Music Business

R Kelly, Michael Jackson & More: On separating the musician from their music

An ever-present moral challenge for avid consumers of music and pop culture, Shelly Peiken tackles the fraught issue of separating the artist from their art.

Guest post from Shelly Peiken

Can we separate the art from the artist? I’m sure the question was posed long before I fell in love with songs. Or maybe not. Cancel culture wasn’t a thing back then. The notion drifted onto my radar after the alleged allegations of sexual abuse against Michael Jackson came to light — (he was acquitted but Leaving Neverland was still pretty convincing).

In college Sherry, Pudge, Boyle and I hung a disco ball in our apartment, invited a million friends over and danced all night to Off The Wall. (So many amazing tracks on one pancake of vinyl. Both sides.) I loved MJ way before that. My childhood friend Taryn turned me on to all things Motown. “ABC” (etc) was the soundtrack playing in our “Psychedelic Shack” — a cardboard shelter we constructed with staples and glue in order to escape those pesky neighborhood boys. Flimsy as it was, it was a haven in my backyard under which we could savor our favorite 45s. Until it rained.

As much as “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough“ still makes me want to dance under a disco ball I feel a slight twinge at the first hint of the swirling Intro. But do I change the station? Should I?

More recently there was Ryan Adams whose woeful lament “Pick Me Up” melted my heart. But then there was Mandy and Phoebeemotional abuse and such. We never know for sure. But we kinda do. And whenever I hear a song of his (albeit much less often than I used to), I feel that same twinge. I usually stick it out. But my mind goes there. Damage done. 😩

Only a few weeks ago Eric Clapton (after whose iconic song “Layla” I named my daughter), had an anti-vax tirade which of course, brought attention to some racist sentiments he verbalized in the past. Yes it was a long time ago but not long enough that he didn’t know better. He wasn’t 12. Plus he stole George’s wife. Then again George didn’t really care. (What was up with George?) Still when I hear “Layla”’ I blast it…post twinge. I can’t help it. It’s an anthem for my daughter. 

Producer/convicted murderer 🙄 Phil Spector didn’t actually create a lot of the songs he produced with his wall of sound so I refuse to silence “Imagine,” or “Be My Baby.” I LOVE “BE MY BABY”! Am I making excuses so that I don’t have to make sacrifices?

There have been smaller indiscretions as well like…when I finally went to my first Todd Rundgren concert with obsessive anticipation of “I Saw The Light,” he came out on stage and announced he’d indeed be playing the songs we grew up with (yay!!!) but, he added, performing them was ‘our dream / his nightmare.’ Why would he say something like that? Still, when “I Saw The Light” commenced I forgot his words and jumped up and down like a teenage girl. I’ve seen him three times since (Thank You, Kasim) and I’m going again in November.

I’ve come to realize that I am capable of disconnecting the artist from the art. I may ponder the artist and shake my head but in my view once a creation is released into the universe it exists as separate energy. And a separate entity. The writer may own the copyright but the people own the feeling. It’s out there. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. “She’s Out Of My Life” and “I’ll Be There” might make me squirm a bit when Sirius XM randomly throws them my way but ultimately I won’t deny myself the pleasure of the company of the songs I’ve always cherished.

There are exceptions, however. There are troubled minds, arrested developed souls, misinformed ignoramuses (and wife steelers), inexcusable behaviors (some for which remorse has been shown), and insensitive remarks…and then there are monsters whose atrocities have been proven — heinous and unquestionably unforgivable. As joyous as (R Kelly’s) “I Believe I Can Fly” has made me feel in the past, lifted me out of a funk, had me believe in myself again when I stopped believing, when I hear it again in the future (if anyone is still really willing to play it) I think I will change the station.

Coincidentally when I finished writing this piece, went for a drive and heard this….

Thanks for reading my weekly musings. If you’d like to subscribe please click here. Listen to my album 2.0 etc…Follow me Insta. Visit my Serial Songwriter Facebook Page. Get a signed CD or a copy of “Confessions of a Serial Songwriter. ☮️

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