt to argue that his contributions as an artist were insignificant because of his beliefs.
History has a few other examples we can find of this as well, on even smaller scales. While it may be impossible to deny Wagner's influence, fewer would label Gary Glitter as one of the great artists of our time. Nevertheless, Glitter, who was convicted in Vietnam of sexual acts with underage girls as well as possession of child pornography in his native England, still enjoys a reasonably decent reputation as a musician despite his crimes.
It's certainly never stopped a DJ from playing "Rock and Roll Part 2" at basketball games.
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There are the less well-regarded too, to be fair. Charles Manson was a songwriter before he was a cult leader, and though fascination with his musical works has continued to exist, most have written it off in response to his heinous crimes.
In fact, when Guns n' Roses recorded a Manson song for their cover album The Spaghetti Incident?, the band, no strangers to controversy of all kinds, even protested against front man Axl Rose's wishes that it shouldn't be included on the record. It made it on, but it pissed off a whole lot of people.
Still, you can find more examples of acceptance than not. Black-metal band Burzum, which consists solely of convicted murderer and self-identified neo-Nazi Varg Vikernes, still has a massive amount of fans around the world despite Vikernes' actions and radical views. I count myself among them, and I have a shirt with Vikernes' face on it. Who am I to judge someone based on an As I Lay Dying shirt because of the charges leveled against Tim Lambesis?
It seems the human ability to overlook certain artists' actions to enjoy their works is pretty much infinite. We have the ability to separate the art from the creator, and it allows us to mentally justify supporting these artists not just in spirit, but financially as well.
We give our money to Gary Glitter in royalties or every time the radio plays "Rock and Roll Part 2." We give our money to As I Lay Dying for every shirt sold. We justify it because we like the music, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's just our nature.
A short while ago, singer/songwriter Roy Harper was charged with two counts of having sex with a girl aged under 13. For a second, I was disturbed, and I considered how this might affect my future enjoyment of Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar," which Harper sang.
Then I realized we rationalize these things all the time. I'm listening to the song right now, and it still sounds just as great as it did before. So rock on, dude with the As I Lay Dying shirt. The rest of us have no room to judge.
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