Wednesday, May 10, 2023


I call it Wiki-Fear. You know what I'm talking about. That twinge of apprehension just before clicking open a Wikipedia entry. It could be a song, an album, an artist. Something new to me -  or something I've known for years without ever knowing much about. The trepidation comes from experience: there's a pretty good chance you'll learn something that'll spoil your enjoyment. 

Sometimes it's just the diminishment of discovering the specific inspiration for a song, what it's about or means. The open-ended mystery, that might have been a large part of the attraction, gets nailed down to the clunkily concrete. Or something actively off-putting. 

Worse, much worse, is when you discover something bad about the artist. This is especially unpleasant when the misdeed contradicts what the artwork or artist otherwise seems to embody and represent.

Almost as bad is finding out about an upsetting or degrading life outcome: a tragedy, a decline, some form of subsequent squalor or sordidness that enveloped the artist. 

Yet another category of unpleasant surprise: learning that the artist has political opinions (or other beliefs) that are unwholesome or embarrassing. 

For me, Wiki-Fear mostly pertains to music, simply because that's what I'm usually looking up. But it can happen just as easily with a film, director, actor.  Or a writer.  Anyone in the creative arts or the entertainment field. 

To give you specific examples, while avoiding spoilers (why ruin songs and singers for you like they've been semi-ruined for me?), here, stripped of identifying marks, are some cases that have taught me to be Wiki-wary. 

Discovering that a singer renowned in the 1970s for his luminous celebrations of matrimonial love had been guilty of wife-beating.

Discovering that the singer of a much-loved song – a classic meta-music anthem – ended up committing suicide. (So much for music-as-lifesaver).

Discovering that an endearing actress I know mostly for her turn in a 1970s cult movie later tried to get a hit job on her father and on the husband of her equally endearing actress sister (the husband himself a likeable comic actor of the same era). This reflects badly not just on the actress but potentially on the other parties involved, since you can't help wondering what drove her to it.... 

Discovering that a writer who wrote a classic novel (the kind of book that blows you away when you’re an adolescent but endures with subsequent grown-up rereadings) had attempted rape in his youth.

Thing is, as much as you might strive to separate singer and song, follow the adage “trust the art, not the artist,” you can’t unknow these things once you've learned them. I sometimes forget the details (my brain these days being sieve-like when it comes to input sticking) but a tinge of uneasiness clings on. And it's easy to refresh that knowledge - it's just a click away. 

Despite all this, it's still irresistible to go searching on the Internet, when you've just listened to (or watched or read) something new and exciting, or when you've rediscovered an old favorite about which you never knew much simply because there was nowhere to go to find out. And often the things you find out end up enriching your enjoyment. Or they are just interesting tidbits that sit harmlessly alongside the enjoyment. But always there’s the possibility that you'll discover something nasty. 

Hence Wiki-Fear.


There's a new book out that explores exactly this kind of messy entanglement of contrary emotions stirred up by discrepancies between artistic virtue and artistic conduct:  Claire Dederer’s Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma. The book started with her celebrated 2017 Paris Review essay "What Do We Do With the Art of Monstrous Men?".

Reading one of the first pieces on the book, in The Atlantic, I was surprised to see my name pop up:

The most resonant chapter in Monsters explores what she calls “the stain,” a thing that is “creeping, wine-dark, inevitable.” She borrows the term from the music critic Simon Reynolds, whom she messages to ask his opinion of Michael Jackson. How has his relationship with Jackson’s music changed in light of accusations that he sexually abused boys? He responds,

i am currently trying to do the aesthetico-moral calculus thing re. MJ’s music, like, is the Jackson 5 stuff okay? … does the stain work its way backwards through time?

Jackson was a child himself when he was in the Jackson 5, so presumably he wasn’t abusing any children then—in fact, Jackson later said he had been the victim of abuse by his harsh and domineering father. So why would we worry about listening to his early music? Dederer thinks we can’t help it. The spreading of the blotch “is not a choice,” she says. “It’s already too late. It touches everything. Our understanding of the work has taken on a new color, whether we like it or not.”

Dederer explores this idea of the Stain further in a Guardian essay adapted from the book, although here I am anonymized as “a music critic”.

The remark quoted in Monsters was made around the time Leaving Neverland  was first aired. Apart from being a bit of a mouthful, "aesthetico-moral" is slightly misleading. I wasn't really musing in terms of censoriousness or even complicity (guilt about being the consumer of works by reprehensible people). It’s not about cancelling - the removal of an artist from the cultural menu. It’s more about each individual's personal discomfort level - the stickiness and ickiness of unsavory knowledge once it’s been acquired *.  To stick with the metaphors of cuisine and diet: it's about a bad taste in your mouth;  about your taste in art competing and clashing with distaste for behavior.   

The nitty-gritty of such calculus can be at once silly and excruciating. In the aftermath of watching Leaving Neverland, I found myself speculating pointlessly: "well, probably he wasn’t abusing anyone circa Off The Wall. "  Thriller – hmmm.... gets a bit cloudier. (But equally, that is an album I could happily dispense with, apart from maybe "Human Nature”.  Even "Billie Jean" I wouldn't mind never hearing again).  By the time you get to Bad - and everything thereafter – it's clear something's gone awfully awry in the Kingdom of Michael. Just look at what he’s done to his face. Just listen to the strained screams he's emitting. It's easy to believe bad things are going down behind the scenes. Plus, even more than Thriller, it's music I can live without. 

In practice, though, the stain does tend to seep backwards through time, because the child is the father of the man - it's the same person. Seep backwards to leave its sticky-icky mark on those beloved Off the Wall  songs...  The Jackson’s glorious Triumph...  the wondrous Destiny singles “Shake Your Body (Down to the Ground)" and “Blame It On the Boogie”..... perhaps even all the way back to The Jackson 5. 

"Discomfort" is the right word. The sensation is physical – you hear “Don’t Stop 'til You Get Enough” or “Rock With You” on the radio and the groove pulls at your body, you feel yourself melting into the ecstasy of Jackson’s vocals. But then an equal and opposite force wrenches you in the other direction. You can't simply surrender, let yourself be swept up. The flooding pleasure is checked. 

When mulling over these issues - which cut a potentially culling swathe through many of my favorite artists of all time, figures like Iggy Pop - I sometimes feel an impulse to stake out a stubborn, no-nonsense position: it's childish to expect artists to be model human beings with immaculate records when it comes to interpersonal conduct.  Artists are, as often as not, not-nice. Very far from fully-rounded beings. The risks they take in their lives seem inseparable from the risks they take in their art. To do what they do, perhaps they need to be reckless and ruthless. ** What produces great results in one domain, spills over into another. 

It seems equally childish to expect an artist's political views to align with one's own political values (and especially absurd to expect artists from past eras to be in line with today's progressive principles). 

Then again, picking an example close to home, what are you supposed to feel when one of your favorite artists of the 2ist Century turns up for the big Jan 6 treason party, and then later appears on Tucker Carlson,  talking absurdly about Democrats as "sore winners". Even knowing that trolling, spite and nihilism have always been integral to the artist's creative engine, it's stuff that's hard to push out of your mind when you feel the urge to put on "The Ballad of Bobby Pyn" or "White Freckles." 

Another twist to the calculus, a ruse to reduce the personal discomfort level, is to say to yourself: "well, no one was actually hurt during the making of this record".  Take “Rock and Roll, Pt 1 + Pt 2” : the only injury done was to Mike Leander and Gary Glitter's livers from the amount of booze consumed during the session.  If Glitter’s memoir can be trusted, his corruption occurred later, in the throes of the superfame that then ensued. (He recounts a specific incident where Keith Moon upbraids him for “wasting” the teenage fans who are waiting outside Glitter's London home and virtually shoves him into the bedroom with one of them). 

Conversely, there are examples of artworks and entertainments whose production directly involved damage. Hostile work environments, demeaning treatment, exploitative conditions, emotional abuse, sexual assault in the midst of the making. Many classic films that involved child performers might now be construed as constitutively abusive (no matter how passionately the young aspiring stars wanted to do the work). The recent documentary about Brooke Shields shed unflattering light on everyone from her mother-manager to many of her directors.

Perhaps Claire Dederer has worked out some answers....

* The concept of the stain, as a form of adhesive obliquity, is analogous to what I call the sample-stain  (when an artist you don't like samples a record you love... as a result, whenever you hear the original sample-source record, there is a kind of audio-hyperlink inextricably attached to it that propels you through time to the later perpetrator, which rather clouds your enjoyment. Conversely there is a positive version of this syndrome:  the sample-glow (also known as the sample-epiphany).

** The first, "bad boys of rock" section of The Sex Revolts is largely situated in this zone (note the title of Dederer's original article - "what do we do with the art of monstrous men?" - because it's nearly always men that are the monsters, isn't it?).  Here the argument is that the psycho-dynamic engine of the music is bound-up with impulses that - translated into real life, as they too often are - are destructive and dominating, misogynist and megalomaniacal. 

Further debate on these issues in the comments box over here