Separating the Artist from the Human Being
by Jasmine Chen
When I first listen to a piece of music, I listen to it with just my ears. Before all the hype, radio promotions, YouTube plays, and music videos permeate and possibly distort my perception of it. Music is a very interesting platform of art, as it often finds itself lost in the mires of entertainment, business, and image—most of which compromise the artistry itself. Other factors influence the production of music as well, such as discussions on what is authentic rap and what is cultural appropriation. I am not negating the importance of ongoing discussions regarding such topics—that would be like dismissing the need for political correctness and awareness and sensitivity to other cultures: these conversations are one of the most powerful aspects unique to American culture.
But once in awhile, I wonder if external factors in other means propelling an unknown to fame is more of a hindering distraction;
I’ll turn on the radio to hear catchy songs that find themselves in the top 10 and wonder how they got there. Many of my peers lament the downfall of music in recent years, and sometimes I agree that the aversion to today’s music is not always necessarily a side effect of the generational gap. Not many can deny the sexualization of music and the fact that song themes brag about fame, b****es, money, alcohol, addiction, weed: these topics are prevalent and oftentimes become fallbacks for artists looking to make a quick hit. Party music that appeals to the id of our psychological makeup is all well and good, but lately it seems to have become an unoriginal, lazy travesty of what music can be.
No one can deny the rapping talent of Nicki Minaj as the queen of hip-hop or the great strides of mixing and creating new sounds in Justin Bieber’s most recent album, Purpose. I appreciate the honesty of the lyrics and, bottom line, enjoy listening to his music. I don’t think the commendable quality of his music should be followed by something like “Trap Queen” by Fetty Wap, which follows the stereotypical trend of weed, fame, and misogyny. Kanye West is praised for bringing back meaning and thought to rap, and Rihanna’s music ranges from the popular trends of beat-you-over-the-head, repetitive lyrics (her latest hit “Work”) to more personal, pondering lyrics of “Stay.” Perhaps these are just my musical tastes and opinions, but like all interpretation of art, there is a general standard to what is good or bad.
Often, the image of an artist’s music is intertwined with their reputation as a human being, and some entertainers are no doubt multitalented in their amazing stage presence, dance skill, and acting ability, rather than solely the raw music itself—think Jennifer Lopez. This is one of the reasons why some open online platforms like YouTube and SoundCloud are so wondrous in giving the opportunity to hidden gems and relatively unknown artists. At the end of the day, the music industry is a capitalist model dependent on marketing, and we find ourselves more interested in One Direction’s most recent love interests, the hackneyed parade of female nudity to accompany rape-esque lyrics in Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines,” or Chris Brown’s domestic abuse scandals.
In an alternate world, music in its purest form would stand alone, with perhaps only a sneak peek into an artist’s life as it relates to the creation or inspiration of their art.
Good music—its atmosphere, lyrics, and melody—will naturally sway you to feel certain emotions and lead you to interpret its meaning; the music video can help add to the story, but it should never overtake the original song for center stage. Nicki Minaj was recently videotaped mockingly commanding a person in a wheelchair to “walk!,” displaying openly disrespectful signs of ableism. Justin Bieber’s antics writing a thoughtless message in Anne Frank’s diary about her “being a Belieber,” Kanye West’s arrogant attitude and egocentric rants, and Taylor Swift’s constant wins at the Grammys despite her use of twerking as a prop—all of these make just another day in the entertainment industry, where we excuse these actions and continue to embrace (or are force-fed) these problematic artists’ music.
The beauty of art is that it reflects human emotion in all its colors, not just the beautiful, and there are many levels of depth to our feelings. But when we hear of artists committing transgressions or other misdemeanors, should we try harder to refuse to support them, or does great music exist on a separate realm from the human being that produces it? Perhaps morally upright or “untainted” music would negate the purpose music serves in the first place, and barely any artist would be left standing. As the audience and as responsible consumers, do we have an obligation to forfeit enjoyment over morality? That is a decision we must make for ourselves.