Image: Eva Rinaldi/Flickr

Should we listen to the music of abusive artists?

The question of separating art from the artist is a difficult one, especially in music. Although also true in the worlds of film and art, music is the medium where one is virtually forced to engage with the creator solely. Many would argue that the personal life of the artist is disconnected from what they produce, but this is much harder when that person has committed morally reprehensible acts.


The debate surrounding XXX is not a new one: here is a minute selection of musicians who have committed abusive acts:

  • John Lennon admitted to Playboy Magazine that he beat and psychologically abused women
  • Miles Davis regularly beat his wives
  • Tupac was accused of being part of the gang rape of a 19-year-old girl
  • Ozzy Osbourne was a domestic abuser and tried to kill his wife
  • Elvis Presley’s wife was just 14 when he started pursuing her
  • Sid Vicious was charged with the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen
  • David Bowie had sex with a 15 year old
  • Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna
  • XXXTentacion was accused of assaulting his pregnant girlfriend


The difficulty arises when trying to handle the dichotomy of the artist one likes. The list you can read above is just a selection of musicians who have made brilliant contributions to their respective genres (arguably with the exception of the final two). In addition, they’re all people whose music is widely admired. Miles Davis is a genius – the excitement of his work and his contribution to the entire world of jazz is phenomenal. However, at the same time, he was not a nice man. He beat his wives, and openly admits to it, he is quoted to say he felt bad for doing so but this does not redeem his actions. Despite this, his brutish behaviour has been mostly forgiven by a modern audience, to whom he remains a figurehead of the jazz movement. As witnessed in the spheres of politics and economy, if one is influential enough, they can do anything and still retain their position of power. This is not always the case, but it has certainly been very accurate in the past.

Naturally, the past was a different time. The media in the 1970s would not rise up against cases of domestic abuse like they do now. Like they have done with Chris Brown, and XXXTentacion amongst others. Regardless of the media exposure their acts receive, it is terrible that in this modern day, an artist can profit, and continue to be successful, whilst being a known abuser. Chris Brown came under fire from almost every news outlet and was sentenced to five years of probation for his felony assault of Rihanna. He still collaborates with outstanding people in his field. He still sells millions of copies of every album he produces. He remains successful.

While the media may have ignored a case of abuse in the past, that can’t quite be done in 2017

The image of the modern musician is extremely different to that of a celebrity from the 20th century. While the media may have ignored a case of abuse in the past, that can’t quite be done in 2017. The prevalence of social media and the always-on nature of society means that a person’s private life is their public life. A musician can’t be separate from their career anymore because, in many ways, one is forced to hear about them alongside their music. The lack of privacy doesn’t only concern the artists themselves. The same goes for us, the listeners.

We’re in a world of statistical analysis and Big Data, where everybody knows what one is listening to. Spotify, iTunes, even YouTube is following streams, and every time a song is listened to, the respective artist gets a little more exposure – they can top the charts, go viral, or start trending. Music is so easily available, to the extent that it unfortunately takes less effort than ever to keep supporting people who are undeserving due to their abominable behaviour.

…we run the risk of trivialising the damage they did, which can lead to their normalisation

I know I’m guilty when saying that I still love Lennon’s music, and Bowie’s and Tupac’s, although they’ve done a multitude of foul things. I simply don’t want to stop listening to them, namely because there is nothing I can do about abusers who have come and gone. If they can’t continue to profit from me enjoying their music, they can’t profit from their prior abuse. Sid Vicious, Elvis Presley, Ozzy Osbourne – their music and their domestic lives remain intertwined but, while enjoying their songs, it’s important not to forget what contemptible people they could be. Otherwise, we run the risk of trivialising the damage they did, which can lead to their normalisation. If the abuse committed by those who came before current artists is forgotten, the present generation might think it will apply to them too.

It’s an unfortunate fact of life that some of the best music can be created by people who have done awful things. Regardless of this, unwittingly supporting an abuser because of ignorance is simply not acceptable. If you love an artist and their work makes you happy that’s great. Enjoy it.  Above all, however, don’t forget who made it.


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