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Can We Still Listen to Problematic Artists?

By Charlotte Hartmann


There’s no feeling of personal betrayal like discovering a favourite artist is problematic. I remember at the height of Covid lockdown, my dramatic teen self found great solace in the angst-ridden melancholy of The Smiths. In a time of grief, confusion, and literal isolation, their lyrics struck a chord with me - to the point where I did in fact fall asleep to ‘I know it’s over’ every night, but we don’t need to mention that. I was shocked to discover, however, after a spot of research that since the breakup of the band in 1987 Morrissey (the lead singer) had come out in support of the far-right political party ‘For Britain’, quoted even by Nigel Farage to be made up of “Nazis and racists.” Further reading found that he has used racially charged insults against prominent British politicians of colour, has been openly anti-immigration, as well as discrediting the #MeToo movement; stating that the many female survivors of Harvey Weinstein “play along” and only speak up due to feeling “embarrassed or disliked.”


My initial reaction (apart from disgust) was one of confusion – how could the lead singer of a band that was so heavily characterised by a feeling of marginalisation, with left-leaning and anti-institutional lyrics, queer undertones and feminist allusions, reveal themselves to be so disappointingly contradictory? But secondly, and perhaps even more confusing than the former, should I still listen to his music?


This question has arisen again for me more recently as I delve into an obsession with the music of Lana Del Rey. I honestly can’t explain it – as a self-identifying feminist with a strong disdain for American patriotism I’m not sure what initially drew me to the all-American “not a feminist” (in her own words) entity that is Del Rey, but something about her musically beautiful expressions of nostalgia, passion, and sadness won’t let me leave. Del Rey has been accused by many of “setting the feminist movement back hundreds of years”, with her lyrics depicting her subservience towards men and at times romanticisation of abuse – notably her quoting of The Crystals’ “he hit me and it felt like a kiss” in her 2014 ‘Ultraviolence’, her 2012 track ‘Lolita’, and even her statement that she’d “die without” the attention of her male lover in her 2012 ‘Off to the Races’.


Del Rey has made some attempt to reconcile her public problems, moving away from her focus on male gratification in her recent releases and omitting problematic lines from ‘Ultraviolence’ in her live shows, as well as her 2020 “Question for the Culture” statement where she raised the valid point that she sings about the reality of her life experience and that unattractive truth is still truth. Despite this, many would be familiar with the fact that in that same “Question for the Culture” Del Rey listed accepted popular music she implied to be more problematic than hers with examples almost exclusively belonging to female musicians of colour, a serious move promoting racial stereotypes and making it increasingly hard for anyone with a cultural awareness to genuinely continue to support her personally. After witnessing this casual racism, and still finding issue with her glamorous portrayals of troubled relationship dynamics, I have to ask myself the same question as I do with the Smiths – is it ok for me to continue listening to Lana Del Rey’s discography?


To be honest, I don’t think anyone (including myself) has a perfectly clear answer on whether it’s okay to continue to listen to problematic artists. Obviously not streaming (or buying) an artist’s music avoids monetarily supporting them, but to quote The Smiths – for a well-established millionaire – what difference does it make? Public support can imply an acceptance for what the artist has done, and for that reason you will never find me in a Morrissey or Lana t-shirt, but listening in private feels like it’s on a different playing field. There are some artists where I draw the line completely – often when their transgressions are reflected in their music – such as R. Kelly, whose “That’s why I’m all up in yo grill/ Tryna get you to a hotel” evokes too easily elements of the sexual assaults he was committed for.




In other instances, such as with Lana and The Smiths, I am more conflicted. Both of their discographies still move me deeply, and popular consensus would say to continue listening and separate the artist from their art, but I have never been truly able to do that – and I doubt others’ ability to do this completely as well. Because of this I do feel uncomfortable when I think about the person behind the voice of ‘Unloveable’, or when a line comes up in a Lana Del Rey song about dying for her unreciprocating man, but I think it’s important to embrace the discomfort that arises from problematic artists without silencing it either way. Obviously I’m not telling you to go out and plaster your bedroom with posters of your favourite artist-turned far right bigot, but while the issues that render an artist 'problematic' still exist - racism, sexual assault, homophobia - is it not better to acknowledge them instead of creating a false environment for our own comfort?


Take for example, when a week or two ago I was driving with my friend in the car, and Lana came on my shuffle. We launched into a fully fledged conversation on what it means to be a feminist, and whether someone like Del Rey - with her moments of casual racism and disempowering lyrics - has any place in the world of a feminist. Through bouncing ideas off each other, we both further informed our own understanding of feminism and acknowledged persistent flaws in the representation of women in the media, whilst still getting to appreciate her art. Had we been listening to only PC artists, this discussion would not have arisen, and I think this is a prime example of how allowing oneself to be made uncomfortable by the art we consume does not need to have strictly negative effects.


With this in mind, I must make clear that if someone chooses to mute a disagreeable artist to avoid monetarily supporting them, I do still have only respect. For me, music plays such an integral part in my soul that for some musicians this can be a very hard move, and I do find the most peace dwelling in a compromise, but that compromise is never worth ignoring one’s own moral compass for. Ultimately, I think the question of whether or not it’s ok to continue listening to problematic artists really can only be answered by a personal decision. There is merit in both muting and not muting, but I find a blanket approach to be too black and white - to quote American writer and cultural commentator Thaddeus Howze, “you have to decide how YOU feel and let each person come to their own conclusion about the said artist and said art.”


In order to be able to do this, and I think the most meaningful point to take out of this, is to have some awareness of the artists you are (at least publicly) supporting. Had I not done that Covid-era Google search whilst hidden in my bedroom, I could have returned to Hornsby Westfield post-lockdown in a brand new Morrissey t shirt. Whether I chose to listen to him or not, arguably the largest opportunity for harm in the realm of problematic artists lay in unintentionally appearing to condone their transgressions, something we can all avoid whilst using our personal reasoning to decide whether we continue listening to their art or not.


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