NOW THAT POP STARS LIKE MICHAEL JACKSON, EDDIE VEDDER, AND TUPAC SHAKUR ARE IN THE NEWS FOR MORE THAN THEIR MUSIC, CAN WE STILL SEPARATE THE ART FROM THE ARTIST?
I never thought I’d say this, but Cat Stevens led me to ponder a few of life’s big issues. The latest single from Mr. Big, a group of hair-metal leftovers who had a hit in 1992 with ”To Be With You,” is a remake of Stevens’ 1971 hit ”Wild World.” I was never much of a Stevens fan; all that sedate, moony-eyed poesy seemed even more affected than James Taylor’s upper-middle-class angst. But for comparison’s sake, I pulled out my secondhand LP of Tea for the Tillerman, which contains the original ”Wild World,” and played it. To my pleasant surprise, I found the album had aged better than I would have imagined; ”Sad Lisa,” for instance, is still a haunting Gothic madrigal. Yet as I was listening, I couldn’t help but remember the 1989 incident in which Stevens, now a London-based Muslim teacher renamed Yusef Islam, said he supported the belief that author Salman Rushdie should be executed for supposed anti-Islamic messages in The Satanic Verses. The dark side of ”Moon Shadow”? Those memories, and the thought that one artist would actually encourage the persecution of another, hovered over the music as I listened and lent an unsettling feeling to lightweight songs that had nothing whatsoever to do with Stevens’ current beliefs. Separating the art from the artist isn’t a problem that’s raised only by revenge-crazed ex-folkies. With a few obvious exceptions-the Beatles and Madonna come to mind-there was a time when the inhabitants of the Billboard pop charts were deemed too inconsequential, too fringe, to merit tabloid coverage. (Consider what little aftermath followed Don Henley’s 1980 bust involving drugs and an underage girl, or the 1982 car crash of Teddy Pendergrass and a transsexual with a history of arrests.) But with new magazines and tabloid TV shows cropping up seemingly every week, the private lives of the likes of Michael Jackson, Tupac Shakur, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Jackson Browne, and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder are dissected with the same frenzy attached to Donald Trump’s second wedding. The media certainly have a right to report whatever they like (as a member of the press, I’m biased, in this opinion at least). But how does the open season on pop stars affect our enjoyment of their music? Sadly, it can have a big impact. The child-abuse allegations being hurled at Michael Jackson now shed an uncomfortably bright light on his two-year-old Dangerous album. What are we to make of ”Heal the World” starting with a young girl’s voice talking about making the planet ”a better place for our children” ? Or in ”Remember the Time,” Jackson singing, ”Do you remember when we fell in love/We were young and innocent”? If the accusations are true, it’s almost impossible not to think tawdry thoughts when listening to those moments (or seeing any of his old videos, with their eerie preponderance of children). Likewise, it’s hard not to feel betrayed hearing Shakur’s profeminist song ”Keep Ya Head Up” now that allegations of rape and sodomy (which he has denied) are hanging over him, or to reconcile the supposedly sensitive Vedder heard on Vs. with the same guy who duked it out with a fan in a bar in November. In both cases, and with Dangerous as well, the seething anger and paranoia lurking beneath the music adds an extra-bitter aftertaste. Similarly, I found it impossible to listen to Jackson Browne’s laments about his breakup with Daryl Hannah on his latest album, I’m Alive, in light of reports that he might have beaten her up. Complicating matters further is that musicians, unlike movie stars, are supposedly using their art as an outlet for their inner thoughts. That confessional side is what draws us to rock stars in the first place; unlike actors, they are, in theory, not merely playing a role. During the controversy over his song ”Cop Killer,” Ice-T made a convincing case that he was merely taking on the role of a deranged character. Fair enough, since fantasy and image are as essential to pop music as supposed reality. But can Snoop Doggy Dogg make that same Ice-T argument now that he’s about to be tried for his involvement in the death of a man gunned down near Snoop’s Jeep? Can you listen to the gunfire heard on Doggystyle and not wince? I know I can’t, even as much as I hum some of the melodies on that album. Same with Dangerous, which just makes me feel creepy-as does any Cat Stevens record, for that matter. It makes you wonder how Frank Sinatra’s tendencies toward bashing reporters and associating with hoods would have been covered had shows like Hard Copy existed in the ’50s. (Or did Sinatra escape such scrutiny merely because he was a wealthy white man?) Because ultimately, the press’ heightened awareness of musicians upsets the delicate balance between pop stars, their fans, the fantasies the stars project, and what fans absorb. At times like this, it’s tempting for anyone who seriously loves music to turn off the TV, recycle all ( the newspapers before reading them, and wonder if ignorance truly is bliss. *