I was on the train this morning, letting my iPod pick my travelling music, and I heard two songs back to back and, given the fact that I've almost 3,000 songs on the wee box, the odds of them shuffling together are pretty long. "Human Nature" and "Get On the Floor." Both by Michael Jackson. From Thriller and Off the Wall, respectively.
I haven't thought about Michael Jackson, on purpose, for years. Sure, I've averted my eyes at the whole child molestation/bankrupcy/Bahrainian emigre thing. And it's easy to look at him today, the very model of a modern eccentric white woman, and feel both revulsion and pity. He should be the poster child for How Parents Can Fuck Up Their Kids, But Good.
And yet none of that can change the fact that, for a good long while there, he was an amazing musician, a startling performer. He was a rock star that sung R&B, who had an unparalled control over both his voice and his body. He was, as we used to say, The Shit. (I never had the Thriller jacket, like so many of my friends did, but it wasn't for lack of desire. Rather, a lack of funds.) And those two songs, while neither of them as tectonic as, say, "Beat It" or "Billie Jean," are still pretty amazing little snorts of pop culture.
Listening to them got me thinking about how we, as consumers and aficianados, deal with great art by people we can no longer stand. It's a quandry that critics and historians have been wrestling with for years. Is The Birth of a Nation any less of a landmark film for being a Klan puff piece? Is Triumph of the Will not a heady, incisive look at the power of propaganda—maybe the greatest movie about marketing ever—because it's about the Nazis, commissioned by Hitler?
More recently, is The Road Warrior not awesome because Mel Gibson's a drunken anti-Semite or is Tom Cruise not revelatory in Magnolia or Legend (yeah, Legend. So?) simply because he's a misguided religious zealot? Or is Speed not a terrific thriller just because Keanu Reeves is dumb as a stump? Is Hunter any less mediocriffic knowing that Fred Dryer was, reportedly, a racsist sexist bigot? (Well, okay, you got me there.)
Our relationship with art has to be divorced from the artist, otherwise neither will be able to stand, or fail, on their own.