Sunday, 31 December 2017

Shame and scandal - a game of reputations

2017: the year of risk-averse defenestration

A while back, I was at a local station, in the meeting room. There were Gold and Silver discs, snaps of celebs with DJs, major station events, directors
           Who, me? I deny everything
and dignitaries; the usual. And 
a large framed photo of Rolf Harris, with local schoolkids and a couple of jocks, all grinning for the camera, behind a panel with the station logo. This was well after Harris' public fall from grace: awkward. I gently pointed this out; they didn't thank me.

This year, mainstream media have been lightning-fast in dropping disgraced notables with less than perfect personal lives. Radio has long had a ripe history of bad behaviour and downright nasty control freakery. There's a well-established routine to make it all go away: 

1: Drop the accused, instantly.
2: Never mention him (it's always a him) again; he never existed.
3: Watch the waters close over his head. 
And breathe.

It's not just radio, of course. 

Smiling men with bad reputations

In the world of Classical Music, two very senior conductors were kicked into touch this year for overstepping the mark: all their contracts gone; all their gigs cancelled. Does this mean that Classical stations using their work have to bury all their material? If it's anything like pop radio, I'd say yes, but I may be wrong. Classical stations can get cute: they can simply lose the offending name from the Conductor credits in their databases. Again, it's like the offender never existed. 

Interestingly, the New York Metropolitan Opera, who relied heavily on director James Levine for their multi-platform output, but who suspended him in December 2017, still appear to have a lot of his material available. On-demand performances are there for subscribers. CDs, DVDs and more are there to buy on the Met website. But I doubt we'll ever see a Levine re-broadcast again.

Above all, don't play the wrong thing

Compare and contrast with the BBC, who instantly canned repeats of maybe half their vintage pop TV show library, 'Top Of The Pops', and all the 'Jim'll Fix It' shows after Jimmy Savile was posthumously outed. Then there was Gary Glitter: bang went all his old hits, and those ghastly seasonal compilations with his one Xmas hit had to be scrapped and reformulated. While R Kelly continues to record, after the lurid allegations of a decade ago, a Compare My Radio search turned up zero plays for the 36 songs of his on their books.

Think of the scramble to remove material which might offend after a disaster: anybody who played or programmed 'Leaving on a Jet Plane' after 9/11 would have been sacked, and rightly too. Nobody wants to be the guy who gives offense and then gets slaughtered on social media. And that's a huge new factor. 

Time heals everything? Well, maybe not

There is another dimension to consider: time. Forty years ago, attitudes were vastly different. Rock, for example, traded on overt sexism and the objectification of women. It was part of musicbiz culture, just as in the movie industry, the theatre and elsewhere. What cultural shift there has been is triggered by commercial concerns and by Social Media bypassing existing channels to apply pressure to those concerns. 
#MeToo has hit home big time. 

In the past, breathtaking sexism was simply waved through. Plenty of songs reflected attitudes which have now been swept discreetly under the carpet. The Stones have a choice selection, and they're not alone. The Faces had 'Stay With Me'; supergroup Blind Faith launched with an album cover which might well have had them hung drawn and quartered in 2017. Score one for the design department. It hardly sat with Steve Winwood's achingly sensitive 'Can't Find My Way Home' on the record itself. A quick look at the catalogue of most rock outfits of the 70s and 80s will turn up dozens of examples.

Rock wasn't unique. Dig around vintage 60s pop and classic R and B, and it's all there. 80s disco? There's a ton of come-on seduction material designed for club audiences on the pull; that hasn't gone away. Now, seduction songs have a long and honourable tradition, so I don't see all of them as the same deal. But there is a connection, and of course the lines get blurred. 

In fact, 'Blurred Lines' is singularly appropriate to this discussion. Robin Thicke appropriated the groove from Marvin Gaye's 'Sexual Healing' and/or 'Got To Give It Up'. Thicke's song denigrates women, while Marvin's originals celebrate sex. As does Prince, who can be breathtakingly filthy, but sings joyfully about sex without putting anyone down. 

Where to now in a risk-averse media world?

I'd hate to think we're sliding into a puritanical world of social media-powered thought police, but there's no denying the web has made this more likely. It's the digital equivalent of an avenging army - or, depending on your perspective, a lynch mob. Ironically, the web has also eased a slide to first exposing, then normalising, and as a result, tolerating our worst excesses. It's all out there. Debate, action, outrage, and crashing reputations. 

One last thought. Geniuses can be flawed. If someone produces a work of towering creativity and invention that changes our lives for the better, and we later learn that he was a obnoxious mess of boiling perversion, does that change our attitude to their work? Should it? 

Plenty of legends have been shown to have some repellent skeletons in their cupboards. The hyper-cautious mainstream media reaction in our connected and instantly judgemental world? Avoid at all costs. 

Nobody is denying that Kevin Spacey was a fine actor; most (not all) agree that James Levine was a brilliant conductor. Should we now never listen to classic Motown because there were monsters at work there? And some of our finest and most exciting broadcasters have, tragically, shown themselves to have feet of clay, to put it mildly. Do we, should we, deny their brilliance because of this? 

Your call. Please tell me what you think.

Happy New Year. 


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Alan C said...

I suspect nobody is weeping over the exclusion of Rock 'n' Roll Christmas from the festive playlists, though it is slightly odd that the Phil Spector tunes still survive. Personally I'm more dumbfounded that Showaddywaddy's Hey Mr Christmas isn't heard more often. Perhaps their crimes against music are taken more seriously.

Robin Valk said...

A fair point, Mr C, but I suspect that 85% of all the tracks on a Christmas compilation are there to make up the numbers, in between Slade, Paul McCartney and Wizzard. I would, sadly, place Showeaddywaddy in that group.