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The Good Listener: When Good Musicians Do Bad Things

Jan 9, 2014

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and amid a deluxe version of the Ashley Monroe record in which "deluxe" means "packed in a 10-pound wooden crate" is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, how and whether to enjoy music by folks whose real-life actions offend us.

Patrick writes via email: "Your recent column got me thinking about something that happened to me over the summer, when I had the chance to meet one of my favorite musicians. The musician — no naming names — was very nice in person after the concert, and we ended up running into each other at a nearby bar after the show. At the end of the night, the musician clearly left the bar with a person who was not his/her spouse.

"This conflicts with my feelings about the artist and my feelings about his/her love songs, and I don't buy into the 'rock stars will be rock stars' nonsense my friends keep feeding me. Obviously, this isn't the only way a musician can appear imperfect in someone's mind. It's just one instance, but it bothered me. Should a musician's negative real-life actions dictate how a listener feels about his or her music?"

I don't wish to minimize, forgive or otherwise wave away anyone's transgressions when I say that virtually everyone you know has done something supremely lousy — something that would diminish him or her in the eyes of friends, neighbors and admirers. If you had a window into the lives of all the people you admire, particularly on their worst days, the odds are high that you'd run across something on the phone-book-thick menu of selfish human behavior.

Your refusal to accept "rock stars will be rock stars" as an excuse for crummy behavior is 100 percent justifiable and admirable, and I agree with it completely. But I'd also remind you that you don't have a complete picture of the story as it played out last summer. You don't know which boundaries were crossed when the musician left the bar, just as you don't know which boundaries exist between the musician and his or her spouse. Which is why I'd encourage you — as an unaffected third party who'd only just met this person — to refrain from casting judgment on behavior you at best partially witnessed.

Are there musicians whose misdeeds sink to a level at which you can no longer enjoy their music? We all have different triggers — some political, some based on our perceptions of others' bigotries, some based on simple human behavior — that can cause us to write off entertainers. But even Gary Glitter, whose legal history contains some genuine horrors, still gets his best-known song played in stadiums around the world. These lines have a way of moving around, and they're different from artist to artist, fan to fan and even song to song. But it often, for many people, boils down to how admirable the art was to begin with. For you, you'll need to decide for yourself whether the transgression overwhelms the talent — just as you would weigh a friend's transgression against a willingness to remain in contact with him or her.

Finally, I'd encourage you to suspend any disillusionment about your favorite musician's ability to write convincing love songs. The cultural canon overflows with wonderful works written to celebrate relationships that crashed and burned; just as atheists have written terrific Christmas music, great love songs can come from cynics and sexless saints alike. Some of the greatest pieces ever created, in music and beyond, spring forth from a well of creative empathy: the ability to step out of one's own experiences to capture what others must feel. And besides, aren't the best love songs — like the best loves — a little messy anyway?

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

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