Listen Up: There’s Power in What You Put in Your Ears (Part 2)

A pair of black headphones

I’m an intersectional feminist, but I really love country music.

In the style of The Guilty Feminst podcast, I would offer this confession. The storytelling and catchy road-trip tunes that come out of country music always seem to remind me of home and cheer me up on a gloomy day. However, in listening to country music, I am aware that I support an elite academy that repeatedly honors and celebrates the white cisgender man, which — intentionally or not — pushes marginalized groups away from public fame and success. While the success and artistry of women is on the rise, it is blatantly obvious that country has excluded people of color. In my previous post, I discussed exclusion of Beyoncé and Lil Nas X’s from country music awards.1 Since that post, artists like Justin Bieber and the Backstreet Boys have been played repeatedly on country stations.

When I hear one of these bops, I’m instantly pulled into a moment of conflict: I am happy but also frustrated. While I do love how catchy these tunes are, I also become angry when I think about the kinds of roles, gender stereotypes, and white patriarchal systems they support and push forward. Within these moments, I’ve found myself taking a step back and asking:

Is it ethical for us to enjoy listening to music from artists who have displayed harmful and oppressive behavior? Should we separate the artist from the art?

In thinking through this massive question, specific cases like R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, and Chris Brown come to mind. These artists made monumental leaps in their respective genres, but their music will remain tainted by their unjust actions. R. Kelly and Michael Jackson’s careers were upturned when victims began speaking up about sexual assault. Chris Brown and John Lennon’s careers were damaged when stories of domestic abuse were released into the public eye. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, these stories rise up to the surface with the public allegations of other non-musicians (like Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and President Trump), exposing the hurt, pain, and trauma caused to their victims and victims of sexual abuse worldwide. For those who remain unaffected or influenced by the release of these stories, you may not think twice when singing to “Ignition” or dancing to “Thriller.” However, if we have an active choice in what music artists we support, shouldn’t we think twice?

On one hand, I agree with The Stanford Daily in that “the choices we make in media consumption matter in a certain material sense.” Even streaming music “literally funds” the people contributing to oppressive systems. While the shift from CDs to streaming has made the financial tracking difficult to pin precisely, the weight of social influence still costs a heavy price. By choosing to listen to these artists, we are giving them our influence and our money, which, in turn, allows for their careers to flourish.

On the other hand, can we consider the music from these artists’ distinct from their creators?

While I’m in the middle of, what I would consider, a spiritual desert, I’ve held onto thinking of my own creativity as the movement of God Herself, inspired by God as the ultimate creator. When I create, make, and play, I invite myself to try and see God as those creations, because I ultimately believe God created me. Every drawing, collage, poem, or painting is a sacred reproduction, a worldly reminder of God creating me in Her image. If this is the case for me and my creations, then my artistic output can’t possibly be separated from who I am, what I’m influenced by, and what I put into the page. Thinking through this from a spiritual perspective, I am persuaded that musicians cannot be separated from their music: it is a creation from their very bodies, thoughts, values, and influences.

However, if I consider my creation as God, then shouldn’t the work of abusers be considered one with God as well? I would like to think that just intention distinguishes creation that is sacred from creation that is not. While we may never know the musician’s intention, we can’t discredit the “good” that the song may spread, regardless of the person behind the music. I, like thousands of other people, have formed intimate and personal relationships and memories with the songs. “Man in the Mirror” continued to inspire me when I was near burnout in nonprofit and social service work during my undergrad years. “With You” will always remind me of my first slow dance in a smelly gym with my middle school crush. “Yellow Submarine” will always be the song my dad taught me all the words to when I was only four.

The stories of these perpetrators leaked globally because they were artists who were extremely talented. They put innovation and creativity, and sometimes even hope, into the world. And because of this, we are left questioning how to balance our personal, emotional, and valid attachments to memories with the ethical weight and repercussions of supporting these artists.

Like any moral conflict, I don’t think there’s just one “good” way to think through this. But I do think that awareness is the first step. Once we know who or what we are supporting when we listen to certain tracks or artists, we can better understand how we contribute to the growing power of oppressive people and systems. Alternatively, we can better understand how to choose and celebrate alternative artists. We can still cherish our memories of the past while making room for the musicians of our future. It will just take small and consistent decisions when pulling up Spotify or creating playlists on Apple Music. We can allow ourselves to hold on to what we know is good, but move forward to support the music industry in a way that brings equity to hard-working, talented, and deserving artists.

[1]: It should be noted that Lil Was X and Billy Ray Cyrus recently won Musical Event of the Year at the Country Music Awards.

Photo by Malte Wingen on Unsplash

About Emily

Emily Win (she/her/hers) — Regular Contributor, Editor — She is currently earning her MA in Creative Writing and Critical Life from the University of Leeds in Leeds, England, but she embraces Toledo, Ohio as her hometown. Her passion for faith and justice led her to Saint Louis University, where she continued to explore issues of poverty and homelessness through tutoring, mentoring, companionship, and outreach. During her year as a Case Manager at a teen crisis shelter she learned that she loves working with teenagers and hopes to continue this work in some capacity in the future. Emily’s personal and professional interests exist in the intersection of writing, literature, and activism, specifically in regards to sexuality and gender. She is currently working on a collection of poetry/creative non-fiction that exposes, complicates, and affirms the relationship between womanhood, queerness, and Christianity. (Tucson 2017-2018)