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Opinion: When do you separate the art from the artist?

What do you do when your favorite singer has committed such terrible acts?
Image by Ava Weinreis
When a musician of high status has done wrong, is separating the art from the name the only option we have as fans?

When I first learned about Rex Orange County’s sexual assault allegations, I was devastated. I grew up listening to his music and his songs were scattered throughout my playlists. When I heard his music afterward, I could only wonder how someone could sing such endearing lines yet commit such a vile act toward another human being.

The charges against him were later dismissed, but I still couldn’t bring myself to listen to his music. Could we really be sure he was innocent?

That’s the problem, it remains uncertain in my mind, forever tainting his songs.

There has been an abundance of artists like Rex Orange County who have been reprimanded for their words and actions. While most people choose to completely discard the artist as I did, can others continue to listen to their music even if they don’t agree with their actions?

Separating the art from the artist has been a widely debated topic. Some can view the music and the artist as two separate entities. Others believe that continuing to listen to the music created by the artist is linked to supporting them.

Diane Miller, host and producer of the local show at The Current, finds that anyone can be an outstandingly talented artist but also an awful person at the same time.

“Kanye West is a talented, creative, individual and his ability to produce music is outstanding. To me, that is a fact,” Miller said. “What is also a fact is that Kanye West is a racist. He is not a good person. Those are two subsets that can exist simultaneously.”

Kanye West is no stranger to speaking immorally and has no shame in his opinions. After making multiple antisemitic comments, West became an extremely disrespected figure among many.

Yet, his outright bigotry didn’t seem to stop others from continuing to listen to his music. West’s recently dropped album reached number one on Apple and iTunes charts.

Kanye West’s notions have deeply offended many, but are people who solely enjoy his music for its productional excellence automatically tied to his beliefs?

Music and values go hand in hand, according to Liam De Pauw, a second-year student in the School of Music at the University of Minnesota. When the values of an artist are hateful, the music is ultimately ruined.

“There’s a lot of people that still enjoy [Kanye’s] music, and I can see that because for some people, it’s a separate entity from him,” De Pauw said. “At some point, you’re also supporting the person who created that and supporting the hurtful things that he says.”

Another example is Michael Jackson. Jackson was accused of and charged with multiple counts related to child molestation. He was put on trial, but he was acquitted of all charges.

There’s no denying that Michael Jackson helped define music and pop culture into what it is today. Just like Rex Orange County, Jackson’s allegations were dropped. But, because of Jackson’s legendary presence, does that mean it’s easier for him to get off the hook?

“[Michael Jackson] is an outstanding artist and his music is still worth billions of dollars to this day,” Miller said. “He also did what he did and it was so wrong. That’s when I think it becomes more complex.”

Nonetheless, Jackson’s music and image are still idolized today — losing little to no credibility in the eyes of the public. It would be unrealistic to completely remove the discography of someone as iconic as Jackson.

Art is often used as a vehicle to convey one’s thoughts or feelings. Does this mean artists are essentially tied to the art they release? Or, once it’s put out into the world, does it instead become the public’s personal interpretation?

“Can I still listen to [Kanye’s] music and enjoy it? To a degree, sure. I have some ability to be able to separate it,” Miller said. “Do I agree with Kanye’s viewpoints? Hell no. Do I think they’re wrong? Yeah, I do.”

So, when is it appropriate to separate music from the name of a musician who has committed serious faults?

In the end, it is up to the listener to make that decision.

It is not necessarily a black-and-white situation. Humans are flawed by nature — leaving everybody susceptible to making mistakes. Because of this, room for growth and correction should be allowed. When an artist accused of wrongdoings takes the time and effort to learn and speak to victims they may have offended, second chances can be made possible.

However, when it comes to a legendary artist such as Michael Jackson, whose music has become integrated with culture, separating the art from the artist may be the only option we have as an audience.

When an artist such as Kanye West is completely aware of what they are saying and doing, leniency should be a carefully contemplated option.

“If your art speaks for you, then in another way your art speaks for the hateful things you do as well,” De Pauw said.

There’s a difference between making mistakes and intentionally being malicious. It’s important to be aware of the difference when you decide whose music you want to blast in your headphones.

The ability to separate the music from the artist comes with the acknowledgment of their errors. If you can see them as two distinct entities, then you can enjoy them for their musical excellence.

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  • Yve
    Mar 9, 2024 at 1:10 pm

    Excellent argument! The music and people you surround yourself have a big influence on what you’re thinking and believing, and you tackled a difficult subject super well!