We are not short on problematic musicians. It feels like every other day a well-known artist makes headlines for an offensive tweet, predatory behavior or saying a slur. Anything awful you can imagine has probably been done by someone with more than 500,000 monthly Spotify listeners.
This constant wave of scandals is so intense that it can be hard for even the most chronically online fan to keep up. It’s a tall order to expect casual listeners to track everything the musicians they listen to say or do. Even when we do learn that a musician we listen to has done something wrong, it’s easy to move on and keep listening as before: What difference will your one little stream really make?
Well, just like any form of consumerism, your individual participation might not seem to make a significant change. But en masse, making more ethical decisions about what music should be consumed can have a big impact. Ultimately, even if we are giving artists only a fraction of a dollar with each stream, if they’ve done harm, we should withhold our support.
But what do we consider to be awful enough to warrant a boycott? As I said, musicians can be called problematic for a wide range of reasons, some of which might seem unfair. For example, Beyoncé was recently criticized for performing in Dubai, given the United Arab Emirates government’s history of homophobia. Sometimes, backlash against an artist is misdirected. For instance, Doja Cat has stirred up controversy throughout the promotion of her newest album, “Scarlet,” with some accusing her of devil worship and her fans upset with past behavior, including an incident in which she mocked fans online.
But Doja Cat has also done more seriously harmful things which have garnered less public attention which might challenge her fans’ ability to justify listening to her music. Her new boyfriend faces serious allegations of emotional abuse, which Doja herself responded to one commenter by saying “GOODBYE AND GOOD RIDDANCE.” More recently, she posted a photo of herself wearing a t-shirt featuring an infamous alt-right Youtuber and alleged Neo-Nazi. When she received backlash for the post, she reposted the photo with the t-shirt cropped out, captioning the photo with multiple eye-roll emojis.. If you don’t care about any of these things, that is your prerogative, but I know that many would, at least enough to detract from their enjoyment of her music. Many people advocate separating art from the artist, but if you do, then you also need to take ownership of what your continued support means.
However, for the more conscientious, how can we be expected to hold problematic artists accountable? Often, fans are the most aware of scandals involving their favorite artists. If anyone could deprive them of the money and support that helped their career flourish previously, it would be the ones religiously buying and promoting their music like it’s their job. Such boycotts have succeeded in the past. The fast-growing world of K-pop is infamous for its exploitation of artists, but few have seen mistreatment on the level of the group Loona. The members of the popular girl group were not allowed to go outside for more than half an hour per day and allegedly went six years without pay. The final straw was when one of the members, Chuu, was thrown out of the group by the record label, leading the 11 other members to file injunctions to leave the label as well. The label then tried to promote a new album amid the ensuing legal dispute. But the plan backfired: Loona’s fanbase boycotted not only the new release, but all of the group’s music. Though their previous albums had sold more than 50,000 copies in the first day, the newest release only sold 93 copies in its first 24 hours, making the boycott an overwhelming success and forcing the label to cancel the release. Subsequently, all of the Loona members won their cases against the label and became free artists.
In this case, fans intended for the boycott to benefit the artists. In similar fashion, a Swiftie would have no trouble boycotting original recordings of her albums in order to instead stream “Taylor’s Version.” As fans, it is clear that our actions matter. In some instances, even superfans should be able to draw a line. The problem with a case like Doja Cat’s is that it wasn’t her label that was acting up, but her — the one person her fans endlessly support. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that her newest album has been an overwhelming success, despite her bad behavior. And, of course, while Doja does have some pretty serious scandals floating around her, hers still pale in comparison to some other artists who also still have major fan support. For example, Chris Brown, despite his very public history of abuse, just sold out a major European tour in minutes. Mass-organized boycotts by fans aren’t the only forms of leverage we can rely on as listeners to hold artists accountable. Anyone who has made a personal decision to consume more ethically (e.g., not eating meat) knows that, even if your contribution is small, a lot of individual changes add up. If we all act in accordance with our beliefs, it will have a gradual, positive impact.
So, when you’re just a casual listener, should you really be expected never to listen to “Planet Her” on Spotify again, knowing full well that Doja Cat will still be highly successful whether you support her or not? Well, that part is up to you. Unless you are impassioned enough to organize mass action against her, your abstention probably won’t make a large difference. However, principles have to come into play at some point. Even if you’re only giving a problematic musician like Chris Brown half a cent per stream, that still counts as a form of support. If all of us don't care, those cents will start adding up, just as if we all act based on principles, the positive effects will also become visible. And do you really want to contribute to an abuser’s bank account? I know I don’t.