Everybody’s talking about cancel culture. It affects us most, however, when the people being cancelled are musicians. We build parasocial relationships with artists when we connect with their music and if they say or do something inflammatory, it feels more personal. Sometimes it hurts.
We’re forced into arguments with ourselves over whether we can separate the art from the artist or whether we have to choose between an artist we love or our moral compasses. Sometimes we end up judging others for what they do: those who abandon problematic artists are overly triggered snowflakes while those who stand by them don’t have a social conscience.
There are a few big names from the world of music who have faced calls to be cancelled for things they have said in the past. Doja Cat has received backlash for using homophobic slurs in tweets from when she was in high school, while 5 Seconds of Summer’s Michael Clifford has had to answer for some old tweets of his containing sexist jokes of the woman-in-the-kitchen kind.
A better question to ask before we disown an artist is “Would they say this now?”
But how should we treat these incidents? Is it worthwhile to denounce these artists or claim that one problematic comment is justification for attempting to end their careers?
Sometimes I think that in a way, cancel culture comes from a good place. We want to build a society where discrimination isn’t dismissed or normalised as it has been in the past. That is fair enough. We can’t condone comments that either of these musicians and others have made. It’s understandable that people want to call it out.
The issue comes when we ask ourselves if we are throwing out our capacity for forgiveness and nuance along with our one-time habit of writing off discriminatory behaviour. If we cancel musicians for things they said five years ago, we can overlook the possibility that they may have changed. We don’t know if things that were said come out of a place of ignorance – which can be cured with education and awareness – or genuine hatred. A better question to ask before we disown an artist is “Would they say this now?” Sometimes we can’t answer that question because we don’t know everything about the artist.
What about a comment that is made in the present moment? It won’t be surprising if Wiley is wiped off the face of the earth after he made comments on Twitter comparing Jewish people to the Ku Klux Klan. He has already been dropped by his management and reported to the police on the grounds of inciting racial hatred. When we are faced with comments as overtly hateful as these, it is more difficult to be forgiving. For members of an affected group, in this case, the Jewish community, it can be understandably unforgivable. Not every case is like this however: sometimes comments or actions are more ambiguous. There cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.
I don’t want to put money in a misogynist’s bank account as a way of keeping his career going
Actions are different, especially criminal ones. Music has a severe problem with acts of sexual misconduct and misogyny perpetrated by entitled male musicians abusing their power. I’m talking about R. Kelly and his catalogue of sexual offences from paedophilia to child pornography. I’m talking about ex-Kasabian frontman Tom Meighan assaulting his girlfriend. I’m talking about the recent slew of allegations against members of various rock bands, including SWMRS and Culture Abuse, in a semblance of a second wave of #MeToo.
When it comes to sexual misconduct, I am all for cancelling the hell out of the perpetrators. If you stand by them, you condone their actions. Sometimes it’s as close to justice as survivors will find in an environment where they may not be believed, let alone ever see the perpetrators convicted in court. Another way to look at it is this: if the musician in question was working an office job and their employer found out they’d been inappropriate with a colleague or client, they’d be fired. Or this: if the BBC wouldn’t air repeats of Jim’ll Fix It, why should promoters book bands featuring potential criminals for festivals?
But what do we do if an artist we love has said or done something we can’t bring ourselves to look past? I am considering deleting all the songs I have from a certain problematic band that meant a lot to me as a teenager because of their drummer’s history of sexual misconduct. I was so repulsed by what he did that I don’t think I want to invest my time, let alone my money, into them anymore. I don’t want to put money in a misogynist’s bank account as a way of keeping his career going.
I would encourage people to do the same. I see it as part of a zero-tolerance stance. However, it is not always easy to cut ties, especially for an artist that has meant a lot to you. It took me a long time to sever my connections with the band I just mentioned. Maybe some people can separate the art from the artist, but then again, like everything in relation to cancel culture, it depends on the circumstance. I wouldn’t wear merchandise from someone problematic out in public. If you saw someone wearing a Lostprophets t-shirt out and about, you’d find it a bit weird if you know why they’re no longer around.
So, is it time to cancel ‘cancel culture’ in music? Perhaps not. Should we question it? Absolutely. It is a practice that has merits but is also inherently flawed. It requires nuanced judgment, and we can’t treat every situation exactly the same. However, this is a highly valuable conversation to be having. We have to figure out the best way to move forward and that requires healthy debate. As our standards change, our world must adapt, and ultimately, it will adapt for the better.