“You can now mute R Kelly and other artists on Spotify.” A headline typical of the post-#MeToo era, in which figures such as the musician – who has been newly accused of sexual assault in the documentary series Surviving R Kelly – are ‘cancelled’ for their alleged transgressions.
Yet cancellation, trumpeted via social media, often doesn’t result in a real-life reversal of an artist’s popularity: streams of R Kelly’s music increased 116% after the programme aired, a sign that you can’t expunge a legacy – however toxic it may be – with tweets alone.
Last year, ‘Skins’, the first posthumous album from rapper XXXTentacion – aka Jahseh Onfroy – reached Number One on the Billboard Chart. Before his murder at the age of 20, Onfoy had been charged with aggravated battery of a pregnant woman and admitted on tape to committing a violent homophobic attack.
Less than two weeks before that, New York rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine released his debut studio album ‘Dummy Boy’ from prison while awaiting trial for racketeering and firearms charges (he’d been released on bail when he pleaded guilty to child sexual offence charges in 2015). Ten of the album’s 13 tracks entered the Spotify Top 100, while ‘Dummy Boy’ reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100.
Both albums were critically panned and, more importantly, encapsulate that age–old debate: can you separate the artist from the art? It’s a question that’s loomed large over the #MeToo era, and the general consensus among most music writers I know was that X and 6ix9ine were not deserving of coverage. But you can’t ignore those numbers. Millennials – and I speak as one – often cast the older generation as unenlightened, as unwoke, but it’s a safe bet baby boomers aren’t the ones streaming XXXTentacion or Tekashi 6ix9ine, rappers who emerged on SoundCloud and are adored by young fans.
20-year-old XXXTentacion fan Aaliyah Harris puts it succinctly: “You can still enjoy music that’s created by people who do things that you don’t support.”
She’s part of Generation Z, those born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s. We hear so much about millennials, about their famed love of avocados, their thwarted attempts at home ownership – and especially their desire for political correctness, a trait so prevalent that Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson was recently quoted by The Daily Star as criticising the generation for “putting us backwards” by “looking for reasons to be offended”. Although he later claimed the quotes were false, they went viral, suggesting that this is a hot topic. Given that Gen Z stream ‘cancelled’ artists in their millions, though, what do they make of it all?
For Aaliyah Harris, there’s a big difference between streaming an artist’s work and physically buying their album. “I think young people feel like listening to the music isn’t really contributing to supporting [the artist],” she explains. “You’re paying for your annual Spotify subscription, but you’re not paying directly to that person.”
It’s true: as HMV’s recent slide into administration demonstrates, the days of shelling out £15 for a new album from an artist you love – days I remember all too well – are long gone. As music consumption becomes more passive, and record shops an anachronism for a generation of music fans, people like Aaliyah feel less like they’re buying into an artist’s worldview.
“When we listen to music, even though you know someone has a past, you’re listening to the music for music on its own” she insists. “In terms of supporting that kind of behaviour, that’s only done really if you’re going to contribute by going to their concerts.” She continues: “A lot of people that I talk to that are like, ‘Yeah, I will listen to a track, but I won’t go to a concert’. Going to concerts, you’re participating with everyone for that one person.”
Author Chloe Combi, who is currently revising her acclaimed 2015 sociological study Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives – which is being adapted for TV – for a new edition, points out “there is a big difference to the things we’re critical of to our public online audience, and still consume privately.” In her view, it’s more about the divide between private and public.
“Pornography, dodgy jokes, un-PC behaviour, trolling – we might criticise those things publicly, but statistics reveal quite a different picture and indicate that we behave very differently in private,” she says. “And young people tend to be even more secretive and private by nature than older people, as they’re generally more worried about ridicule and revealing their real selves. This will absolutely apply to music, film, TV and suchlike. People like to present themselves as people who listen to high-brow, cool, cutting edge music from ‘right-on’ artists, but the playlists in the bedrooms can be – and usually are – quite different.”
“People like to present themselves as people who listen to high-brow, cool, cutting edge music from ‘right-on’ artists, but the playlists in the bedrooms can be – and usually are – quite different”
– Chloe Combi, author of Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives
17-year-old NME writer Kyann-Sian Williams, an avowed XXXTentacion fan, believes that generation Z are less keen than millennials on ‘cancelling’ certain acts, but admits that “there is still a fraction of the generation who feel that whatever you did in the past, they judge you on it.” She adds: “There are many people out there who still slander you for listening to somebody like X, although I’m only listening to the music; it doesn’t mean I’m endorsing what he was doing in his past. But it comes with a lot of baggage and a lot of ridicule.”
So maybe Kyann is simply more up-front about her controversial taste in music than her peers. Well, what does she like about XXXTentacion’s music? “He was a motivator. I was always someone who was like, ‘OK, I’ve got this big dream – but how do I get there? Every day I’d be on X’s social pages and he’d motivate me with a little thing to get me through the day, like, ‘You can get there’. It was just, like, reassurance that started to build up and build up and build up.”
In addition, she says that stories Onfoy’s upbringing chimed with her own: “I grew up without a Dad, just like how he did. From when I was about eight, I was moved about nine times within five years because my mum couldn’t look after me for a little bit. And that was almost like him.”
Last year, she listened to an XXXTentacion track “about guns and about how ‘I don’t like you’” when feeling nervous about her first day in a new workplace. She explains that “all the nerves were gone” and says that the rapper’s often aggressive music is “definitely an energiser”.
And what of his misogynistic lyrics (from his breakout track ‘Look At Me!’: “I took a white bitch to Starbucks / That little bitch got her throat fucked”)? “Obviously with me being a female, I shouldn’t be listening to derogatory misogynist lyrics and stuff like that – but it does make you feel very naughty. It’s a dog-eat-dog type world. It builds up that hustler mentality that you might need to build up to go off to achieve what you want in the world. Sometimes you need an aggressive nature. And I feel like that’s what that music sometimes helps with.”
“I shouldn’t be listening to derogatory misogynist lyrics and stuff like that, but it does make you feel very naughty. It’s a dog-eat-dog type world. It builds up that hustler mentality that you might need to build up to go off to achieve what you want in the world.”
– XXXTentacion fan and NME writer Kyann-Sian Williams
So, in this context, Kyann is experiencing a vicarious thrill at the taboo nature of X’s lyrics, without necessarily endorsing their message. I grew up listening to Eminem (secretly, on a Discman, so that my parents couldn’t hear) in much the same way. Things change, but not very much.
The difference perhaps lies in the fact that, for all his controversy (which continues in 2019, thanks to homophobic lyrics from his last album ‘Kamikaze’), Eminem was signed to Interscope, sanctioned by a record label run by grown-ups. By contrast, SoundCloud rappers epitomised by Tekashi 6ix9ine and XXXTentacion (see also: Trippie Red, 21 Savage, et al) found fame when they uploaded music directly to the internet, circumventing the gatekeepers of the music industry. It’s perhaps not surprising that older generations are expressing their concern.
Yet Chloe Combi points out: “There was a moral panic over Marilyn Manson, and as far as I know none of my metal friends have made a pact with Satan.” She rattles through the roll-call of artists who have caused to parents to ask, ‘Won’t anyone think of the children?’, from Chuck Berry to Beatles and The Doors to Led Zeppelin. “Point being,” she says, “most music that’s vaguely provocative throughout history tends to cause controversy.”
There’s a catch, though. “Having said all that,” she adds, “I do have some concerns about the way kids access music can leave them vulnerable. The obsessive stans [an online term for mega-fans who typically are very vocal about their fave on social media] can form much tighter communities now enabled by the internet, and these get pretty obsessive and toxic. That’s bad enough for the likes of Justin Bieber, but when it’s over issues that are genuinely worrying – like abuse, violence, and pedophilia – can get seriously out of hand. And stan-ing makes the star beyond reproach. If kids meet with their idol, it leaves them open to all kinds of exploitation.”
For all these concerns, however, the members of generation Z that NME spoke to sound pretty switched on. For Aaliyah Harris, “When you hear about artists who are controversial, or things that they’ve done, when they try and change their lives and try to change what they did, that changes [my] opinion a bit more.” As an example, she cites Chris Brown, who was cancelled almost a decade before cancellation culture became a thing, having committed an appalling act of domestic violence against then-girlfriend Rihanna back in 2009.
Although you’re still unlikely to hear a prominent publication endorse Brown, he recently scored a Top Five song in the UK charts (‘Undecided’) and signed huge new deal with RCA. In 2017, Netflix unveiled the documentary Welcome To My Life, in which Brown attempted to explain his actions.
For Aaliyah, this made listening to his music a more acceptable pastime. “Rihanna is friends with him and some people think that’s wrong because it sets an example that he did was OK, but when [people] try and change their lives and [learn from] what they did, that changes things,” she says. “He’s explained himself and he’s doing all these things so people will think better of him. Even though people are not gonna forget what he did.”
For Kyann, this sense of personal growth is what differentiates Tekashi 6ix9ine from XXXTentacion. “When I think of 6ix9ine,” she says, “he’s more negative. He’s just trying to boost his own self-esteem through beefs with people like [Ohio rapper] Trippie Redd and all these other people who are established. People who actually have got fan bases. He’s trying to diminish them to get bigger himself. When it came to X, he was a bit more positive later on. He was like, ‘I don’t wanna be this person. I wanna be somebody who’s greater for the youth.’”
Hearing all this, I’m beginning to suspect that young people like Aaliyah and Kyann, fans of cancelled rappers such as XXXTentacion, really do have a more nuanced understanding of cancellable behaviour than millennial cultural commentators inclined to write someone off entirely for their transgressions. Chloe Combi, though, is dubious. “I’m not sure nuance is the word I’d use at all.”
She explains: “The inability to separate the artist from the art is just as pronounced as ever with Z’s – if not more so. Think about campus politics – pulling down statues, graffiti-ing over unacceptable writers’ work, asking things be taken off syllabuses. I think Z are just insistent that artists conform to behaviour, and standards and can get cancelled as easily as ever (if not more so).”
“Generation z have grown up in the era of absolute polarity and binary views, fake news and weird conspiracy theory-thinking being entirely mainstream. Quite simply: if you don’t like the PR surrounding your favourite artists, you can discount it as fake news, set-ups or propaganda”
– Chloe Combi
What she does think is unique to generation Z is their flexibility when it comes to personal narratives. “They’ve grown up in the era of absolute polarity and binary views, fake news and weird conspiracy theory-thinking being entirely mainstream, she says. “Quite simply: if you don’t like some of the stories or PR surrounding your favourite artists, you can discount them as fake news, set-ups, or the individual being the subject of right- or left-wing propaganda.
“In every one one of these [cases of] artists doing awful things, there will be a myriad of articles saying that X-artist is subject to a racist / Zionist / liberal / right-wing / feminist – delete as appropriate – agenda/conspiracy. This can discount facts and bend reality to your will. World leaders do it; why not young people when wanting to make excuses for an artist they love?”
That’s perhaps a cynical – and certainly concerning – thought, but ultimately it may well be true that the gulf between generation z’s and millennials’ attitudes toward cancellable behaviour is less pronounced than it may seem. As Chloe Combi pointed out: there’s a big difference between denouncing someone or something publicly and doing it privately in your bedroom. The point of difference, though, might lie in our collective use of social media.
We know that generation Z seem to be becoming less keen on social media than their forebears. The research company Ampere Analysis found that 66% of 18-24-year-olds claimed “social media is important to me” in 2016; the number had decreased to just 57% last year.
Maybe it’s simply that, millennials, raised in the noughties age of online forums and having first logged on to Twitter a decade ago, are more vocal and performative than other generations, having been led to believe that we could change the world through online communication (and it may be a backlash against this virtue broadcasting that’s inspired the gleefully vocal alt-right). By contrast, the generation z-ers that I spoke to were vocally accepting of the human complexity, of mistakes and the chance for redemption. The kids are alright.