There are few pleasures in life which inspire unbridled passion and faithful devotion as much as music does. As music devotees, our affinities are such that – as with football fans and the players they worship – we feel as though we share in their glories, and even help them through their low points, as they have helped us. But what about when those artists we love like family do something truly heinous? What impact does that have on the music that connected us to them?
In December 2013, former Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins pleaded guilty to the horrendous child sex offences he had been charged with a year previously. Shortly afterwards, high street entertainment retailer HMV pulled all Lostprophets records from their shelves, permanently. While this was certainly a wise PR move, was it really necessary? Despite the truly horrific nature of his crimes, documented in full here (warning: truly horrific) which led to a decades-long prison sentence, is the music itself really affected for those who enjoyed it so much before the awful truth came out?
It’s a significant moral tussle; that’s for sure. Conveniently, almost every artist who has been convicted of historical sex offences in recent years has also been responsible for a musical back catalogue which was mostly fucking terrible. Personally-speaking, I’d include Lostprophets in that bracket, but there are more glaring examples – Gary Glitter, for instance. There can’t be too many people who are devastated that we don’t hear Leader of the Gang on the radio anymore. Even those public entertainment figures who are tried by media are subject to the same treatment – Cliff Richard springs to mind. On the flipside, the (often severe) moral and legal indiscretions of legendary artists tend to be swept under the rug rather readily.
In the late 1980s, original rock & roll legend Chuck Berry bought a restaurant in Wentzville, Missouri, and was subsequently sued by several women who claimed that he had installed a video camera in the ladies’ bathroom. Berry denied the charges, but a police raid on Berry’s home reportedly lead to the discovery of videotapes of women using the restroom, one of whom was a minor. In order to avoid the child abuse charges, Berry agreed to plead guilty to marijuana possession, after a felony quantity of the drug was discovered during the same raid. He was given a six-month suspended jail sentence, two years’ unsupervised probation, and was ordered to donate $5,000 to a local hospital. Though Berry was never convicted of the initial offences in court, the musician opted for a $1,200,000 class action settlement with 59 women. Read into that what you will.
Likewise, bona fide guitar hero Jimmy Page has received numerous accusations of statutory rape, dating back decades to his Led Zeppelin heyday. Most notable was the story of the alleged 1974 kidnapping and subsequent sexual abuse of ‘groupie’ Lori Maddox, then just 14 years old. Still, he remains one of the most highly-respected musicians of all time, and these alleged actions are seldom discussed in any major public forum. This surely begs the question – are we willing to turn a blind eye when the quality of an artist’s work is so high?
It’s certainly true that the very knowledge of our musical heroes’ indiscretions – and the subsequent weighing against our love for their work – make us incredibly uncomfortable. Essentially, our reaction comes from fear of our own psyche and the potential darkness within. It’s a fairly understandable fear that our tastes, proclivities, and sentimental affiliations, rather than our actions, dictate who we really are. After all, we listen to music to make us feel a certain way, and if the person that produced the music was a degenerate pervert or sadistic criminal, how does that reflect upon us, the listener?
This goes double for singers – the ones who pen the lyrics, and belt them out with the emotional weight that pulls us in. Particularly in our formative years, music – and lyrics in particular – can comfort, validate, and even define us. If the person telling those stories that we relate to, and involve ourselves with so heavily, is a degenerate pervert who most would feel no remorse for killing, then what does that say about us? We could even go as far as thinking that the lyrics were somehow subliminal justification or endorsement of the heinous acts of the person who delivered them. The most extreme example of this, of course, is the case of Ian Watkins, which left a vocal, rabidly passionate set of young fans instantly retreating into a palpably awkward silence.
The truth is that the music itself doesn’t define us, and neither do the musicians who make it. It’s how the music colours and reflects upon our own respective experiences and lives that defines our connection to those songs and to those stories. The basic notion of deliberately eradicating a disgraced artist’s music from our lives is that listening to the art of a monster makes us a monster, in and of itself. This premise, when one thinks about it objectively, holds very little water. There is only as much validity in that premise as their is in implying that listening to Slayer‘s depictions of murderers, rapists and necrophiliacs means that we are murderers, rapists, and necrophiliacs. Which, of course, is ludicrous. It is our actions – not our thoughts, not our emotional connections – which define us as human beings.
There’s a strong argument to be made for discouraging any financial benefit towards an artist who has committed heinous acts, and this was presumably the rationale behind HMV’s decision to consign Lostprophets’ back catalogue to the Memory Hole. Still, the point remains – listening to Ian Watkins’ music does not make you a paedophile. It does not make you a paedophile-sympathiser. It simply means that you have awful, awful taste.
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