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Can we separate the ART from the ARTIST?

Welcome to WEEK 212 of MUSIC is Not a GENRE (Video Episode #38) Can We Separate the ART from the ARTIST?

Dissecting the Elephant

Michael Jackson - Thriller (1982)

Elephants are great. Majestic creatures. Hidden talents. Etc. Etc. They’re not my favorite animal (that would be something in the primate family), but there comes a time when they need to be paid attention to. Hence this week’s topic.

I don’t see a strong reason to go over the content of this album. Almost everyone in the world above a certain age knows it at this point, and those who don’t eventually will. Even with the limited time we’ve spent at stores/restaurants this year, I’ve heard songs from this album about a dozen times.

So in a sense, this week’s topic is less about actual music and more about that aforementioned elephant. Which is what? It’s the man himself. The notorious legend. The complex history and psychological and emotional labyrinth. Michael Jackson.

There is absolutely no disputing that MJ’s music is brilliant. From his time with his bros through the majority of his solo career, milestones and innovations abounded. Not to mention it sounded amazing and is damn fun to listen to. Many many songs have become a part of our lives whether we like it or not.

As for the man himself, we’re conflicted. You as an individual may not be. You may have already decided what side of the line you fall on, or that you’re comfortable straddling it. As a collective society, however, we don’t know what to do with him anymore. We can’t ignore him as we might a lesser known artist or one less relevant to our current times. But we can’t quite embrace him the way we used to.

I think it’s great that we’re now at a place where we don’t just sweep things under the rug, shrug our shoulders, and make excuses. It’s something we need to build on and expand to all areas of life – the workplace, personal relationships, etc. When it comes to things like the arts and sports, however, it’s trickier. Can we – should we – separate the art from the artist? Can we say: Hey, this person was flawed, perhaps deeply and disturbingly, yet contributed beauty and genius to the world. Aren’t we the same to some degree? Don’t we hope that, despite our many flaws, we still make a positive difference by existing and doing good? If any of that is true and acceptable, when does a line get crossed past the point of no return? How bad is too bad? Who gets a pass for being a racist, misogynist asshole who hasn’t necessarily done anything flat out wrong, and/or who doesn’t get a pass for being a loving, caring, progressive person who has done some truly heinous things? History is rife with people who were way less than positive forces in the world (Richard Wagner, Ty Cobb), but whose contributions in other ways we still somehow revere.

There are no easy answers. As individuals, all our crossed lines are curvy and wiggly. As a society, we do need to have baseline standards of behavior and respect. Even so, there may still be room for us to appreciate the OBJECTS (songs, books, movies, comedy, sports feats, even political and social gains) while calling to accountability the SUBJECTS (MJ, Lovecraft, Gibson, Louis C.K., Woods, Gandhi). I don’t know, and I’m not sure I’ve even answered this for myself. But it’s an important question to keep trying to answer, for all of us.

Truth to self as well as power: I’m not perfect either (shocker!). I’ve chronicled this in many of my songs, including the one below. I leave you to figure out what context this came from, and how to judge:

Do you have an answer to this question? Is your answer the same across the board, or are there people you make exceptions for? Who might those be and why? Discuss dammit!

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