Treble Roundtable: Musicians Behaving Badly

Treble staff
R Kelly

Welcome back to The Roundtable. Let’s get back to the conversation. In case you’re new to it, this is where Treble opens up to our readers about our individual experiences on a more personal level, without putting too much of a critical eye on it. Not that the eye ever shuts — this is simply a casual conversation. Got a question for us? Feel free to send it over to [email protected] with the subject “Roundtable topic.”

This week’s topic: With the Bieb in the news again for singing racist songs when he was a teenager, it seemed like a good time to talk about the art vs. artist debate — When has an artist’s offstage behavior turned you off to their music?

Blake Beck: Drug use is not uncommon in the world of music, and while I don’t condone it, I don’t necessarily oppose it either. I believe it is a person’s right to do whatever they want with their body, and as long as I don’t hear about it, I say let them be. But sometimes artists like to publicize their illicit drug use, and one of the biggest culprits is Nathan Williams of Wavves.

We all know about his public breakdown at Primavera in 2009, but that was more concerning than irritating. My peeve with Williams’ drug use stems from a YouTube interview with Consequence of Sound from 2013. In the video, Williams stumbles around like a bumbling idiot while tripping on acid. It’s incidents like these that make me think, “Wow, do I really want to tell people I like this band?” As I said before, I am not against individual freedoms, but when an artist glorifies drug use like Williams does — just look at his Twitter and Instagram account — I begin to second-guess myself.

With that being said, I still listen to Wavves’ music, and I still moderately enjoy it. As for Williams himself, I’ve learned his offstage antics shouldn’t reflect how I feel about his music. I mean, after all, I listen to some music by some pretty egotistical dudes. It just so happens that they make the best music.

Vybz Kartel

Adam Blyweiss: Musical celebrities and bad behavior—up to and including the worst criminal acts possible—have gone hand-in-hand since time immemorial. How the public reacts, and especially if they forgive, involves strange and fluid calculus based on how bad that behavior is, the passage of time, and how vital the artist is to listeners and/or genres. Yes, I too recoil at abuse charges leveled at the likes of Gary Glitter and Lostprophets’ Ian Watkins, but since the artists weren’t that important to me they didn’t have far to fade into my background. The same goes for watching music’s too-long train of rappers to and from prison, or worse; I don’t often bat an eyelash because I’m either not a fan (sorry, 2Pac) or too new to their game to be a true one (sorry, Biggie). So it feels a little weird to be so disappointed and conflicted by the recent murder conviction of dancehall reggae star Vybz Kartel. I’m not sure why Vybz made a sonic connection with me in the first place—maybe his work with Major Lazer sealed the deal—but there he was, an entertaining beacon in a growing genre with its own issues of violence and hate to address. I want to continue exploring his work but I feel bad and guilty doing so, especially since I’m turned off by both the heinous nature of his crime and the perception of a permissive nature to his incarceration. It’s a life sentence, yes, but he might get to make music during it. Really? Who builds a prison with a recording studio? – AB

Phil Spector

A.T. Bossenger: Phil Spector is perhaps most well known for his contributions as a producer and songwriter. He invented the reverb-heavy ‘Wall of Sound’ approach and produced albums by the likes of The Beatles, Leonard Cohen, and just about half of the most popular 1960s ‘girl groups.’

All that is just fine, but it’s the second thing that Spector is famous for that makes it impossible for me to listen to Let It Be or the Ronettes’ “Baby, I Love You” without cringing. In 2009, Spector was convicted of murdering actress Lana Clarkson. How? With a shotgun. To the mouth. Yikes.

What’s more, Spector reportedly held women he was interested in at gunpoint if they tried to leave his mansion before he wished. I’m not a lawyer; nor can I say exactly what happened between Spector and Clarkson. But I can confidently declare that it’s difficult to listen to bubble-gum pop tracks imagined and orchestrated by a man sentenced to 19 years for murder in the second-degree.

R Kelly

Giovanni Martinez: There have been very few instances where an artist has turned me off. Kanye West has been one that has often kept me on edge, but he’s such an engaging musician, it’s hard to not want to hear what he has to say. However, there is one artist as of late that I have no desire or intention of ever supporting again. Late last year, The Village Voice posted the full articles and investigations in the controversial case against R. Kelly. I’ve never been a huge R. Kelly fan, but I will say that his music has definitely been a part of my adolescence. I don’t know any people my age who don’t get a little nostalgic for “I Believe I Can Fly”, from one of the greatest films ever made.

As I got older, I became more fully aware of the sexual nature of most of R. Kelly’s material. I can’t tell you how many times I would dance with friends in high school to “Ignition (Remix)”. And Hell, I’ve never seen anything like “Trapped In The Closet,” but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t impressed. Still, the details that reporter Jim DeRogatis discovered while on assignment are grim and uncomfortable. Unfortunately, this is a part of our reality, where famous artists in the spotlight have some large skeletons hanging in their closet. The tragedy of these incidents is not only about the young women who were violated, but the fact that no major news outlets have shed any light on it. Rather, they’ve praised or just ignored R. Kelly’s past completely.

R. Kelly has made a career of writing explicit songs about sex, and makes it very hard to separate the art from the artist. And that’s hard to stomach when the person singing them has a history of being sexually predatory to minors. Clearly no one wants to read or hear about this, but it’s a part of our discourse in pop culture. DeRogatis’ work wasn’t for anything and in fact, he did the bulk of the research and provided enough evidence to support the victims of these crimes. Whether or not you may agree with me, it’s well worth a read to better inform those invested in music and the culture surrounding it.

Jef Whitehead

Jeff Terich: Being a black metal fan can be pretty frustrating. Of the most heralded bands of the ’90s in Scandinavia, a pretty significant number of them are somehow connected to some pretty reprehensible stuff. Emperor’s original drummer, Faust, went to prison for stabbing a gay man in a park. Dissection’s Jon Nödtveidt was convicted of a similar crime. Hellhammer of Mayhem has said some pretty racist stuff in interviews (though his biggest influence is apparently Billy Cobham, so, make of that what you will). And then there’s Varg Vikernes, who not only murdered Mayhem guitarist and songwriter Euronymous, but also has been an outspoken white supremacist since, well, as long as anyone’s been keeping track.

Being not much of a fan of Burzum or Dissection or Emperor’s first album, most of this doesn’t bother me that much. (Seriously guys, Filosofem is boring.) No big loss there (though I do like Darkthrone’s Transilvanian Hunger, which features Varg on several songs, and I’ve made my peace with — not going into that here). But just as I was getting acquainted with the US black metal scene, and was struck by Jef Whitehead, aka Wrest’s vocal performance on Sunn0)))’s Black One, the black metal songwriter and vocalist (Leviathan, Twilight, etc.) was arrested for sexual assault charges on his then-girlfriend, the charges of which included rape with tattoo tools. If true, that basically would have been one of the worst things a person can do. In 2012, almost all of the charges were dropped, with the exception of an aggravated domestic battery charge for what court documents revealed as strangulation of his girlfriend. He received a probationary sentence.

So, hey — he didn’t rape a woman with tattoo tools! Reassuring, right? That’s a stupidly low bar to clear. He still abused a woman. He had his day and court and came out a violent prick, but maybe not quite as violent a prick as he could have been. It gets better, though. While awaiting trial for sexual abuse charges, Whitehead releases a Leviathan album called True Traitor, True Whore, which contains track titles like “Every Orifice Yawning Her Price.” He then does a couple interviews with Decibel and Pitchfork that, while not giving much insight to who Jef Whitehead really is, echo that cringeworthy misogyny and anger. Basically, whether or not he did everything he’s accused of, he definitely puts across the message that he’s someone who harbors animosity toward women.

In a sense, I think it’s actually a lot easier to listen to Burzum without subscribing to Vark Vikernes’ hateful politics. He doesn’t write songs with anti-Semitic lyrics or put swastikas on the cover. It’s easy to separate the music from the artist — though I still prefer not to listen, myself. (And if you do, maybe just download it so that he doesn’t get your money, for Pete’s sake.) With Jef Whitehead, it’s different. Not only did he show a pretty dark and misogynistic side of himself — by writing an entire album about the woman who accused him of these crimes, he put the spotlight on it, artistically. It would be one thing if he came out of this totally scot-free, and Whitehead was above reproach. But he didn’t, and he’s not. Metal has a history of casual sexism as it is (see: “girlfriend metal”), and I’d much rather be moving in the other direction.

Chris Brown

Alex Zaragoza: A lot of musicians are total assholes, and the more popular they become, the more their ego swells up to absurdly dickish proportions and they think they can spew shitty comments and behavior freely. Asshole artists are like beached whales that explode their wretched whale guts all over nice beaches — only the whales truly can’t help it.

Usually, I can put my personal feelings for a musician aside and still love their music (*cough* Morrissey *cough*). To be completely turned off to someone’s music because of their behavior is very rare. The only person that’s truly accomplished that is the festering taint blister known as Chris Brown. I listen to a lot of R&B and rap/hip-hop, and early on I loved Brown’s songs. They’re total club bangers. “Run It!” and “Wall to Wall” were the kind of jams that people blast on their way to a party or even Trader Joe’s. Then the smarmy, misogynistic motherfucker’s true colors came out. He beats the shit out of his then-girlfriend, Rihanna, and then acts like he’s the victim when the world despises him; he goes on martyr-like tirades about his fame; he gloats at how tons of women still want to sleep with him despite his actions (Ugh. Come on, ladies); he somehow escapes real legal ramifications for his shitty behavior.

Basically, Chris Brown is the fucking absolute worst. I hate him, and I loathe anyone who collaborates with him for turning a blind eye to his awfulness. When he has another hit on the charts, I’m disgusted. If “Strip,” a hit from his latest album Fortune, was done by anyone else I’d probably be into it, but the fact that it has his name on it basically ruined it for me. Chris Brown and his music can choke on a dick.

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