Even though people’s perception of art and artists is changing dramatically, the past of music is full of violence, abuse, rape, and outrageous acts. Rock & roll history is paved with stories of domestic abuse, murders, cheating men, violent fights, and yes pedophilia.
There is barely any exception, the men we put in our music pantheon are deeply flawed, cheaters, woman beaters, and child abusers. It is not difficult to find examples, and I will state the obvious for those familiar with the history of rock & roll: The King met his wife Priscilla when she was just 14, but lost his interest in her after daughter Lisa Marie was born to court another 14-year-old among other underage girls. Jerry Lee Lewis married seven times, two of his wives died mysteriously (one by drowning and one by overdose) and he also shot his bass player in the chest. Lewis’s seventh marriage was to a 13-year-old, the daughter of his cousin. Miles Davis admitted beating his wives in his biography and did approve of other men hitting their wives and girlfriends to ‘keep them in line.’ Phil Spector put a loaded gun to Leonard Cohen’s head, fired a shot in the studio while working with John Lennon, and allegedly held the Ramones at gunpoint. Johnny Cash cheated on June Carter when she was pregnant, and even cheated on her with her own sister, Anita. Chuck Berry once punched Keith Richards in the mouth for touching his guitar and was arrested on charges relating to his transportation of a 14-year-old girl across state lines for immoral purposes. Sinatra nearly killed his wife Ava Gardner by throwing a champagne bottle at her so hard it cracked the bathroom sink. Brian Jones hit Anita Pallenberg so hard he broke his hand on her face. James Brown was arrested for shoving his wife Tomi Rae Brown and sending her to the hospital. John Lennon had several affairs during his marriages and admitted he used to hit the women in his life. Ike Turner had sex with Tina in such a brutal way that she said it felt more like rape. He broke her nose, her jaw, gave her two black eyes, and left her with third-degree burns after hurling hot coffee in her face. David Bowie slept with underage girls, among them 14-year old Lori Maddox who is better known for her relationship with Led Zeppelin’s guitarist Jimmy Page during her teenage years. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler pressured Julia Holcomb to get an abortion at five months, after impregnating her when she was a teenager. Iggy Pop and Mick Jagger had sex with underage groupies. R Kelly is a pedophile who has groomed, harassed, and abused plenty of teenage girls, he reportedly peed on a 14-year-old girl and kept teenagers in a bizarre sex cult of personal slaves. Michael Jackson sexually abused many young boys, convinced them to perform sex acts on him, while threatening them if they ever told their story… Name one pop/rock star and there is dirt to find… and most of them got away with it, or at least for a long time in the case of Kelly and Jackson.
The world is a very different place now, first because we know right away anything about anybody, mostly because of the existence of social media and the tendency for people to share everything immediately at the risk to regret it sooner or later. Today, the lives of our rock stars are certainly scrutinized and dissected every minute by the media and on the internet, often to the point we often don’t know where the truth is. There’s a lot of hearsay, plenty of hypocrisy, many retractions, and apologies, and the entire thing is an abysmal mess. We certainly know too much about anyone’s life and the slightest faux pas has huge consequences. Even simple opinions have consequences. System of a Down drummer John Dolmayan is a Trump supporter and a harsh critic of Black Lives Matter? he is canceled! Kasabian singer Tom Meighan has assaulted his former girlfriend? of course, he will definitively be canceled! And I am not even talking about Ryan Adams’ saga, since, even when he tried to apologize last week, the singer-songwriter got in trouble.
Curiously, the world of rap reacts quite differently to this ambient political correctness: Just to give two examples, dead rapper XXXtentacion, who was charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant victim, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering, became a sort of legend while Chris Brown returned to the Top 5 of the Billboard Hot 100 despite beating Rihanna so badly that she had to be hospitalized.
But besides the rap world, everything has to be a ‘safe place’ with a ‘safe talk’ for the millennial generation, if you spend some time on social media and read comments from this generation, everything has to be sanitized to the point of becoming dull and certainly unprovocative. As soon as there is an idea out there, as soon as someone, even slightly controversial is mentioned, it could be interpreted as ‘misogynistic,’ ‘racist,’ ‘sexist’… Beware before sharing an opinion, or you may be categorized with one of the above and more.
I have actually read comments saying that a person could actually appreciate the music of an artist because he/she ‘was nice’… is that really the new standard? Does someone have to be a nice person before being even considered as a potentially interesting artist? This is such backward reasoning, which completely transforms our current vision of music and art in general.
Some music discussions sometimes reach insanity, like this fan commenting on a post discussing the meaning of a song and refusing to even consider whom the song is addressed to: ‘I don’t know about you guys but I think I’m reaching a part of my life where I don’t want to know every little detail about who the song is actually about anymore. (???) like I feel a lil creepy dissecting if this is about Conor or not. ‘
They see it as an invasion of the songwriter’s privacy, they even may be afraid to discover some darkness they don’t want to see. The song is released for the public and it’s legitimate to find meaning in lyrics and to replace them in a context, and it’s certainly not a comment you would have found on a Bob Dylan forum for example, because it’s was never creepy to discuss some of Dylan’s many muses.
On a Phoebe Bridgers’ forum, I even saw a comment advising other members it was better to leave alone any subject related to Ryan Adams or Elliott Smith for the following reasons: ‘it is Highly Inadvisable to discuss Ryan Adams in this group in any capacity, and discussions of Elliott Smith also tend to make emotions run high for a lot of reasons (mainly because some folks seem to think that knowing him earlier than others make them Better Fans or something).’ Let’s ponder this for a minute, Ryan Adams’ music is out of limit because he and Phoebe had a bad relationship and Elliott Smith’s music allows some fans to belittle others?
It’s all about staying in a safe place, on a safe subject, being protected from anything that could be offensive or could irritate others… And there is no shortage of this.
Plenty of people have now a very restricted vision of what can be discussed around art, they have a very obstructed view of art and artists, there’s no authorized risk or danger and everyone has to be ‘nice,’ and conformed to their ultra-protected view of the world, a very distorted view of the world filled with artificial rules. What a nearsighted vision this has become, people’s perception of art is now constructed by parasitic layers of political correctness.
But what are we going to do with the past? What are we going to do with these cheaters and abusers? Try to ask this question around and you will probably get two possible answers: ‘I don’t listen to these bands of cisgender old men anyway,’ which is always laughable, or ‘these were other times, we have now changed,’ which does not solve anything because we are still listening to the Stones and Led Zepplin. It really doesn’t matter this happened in the past, as there is no difference between Ike Turner beating Tina and Chris Brown beating Rihanna, while you can barely compare the accusations made against Ryan Adams to the sexual prowess of any of the ‘60s and ‘70s rockstars: Adams didn’t even touch a minor, while Led Zeppelin’s music never got canceled because of Jimmy Page’s bad behavior with female teenagers.
The standards have changed to some bizarre extremes without solving anything. Art is now approached in a sterile environment and examined with the precautions of a surgeon. Nothing should disturb anyone or people are in panic mode! But art is made to disturb you, to shake your reality, burst your safety bubble, and made you more aware of the human experience in all its beauty and horror. People’s perception of art and artists is certainly evolving and probably for the worse.
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