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The Ethics of Pressing Play: Navigating Popular Music When Alleged Misconduct Is Seemingly Everywhere

As streaming services link our every listen to someone’s financial benefit, we've become obsessed with making the “right” choices about music consumption. But how do we know we’re doing that?

I’m still bummed about PWR BTTM. I had the punk duo’s first album, Ugly Cherries, on constant rotation when it came out in 2015. I was energized by their sound, which was like if Weezer had stayed lo-fi and let themselves be happy sometimes. And I was thrilled to be able to support queer artists who seemed to center marginalized populations at their shows, making sure they were encouraging safe spaces wherever they went. It felt good to listen to their music, not just because I enjoyed their songwriting. It felt right.

This pompous, self-righteous attitude of mine came crumbling down in 2017, when, just before the band released its second album, multiple people came forward with allegations against band member Ben Hopkins, calling them, as one accuser put it, a “known sexual predator” who would allegedly initiate sexual contact with people without consent; pursue minors; and use their reputation as a performer who cares about social justice to target queer people. PWR BTTM denied the claims but appear to have stopped making music together. Aside from my empathy toward Hopkins’ alleged victims, I felt betrayed. I was disgusted by the accusations, but also, if I’m being honest, I was worried about what enjoying their music might say about me.

By now, it is almost trite to say there is no such thing as ethical consumerism under capitalism. The phrase has murky origins and been cited in debates and books on everything from food and the environment to queer femininity. However, it’s become a rallying cry, or perhaps just a cry of desperation, that we’ve been hearing more this year in response to greater acknowledgments of terrible working conditions, the environmental impact of most of our choices and, well, just the general state of the world. Sure, it could be an excuse to throw your hands up and justify buying slave-labor jeans, but for most people, it’s a call to be better. To understand that it’s not our individual choices that are going to change the exploitative structures we’re living under, but collective action. No one is going to buy their way out of this.

Mostly, the critiques of consumerism under capitalism have been about our relationship to material goods: how demand for cheap necessities, made possible by low wages, results in even lower wages for those producing those necessities. But when it comes to consuming art, such as music, things get complicated. In a time when streaming services now link every press of the play button to someone’s financial benefit, we have become obsessed with making the “right” choice when it comes to music consumption: giving our money and our ears to artists that “deserve” it, not just because their music is good, but because they meet some other moral criteria. It could be that they are from a marginalized community that’s traditionally had a harder time finding success, or it could be that they’ve never been accused of sexually assaulting anyone. Whatever our checklist is, it has to do with far more than connecting to a song. So how do we know we’re making the right choices?

There tend to be two poles to the ethical arguments over music consumption. On one end, it’s scorched earth, a refusal to engage with any artist who is even tinged with controversy. It’s a good strategy, but it also cuts out...basically everyone. In 2018, following accusations of misconduct against producers like Detail (who has not responded to the allegations) and executives like Def Jam founder Russell Simmons and former Republic Records president Charlie Walk (both of whom denied the accusations), it can feel like there’s bound to be someone in every supply chain whose success insulates or encourages bad behavior.

On the other, there’s the call to separate the art from the artist. It’s a call we observed in early June, when Spotify rolled back a “hate content and hateful conduct” policy after the removal of artists such as XXXTentacion -- who said he nearly killed an inmate at a juvenile detention center that he suspected was gay for staring at him and whose ex-girlfriend testified that he beat her face until it was unrecognizable -- from the streaming service’s editorial and algorithmic playlists sparked backlash from many within the industry. (XXXTentacion was fatally shot later that month; in a secret recording that surfaced in October, he admitted to abusing his ex.)

This call ignores the collaborative nature of putting out a song -- it's rarely just “the artist,” there’s often dozens of people involved in who are either complicit or affected by the alleged misconduct -- and also tends to let consumers off the hook for actively giving money to alleged sexual predators. It’s also just not how our brains work, according to moral philosophists. We project what we learn and feel from the music onto the artist, assuming that the music is the true expression of who they are, according to Matthew Strohl, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Montana, and Mary Beth Willard, assistant professor of philosophy at Weber State University, who wrote to Billboard in a joint email. “Even though [we] tend not to know much about the artists or their personal views,” they say, “it feels oddly personal when someone who has created something that was the site of such meaning...turns out to be someone [we’d] find personally abhorrent.”

So most of us try to cobble together an approach somewhere in the middle, taking hard stances sometimes (“I won’t listen to R. Kelly anymore”) and fudging things when we want to (“Well, XXXTentacion’s dead, so he won’t make money off it”). While we’ve been doing some version of this dance forever, it’s kicked into high gear recently as the #MeToo movement gained traction and as some of 2018’s breakout artists forced us to confront and reevaluate it. Take the case of Kim Petras. Not only are her songs bops that are incredibly enjoyable on their own, she is a rare transgender pop star. For many in and who support the LGBTQ community, this is important: They feel she deserves success not just because she makes good music, but because she can bring visibility to the trans community at a time when trans rights are under siege. 

However, she also works extensively with producer Dr. Luke, whom Kesha accused of sexual, physical and verbal abuse (among other things) in a much publicized legal battle that has continued to unfold since her initial 2014 lawsuit. (Dr. Luke -- real name: Lukasz Gottwald -- has repeatedly and vehemently denied Kesha’s accusations and sued her for defamation.) Luke has been condemned by some of the pop stars he has previously worked with, so Petras’ continued association with him feels like a slap in the face to Kesha supporters, especially when she said in an interview this spring, “I would like my fans to know that I wouldn’t work with somebody I believe to be an abuser of women,” suggesting that she didn’t believe Kesha’s accusations. 

The debate over Petras’ professional relationship with Luke renews at every milestone in her career: Over the summer, there was outrage when Troye Sivan announced she’d be joining him on tour, resulting in both stars issuing statements on Dr. Luke. Petras clarified her stance, saying, “While I’ve been open and honest about my positive experience with Dr. Luke, that does not negate or dismiss the experience of others or suggest that multiple experiences cannot exist at once.” However, she didn’t indicate that she’d stop working with him in the future. Sivan said he’d still include Petras on his tour, believing she was “growing and changing just like the rest of us,” and that he’d be donating some tour proceeds to the Ally Coalition and RAINN. But as for whether you “should” or “shouldn’t” listen to her, there may never be a right answer.

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Part of what makes the act of evaluating art so difficult is the bizarre power dynamics in the relationship between artist and consumer, explains Laura Gillespie, a general ethics fellow at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford University. “We do occasionally experience some version of these asymmetries in other parts of our adult lives,” she says. “We have bosses. We have therapists. But there’s something distinctively weird about the artist-fan relationship when it’s between two mature adults.”

A musician doesn’t have the same literal power over our well-being and careers that therapists and bosses do, but we still presume there to be a contract -- rules about how we can expect to feel or be treated given their outsized place in our lives. We define our lives with music, whether it’s having a wedding song or an album that got you through a dark period of your life. And because of that, as fans, we feel owed certain behaviors, whether it’s that our favorite artists share our politics and values, or just that they don’t abuse their fans.

That expectation might not be fair. All artists really owe their fans is “some form of basic respect for the audiences investment of time and attention,” Gillespie says. Sometimes, an artist projects a certain set of values, like PWR BTTM, and in those cases the artist may owe a particular commitment: If you say you want to protect and center queer people, you need to not abuse queer people. However, Gillespie notes that it’s often hard to tell whether an artist is really devoted to building that trust with their audience, “or whether the audience has simply projected a set of values and expectations” on someone who never promised them in the first place.

She says a reasonable reaction to feeling that this unspoken contract has been broken is to stop consuming an artist’s music. But pinpointing that violation is often not a matter of facts -- whether Petras empowers Dr. Luke or not, whether her statements discredit Kesha -- but one of our nebulous feelings. (And going by the facts is easier said than done: If you decide you don’t want Dr. Luke to potentially profit from your listening habits, are you boycotting all his work from before Kesha’s lawsuit? Are you avoiding work by songwriters signed to his Prescription Songs company? What about Kesha’s own comeback album, Rainbow, which Dr. Luke stands to benefit from financially?) Basically, we’re driven by guilt, which increases with the strength of our previous connection to the artist. If we were never a fan, it’s no big loss. If we can’t live without their work, we won’t….but it’ll feel much more like a burden.

Guilt, according Gillespie, is a fundamentally private feeling. What drives us to feel guilt is typically influenced by social norms, sure, but no one can forced us to feel guilty about listening to a song produced by an alleged sexual predator. We do that to ourselves. The guilt seems to come from a place of both wanting to make the right choices and wanting to be seen making the right choices. If I listen to an R. Kelly song from a CD I bought 15 years ago alone in my room, I am not contributing to his continued success. He gets no money, and his music is not reaching new ears. However, I may very well feel guilt. “The idea is that in listening to the songs of a person who has failed to respect some value I claim to hold, then perhaps I am failing in some way to respect that value,” says Gillespie, rather than simply acknowledging that people accused of bad things can still say profound things.

The thing is, guilt can be very productive. It tends to be what drives us to analyze our feelings and behaviors -- and change them if they keep driving us to feel this way. On our own, “It’s often very hard to know what the right thing to do is,” but we’re better at figuring out together, says Gillespie. Yet that relies on our social norms being, for lack of a better word, correct, and the world doesn’t work in such ideal ways. Reality is not black and white. Multiple truths can exist at once. So the real questions becomes, “Is the relevant social norm really aiming to tell us what is good to do, morally speaking, or is it in fact directing us to act in accordance with other, non-moral ends -- the ends of capitalists, trying to make money, say?” In other words: Can we trust that our guilt is justified?

At this point, there is no script for what to do when an artist, a producer or anyone involved in making art is accused of have committed heinous crimes. “Even if we are all, equally, obligated to adjust our attitudes toward an artist’s work, it doesn’t mean that we are all obligated to converge on a single attitude or course of action,” Gillespie says.

And as Strohl and Willard say, filtering your aesthetic life through the lens of morality leads to a pretty bleak life. “Imagine that a friend reverently hands you his headphones so you can hear the amazing track he’s discovered by this artist you’ve never encountered and balking because you can’t be sure whether your aesthetic response will be appropriate,” they posit. Instead, terrifyingly, you just have to make your own choices, however imperfect and complicated they might end up being.

In her column “Ask A Fuck Up,” Brandy Jensen advises a man who wants to apologize to women he’d verbally abused, stalked and harassed in the past. She speaks of the desire to find a path to redemption for those who have done wrong and how, though many may have good intentions in searching for one, “I suspect that many more would like to forge an exemplary pathway because once we establish how it might be done, we need not think about it any longer.” The same goes for those on the periphery of this behavior, like fans of any artist. Following a blueprint is easier than forging your own path.

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Ugly Cherries sat on my iPhone for months. If a song came on shuffle, I’d hastily skip past it, embarrassed that I even still had it. I’d tell myself I wasn’t allowed to like it, then indignantly wonder who was doing the “allowing” here. But ultimately, I learned to live without it. I liked the music, but I didn’t need it -- it wasn’t one of those core albums that defined me. I feel for anyone who heard it at a time they needed it, anyone for whom the album etched itself onto their heart in that way music can. No, I don’t need Ugly Cherries, but while writing this, I put on “All The Boys” again, and wished I could enjoy it as I had three years ago.

You can vote with your dollars. You can boycott artists you think are immoral. You can vow to only listen to artists who have done bad things if they’re dead and not making money anymore. You can thoroughly research every new band and refuse to listen to them until you’ve analyzed them according to your personal criteria, and even then, there is always the risk that you were wrong. These are all reasonable actions. But more than that, ask yourself where your guilt is coming from and whether the actions you take are doing anything to change the structure of a society that encourages the behaviors we’re so disgusted by. The only way to ensure no artists you like commit sexual assault is to create a society free from sexual assault. And that’s going to take more than a boycott.