Confronting the Damaging Myth of the Artistic Genius


In one of the jauntiest (and incidentally, most chilling) songs in the Chicago musical, crooked lawyer Billy Flynn illustrates, to his client Roxie Hart, how to avoid accountability in the public eye:

When you're in trouble, go into your dance

Though you are stiffer than a girder

They'll let you get away with murder

Razzle dazzle 'em

And you've got a romance!

More recently, this idea was reiterated in a hilariously surreal Atlanta episode. Instead of apologizing for his disruptive antics (which include peeing on the wall of a locker room, dunking on reporters and getting into a fight with a fellow musician), “Black Justin Bieber” performs the following song during a damage control press conference:

You know what I did, it doesn't matter

You know that I'll always be better

Sometimes I'm crazy, and you know it

That's how I show you that I care

Effusive fawning ensues.

This concept of distraction and deflection has seemed to work in favor of many a powerful person throughout history. Artists, in particular, have exploited this idea as long as there have been hordes of fans happy to let them: the noxious concept of the Genius is the neatly packaged escape route for many an outrageous mistake, and has been used to explain away what, in principle, the everyday person could never get away with. 

It’s the ready-made excuse Jeffrey Tambor and his male Arrested Development castmates recently chucked at Jessica Walters, after the latter tearfully revealed how hurt she was about his on-set behavior. It’s what Roman Polanski apologists, back in 2009, claimed in defense of the filmmaker in an open letter following his arrest. It’s what many attribute to the success of Hitchcock films. Yes, his behavior was callous, but it was in the goal of something greater.

I’ve always wondered whether amazing artists could be separated from their terrible actions, but that’s the wrong question to ask because it is, indeed, possible to objectively enjoy the work of people who are less than praiseworthy. 

The question is: should we? After all, the more indivisible these counterparts are, the more the artist in question takes advantage of the system that allows them to perpetuate damaging behavior, seemingly with no repercussions.

This question is relevant in film and television, and has only started to be addressed in wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. But it remains woefully overdue in the music industry, where the image of the Toxic Genius has even deeper roots, and goes back decades — centuries even.

The tempestuous musician, the temperamental composer, the tortured rock star: all have been such a fundamental part of our collective consciousness that if artists today don’t adhere to it, they are considered bland, boring (never mind that "bland", in many cases, simply means not being on a path of drug-fueled self-destruction). It makes sense, then, that singers and musicians would be less inhibited about playing into it.

Music, in a way, feels much more personal than the work of an actor/producer, who is a cog in a bigger process; if the actor is punished, the film, the studio, the crew, the rest of the cast, the screenwriter etc. suffer. The musician, if they create their own work and are involved in every creative step, is the one with most to lose, so unsurprisingly, they hold on much more tightly to their right to be awful. 

The tempestuous musician, the temperamental composer, the tortured rock star: all have been a fundamental part of our collective consciousness.

This question was most recently prompted, for me, by rapper XXXTentacion’s untimely death. I’ve never listened to his music, and as of very recently, I didn’t even know the man. Until a few weeks ago, the most I had heard concerned his reputation —this, coincidentally, only days before he died. I couldn’t help but be roped in, since, by the stories that followed his death, and the ensuing reaction, all of which say much about the relationship we have with troubled legacies.

XXXTentacion, (real name Jahseh Dwayne Ricardo Onfroy) was only twenty years old when he was gunned down in late June 2018, cutting short the seemingly budding trajectory of his musical success. 

A cursory look at his life reveals a plethora of altercations, incarcerations and assaults, the most recent one related to his pregnant girlfriend whom he allegedly abused and threatened into dropping the charges. He’s also been tied to numerous feuds with other musicians and fans, and his open acknowledgment of suicidal ideation and mental illness, in a genre that has long shied away from that sort of vulnerability, became his trademark.

Yet, this did not dampen his career: if anything, it seemed to stoke it: his album 17 reached Number 2 on the Billboard 200, his second one ? went straight to Number 1, and it's been recently revealed that before he died, he had signed a $10 million album deal — all this in spite of the infamy tailing him.

While this debate swirled about during his short career, after his death, it positively exploded. Fellow musicians, critics, fans and non-fans alike have sparred online about how he should be remembered, and if he should be remembered at all. His funeral/memorial was an affected, elegiac affair; his accusers have been publicly dragged, others have insisted that whatever his personal life may have been, his songs were therapeutic to many.

Some have pointed to his would-be influential music and tragic background as attenuating circumstances; others have insisted that perhaps his thorny persona, especially in this age of accountability, should not be tolerated, whatever reach his influence may have had.

I’ve listened to all the noise, with an equal mixture of cool resignation, and profound disappointment.

It’s not the first time that an artist’s death crystalized them: XXXTentacion is no different from the likes of Tupac and Biggie, who’ve been deified in the years since their mysterious passings. The 27 Club superstition, additionally, operates on that belief. Naively, I sometimes wonder whether their controversies would have gotten the same level of leniency, had they lived: but this thought never lasts. 

I know the truth at a deep, deep level: it would have made no difference, because violence and scandal, whether the perpetrators are alive or dead, always go unpunished.

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page has long been accused of kidnapping a 14 year-old; Dr. Dre’s recent admission of assault (recriminations he’s disregarded for decades) has not tarnished his career; Kelis’s claims of abuse suffered at the hands of rapper Nas didn’t stop his June 2018 album from reaching top-ten status in the charts; R. Kelly’s storied predatory conduct continues to be defended and supported by an ardent fanbase; Ozzy Osbourne (bat head-biting aside) hasn’t denied strangling Sharon Osbourne during a blackout-induced episode; Chris Brown remains a figure of worship among his fans, despite the fact that he's a walking rap sheet.

Even more extreme cases highlight this tendency: punk rocker Sid Vicious was famously charged with the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, but the story has since been romanticized, their union characterized as “iconic”, “star-crossed” and “tragic”, instead of what it really was: horrific. 

Legendary French band Noir Désir was notoriously rocked by a similar scandal in 2003 when lead singer Bertrand Cantat drunkenly beat his girlfriend, actress Marie Trintignant, so many times that she died soon after. Not only did he only serve half his sentence and was released on parole, he also continues to enjoy a cult status in France, and has even gotten performance opportunities some have tentatively dubbed as a comeback. Those who decry his continued success are pegged as “feminists”, as if one had to be a feminist to think that what Cantat did was abhorrent.

They, and XXXTentacion are only a select few in an astonishing list of artists whose behavior has been downplayed and/or overlooked: good music, apparently, is the tithe that pays for these crimes.

Anyone can call themselves a prodigy, hail their own work as a masterpiece, proclaim their influence as more far-reaching than it really is. 

Familiar questions about problematic legacies continue to float up because we continue to circle the fluid notions of genius and artistry. At times, we mock these concepts because they are so subjective: anyone can call themselves a prodigy, hail their own work as a masterpiece, proclaim their influence as more far-reaching than it really is. 

But more often than not, we allow artists to use the shield, because ultimately, it is never about the music: it’s about the spectacle, the “Razzle-Dazzle”, as Billy Flynn calls it. We’re attracted to the trainwreck, the implosion, the self-destruction that makes us feel better, either because our lives are seemingly more put together, or else because we have a front-row spectacle to the outrageous things we always wished we could try. 

Maybe, for example, people really like Kanye West’s music: but it’s certainly not this, in my opinion, that has kept them coming back like moths to the flame. It’s his megalomania, the thrill of the excitement, the “what is he going to do/say next?” that has continued to sustain his career, despite his rampant misogyny, despite his ardent Trump support, despite his recent claims about slavery.

He, like all controversial “geniuses” before him, have relied on the voracious appetite of a public always ready to forgive the previous offense, as long as the coming one is even more deliciously shocking.

Separating the artist from the art is tempting, in the same way that we try to reconcile the “good” people in our lives with the terrible things they do. It’s the impulse to forgive and forget, to be compassionate, to be understanding and open-minded.

More importantly: if we were to pound the gavel harshly on the fate of every artist with a shady past, there wouldn’t be much to listen to, apparently. But in light of eons of people shirking accountability, and in this long-overdue, delicately balanced moment, when powerful people might finally face their responsibilities, this inclination is dangerous.

It only infuses an artist’s ego when we continue to support their art, only reinforces, for some, that the ends (art) justify the means (the unconventional lengths one goes to, to perfect it); the only repercussion they are likely to understand is a financial one, not an emotional one.

But more simply put: why continue to reward terrible behavior? Why not, for once, give a chance to all the other talented people who are not accorded the same level of success, simply because they don’t have an “interesting” backstory, a wanton persona, a gimmicky behavior that catches the eye? Decency and kindness should not be seen as weaknesses, on the contrary. 

Why not change the conversation that has always surrounded artists and their public, regarding legacy and eccentricity? Why not hold artists to the same standards as their awesome, touching music? 

We’re not likely to find answers to these questions, because the tricky relationship we have with musicians isn’t likely to change anytime soon. If anything, with social media bringing about a greater sense of immediacy and intimacy with fans, the reciprocity is probably going to get stronger.

And while I can understand those who cannot or will not do this for whatever reason, I, for one, am increasingly comfortable with turning away from those whose personal lives overshadow their work. 

I love music like nothing else. It is one of my greatest passions, and has been a soothing balm in my life when I needed it the most — I'd rather not feel guilty while listening to it, to boot.