Cancel culture has swept the nation, but should art be canceled because its creator has committed what the majority may consider unacceptable behavior?
Should this apply to classic rock songs that have defined musical eras?
A perfect example of these scenarios can be found in the success of the generation-defining ballad "American Pie," by Don McLean. As New York Times contributor Jennifer Finney Boylan noted in a column published Wednesday, Don's wife Patrisha has accused the singer-songwriter of emotional and physical abuse.
McLean was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence 29 years ago and charged with six misdemeanors, four of which he pleaded guilty to as part of a plea agreement that would see his domestic violence charge dismissed after a year. He paid $3,000 in fines for the other three charges — criminal restraint, criminal mischief, and making domestic violence threats.
He has denied ever assaulting his wife and his iconic song still plays on the radio. And despite the alleged abuse, Patrisha does not believe "American Pie" should be banned from playlists like some other classic rock pieces of disgraced musicians.
"The past several years have seen a reassessment of our country’s many mythologies — from the legends of the generals of the Confederacy to the historical glossing over of slaveholding Founding Fathers. But as we take another look at the sins of our historical figures, we’ve also had to take a hard look at our more immediate past and present, including the behavior of the creators of pop culture," Boylan wrote.
"That reassessment extends now to the people who wrote some of our best-loved songs. But what to do with the art left behind? Can I still love their music if I’m appalled by various events in the lives of Johnny Cash or Elvis or Jerry Lee Lewis? Or by Eric Clapton’s racist rants and anti-vaccination activism?"
Boylan explained that Patrisha believed in another stance — to reconsider "how we elevate these artists."
"It’s the tarnished creators, she said, that we should not celebrate. In other words: The problem with 'American Pie' isn’t the song. It’s the singer. 'American Pie' remains a great song," Boylan continued.
But what about songs that some consider offensive? The Rolling Stones quietly removed their hit song "Brown Sugar" from their current setlist amid criticism about the themes explored in the lyrics that refer to slave ships and rape and is said to be commentary on the horrors of slavery. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Keith Richards tried making sense of the backlash.
"I don’t know. I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is," he said. "Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it. At the moment I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this sh*t."
Boylan noted that it may be "painful" for a lot of baby boomers "to realize that some of the songs first lodged in our memories in adolescence really need a second look."
"And it’s hard to explain why younger versions of ourselves ever thought they were OK in the first place," she added.
Essentially, Boylan admitted she wanted to exist in a world where art, music, and literature can be moving without "having to come up with elaborate apologies for that work or for its creators." The question is, Could such a world exist?
"My guess is probably not," Boylan wrote. "But it can help us to time travel, and not only to our adolescent past. Maybe reconsidering those songs, and their artists, can inspire us to think about the future and how to bring about a world that is more inclusive and more just."
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