Music & Morality: Drawing the Line

I have always loved music and always will. I love talking about it. When I meet someone for the first time, I always want to know what kind of music they listen to. However, I recently have found myself in a pattern. Regardless of how the person answers my question, I subconsciously make a judgment […]

I have always loved music and always will. I love talking about it. When I meet someone for the first time, I always want to know what kind of music they listen to.

However, I recently have found myself in a pattern. Regardless of how the person answers my question, I subconsciously make a judgment on their character. It doesn’t matter if they respond with an artist I like, one I hate, or even one I barely know. I can think of an action an artist has done and immediately apply it to that stranger. Suddenly, the artist’s flaw is projected onto the stranger as if it were their own. 

I have always struggled with the concept of “separating the art from the artist”. I often wonder if I can truly enjoy the music I like even when I know the problems of an artist. But now I also question how the debate overlaps with my views on someone’s morality. It seems I, like many, have correlated the art someone consumes with their moral character. I set out to write this article as a way to find answers to questions I have long held: “Can we truly separate the art from the artist?” and “Should we judge someone’s moral character based on their media consumption?”

The answers for my questions are not black and white and, like art itself, will always be subjective. This lack of certainty on these questions has always made me feel dissatisfied. I wish for concrete answers that stop the constant debates I have with myself and others. I wish I could easily decide how to better judge people without equating a person’s taste in music to their ethos.

Perhaps, however, the struggle comes from morality being a difficult topic on its own. But why study philosophy if you know you won’t be given the answers? The more information, perspectives, and context you have, the easier it is to form your own judgments. With this in mind, I set out to form more nuanced conclusions.

The Difficulty In Separating The Art From The Artist

Art evokes emotion — we observe, listen, and watch art to feel something. Art is made for humans by humans. Because anyone can make art, what can be considered art differs from person to person. The individual aspect of art sparks the debate of whether music is worth listening to even if an artist is considered immoral. 

Art is often defined by an artist’s experiences, even if they are not the experiences of a moral paragon. Mr. Michael Hood, history teacher and self-proclaimed “music dork,” references a personal favorite artist of his: John Coltrane. The jazz musician’s work was created during a part of his life in which he was not the golden standard of morality, yet his heavy drug use and the aftermath of his addiction created some of the most important and impressive work of his career. This does not negate the brilliance nor does it prevent Mr. Hood from listening to Coltrane’s work.

“The problem is that if you start to limit who you are going to listen to based on who the artist is or what the artist has done, then there’s not gonna be much music left for you to listen to” the history teacher says. 

I often think of the impact art, music especially, has had on my life. If I’m happy, I have a playlist to put on. If I’m sad, I have millions of songs to queue in order to feel better. This music gets me through the day. How many of these songs that have personally resonated with me, shaped me, helped me cope, are written by terrible people who have done terrible things? And am I a bad person for using their music to channel my emotions? 

Think of The Beatles. Think of John Lennon. The man co-wrote so much influential work that has emotionally touched millions. But he is nothing if not flawed. He remains controversial due to his history of domestic abuse, and at the same time, is revered for his impact on music and so many people’s lives. I can’t ignore Lennon’s shortcomings, but they will never stop me from listening to The Beatles. Lennon adds a new element to the already difficult separation: the emotional ties we create to music made by seemingly disreputable people. 

The “Perfect” Artist

Artists are often criticized for their pasts instead of their present. It feels easier to listen to these artists dispute their problems when so much time has passed.

“The Rolling Stones did a lot of stuff in the ’60’s, but the more I read about them now — they’re pretty aware of what they did. And they talk about it. And it’s part of them, they were rock stars–you know, like what [can] you do?” Mr. Hood says.

As the years go by, scandals fall behind, and while sometimes we acknowledge these faults, above all, the music is remembered for its brilliance. It doesn’t forgive the past actions of these musicians or ignore why these things are problematic. But today, artists do not solely make music and “call it a day”. 

Modern artists must keep a socially acceptable image in order to keep their audience listening to their music. When One Direction formed in 2010, the five members were regulated in order to keep a “perfect image” that did exceptionally well with their young target demographic. One Direction likely would not have had as much success had their members participated in “problematic behavior” like heavy drug use or infidelity — things The Rolling Stones did while making music in the ’60’s. We subject old and new artists to criticism of who these people are, hoping that they’ll pass our ethical tests so we can continue to listen to their music. In crafting this image of perfection, we ignore the fact that these people are not just musicians — they’re human. 

Learning From Mistakes

If we want to truly change the way we see art versus the artist, we have to understand that artists, regardless of how good we think their music is, are human beings. Humans are flawed. It is okay to acknowledge the failings with the artists we enjoy, and we do not have to force ourselves to listen only to people with squeaky clean images. Just as it is in human nature to make mistakes, it is in our nature to learn from them. We have to grow with these artists and understand mistakes are part of being human. 

Recognizing the bad things artists do and choosing to listen to their music does not actually equate people to being morally corrupt, especially when we use the mistakes of these artists to grow within their own lives.

“We all have had weird morals and weird ideas when we were younger that we later have figured out were hurtful,” Malia Scullary (‘23). Now a senior, Malia reflects on how the music has to change with their morals while also reflecting on their past, emphasizing that artists and their audience are capable of change.

“There’s a growing period and we need to understand that sometimes people are children and they don’t understand things as well as they might when they are adults.”

Where Is The Line?

We have established that art is subjective and artists are human beings who will make mistakes. But understanding humans are imperfect and that artists will do bad things can only get you so far when you decide what to listen to. For everyone, there is a line of where to stop listening to problematic people despite their work. 

Mr. Hood claims he can usually separate the art from the artist, but even he has his limits. “Chris Brown?” he says with disgust. “I won’t listen to his music”.

“It’s not so much that [Brown] had this one incident with Rihanna, which was terrible, but [there] doesn’t seem to be a bit of ‘sorry, shouldn’t have done it’”. Brown’s reputation for sexual assault is so vitriolic that it deters people away from his music. Mr. Hood wouldn’t even try to change his mind on the music itself because of his repulsion to Brown’s actions.

“There’s no remorse, there’s no shame,” he says.

We draw the line of when we should stop listening to someone in different places. The line is different for everyone, but there will always be a line. There has to be a line. There has to be a limit to how much we consume from problematic people.

“Everybody has their own different political, social, and economic beliefs,” Malia says. “Everybody has different opinions and things are going to be more important or less important to different people.”

We start to judge people and view them negatively when our lines are different from theirs. It’s why Rex Orange County fans and R. Kelly supporters are judged so critically. A lot of people draw a line at listening to charged sex offenders. But then, I ask, are you judging a person for liking R. Kelly or are you judging them for excusing the behavior of a criminal just to listen to “Trapped in the Closet?”

Music Alone As A Judgment of Character

Mr. Hood shared an anecdote from his classroom in which a student criticized him for the music he shared with the class.

“I can’t believe you listen to this,” the student claims in disbelief after discovering an artist Mr. Hood listens to, “Do you know what they did?”

“Who do you like?” Mr. Hood counters after such an accusation has been made in his classroom.

After “going down the list” of her favorite artists, an infamous name is mentioned. “Michael Jackson,” says the student.

“Okay” laughs Mr. Hood. “You wanna go with me on this? I’m a music dork, I know music history — you go down the list. I could tell you something about every single person that you mention”.

In the same way you cannot stop listening to music just because of someone’s flaws, you cannot solely judge someone based on what they listen to. Music helps to define a person, but only when we know them outside of their taste. So when my mother tells me her favorite band is Led Zeppelin, I don’t judge her thinking that she condones every action Robert Plant and Jimmy Page did. I know her personally — I know she listened to them growing up and the emotional bonds she has with it. Mr. Hood’s moral character is not simply his love for jazz or the problematic rock stars from the ’60’s and ’70’s. When he tells me that he loves The Rolling Stones and jazz and eagerly posts his music recommendations in his classroom, I realize how passionate he is about what he enjoys as opposed to judging him for the people he likes.

If anything I’m gonna judge him for disliking ABBA. This criticism against such a phenomenal music group has more impact on my judgment of his character than any “problematic artist” he likes. Hating ABBA is unforgivable in my eyes, but I digress. Music and art can explain what you learn about a person, but it is not the “end-all-be-all” of what to base your judgment of a person on. 

Everyone wants to be a good person — at least I do. It’s why people debate these questions — they hope the answers will give them insight on how to be better. They don’t want to be judged as immoral for listening to the music and art they enjoy, especially when their faves are problematic. Art will always be personal.

Since writing this article, I have some conclusions: it doesn’t matter if you personally believe that you can separate the art from the artist. I cannot tell you what to listen to. I cannot tell you how to judge other people’s character. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what I think you should do.

What matters is the intention behind your media consumption. Do not deprive yourself of music you like, but do not ignore artists’ flaws. Above all, understand that your ethics and other people’s moral character should not be limited or defined by what they listen to.

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