When I was a pre-teen my mom bought me a Def Leppard jacket. This might be surprising to people who aren’t familiar with my background, but when you grow up in rural Oklahoma and Texas, you don’t really have the same access to record shops and independent music that those in larger cities do. Instead, the omnipresent pull of classic rock, culturally validated by VH1 specials and the Supernatural soundtrack, would dominate my early years.
A writer for Grantland recently published a piece excusing his love of music that’s made by abusive men (notably the singer of Surfer Blood, R. Kelly, and Chris Brown), but that Def Leppard jacket (which I believe I still own, somewhere) that I proudly sported for a few years in the early 2000s reveals that I have consistently dealt with reconciling the fact that I love music that often doesn’t love me back.
Def Leppard was featured on one of those VH1 specials that I mentioned, and I remember the really callous way the group (who were, during the interview, middle aged) would speak about their female fans. They reveled in stories about groupie culture, blowing through women, and behaving like a bunch of spoiled jerks. It’s a tough pill to swallow, realizing that the people who created something you identify with are the same people you don’t identify with at all.
That Grantland writer can wax poetic about problematic music as a thought experiment, but if you don’t live your life on default (straight white male aka “easy mode”), chances are these are things that regularly occur to you. It occurred to me when I was drunkenly dancing to Surfer Blood at a festival in Dallas two months after the singer was arrested on domestic battery charges. It occurred to me as a college freshman, when my then-boyfriend burned me a copy of The Moon and Antarctica and I found myself wondering What if Issac Brock really is a rapist? It occurred to me when I reblogged a gifset of Miguel singing “How Many Drinks?” on my Tumblr.
Feminist relationships with problematic media have been widely explored, because let’s face it, we aren’t all bumping Ani DiFranco and dog-earring the reissue of Cunt. Even celebrated feminist groups like Le Tigre have their own sort of problems, from the blinding whiteness of post-riot grrrl to the scene’s exclusion of trans women. We recognize that there are no true safe spaces, and adjust our reactions accordingly. Those that don’t spend a lot of time on feminist blogs (Oh hey! You’re reading one now! Welcome, comrade.) might not understand that they are a source of near-constant media critiques and evaluations. This is what Not a Neophyte was created for. This is what I, and many others writers, do.
Ethical listening, just like the wider ideal of ethical consumerism, is a flawed solution for problems much more deeply culturally embedded. Refusing to buy from Wal-Mart doesn’t change the archaic capitalism practices that make Wal-Mart the only option for a lot of people. Purchasing conflict-free diamonds only illuminates the fact that the problem is so widespread that it’s even a selling point that nobody died for your jewelry. Similarly, bands can refuse to tour with Surfer Blood, but domestic violence remains largely ignored by lawmakers. It’s our responsibility to hold ourselves accountable, sure, but it’s also our responsibility to hold those with more power accountable.
We don’t need to, as the Grantland piece suggests, disassociate art from the people who create it in order to enjoy it. This largely misses the point. Def Leppard isn’t a band that just happens to be full of misogynists. They are a band that continues to be widely celebrated for it, in a music industry that is still predominately male. Chris Brown’s continued success isn’t a sick outlier, but sadly a reflection of just how many men there are who remain unscathed from any sort of punishment for their actions. Placing the onus of responsibility on the listener makes it easier for those with actual decision-making power to excuse themselves, citing “this is what the people want,” and creates an unfair dynamic for those most affected (women, people of color, queer people) to shoulder the brunt of the work in raising public consciousness about problems in media.
As far as ethical listening goes, the key is awareness. The more that music is talked about and dissected, the more likely we are to get to a place where record labels, music promoters, and the artists themselves are held accountable for their content.