I recently came across a Reddit thread centering on that site’s music board and its venerable hatred of Lil Wayne. The rapper formerly known as Dwayne Carter, if you have not heard, suffered two bouts of seizures in the past week. While friends and his Cash Money record label have sent out optimism about his health, the celebrity news site/venerable boner rag TMZ reported Carter is knocking on death’s door, possibly due to a “purple drank” binge. Drank, otherwise known as Sizzurp, is a mixture of codeine and promethazine usually found in over-the-counter cough syrups.
Reddit quickly met this news with a somewhat predictable outlash against Lil Wayne, his music, and his storied drug usage. This isn’t to say the entire site was burning him in effigy, slowly massaging each other’s egos and waiting for him to die. But as this is the internet, the thread was filled with the stupidity of his actions and hopeful wishes for his demise. It was after this thread had left the front page a redditor named JayEssArr ran a popular post entitled “r/music, I’m disappointed in you.” In it, JayEssArr calls on some of the hypocrisy Reddit exhibits when its users attack an artist like Lil Wayne. “John Lennon partook in drugs and beat his first wife before abandoning her and his young son” he writes. “Why don’t you hate him?” He also uses the examples of drug-user Jimi Hendrix and child-abandoner Kurt Cobain.
The simple answer is the death of a “good artist” is a larger loss than the death of a “bad artist.” I’m not saying Lil Wayne is a bad rapper. But if you think he is, you probably won’t care much about his death. Obviously, it’s quite crass to quantify death in this manner. However, when we observe the culture and ourselves, it’s quite blatantly true. If you enjoy the sordid and cool tones of Chet Baker’s trumpet, you probably aren’t going to elicit much emotion at the news that Clive Burr, the drummer of Iron Maiden, passed away earlier this week. How much we mourn is relative to the deceased’s meaning to us, be it a famous musician or that one uncle you never met.
However, while JayEssArr was focusing on how we treat the death of musician, he raises a far more interesting point. The very nature of being a famous artist can often push otherwise stable people into dark corners, be it drug abuse, spousal abuse, or suicide. This is especially true of people like Carter who entered show business very early (Carter got his first record deal at the age of nine). This phenomenon (let’s call it “The Jackson Effect”) tends to lead the culture down a road of worshipping people who are doing or have done awful things.
So how much are we willing to forgive in the name of good music? And does being an asshole necessarily disqualify the music you make?
I once came across a post on an atheism forum that said, “asking what happens to the soul after the body dies is like asking what happens to the music after the orchestra stops playing.” We’d like to give a name to our habits, morals, sins, and fears, so we call it the soul — even though they’re all contained in a gelatinous blob the size of your fist roughly three inches behind your forehead. In the same way, music is an ethereal concept but mostly consists of the sounds of circuits, vocal chords, strings, brass, and wood. The end source of music as it is written and played, however, is people.
So if music cannot be intrinsically removed from the people who are its source, should you toss out your copy of Plastic Ono Band? I would argue no. People are far more complex than just their faults. If Chris Brown speaks to you through his music, his songs don’t lose that quality because he beat Rihanna. It’s still the same music and likely still holds the same meaning (unless he wrote a song called “Violence Is Bad And I’m Great At Controlling My Anger”). And it can often be astonishing what we are willing to forgive. It’s fairly obvious Michael Jackson likely, probably did something inappropriate with those kids. But I’ll still dance barefoot in my living room to “Rock With You.”
To get back to JayEssArr’s point, death can actually wash away a lot of artist’s sins. In fact, no matter your criminal record, it can often gain you fans (read: Nick Drake). We need to stop behaving as if falling in love with a band is like picking and choosing your friends. I’ll listen to Jimi Hendrix until I die, but I wouldn’t want a serial heroin user and spousal abuser as a friend. I’m not a huge fan of Lil Wayne (although “Mrs. Officer” is undeniable), yet I don’t wish death upon him. In fact, Lil Wayne fans should take a page out of the Beliebers (albeit naive) book and urge him to quit hard drugs so they can keep the music they love. This doesn’t mean we need to forgive artists for their faults. Just don’t blame the art.