Pop and the personal life of the artist
People love a bit of salacious gossip. A prerequisite of being a pop star today is having a compelling back-story which makes you memorable and unique, but also gives fans the opportunity to speculate about the personal narratives behind your songs. With the release of each new Taylor Swift single, we are as interested in who a certain song might be about, as we are in the sound. This is not, as many conservative commentators claim, a sign of cultural decline. In 1667 when the complete books of Paradise Lost were published, people were clamouring to find out if Lucifer represented King Charles, or if any of the characters resembled Cromwell. In the Romantic era, everyone wanted to know if Byron’s latest beaux had made it into his most recent cantos. But how should we respond when it emerges that an artist’s backstory has a sinister chapter?
When a pop star is accused of serious improprieties, the process by which such allegations are investigated remains as public as the rest of their existence. One way to interpret this is as a positive consequence of our increasingly confessional culture. As more and more powerful and seemingly untouchable celebrities are brought to justice for their past crimes, victims of such abuse feel emboldened to come forward in the knowledge that their claims will be taken seriously, and this has been a crucial development in the fight against victim-shaming and other monstrously chauvinistic social conventions.
However, the drastically exposed and public nature of the criminal investigations and prosecutions of celebrities also seems to invite the public (often led by the gutter press) to come to their own conclusions about a professional rich and famous person, and not be swayed by the actual outcome of the judicial process. Cliff Richard is currently suing the BBC for millions of pounds of damages, as the mulleted Mistletoe And Wine crooner believes that their coverage of the case against him presupposed his guilt, thereby ruining his reputation. As you might expect, I am more interested in dismantling a culture where victims of sexual abuse feel ashamed to come forward than I am in defending a multi-millionaire whose feelings are hurt; but these things shouldn’t necessarily be in opposition.
Given how personal pop music can be, we often feel implicated in the lives of the artist through our consumption of their output. This is perhaps why a common response to the revelation that a pop star has committed egregious offences is to stop streaming their records, and redact them from our music libraries. When Ian Watkins was found guilty of crimes so appalling that the jury members were offered counselling after the verdict, and Lostprophets’ entire catalogue was removed from most online music services. Was this part of an attempt on behalf of the public to dole out further punishment to the disgraced frontman? Would continuing to listen to 4am Forever somehow be a statement on the part of the listener that what Watkins did was okay? Things become more problematic still when we consider that after similar details came to light about Michael Jackson’s behaviour in that theatre of gothic man-child weirdness, the Neverland Ranch, nobody stopped listening to Smooth Criminal.
Now consider that the work of Gary Glitter has disappeared from the shelves of HMV (and not because people have been panic buying it after rumours of a global Glitter shortage), whilst R. Kelly continues to receive generous airtime. A pattern begins to emerge. When it is revealed that an artist whom nobody really liked anyway turns out to be a criminal, the public finds it morally edifying to abnegate their work from the zeitgeist. When a beloved singer is condemned on the same grounds, however, we are reluctant to purge our playlists of their presence. It is double standards like this which expose the lack of logic in our current approach to popstars and their personal lives.
As with any aspect of hyper fetishized commodity culture, pop embodies the contradictions of our age. The way we resolve them is to look at the production and consumption of the commodity. In the past, the ostensible immunity from justice that was given to people like Bill Crosby, Michael Jackson, Jimmy Savile, and others, came from the enormous amount of money and therefore status and power that they wielded. We may think that we have moved past this today – after all when it comes to pop culture we only ever seem to hear about historic sex abuse – but events that are unfolding as I write this in my freezing kitchen prove that money can still buy you out of trouble. Donald Trump is planning to countersue the woman who accused him of sexual assault during his election campaign. Money is the thing that always has, and continues to, create the enclaves such as “the locker room” in which phrases like “I grabbed her by the pussy” are normalised. No matter what forms of public justice we try to meat out on popstars who we decide have transgressed, if we pay to stream and download the music in the Top 50 we are complicit in creating the kind of environments in which the crimes at which we express such horror can thrive.