In General

Painting by Thomas Cole

Four hours of Leaving Neverland. Two episodes of Surviving R. Kelly. Several articles about Ryan Adams’ sexual misconduct. Two documentaries about the Fyre Festival scam. I’m ready to take the longest shower of my life.

For some historical perspective, I even read Small Town Talk — Barney Hoskyns’ tell-all book about the highly dysfunctional community of musicians who, at one point or another, lived in Woodstock, NY. Yes, Dylan’s a nasty little bully and his manager, Albert Grossman, was probably a psychopath. But the one detail that still haunts me involves a dissolute Richard Manuel (The Band) staggering around a dark house filled with dog shit. Take care of your pets, people!

In my own extended family, I’ve dealt with both rock stardom (we already talked about this) and pedophilia (not willing to discuss right now, although I’m sure it would make for an interesting post). So I could easily spend the rest of my life without having to revisit either issue on a personal level. But I still managed to slog through the Michael Jackson and R. Kelly docs without suffering a nervous breakdown.

I guess I was fascinated (and horrified) by how those two issues — fame and sexual predation — were intertwined in the tragic stories surrounding both artists. In Jackson’s case, why would mothers allow their sons to spend even the smallest amount of time alone with a grown man who could best be described as somewhat disturbing? Fame, of course. While their children were being seduced by a pop star, the parents were caught up in the trappings of extravagant lifestyles they’d never be able to experience on their own.

One of the Fyre docs touched on the power of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), which lured hundreds of pop culture junkies into what amounted to a fairly conventional grift. Social media was a huge factor in that particular scam, but maybe FOMO is a more timeless urge. Could’ve been the same empty feeling that motivated the scullery maid who wormed her way into Queen Anne’s Court (for more on that, just squirm along to the movie The Favourite). Regardless of how you label their obvious weaknesses, the two mothers interviewed in Leaving Neverland weren’t going to let a few misgivings about Jackson’s odd behavior get in the way of their overwhelming desire to share some quality time with the King of Pop.

Was I shocked by all the salacious content I’ve processed over the past few weeks? Not really. As music critic Wesley Morris noted in a recent interview on NPR, it seems entirely plausible that Michael Jackson was a predator (unless you view previous media coverage as “fake”). And based on what I’ve seen (the Surviving docuseries) and read (New York Times), I’d apply the same plausible guilt to R. Kelly and Ryan Adams. Sure, I understand the merits of a more legal, “innocent until proven guilty” standpoint. But now I’ve witnessed all these tragic, heartbreaking stories told by humans who were courageous enough to spend countless hours on camera reliving their personal horrors. And I can’t imagine that these people are hard-core scammers along the lines of Fyre’s Billy McFarland. 

Certainly, race is an issue in many of these stories. Episode One of Surviving R. Kelly includes this startling comment by writer Mikki Kendall, who co-founded the blog Hood Feminism: “People will say, well, why wouldn’t anyone notice? The answer is that we all noticed. No one cared because we were all black girls.” Even more startling is a confession that Chance the Rapper shared with critic Jamilah Lemieux: “I didn’t value the accusers’ stories because they were black women… I made a mistake.”

Yeah, that’s pretty sick stuff. But I’m equally troubled by the more universal issue of power and how it plays out in the justice system. In other words, if you’re a person of extreme wealth and influence (Michael Jackson, O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, etc.), it’s fairly easy to assemble a powerful team of attorneys that can prevail in any courtroom, regardless of the evidence — or even use intimidation and other extreme means to ensure legitimate cases never make it to court. And yes, witnesses are occasionally led to believe that certain things happened, even though they really didn’t. My own personal experience involves a family member who was railroaded by ineffective counsel and a delusional judge. Of course the main lesson here is, avoid the justice system at all costs.

Finally, when all the dust settles, is it possible to know about the bad behavior of a given artist and still appreciate and enjoy his or her art? I guess it depends on how bad that behavior is. I’ll give a pass to Dylan and The Band… But Michael Jackson? R. Kelly? Ryan Adams? Ryan Fucking Adams?

Actually, this really isn’t much of an issue for me. I understand why megastars like Jackson and Kelly are big deals, musically speaking (I’ve never cared much for Adams). But I view them in the same light as directors who make big blockbuster films — they aren’t really aiming their sights at grown-ass people like me. They’re shooting for a demographic that’s far more prone to accept grandiose visions and alternative realities like, say, Neverland or, in Kelly’s case, a world in which age ain’t nothing but a number. And, unfortunately, that demographic always tends to skew very young.

I tend to embrace artists who, for the most part, move through this world much like the rest of us and wrestle with real issues involving real people. So if you start hearing that Chris Stapleton, Rosanne Cash or William Bell are involved in major scandals, I’ll consider changing my tune.

Had to share… Slate thought this skit bombed. I beg to differ. I found it hilarious (but then again, I’m a recovering Catholic):

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