Separating the art from the artist in the age of #metoo
In May of last year, Spotify announced its forthcoming policy to remove hateful content from its platform. The first half of the policy resolved to axe any content that “promotes, advocates, or incites hatred or violence against a group or individual” on the basis of race, religion, gender identity, sex, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, veteran status, or disability.” The second half of Spotify’s new policy targeted content that wasn’t ‘hate content’ itself, but was made by artists or other creators who had demonstrated hateful conduct personally.
Swiftly following the announcement, music by controversial artists R.Kelly and XXXTentacion, both of whom are accused of multiple accounts of sexual assault, were wiped from promoted playlists. The move was undoubtedly in response to external pressures stemming from the #MuteRKelly campaign, as well as the widely publicised details of XXXTentacion’s alleged abuse against his then-pregnant partner. It was also an attempt by the streaming service to spearhead the music industry’s foray into the behemoth #Metoo movement taking Hollywood by storm.
#Metoo gathered momentum following the sexual assault allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein. The movement’s raison d'être was to raise awareness around sexual harassment and assault, and the world was enthralled by big-name perpetrators of sexual violence and their equally influential victims. What followed was career ending condemnation; Kevin Spacey was axed from House of Cards, The Cosby Show reruns were halted, and it doesn’t look like Weinstein will be making any movies anytime soon.
The first half of Spotify’s new policy was a welcome one; it retroactively codified a decision to remove a series of white nationalist bands from the platform in 2017. The second half, however, was met with considerable backlash, forcing the platform to reconsider their stance and, eventually, renege its policy on artist misconduct entirely. The debacle raised an interesting yet age-old question: should we separate the art from the artist?
Bohemian Rhapsody, a rock and a hard place
Behind every chart-topping single and blockbuster film, there’s an army of people who contributed to its success. While stripping art of its profits, accolades or exposure punish perpetrators of assault, the repercussions flow far beyond the person (or people) it was intended to target. It penalises many for the transgressions of one. This is an oft-cited reason for separating the art and the artist, as is the perceived threat to authenticity when regulation encroaches into the private lives of creatives. What’s more, the roles of judge, jury, arbitrator and executioner are privileges best left to the courts, not Hollywood royalty and studio execs.
But taking a stand against sexual assault punishes and deters perpetrators. It’s also a show of support for the victims, and for the cause. To support art is to support the artist behind it, their behaviour and their methodology (we are, after all, living in an age of conscious consumption); when we elevate that art with praise and reward, we only elevate the artist closer superstardom, further skewing the asymmetric power imbalance of which sexual assault is a product. The Time’s Up organisation vocalised this stance when it tweeted in support of GLAAD’s decision to pull Bohemian Rhapsody’s nomination for outstanding film following allegations of sexual assault by director Bryan Singer: “Those who hire alleged abusers must recognise that these decisions not only subject their employees to possibly unsafe working conditions but also perpetuate a broken system that rewards powerful people and allows them to act without consequence.”
Reframing the question from the lens of practicality is an equally dubious exercise. Spotify’s attempt to play moral police sat at the heart of the scrutiny surrounding its new policy, as did the glaringly open-ended parameters of what, and who, qualified as exhibiting ‘hateful conduct’. Chris Brown famously assaulted Rihanna in 2009, and Michael Jackson’s alleged grooming of young boys is, to this day, a topic of conversation and now the subject of a new documentary. Neither were impacted by the new policy.
Discrepancies in treatment are nothing new, they only raise new questions. Is retroactive action an appropriate form of punishment? Or is it enough to simply strip all privileges from here on in? Days before GLAAD axed its nomination, Bohemian Rhapsody took out Best Motion Picture Drama at the Golden Globes, and it’s currently nominated for Best Picture at the 2019 Acadamy Awards. Many are calling for the Acadamy to follow suit, and the Golden Globes has come under fire for failing the #timesup movement (it was only last year attendees wore black and Oprah bought the audience to their feet declaring “their time is up!”, referring precisely to men like Singer).
And should we treat an alleged abuser with greater leniency than a convicted one, if at all? Bill Cosby, who was convicted of rape in 2018, was expelled from the Academy of Motion Pictures, stripped of his Mark Twain Prize, the Kennedy Centre Honor and a raft of honorary University degrees. Meanwhile, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce refuses to remove his star from the Hollywood walk of fame.
Press mute, speak up
Briana Younger, writing on Surviving R.Kelly for the New York Times, says that Kelly’s power over his victims “was, in part, granted by his position as a superstar, which is, in turn, granted by loyal listeners who make it so”.
As consumers, we vote with our money, our actions and our voices (or social media feeds), whatever our opinion may be. Businesses, organisations and industries operate by a code of ethics, but behind every action they take, every social good policy, every show of support, it’s the consumer these entities work to appease. Celebrities and industry big shots are not immune to market forces: they’re dropped from labels and replaced on set the moment reward no longer validates risk.
Earlier this year, Spotify introduced a mute button; a feature which allows users to block specific artists from streaming on their Spotify accounts. Despite its impartial applicability, the new functionality has been posited as a conveniently-timed move, coinciding with backlash from the Surviving R.Kelly documentary series (some have even called it the #muteRKelly button).
It’s very possible that Spotify has, once again, failed to consider the nuances of their decision (what about producers who’re alleged abusers?), and there’s an argument to say that they’ve simply lifted the burden of moral policing and dumped it onto the rest of us. But for the millions of consumers whose only form of protest is the walls of their twitter feeds, having more agency – even if it's choosing not to play Ignition – is a form of protest and a loud one at that.
It’s the “small choices of selfish indifference” we make as consumers that “while seemingly innocuous on an individual level, is one of the many threads upholding a predator’s web,” writes Briana. No matter how rigged the system may seem, or systemic the problem may be, “muting R Kelly is the least anyone can do.” Maybe Spotify got it right after all?