Tarnished Heroes: The End of Celebrity Worship in America

Angelo Franco

 

On February 1, 2014, Dylan Farrow penned an open letter on Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times blog. The week before, her father Woody Allen had received his 24th Academy Awards nomination; and three weeks prior, the Golden Globes had bestowed him a lifetime achievement award. The first accusations that Allen had sexually abused his adoptive daughter surfaced in 1993; it was a story that filled the headlines, it gave way to a media frenzy and was written about for years to come. Farrow’s open letter on the Times blog, however, was the first time that she remarked on the story herself. She detailed the abuse that she alleges she suffered by her father’s hand. She condemned the accolades that Allen was being given as a rebuke to her story, a sweep under the rug. She called out actors and artists for turning a blind eye.

 

Meanwhile, Cate Blanchett was working the awards circuit and collecting pretty much every imaginable award for her performance in Blue Jasmine, which Allen wrote and directed. And being infamously antagonistic to awards show, Allen was not there to receive his lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes. Instead, his longtime collaborator Diane Keaton accepted the prize on his behalf and said in the acceptance speech that her 45-year friendship with Allen fills her with pride, affection, and even love.

 

“What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?” Dylan Farrow wrote. “You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?”

 

Farrow’s letter set off a frenzy of responses to answer the blunt question: Is it OK to still watch Woody Allen’s films? And because the internet is an unbridled pool of rhetoric, it seems there was no general consensus—as expected. The question eventually evolved, morphed, and shifted into: What is a moral way to consume art (or if morality should be involved at all)? In other words, can we separate the artist from the art? Some wrote that abusers, especially those with more than just an inkling of doubt, should not be profiting from the masses in any way. Others attested that the consumer should not be deprived of art because art in itself can be appreciated and studied without the input of its creator. Many argued that this approach would and should be impossible because a work of art does not simply come into existence or that the artist ceases to exist upon its creation, but that said art should be studied within the context of authorial intent and to do so, the creator must always be kept in mind.

 

 

And one argument noted that if we are going to judge a particular artist because of their transgressions, then we should hold every other transgressing artist to the same standards. Child abuse is awful stuff. But we’re also saddled with Sean Penn, who is still making movies after beating his wife with a bat (he’s now also written a book about a violent man who hates the #metoo movement and that is for sure totally fiction); Roman Polanski still can’t return to the U.S. and remains a fugitive after pleading guilty to statuary rape, but he is directing films and being honored with awards in Europe; Richard Wagner remains a prolific composer in all major operas around the globe despite his well-documented anti-Semitism; the poems of American author Ezra Pound are bursting with fascist themes and he was an avid supporter of Adolf Hitler. Why do we choose to somehow hold a different standard for Wagner than we do for Mel Gibson?

 

Regardless of current views on their merit, with or sans their art, it would be asinine to say that these filmmakers, composers, authors, actors, et al. were not influential. But it is precisely because of that influence that many of these are, indeed, replaceable. Yes, all of these creators generated art that was revolutionary and perhaps even transcended their times. And because of that, we have many others who have since reproduced, mimicked, and even improved upon that art, in any and all forms.

 

If Wagner does prove to be too controversial or if we finally admit that the Ring Cycle is too long and stuffier than a Lord of the Ring marathon, Strauss, Weber, and Beethoven can give us that German opera fix (as well as many other Austria-Germanic composers, such as Mozart, Schoenberg, and Berg, if we choose not to care too much about political borders and the like). If film witticism and quirk ala Woody Allen is what you’re craving, Noah Baumbach, Sofia Coppola, and Wes Anderson will save the day. And there is definitely no shortage of white male actors and poets.

 

But what do we do when misbehaving trendsetters are not easily replaceable, especially within our American media ecosystem? When we think that the revolutionary art they produce is in such infancy that they are just now gaining mainstream recognition and, therefore, that there are no or very few non-problematic replacements, what are we to consume then? Or, more pressingly, what do we do with our token heroes who are already world-renowned but deeply problematic?

 

Let’s take Kanye.

 

 

Known for incorporating facets of his very public persona in his songs, Kanye West’s latest album Ye was expected to be explosive - perhaps a sort of vindication, perhaps a kind of refute to public criticism. In the months leading up to the release of Ye, West found himself on the familiar grounds of controversy. In October of 2018, West met with President Trump in a much publicized meeting in the Oval Office, where he proclaimed that the iconic MAGA hat made him feel like Superman. A month prior, he had called for the abolishment of the 13th Amendment. Fending off criticism, West remained stalwart in his position and shortly before the official release of the album, he made the startling declaration during a live interview on TMZ that slavery was a choice.

 

Now, the problem with Kanye West is subjective. There is no abuse, sexual harassment, etc. Instead, there is an apparent betrayal of values.

 

Every single album Kanye West has released has charted in the United States. Only The Life of Pablo and The College Dropout did not peak at No. 1 - they reached No. 6 and No. 2 in the charts, respectively. West is not only a prolific commercial artist, he is also a critical success. Commended for their lyricism and innovation, West’s albums have consistently proven praiseworthy. Because of his undeniable musical gifts, West has become a bright beacon of American talent, an embodiment of Black excellence that constantly redefines modern Hip-Hop. So when he acts and uses his influential platform to further views so inconsistent with his audience’s, is there a line on the sand that remains movable so we can collectively choose when he’s finally crossed it?

 

Because unlike the vilified Weinsteins and Costners, Kanye West cannot be easily replaced. There are many incredibly talented American rappers, but we cannot minimize West’s global reach and impact. Kendrick Lamar’s albums dominated the American charts; and his latest, Damn, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, becoming the first non-jazz or classical piece of work to receive the accolade ever.

 

But in France, only Lamar’s Damn charted in the Top 40s, peaking at No. 9 for one week. And it’s not necessarily a barrier of language. For example, all of Taylor Swift’s albums charted in the Top 40s in France, save for her self-titled debut album; and Ed Sheeran’s ÷ remained at the No. 2 spot for eight weeks in that country.

 

And it may not be a question of cultural divide, either. In France, four of West’s albums were Top 40, and an additional 4 were Top 100 bestsellers, with only his debut charting on the Top 200 list. West is a prolific artist around the world. In the U.K., all nine of his albums have been Top 40s, with at least five being in the Top 10. In Italy, six of West’s albums made it to the Top 75 list.

 

It may seem unfair to compare West’s discography with that of Lamar’s, who still has less than half the number of albums under his belt that West does. But this serves to exemplify the lack of “replacements” when a problematic and talented artist fills a niche need. West’s impact is so mighty, that Lamar himself credits West’s influence on his own boundary-breaking attitude and music, which West is famous for. This is not to say that Lamar would not have risen to fame without a Kanye West as predecessor, but it may have taken a bit longer for a Lamar to come around.

 

This same issue of apparent irreplaceability is what plagues R. Kelly. The harm that West may or may not cause can technically still give way to debate, but R. Kelly’s well-established history of predatory behavior is far more objective. Kelly deserves a lot of credit for shaping the sound and look of ‘90s R&B, and that has perhaps allowed the dispute over his transgressions to even exist.
 

Kelly’s work has always been salacious, but there have been a couple instances where his music took a break from being sexually charged. For example, after his 2010 acquittal of child pornography charges, Kelly opted for a chaste approach to his music. 2010’s Love Letter took a poignant departure from Kelly’s former work, which had been marked by contemporary sound and sexually explicit themes. 2012’s Write Me Back expands on its predecessor and both incorporate more soulful harmonies, dealing with themes of love and its redemptive powers. That is until 2013, when he released “Do What You Want” with Lady Gaga. It was almost a dare, his own version of “standing in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody.” Figuring out if he could still escape from punishment by producing sexually explicit songs with titles like “Crazy Sex” and “Marry the Pu**y” (both from his 2013 album Black Panties), even after all the allegations against him.

 

 

The responses to the Surviving R. Kelly documentary have been making the rounds, but allegations against Kelly are neither new nor are they newly public. And while you can conceivably still enjoy “Bump n’ Grind” for the great R&B song that it is, some may find it impossible to do it divorced from the context of Kelly’s behavior. Many were quick to point out that Kelly may have been able to get away with his abuse for so long because his victims were Black girls, a group infamously ignored and repeatedly failed by. Kelly produced Aaliyah’s debut album Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number and he also wrote the lyrics to the titular hit single. Upon the release of the album, when Aaliyah was 15-years-old, there were already reports about Kelly’s relationship with his underage protégé, and less than a year after the release of the album, Vibe published the marriage certificate as alleged proof that Kelly had illegally married the young R&B singer. Kelly was 27 and Aaliyah was 15 at the time.

 

We knew all of this back then. Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number wasn’t just a not-quite-thinly veiled admission of sorts, but a demonstration of deriding braggadocio, a showcase of Kelly’s complete assuredness that his status as a Black celebrity, his moneymaking hits, his devil-may-care public persona would shield him from any public repudiation. And he was right. Kelly, who called himself “The Pied Piper of R&B” with apparent ignorance to the fable and how it so tauntingly parallels his relationship with minors, continued to make millions off his music for decades, through a parade of accusations.

 

R. Kelly has now been arrested (again) after being charged with 10 new counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. He spent the first couple of nights in jail after failing to post his $100,000 bail, presumably because he simply did not have that kind of money (a woman named Valencia Love, who alleged to be a friend of Kelly’s eventually posted his bail). Why it took over two decades to see some of these allegations through is difficult to ascertain. It may be that it is no longer profitable to keep quiet about Kelly’s behavior, given how the general attitude towards sexual abuse has evolved; and, perhaps more pointedly, the fact that Kelly’s latest three albums were not financial successes. It may be that R. Kelly’s music has finally become irrelevant enough for the artist to be appraised as a sexual abuser.   

 

A case may be made that the generation that grew up listening to R. Kelly and Aaliyah through the ‘90s are the ones finally speaking out, but that doesn’t change the fact that for decades, there was a collective blind eye on the supplication of young Black girls for the sake of art. Or do we dare imagine the lamentable state modern R&B would be in if we had not allowed R. Kelly to thrive and make waves? For surely there were so few Black male artists that so momentously defined an entire genre of musical art over the course of a decade and beyond. But to what cost?

 

It may be hard to imagine the goods, services, and innovations that would be wasted if we were to discard the content made by immoral people. But art is not linear and it cannot be subjugated, not forever. Good Will Hunting would still have an award-winning script and Robin William’s praiseworthy performance if it had been financed by Kathleen Kennedy instead of Harvey Weinstein. We talk of West’s redefining boundaries, but who is to say that another Kendrick Lamar type would not have been influenced by MC Lyte, who had been busy breaking barriers with progressive lyrics back in the late ‘80s?
 

And this question of ostensible irreplaceability is more prevalent than we imagine, throughout the industries that we know are already systematically problematic.

 

 

When the author Junot Díaz was accused of sexual misconduct by several women, I yelped. Victims spoke about how Díaz forcibly kissed them, and detailed behavior that painted him as a misogynist and a downright bully. I believed them. But I must also confess that I was heartbroken. Much as I had hoped for the opposite, I felt betrayed because it was too easy to believe that this is who Díaz really was; because, truth be told, these allegations were not utterly shocking. 

 

For me, the reason that the accusations that Díaz is a misogynist couldn’t be too surprising is because his works are, after all, rife with men behaving badly towards women and getting away with it. That the men in his award-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao were a reflection of Latin culture is a bit of a banality because it is exactly that kind of glorification of machismo that allows the sexism of those same Latin men to thrive.

 

But oh, how I had wished that Díaz was really just an observer of his story even if, admittedly, the writings on the wall were there all along. I had this foolish hope that Díaz was merely a narrator removed from the world of his fiction. Because there are many extraordinarily talented Latin-American authors, many of whom have achieved international recognition. But for the most part, they wrote in Spanish and their works were then translated into foreign languages. But here was a guy who wrote passages in Spanglish and who looked like a number of my uncles, and he was becoming only the second Latino to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction ever. Here was a tale of immigrant plight and Hispanic-American culture taking place in a Spanglish-speaking New Jersey, reenacted by characters that I swore were based on a few cousins and aunts of mine. 

 

I think it would be cynical to assert that all we have to do is separate the artist from the art. I cannot, and don’t think I should, separate the fact that Oscar Wao and This Is How You Lose Her were written by a Hispanic-American man. This gives us a lens through which we can discern Díaz’s narrative and prose. The narrator of the books, Junior, makes so much sense and it is so complete because he was written by a man who looks like Junior, who behaves like Junior, who is Junior: excusing his trespasses against women on the ideals of what makes a Latin man a man. 

 

Simply declaring that talent is not a free pass to transgress is too easy because it shuts the conversation down. We must also take a look at the institutions that elevate the work of men while delegating the works of women to the “Women Books” or “Movies by Female Directors” sections. And we have to put a stop to this tokenism that gives a select few the power to define our cultures, because when they inevitably betray us, we are left desolate and feeling duped.

 

We are not short on genius, we just have to prop it up and elevate it when we find it. Let’s make Kendrick Lamar a global phenomenon and teach the world about Roxanne Shanté’s pioneering work in Hip-Hop and about Rah Digga’s rap game. Mary J. Blige is an R&B singer/songwriter responsible for eight multi-platinum albums, and Lauryn Hill became disillusioned with the music industry and left—let’s give her a million reasons to come back. Julia Alvarez was already writing about sisters named Garcia and aunts named Lola long before Díaz was around. Why Sandra Cisneros has not received universal acclaim as one of the best writers of our times is a downright mystery.

 

I cannot pretend that Díaz’s writing has not influenced my own, but I am not sure I will be able to reread Oscar Wao for the umpteenth time; and if I do, I will have to do it not within the context of “a Latin-American immigrant man wrote this story” but rather “a misogynist wrote this story about the relationship between Latin men and Latin women.” This is the pitfall when we allow ourselves to worship the token heroes to whom we give the permission to represent entire genres, peoples, and arts.

 

Author Bio:

 

Angelo Franco is Highbrow Magazine’s chief features writer.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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