Why Do We Assume Good Musicians Are Good People?
Chuck Berry's death has reignited familiar questions over how far critics should go in the impulse to conflate a musician’s work and character.
As someone who has written his fair share of terrible music criticism, I can say with authority that there is a lot of shitty music writing out there. But with all due respect to music writers' tendency toward canonizing works prematurely, writing that a producer made a beat from scratch when they're actually just looping a well-known soul hit from the 1970s, and using the word "ethereal," there's nothing worse in the trade than the impulse to conflate a musician's work with their character––except when that musician is a shitty person and a writer really, really, really likes their work. Music occupies this liminal space between art and commerce, authenticity and artifice, emotional expression and pure product––and often, we make arbitrary value judgments as to which way the pendulum ought to swing. For every critical disavowal of Chris Brown or Jef Whitehead in light of their horrible treatment of women, there is a case like Michael Gira or Dr. Dre, whose alleged abuses briefly make the news before getting more or less swept under the rug and therefore tacitly excused.
In today's all-farm-to-table-everything environment of "conscious consumerism"––where we're willing to pay more for a steak if we're told the cow was happy before somebody slaughtered it, clothing companies like Everlane use their dedication to "radical transparency" as a marketing tactic, and it is possible to purchase fair trade cocaine on the deep web––a product's worth is often linked to the perceived ethics of those who produce it. When it comes to music, this means that artists are viewed as part and parcel with the work they create. If they seem like a decent person, we're more apt to listen to their music with favorable ears; conversely, if we enjoy their work, there is part of us that automatically assumes that person embodies the values we assign to their music.
For a less extreme example of this dynamic, take Chance the Rapper. People love him for a whole lot of reasons––not only is his music warm, relatable, and technically complex to boot, but Chance casts himself as a nice guy with an independent streak and a passion for important social issues. By pretty much all accounts, he is exactly that. And for a good chunk of his millions of fans, the news that he donated a million dollars to the Chicago school system probably helped reinforce and justify that fandom: Here is concrete evidence that an artist I like did a good deed, the logic went , therefore, I can feel even better about listening to their music now that I have proof that this person's intentions are pure. Yet this same logic, applied with a different focus, becomes more complicated. While Chance's fans were quick to congratulate him on the donations, they were outraged at a Chicago Sun Times an op-ed by Mary Mitchell of the paper's editorial board, which pointed out that Chance had filed court documents seeking to set his child support payments to his ex at a rate lower than the state-recommended payment of 20 percent of the non-custodial parent's income. "You can't hand out money to benefit children you don't know and come off looking like you are being stingy when it comes to your own child," wrote Mitchell, whose piece prompted a wave of online harassment by angry Chance fans that was arguably spurred on by Chance himself. While I'd argue that it's absurd to expect art to perfectly adhere to the always complicated and messy personal lives of those who make it, if we're going to grade people's music based on their extramusical behavior, we can't be surprised or upset when someone when someone who takes issue with that behavior suggests––fairly or not––that it reflects poorly upon the artist's character. "There is something in us that wants good [artists] to be good people," the late Jenny Diski once wrote. "There's also something in us that knows pigs can't fly."
"There is something in us that wants good [artists] to be good people," the late Jenny Diski once wrote. "There's also something in us that knows pigs can't fly."
Of course, the social and technological infrastructure that fosters these attitudes is relatively new, and the tension between the attitudes of today and the events of the past can be seen in the writing that has popped up in the wake of Berry's death, much of which implicitly asks whether Berry's status in the rock and roll canon should be revoked in light of his serial misconduct with women. "When it comes to real-world actions that harm real-world people, art pales in significance," The Outline's Andy Martino asserted in a Berry post-mortem titled, "Why can't we be honest about Chuck Berry?" The thrust of the piece is below:
The St. Louis native turned to music after serving time for armed robbery as a teenager. By the mid-1950s, he had made himself into one of the most influential songwriters and performers of the century, with devotees and imitators that included Keith Richards and John Lennon, and a stylistic reach that extended into and beyond the MCs of the 1970s Bronx. His most prolific period as a recording artist thudded to a halt in 1959 with an arrest and conviction for violating the Mann Act; Berry, then 33, was accused of having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
In his attempt to provide a counterbalance to the critical tendency to gloss over talented male musicians' abusive behavior, Martino indulges in the fantasy that contemporary accountability politics can be projected onto the past (additionally, by failing to note that both John Lennon and Richards' bandmate Brian Jones were both domestic abusers, Martino inadvertently plays into the trope of highlighting the transgressions of black men while overlooking those of white men). Still, it is undeniable that if Berry were a modern musician who was sent to jail for sexual impropriety with a minor, his career would have deservedly ground to a halt.
But Berry came from a time in which artists were not synonymous with their art. "People don't want to hear your personal problems, they have enough of their own," he told a zine in the 1980, explaining his songwriting philosophy. "Even if you sing or listen to songs about problems they won't go away." Instead, Berry's creative methods reflected the mass production boom of the 1950s, in which we celebrated that which was affordable and designed to appeal to as many people as humanly possible––regardless of whether the Levittown house was full of asbestos, the President with movie-star good looks was the scion of a shady business empire, or the guy who wrote our favorite songs was secretly a monster. After all, Berry went to prison in the prime of his career for taking a 14-year-old girl across state lines, allegedly for sexual purposes, only to emerge from jail even more popular than he was when he came in. (By the late 80s, when Berry was charged with assaulting a woman in a hotel room and then accused of secretly filming women use the bathroom of his Missouri restaurant, meanwhile, his career as a hitmaker was long over.)
Clearly, there are a lot of narratives, both implicit and explicit, to be considered when assessing the life and legacy of musicians like Berry, and each, as Austin Bryant argued earlier this week in his obituary on Noisey, deserves close examination. If, as Richard Hell wrote, "every history of art is an alternative history," then Berry's music exists in a universe where, for a time, he could do no wrong. He accomplished the seemingly impossible task of putting the ineffable attitudes of a budding generation into words and riffs, in the process serving as a genesis point for rock and roll as we know it. However, it's entirely conceivable that the same sense of fearlessness and daring that helped him write songs like "Johnny B. Goode" and "Roll Over Beethoven" made him feel exempt from the rules governing interpersonal interaction, which in turn led to reprehensible behavior that damaged people's lives. So if we acknowledge the possibility that the same intrinsic traits that spurred Berry––or any other artist, for that matter––to create great music could have also caused him to harm others, how the fuck are we supposed to reconcile the two histories we're left with? ( The New Yorker's David Remnick does an admirable job of engaging with the totality of Berry's life, though his piece serves as the exception and not the rule.)
There are rarely either-or propositions when it comes to artists and morality. Instead, I've been thinking about something Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Ethics of Ambiguity, that can be interpreted as offering a perspective in which the good and bad of a person's life can be considered simultaneously:
The individual is defined only by his relationship to the world and other individuals; he exists only by transcending himself, and his freedom can be achieved only through the freedom of others. He justifies his existence by a movement which, like freedom, springs from his heart but which leads outside of him.
Under this line of thinking, we are able to define Berry's life by his relationships with others and therefore can (and should) judge him harshly––while still embracing the fact that Chuck Berry's flaws don't negate the fact that not only did he something that was of great significance to millions of people, he played an integral part in jump starting the massive shifts in culture that took place in the 1960s. Rather than determining Berry's ultimate worth by creating some arbitrary tally where the good he did is measured against the bad, we can acknowledge that the music Berry put out into the world was not a reflection of his personal character, even if each came from the same place. Instead, Berry's musical legacy and personal transgressions become parts of a greater, extremely complicated whole, one that requires us to hold multiple conflicting narratives up as equally valid. Yes, Chuck Berry was a fucked up guy who did some fucked up things, but his music exists outside of his personal context––forged by one history, but taken by the masses who used it to create history of their own.
Future Days is a weekly column by Drew Millard. If you agree or disagree with what he writes, feel free to text him at 828-675-8574.
Lead photo by Charles Paul Harris / Getty Images
Nolan Allan is a photographer based in North Carolina. Follow him on Instagram.
Drew Millard used to work at Noisey, but now he doesn't, so now he has this column. He lives in North Carolina with his dog. Follow him on Twitter