It’s difficult to boycott an artist when the rest of the world isn’t joining you. I know because I tried to quit the Migos last year after their upsetting Rolling Stone interview, which contains homophobic quotes and ominously details an incident that resulted in a woman’s bloodied face. It was cause enough for me to immediately bail on the newly-released Culture and the group indefinitely. But elsewhere, the Migos hype endured. “Bad and Boujee” had wider reach than the Rolling Stone piece and most people probably just didn’t care. Still, I instinctively felt betrayed. I had been enthusiastically invested in the group and they let me down, crossing a line that I couldn’t excuse. Later that year, an MTV News profile of the rappers acknowledged the controversy by merely hyperlinking the Rolling Stone article within the word “potholes.”
My noble stand lasted for most of the year. But I started to falter with the ubiquity of “MotorSport” on rap radio; my desire to hear Cardi B’s voice convinced me to soften my hardline stance. And when Culture II was released this year, everyone was talking about it! Apparently no one got the memo about my completely silent embargo. I read complaints about the aggravating length of the record, but not the morality of its creators (and just a week prior, Offset got some backlash for rapping “I cannot vibe with queers” on a YFN Lucci song). I still found the group’s actions reprehensible, but I wasn’t surprised that the Migos kept getting coverage and radio play—the media follows popularity. And guess what? I caved and I listened to the album; I didn’t want to be left out.
We all have varying limits on controversial artists. There’s a spectrum between asshole and irredeemable and we independently draw our own lines. There doesn’t have to be a headlining scandal to push you to give up on someone’s music. Your personal proximity to the issue may affect your reaction. Maybe they were rude to you at the merch table. An annoying social media presence can be enough to spoil music I enjoy (which is why I’ve unfollowed Ryan Adams everywhere). There’s no perfect system and any list of problematic artists is going to be incomplete. If I stopped listening to every rapper with a politically incorrect punchline, I would probably have to stop listening to rap, period.
After Mark Kozelek of Sun Kil Moon verbally harassed Laura Snapes, one of my favorite music writers, on stage, I lost all interest in continuing to listen to his work. No matter how powerful Benji probably remains, it feels tainted by the ugliness shown by its author. Listening to Freddie Gibbs makes me uneasy after following his Snapchat full of homophobic slurs a few years back. Boosie said that TV turns kids gay. Ariel Pink’s grossness is multifaceted, but I specifically checked out when he called Grimes “stupid and retarded” (though I’ll admit that a shiny “Best New Music” can be tempting). I have no reservations with Sonic Youth but I’m not spending my time on Thurston Moore. I don’t have a rulebook, it’s just more of a gut feeling. And that feeling can be impermanent, temperamental, inconsistent, irrational. If I feel conflicted, I tend to steer clear. Life’s too short.
In the realm of 24-hour reporting and social media and message boards, it’s virtually impossible to avoid encountering every last detail concerning your favorite artists. The casual listener is a rarer breed, no longer sheltered from inconvenient truths by not reading Spin or whatever. And when you learn new information that’s problematic, you’re forced to reckon with your relationship to the artist. Sure, no one is perfect, but some artists have incredibly offensive or violent incidents on their résumés, including many legacy acts who might have faced more scrutiny in a different era. If you’ve had a lengthy prior relationship with an artist’s work, you’re more likely to proceed pragmatically—fandom is forgiving. But if the artist enters your life concurrently with their questionable baggage, it’s easy to keep your hands clean and walk away.
And once you decide you’re done with an artist, it can be frustrating to realize others aren’t. It’s eerie for me to witness journalists and critics celebrating Kobe Bryant or 2Pac, not that their careers don’t merit objective praise, but because their sexual assault charges weigh too heavy for me to feel the excitement.
“Don’t have heroes” is wise advice that’s impossible to follow. When you connect to music, you inevitably connect to its creator. It’s their words you’re singing. And with social media, “knowing” the human behind the music is easier than ever. It’s exciting to cling to the (perceived) good ones—the intimacy intensifies the listening experience. But the enhanced connection is double-edged. PWR BTTM seemed safe. Pinegrove seemed safe. It’s crucial to remember that the bands you sink your life into are largely strangers and act independently of your notions.
Just like you stop hanging out with that new friend who ends up being a misogynistic jerk, why waste your personal time on music that rubs you the wrong way? You’re listening to someone’s personal manifesto, and if you dislike the author, it’s an uncomfortable experience. Some artists get second chances in the media, but you get to decide your own rules. It’s okay if the reason is petty—it’s your life. Music is escape; it doesn’t have to have the same ugliness of everyday people.
Oh, and never get a band tattoo.