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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?