The Problematic Fave Blues


Hi everyone, and welcome back to getting lit in the opinions section with Janvi! I can’t believe it’s March already; it’s almost surreal how quickly time is passing.

Anyways, although it may not look it outside, we’re beginning to shake off the winter slump and enter Spring Break, which means longer days, shorter sleeves, and the official beginning of concert szn! With this — and recent news — in mind, it’s important to think about what happens when an artist you really like begins to act in a less-than-savory manner.

Let’s start with a question: So your favorite artist is problematic. Now what? Sometimes, we learn really dark things about artists we idolize — allegations are made, old secrets surface, or a big exposé reveals all.

Other times, an artist’s bigotry plays out right in front of us. In any case, it really super sucks when someone you love, whether irl or celebrity, turns out not be as great of a person as their art may suggest to you.

This kind of situation can be a huge letdown, and you may even feel a sense of betrayal — that’s completely normal and expected. Though there’s plenty of different kinds of artists, and many ways to measure a person’s character (or lack thereof), today I’m going to focus on the singers and rappers that a lot of us listen to on the daily, as well as actors and directors we may know and love.

The idea that “celebrities are humans, too” is often brought up when an artist “messes up,” i.e. does something nasty ranging from the odd faux pas to an egregious crime. But shouldn’t they be held to the same level of scrutiny as a regular person, if not higher since their ideologies are so far reaching, and be treated as such?

The sooner you and I recognize this, the sooner we can break down those inequities. “Janvi,” you say, “leave me alone. Stop making me feel guilty about the music and movies I like! Can’t I just enjoy this art without thinking about who made it?”

Here’s the thing: you can never truly separate the art from the artist. No matter how irrelevant an artist has become or how much of a pariah they are in their industry because of their actions, their name is still very much attached to their body of work, and so are their misdeeds. (By the way, there’s a great article by Constance Grady for called “What Do You Do When The Art We Love Was Created By A Monster?” that covers all sides of this argument and the history of separating art from artists.)

A creator and their creation are, by nature, intertwined, and unfortunately, no matter how much we might want to, we can’t separate them. Thus, by supporting the art, you support the artist– in more ways than one. First up is monetary, since your streams, clicks, purchases, and plays all provide that artist with royalties, which in some cases (like R. Kelly or Kodak Black’s) go straight to paying for their legal defense. Other times, by sharing their work, you expand their platform and boost their fame, which obviously isn’t ideal. Finally, consistently supporting the art of someone who’s known to be problematic sends a particular message: that you know what they’ve done, and you don’t mind.

“But Janvi,” you cry, “that doesn’t sound like me! I like these songs and movies but I definitely don’t support racism or abuse! What do I do?” And hey, don’t worry! I’m pretty sure that a lot of us have been or will be there at some point or another, and it’s just something that we personally have to deal with. If you think this statement kind of describes you, then you’ve come to the right place! So this brings me to what we can do when we have a problematic fave.

First, if you can, cut them out. If you’re super committed to opposing your problematic fave’s actions, probably the most impactful thing you can do is quit their art altogether. Tell whoever’s got the aux to skip that song; choose a different film for movie night; tell your dad to stop blasting R. Kelly “for nostalgia’s sake;” don’t go see Fantastic Beasts in theaters; take a breath, remember why you’re doing what you’re doing, and move on. Spotify now has a great option where you can choose to “never play” a certain artist, effectively shutting them out of any mixes or playlists. Remember that this swearing-off process is messy, and hard, and never perfect. I’ve personally had this experience, and it’s difficult.

In the fall of my junior year, my then-favorite singer/songwriter was accused of r*pe by her own former best friend, and to think that she could have done something that horrible broke my heart. It’s embarrassing to admit now, but for a while, I was compelled to ignore the story entirely, pretend I hadn’t seen it or that it wasn’t real because it was unproven and the accuser could have just been seeking attention. But after a while I remembered — would I rather take the side of a potential abuser, or a potential victim?

The answer was clear, and since then I’ve worked to cut her out of what I listen to. I won’t lie, I sometimes miss those songs, but I don’t miss the feelings of guilt and sadness that came with continuing to listen to her when the allegations came out. Remember to consume consciously. This means understanding the artists whose art you support regularly, and taking the bad with the good (and both with a pinch of salt). It’s difficult, but you have to be able to find a middle ground you’re comfortable with, somewhere in between the extremes of “stan culture” and “cancel culture.”

Obviously, some offenses are much greater than others, and you have to figure out where you stand on individual issues. Be ready to make some compromises, but understand why you’re making them. For example, Aziz Ansari, Louis C.K., and Rob Lowe have all been accused of/have committed varying levels of sexual assault, but you might still watch the show Parks & Rec because it tells a fun story of female empowerment and autonomy (and since those actors have since had their royalty rates reduced by NBC).

Ask yourself what is and isn’t worth it — does it make sense to get in a twitter fight with Ariana stans over Manchester Pride ticket prices? And sometimes, some media becomes so entrenched in pop culture — I’m thinking Drake’s “In My Feelings,” “Hotline Bling,” “God’s Plan,” Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” etc. — that it’s practically inescapable. That’s fine, but you can live with that without going out of your way to continually support a man who grooms and dates girls right out of high school, and a woman whose recent response to the government shutdown does little to offset (lol) her transphobic rhetoric.

And don’t despair! There are so many amazing artists out there in every single genre and niche imaginable, and with a little effort, you can find new faves, whether they’re already big names that you never explored or one of the many up-and-coming creators who deserve a larger audience. Again, it’s all about finding a balance that works and deciding what you’re okay with.

Finally, start conversations to get yourself and the people around you to think about the media we consume. This doesn’t have to be really deep or difficult; maybe you say “hey, I thought Ariana’s new album was such a bop. Don’t you think it’s kinda weird though how different she is now from the Victorious era though? I hate how she’s commodifying “trap” and “hood” culture to push this bad girl look, and how she’s basically in brownface. “Thank u, next went super hard though.” Or “woah, it’s really really gross what R. Kelly did and I’m glad he’s in jail, but a couple years I liked watching Trapped In The Closet– do you know any similar songs or comedy sketches?” Or even “there’s no denying that Pulp Fiction is one of the most iconic movies ever, but isn’t it strange how gross Quentin Tarantino is? Like he wrote the script, so he definitely knew what he meant when he made that kitchen scene cameo.”

Trust me, you don’t have to feel bad for them or their memory– take recently deceased XXXT*ntacion, for example; he was a violent misogynist and queerophobe who tortured several women, as well as attempted to murder his gay cellmate in jail. His remaining supporters may say that they promote their art out of respect for him, or because he “tried to make a difference” by yelling about being brokenhearted in his songs. Well, keep in mind that quite a lot of people have “tortured minds” or tales of trauma, but that is neither a prerequisite for being an artist nor an excuse for being an awful person.

Respect is earned during a person’s life, and deifying genuinely bad people once they’re dead or behind bars is dicey at best (sorry, ancient Roman emperors). Talking about an issue is always the best first step to creating some positive change, and you have that power! So go forth and use it wisely. I don’t mean to go all “Adam Ruins Everything” on you, but in a world where we have so much power as consumers, it’s naturally important to use your time, money, and energy to support artists who do the right thing. Besides, you deserve the ease of mind and heart of knowing that your faves aren’t problematic! Now it’s up to you, and I totally trust you, dear reader, to make the best decision for yourself and others. Until next time, stay woke!