Controversial Artists: Loving Works by People You Hate

Within the past week, several serious allegations of abuse have come out surrounding the ever-so-popular artist your mom loves to hate, Marilyn Manson. Initially starting with Evan Rachel Wood, who came out stating that the shock-rock artist groomed her as a teenager and mentally abused her for years, more and more women who’ve had relationships with Brian Warner have piled on the allegations of sexual misconduct, abuse and misogyny. Within days, Marilyn Manson was dropped from his record label, his manager, and legions of fans, it seems, have overnight turned on him.

I’m not here to debate whether the allegations against the musician are true or not; it seems to be unlikely that so many people would care enough about ‘taking him down’ to falsify claims of misconduct and abuse. Like with Harvey Weinstein, it’s far more likely that one person with the courage to speak up emboldened other women – women who had felt pressure to remain silent for years – to finally tell their own truth. Perhaps Manson has been a terrible person for decades, and people willfully turned a blind eye; perhaps the power that comes with being a household name corrupted him to the point where he felt he could get away with whatever he wanted. Either way, it’s important that the victims of abuse – whether at the hands of powerful people or not – are able to come forward and voice their truths.

What’s fascinating to me about this most recent sensation is not that Marilyn Manson is capable of abusing women or power – I have no doubt he is – but how quickly the masses turned against him. In all the media frenzy I’ve seen regarding the situation, the closest to a counterargument I’ve seen was from Dita Von Teese, who simply said it didn’t align with her experience with Marilyn Manson, although she did eventually leave him because of his behavior and infidelity. Rather, everyone who had supported him throughout his career turned their backs on him in a heartbeat – faster, even, than if they had been completely ignorant of his abusive behavior. This, to me, is perhaps more telling than even the allegations themselves.

It reminds me of what happened with a slightly lesser-known band, Iced Earth, in the wake of the United States Capitol riots earlier this year. Photos of their guitarist, Jon Schaffer, actively involved in the violence surfaced only days after the riots took place, and within days, their label dropped them, the representation was lost, and Schaffer himself is, by all accounts, now arrested and awaiting trial. Although this is not related to sexual abuse as with Marilyn Manson – and there is less evidence that Schaffer was prone to violence prior to the riots themselves – the dropping of the artist like a hot potato is a theme that is starting to become a repeating pattern.

The question this poses for me is this: when an artist, band, producer, or celebrity of any kind ‘goes down’, and unsavory truths come to light about these people, where does that leave their legacy and their body of work? Can their music, their books, or their films still be enjoyed, despite what we now know about them as people? And while the answer might at first seem to be a simple ‘yes’, it doesn’t change the fact that new information can change our perception of old art.

For example, every time I watch The Lord of the Rings – often praised on this blog as one of the best series of films ever made – I’m reminded in the credits that Harvey Weinstein was their executive producer, and enormously influential in getting the films made. To an extent, I owe an abusive, manipulative sexual predator a debt of gratitude for helping bringing to life my favorite movies of all time. Does that somehow taint the enjoyment I get from simply watching the movies, removed from the fact that at the time, Weinstein’s behavior was either unknown, or at least a well-kept secret?

Moving forward, I really enjoy Marilyn Manson’s music. His album Mechanical Animals is a huge part of my youth, and his songs and lyrics spoke to me deeply as a troubled teen. When I listen to his music now, I can’t help but think that it was made by a sexually abusive creep. How can I still listen to his work, knowing now what I do about the man as a person?

Or what about Iced Earth – another band whose music I enjoy? Do I still listen to their releases, despite knowing that their main songwriter is in jail for inciting violence against the literal government of the United States? That he’s a right-wing nut job who would probably just as soon shoot me as look at me?

The paradox here is that art is created by humans – flawed, imperfect, and sometimes downright despicable – but the art itself, removed from the context of the artist, can often be enjoyed regardless of the creator’s original intentions, meanings, or personal beliefs and behaviors. After all, even Mozart has been thought to be a sexual predator and womanizer, but it doesn’t change the fact that, 200 years later, we still enjoy his music as some of the best to have ever been written.

Beyond that, what of financial support? With streaming platforms, every time I listen to one of Marilyn Manson’s songs, he gets money. Not much, but added up over all the fans he has around the world, and it still means that I’m providing a living to someone who I now know to be a fiend. It feels wrong to continue to support someone like that, but at the same time, it doesn’t change the fact that his music means something to me, both from a lyrical and nostalgic perspective. Do I simply cut off an entire part of my life, simply because I don’t agree with an artist’s behavior?

I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to be found here; from Marilyn Manson to Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton to Bill Cosby, there countless examples of celebrities who have done unspeakable, immoral, or even illegal things. I think that, in most cases, most of these people were not inherently bad people to begin with, but I recognize that power corrupts; and while this isn’t an excuse to their behavior, it at least brings into consideration that what these people created and did for the greater good should still be taken into consideration, despite their aberrant, destructive and manipulative behavior.

Marilyn Manson may never create another record after this. If he did, I don’t know if I would want to listen to it. How could I in good faith listen to the words and music of someone who can do such horrible things to other people? But at the same time, I don’t want to stop listening to his existing body of work, because before I knew about his abhorrent behavior, it meant something important to me, and I know it meant something important to millions of others, as well.

I’d be curious to know what you think about this. When unsavory information comes to light about someone you once revered, does it change your perspective on what they already did? Are you still able to enjoy their body of work? Does the new information taint how you perceive not just the artist, but their creations? What are your thoughts?

Music I Love: Piano Trio No. 1 in B, by Brahms

Work: Piano Trio No. 1 in B, Op. 8
Composer: Johannes Brahms
Year: 1854 (Original Version); 1889 (Final Version)

Movements:

  1. Allegro con brio
  2. Allegro molto – Trio (Meno allegro)
  3. Adagio
  4. Finale (Allegro)

Brahms is a fascinating composer to me; aside from the beauty and passion of his music, he was a notorious perfectionist, burning old manuscripts if he felt they weren’t up to his standard – even years after he originally wrote them. His piano trio in B – listed as his first, and only his eighth composition ever – is dated 1889, only eight years before Brahms’ death in 1897. Brahms wasn’t a particularly prolific composer – following in the footsteps of Beethoven and Schubert, but he wrote more than eight works in his lifetime.

The reason his first piano trio has such a late composition date is because it was, in fact, originally written in 1854, when Brahms was only twenty-one. A sprawling opus, it’s one of the few surviving early manuscripts that Brahms left behind; so many others were lost to his passion for perfection. Brahms rewrote the piano trio in 1889, significantly shortening several movements and almost completely rewriting others.

It’s interesting, because to listen to the two versions side by side doesn’t immediately reveal one as better than the other; in many ways, they’re simply different. The opening melody of the first movement, introduced on piano for a few measures before the cello and violin enter, is heart-meltingly beautiful, and luckily one of the things Brahms didn’t change, but it isn’t long before the two pieces diverge, and don’t really come back again at all.

It brings up the complex relationship between the artist and the audience. If Brahms had had his way, no one would ever be aware of the 1854 version of the work; we’d all only know (and the version that is most often performed, is, of course) the 1889 version. But are they two distinct works? Or is one simply a revision of the other, to be known and played whilst the original settles to dust?

Once published, who does art belong to? Does the artist have the right to retract a piece of music that, for thirty-five years, stood untouched and was beloved the world over? What happens to the original, when the new one is so significantly changed?

I don’t think there are any simple answers to this, but it is a curiosity that, in this instance, we have the ability to hear what Brahms thought was good music at twenty-one, and to hear his opinion of that same music at fifty-six (clearly he didn’t care for most of it).

As for me, I’ll gladly listen to either version – from the gloriously melodic opening of the first movement (one of Brahms’ best melodies by far) to the jittery unease of the Scherzo and the passion of the Finale, this is easily one of my favorite pieces of music in the world.