January 20, 2010

Shut Up and Sing

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In 2007, Amy Winehouse released her now insanely popular hit “Rehab,” a lyrically blunt single that boasted of her refusal to receive medical help for her increasingly apparent drug and alcohol addiction. She was photographed with white powder scattered around the rims of her nostrils, allegedly had her stomach pumped after an overdose and previously admitted to self-mutilation. Meanwhile, her record Back to Black managed to become one of the greatest selling albums of that year, shipping over 10 million copies worldwide.

Sex sells, but does scandal sell even more?

Whether or not an artist’s personal life affects our enjoyment of his or her body of work depends on many factors, most notably the number and gravity of the traumatic or horrific events made public .

But in a perfect world, shouldn’t talent trump all? Musicians should be commended for their songwriting or their vocal abilities, not condemned for what they do off-stage. Actors should be respected and awarded for their character work, not ostracized for their personality behind the scenes. And painters and architects should be admired for their creative eye, not damned for their private affairs. Right?

Or is the ideal world one in which only the good guy ever wins? By the rules of justice, a rapist shouldn’t be provided security, a murderer shouldn’t be living a life he or she wants to be living and a thief shouldn’t be given financial security.

In the case of Winehouse, should a drug addict really be given more financial support, only to be wasted (no pun intended) on a substance that is so obviously destroying her? The support from the fans isn’t leading to more releases, just more relapses.

Winehouse’s commercial success despite personal trauma and immoral lifestyle isn’t unique in the music world. Britney Spears, for instance, was said to be heading down a path of psychological destruction when she recorded her album Blackout, but critics have universally acclaimed the record to be her best yet. Chris Brown admitted to beating Rihanna to a bloody unconsciousness but still peaked at #7 on Billboard 200. Ke$ha, also known as the worst thing to happen to music since T-Pain, has YouTube videos in which she’s clearly stealing from charity bins in Germany, but she has one of the biggest songs of 2010 and debuted at #1 with her new album. And remember the child pornography charges against R. Kelly?

Clearly, immoral lifestyles aren’t preventing audiences from listening, admiring and ultimately paying for these singers’ work. With time, a makeover and an exclusive interview on a major television network, a wrongdoer can convince America to forgive and forget. But I feel that when an overwhelming amount of evidence supports a case that a certain singer has committed an absolutely horrifying crime, like domestic abuse or pedophilia, it should take more than a smile and collaboration with Lil Wayne to win back the love from fans.

In the movie world, Woody Allen left his wife for her adopted daughter (or his biological son’s sister), but he continues having commercial success and critical acclaim with the likes of his 2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Roman Polanski was accused of sexually assaulting a thirteen year-old girl but still went on to win an Academy Award. Actors have also been continuously making comebacks despite personal drama, like Mel Gibson after anti-Semitic remarks and Sean Penn after allegedly assaulting Madonna during their marriage.

Ultimately I’d like to believe that you can unconditionally segregate an artist’s integrity from his or her resume, but because the personal lives of artists are so reflected in their art, the two are much too entangled to try to unknot.

I can’t listen to Ike Turner without thinking of his abusing Tina Turner, watch a Mel Gibson movie without wondering if he’s truly a Jew hater, tune into 30 Rock without anticipating Alec Baldwin calling Tina Fey a “rude, thoughtless little pig” or attempt to dance to “Thriller” without thinking of those molestation charges, but that doesn’t make any of these discographies, films, episodes or songs any less enjoyable.

At the end of the day, when I purchase a single, an album or a concert ticket associated with someone with a less than perfect personal life, I realize that I’m not exactly supporting the artist’s private antics. I’m telling them to just shut up and sing.

Original Author: John Taechin Lee