There are some songs that thrill us and are part of our shared cultural fabric - from classic hits like Thriller, and ABC, Let's Dance, and Twist and Shout, to more modern hits like Ignition, Still Dre, Run It, and Cool Kids. What happens when we learn something disturibing about the artist. What happens when someone's actions have come to light that change not just how we view that person, but how we view their music, and its impact on our lives?
This year, the drummer from Echosmith, a young but legal-adult autistic musician, was caught trying to slide into a 16 year old's DMs. We've gotten no requests to avoid their music.
Several years ago, Robin Thicke was accused by his ex-wife Paula of domestic abuse. We didn't get any requests to avoid his music, although Blurred Lines, the biggest hit of 2013, is gaining in popularity again.
A decade ago, we had to confront domestic abuse with Chris Brown, who had an unbearable exchange with his then-girlfriend Rihanna that was a horror brought all too close with the pictures that followed. At the time, we received a ton of requests to avoid any Chris Brown songs at weddings. In the past six years we haven't received a single request to avoid his music and his recent hits are consistently requested at weddings.
Almost twenty years ago, rumors were circulating about R Kelly and his predatory predilections. Last year a documentary was released that detailed his depravity. We continue to get requests for Ignition. The trial made for a Chapelle show sketch where we were asked to confront liking music without somehow implicitly condoning the artist's behaviors.
Twenty-eight years ago, Dr. Dre viciously beat a female rapper and tried to throw her down the stairs while his bodyguard held back would-be samaritans with a firearm, then, when she fled, he followed her into the women's restroom and continued beating her. We've never received a single request to avoid any of his songs and many of our clients have Beats by Dre headphones, a consciously obscene joke.
Thirty years ago Michael Jackson was taken to court by several families who accused him of harming children. After the release of the most recent documentary the temperature on this issue has risen dramatically. People aren't sure, but we get far more requests than we get cancellations, despite the horrifying details.
Forty years ago John Lennon admitted he battered women in his life when he was younger. We don't get any requests to avoid Beatles songs.
Fifty years ago David Bowie & Jimmy Page took indecent liberties with a 13 year old girl. We still get requests for David Bowie (albeit not as many as right after he passed) and Led Zeppelin,
The question of what to do with this information and should we allow it to impact our appreciation or enjoyment of music that has a special place in our lives?
Obviously, any artists you don't want to hear is someone we will avoid, but I wanted to take a second to dig deeper into this and explore whether or not it should be something you need to take into account.
Let's back up just for a second and ask why certain artists get 'cancelled' from a playlist and others don't. Since the release of the recent documentaries the questions about whether or not R Kelly or Michael Jackson should be on our playlists is something we've had to come to terms with. As DJs, this is something we've had to deal with for a long time and our policies are, simply put, to respect whatever your position in. If you're so troubled by what you've learned that you would be emotionally harmed by hearing it at your event then you should absolutely put them on your Do Not Play list. There are lists of problematic artists available that will allow you to consider each instance and how much or how little you want to remove the songs they wrote or performed from your reception and your life.
If your guests will be harmed by hearing their music, you definitely want to make sure they're on your Do Not Play list. Taking your guests needs into account is a crucial part of being a good host and, at your wedding, you are the curator of their experience. If you have guests who suffer migranes we can drop the lights, if you have guests who have peanut allergies we can craft a peanut-free meal. If you have guests who are sensitive to artist's personal lives and will be affected by hearing songs they associate with that artist then you're being proactive, responsible, and conscientious.
I also want to give you permission to not be held hostage to the bad behavior of others. This is how we, as DJs, handle these issues, because an artist's behavior doesn't affect whether or not our guests enjoy a song. I personally abhor the actions of Michael Jackson, R Kelly, Jimmy Page, Bobby Shmurda, David Bowie, John Lennon, Dr. Dre, Takashi 6ix9ine, XXXtentacion, and Nick Carter, but the music isn't the artist, and the music has an independent place in the world - and our memories.
Several years ago I was sitting in a hotel bar watching the Country Music Awards on an out-of-town work trip with a pair of good-ol' boys who were working with me on a tech project. Elton John came on. We had literally been having a conversation about changing opinions on same-sex marriages and relationships, which they were opposed to. They started singing along to his and Dolly Parton's version of John Lennon's Imagine and I was stunned. I asked, and they praised elton's music, talking about their favorites. I followed up with, if they were so offended by his lifestyle, why they loved his music so much, and one of them responded, "His music makes up for his gayness." His response, while crude, was honest in that it revealed a deeper truth about music that has stuck with me ever since - a song's meaning is internal, unique, and personal. These two, who had visited scorn upon people they'd never met for a lifestyle they didn't agree with, could sing every word to every one of his hits.
I guarantee they could sing every word of the world's most famous coming-out song - Bohemian Rhapsody. The artist's lifestyle and behaviors are irrelevant to many people because their enjoyment of a song isn't depending on the artist.
There are artists, politicians, scientists, designers, teachers, musicians, chefs, and neighbors whose personal behaviors are stunningly bad. Would you be proud to own a Picasso? Would you buy a Mitsubishi? A BMW? Anything made by Hugo Boss? Every one of those is problematic at some point. The questions is really, does your choice to include it in your presentation make you feel weird or make you concerned about your guests’ reactions?
Let’s take another tack - Would we throw out a scientific advancement made by a scientist because we found out she was horrible in her personal life? The point is that there's no going back - once it's out in the world it's beyond that individual's ability to 'ruin' what it would mean to others.
If you're going to prohibit them, also consider whether or not you'd like to announce to your guests that songs by certain artists will not be available, or if you want your DJ to just say "No" whenever guests requests their music. You have all the power in the construction of your playlist and the environment you’re creating - and we want to make sure you have every opportunity to create exactly what you want.
And, with that in mind, I encourage you to explore your own feelings on these issues and determine what's best for you, your guests, and your moral comfort as you prepare your request list.