I have a confession: I’m a Kanye fanboy. I’m not proud of it. In fact, Kanye seems to make it a goal that we all feel slightly ashamed to support him.
Every once in a while, when there’s a particularly heinous Twitter rant, or another ambiguous delay on an already thrice postponed album release, I say, that’s enough, and pack it up to hike on over to the Moral High Ground. Where the people who refuse to illegally stream music are pontificating to the people who cleansed their playlists of ell Michael Jackson, Even “Smooth Criminal.” But then a song from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy comes on shuffle, and I hastily double back towards the valley of moral ambivalence, muttering something about Wagner, and separating the man from the music.
This pattern, and its accompanying mental gymnastics, are all part of a musical moral circus as old as it is arduous: artist do bad thing, but make good music. Periodically, and more complicatedly: artist repeatedly do bad thing, or assortment of bad things, to the extent that you question the very moral fiber of their being, but also continue to make very good or even possibly excellent music (worth noting here that we are no longer talking about Kanye), and here we are, the fans, sitting in the bleachers at the moral circus, and what are we to do? The reason we’re in attendance in the first place is because, on some level, the show speaks to us. It’s more than just entertainment value, it’s art.
And, like any art, it creates a kind of cosmic connection between creator and consumer. It’s a window into the soul of the artist, and a mirror into our own. But at the same time, we can’t exactly ignore the bio section of the Moral Circus Programme we received upon entry, which details the debaucherous and occasionally straight up depraved personal lives of some of the performers. We’re left asking ourselves: these are the people I came to see? This person, who is capable of such cruelty, created the music that resonated so profoundly in my soul?
Occasionally, I’ll catch wind that another artist I used to love is on trial for some egregious, inconceivable crime, and the thought will inevitably creep into my mind: that’s not me, that’s not human at all. That’s something else, a different breed entirely. From there, it’s suddenly a short, unobstructed leap to allowing my compassion to shrivel, my empathy to evaporate. Screw them, I think. That’s no artist, that’s a monster. Let them rot. But, without fail, echoes of their music will return and peel back the cocoon of animosity, tearing through the layers of fear and denial, and extracting the truth in that way that art has of extracting the truth from everyone.
And the truth, as far as I can tell, is this: we’re all human. Yes, humans are capable of terrible, unthinkable things, and those things should never be erased, their victims never silenced, their perpetrators never glorified. But their humanity can’t be denied. The music provides indisputable evidence.
To clarify, I’m not advocating that we exonerate unconditionally. I’m not trying to preach from the Moral High Ground, as a perfect being, full of forgiveness.
Quite the opposite, really: I’m shouting up from the Valley of Moral Ambivalence, saying something like, yes, people are Garbage, and yes, admittedly, some people seem like they may just be composed of 100% Garbage all the way through.
But look, look at this Beautiful, Resonant Thing that this alleged Garbage Person created, is that not proof enough that under all of that trash, there’s some trace of humanity? Or proof, at the very least, that we all contain some trace of Garbage?
We’re all human. No, we don’t need to hold hands in a circle, singing Kumbaya, for we are all brothers and sisters, and together we may transcend. But, I will say this: next time one of your old beloved artists is on trial, react with intention. Don’t close yourself off, wipe them clean from your playlists, and deny the part of you that ever identified with them. Instead, go and illegally stream your favorite songs of theirs. Acknowledge the feelings they gives you. Recognize that, at some point, there was something inside of this artist that resonated with something inside of you.
Allow your empathy to blossom, and your compassion to flow. Hate them for what they did, sure, but don’t hate them for what they are. Because, deep down, we are all alike.