We all have problematic faves. You know what I mean: the artist, actor, or rock star who you adore, but who then goofs up, perhaps months or years after – or before – you enter their fandom. Maybe by the time you find out they’re behavior is or has been problematic, it’s too late. Let’s flashback to 2013, for instance, and use Miley Cyrus as an example. Say you grew up with her, knew Miley since she was Hannah Montana, and all of a sudden, she’s twerking on and pantomime-rimming Black women, and you don’t know if you need to throw away your Best of Both Worlds posters and unfollow her on Instagram. Maybe you don’t even want to unfollow her on Instagram – come on, her posts are pretty entertaining – but you don’t support her co-opting of Black culture and literal use of women, specifically women of color, as props, either. What’s a Smiler to do? You dig her feminism and body positivity, maybe even enjoy her blatant and outspoken sexuality. You can see how she’s doing good work for women, and like how she’s breaking out of the Disney shell and becoming her authentic self, but you wonder why her authentic self has to phase in and out of Black culture, as if Blackness and mistrelsy were a costume something she could put on and take off at will (See: Solidarity is for Miley Cyrus.) Other feminist writers have discussed how she utilizes traditional codifiers of Black female sexuality to “find herself,” and the highly problematic implications of doing so – that this contributes to Jezebel stereotypes of Black women, that, as Black culture is co-opted, Black artists still aren’t winning awards, and that, as I have written on this blog, and many, many others have said before me, Miley is acquitted and cute for the same things that killed Trayvon.
So, I’ll admit it, Miley is one of my problematic faves. “We Can’t Stop” is my jam at the clubs. I learned how to twerk and started sticking my tongue out because of her. She was so cute and edgy, and perhaps I didn’t know any better – though I know better now. Whether you like her or not, you have to admit that she’s had a wide-scale impact since her 2013 coming out.
What about problematic faves who are more than just entertainment to you, though? What about the artists who have connected with you on such a deep personal level that you feel they’ve changed your life? It’s one thing to unfollow Miley on Instagram, if you feel like that will help someone, somewhere (it probably won’t), but it’s another to give up on an artist who has brought you out of the deep recesses of yourself. For me, those artists are Lana Del Rey and Macklemore.
A lot of people don’t know this about me, but I used to struggle with addiction and depression. During the spring of 2013, I faced the most trying time of my life. I was hooked on painkillers and acting bananas. I quit my job, lost friends, and ultimately, had to move across the state to get clean. During that period, I was struggling with thoughts of suicide. I recall that I would start laughing until I cried. I would fall down laughing, laugh until I made myself sick. I didn’t know how to explain the sadness that overcame me. It was as if I existed in different air than everyone else, that the air I was in was full of anger and anxiety and blind rage and murmuring emptiness. I was so utterly devastated that the outlet was laughter, and painkillers, and red wine, and trying to forget. The root cause of that sadness was within me, but I didn’t know how to face it, because I didn’t know who I was. Stuck in cycles of painkillers, bulimia, depression, and loneliness, in June of 2013, I made one or two haphazard-at-best attempt at unliving. I wasn’t crying for help, not really, I was just tired of laughing.
That’s when I started listening to Lana Del Rey. When I heard “Off to the Races,” I thought of her as simply…entertaining. I was amused by her deep timbre, followed by high octave choruses and refrains that combined storytelling with melody with whatever “Lolita-lost-in-the-hood” or “Gangster Nancy Sinatra” looks like. I didn’t know the same person could sing that way, sound so different, but the same. Then I listened deeper. I heard references in her Born to Die album to Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet). I listened, and found Walt Whitman in her Paradise EP. She re-imagines Vladimir Nabokov’s famous character, paints herself as a Hollywood icon, and sings low and sexy until you lose and somehow also find yourself. And that’s what I did. Listening to National Anthem, humming along to Gods and Monsters, playing Video Games (the sexiest song of all time, I decided) on repeat, I identified with this lost woman, this hapless girl, this nymphette-who-knows-what-she’s-doing character. I saw parts of who I was or wanted to be in her.
And then I found out about her cultural appropriation, after her music had already changed and partially saved my life.
Yeah, Lana, I’ve got a war in my mind, too. On the one hand, as a Native American woman, I’m freaking out that you wore a headdress. I’ve blogged about the wrongness and dangers of appropriating headdress before here, but suffice to say, it is a sacred cultural artifact, not unlike a war badge of honor or medal of valor, and also, simultaneously, a religious symbol, like a rosary. Each Eagle feather is earned by doing a brave deed in war. For Lana Del Rey to don a headdress while waving around a gun, as she did in her video, Ride (a full year before I became a fan) is egregious and insensitive at best, and obtuse-to-the-point-of-racist at worst. Yet, to this day, here I am, one of her biggest fans. I have a matching tattoo with her (the word paradise, on my left hand, symbolizing the difficulty of that summer, and how I overcame and survived). I took a train 500 miles to see her in concert this summer, and when she came on stage and started singing, I cried like a baby, she meant so much to me. I thought her voice was like an angel, but I know that she appropriated from my own culture. How can I mix the fact that I adore her and feel that she was instrumental in me rebuilding my life after catastrophe, and acknowledge that she is devastatingly, desperately, unapologetically problematic?
The last person I’ll talk about is Macklemore, Seattle rapper of 2013 breakout fame with his and Ryan Lewis’s independent album, The Heist. I became a fan after listening to “Starting Over,” a song in which Macklemore (Ben Haggerty) discusses his ongoing battles with sobriety. Although “Otherside” is the anthem that many former addicts credit with saving their lives, it was “Starting Over” that put me on the path to sobriety, and “Otherside” that ultimately led to me cancelling my painkiller prescription and seeking, as Macklemore says, “A life lived for art” which “is never a life wasted.”
I have derived so much inspiration from Macklemore’s personal experience as he writes about it in song that it has changed the course and trajectory of my life. Even from way back then, I adored him, posted on Facebook about him, listened to him religiously. When I was going through hard times, I threw on one of his songs and let his aphorisms wash over me. “Make the money, don’t let the money make you/Change the game, don’t let the game change you/I’ll forever remain faithful” was a favorite lyric of mine. Another was, “The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint/the greats were great because they paint a lot.”
And then he shows up on stage in a costume many considered to be anti-Semitic, and I was left with an earbud in one ear, midway in “Can’t Hold Us” rapping about the backpack-fat-cat-bustin’, and I didn’t know what to do. The natural, knee-jerk response is to say, “Oh no, he wasn’t intending to be anti-Semitic.” But as feminist blogger and graduate with a Bachelors in Sociology Jonathan Steinklein notes, “Intent ain’t magic, friend.” Whether Haggerty intended his costume to come off like a 1930s-era propoganda poster or not, that’s what people saw, and it hurt them. And it hurt me, too, to be once again served with the bitter reminder that my idols are human.
So what do you do? We’ve discussed the possibility of hypothetically unfollowing 2013 Miley on Instagram, for all the social value that may do (maybe a little, if enough people did it). I could have stopped listening to Macklemore and Lana Del Rey when I learned they were behaving in a problematic fashion, appropriating, fetishizing, and stereotyping. But I didn’t do any of those things. Instead, I waited. The day after the Macklemore scandal, he released an apology for his unintentional offense on his website. The Anti-Defamation League accepted his apology without reservation, citing his track record as a humanitarian and his good character as evidence that he intended no harm. That fall, Macklemore went on to march in a Black Lives Matter protest in Seattle to show solidarity with Ferguson. He’s since written another song about White Privilege (which hasn’t come out yet) and used his influence to work toward racial equality, never forgetting his positionality as a white man, and making every effort not to co-opt a Black movement, but rather, to be an ally. To me, he’s done enough to prove himself as an ally, but it isn’t for me to make that decision. I can’t absolve or aquit him for wearing the costume. Only a Jewish person can do that. But I can choose to continue listening to him and supporting his art on the basis of my own personal judgment, and I do.
For Lana, it wasn’t as easy. She can’t really be argued as one who does a lot of social good. Her appropriation is deeper than just Indigenous, as well. She fancies herself a person who can transfer between Chola (see her 30-minute video, Tropico), trailer-park girl, prostitute, and Mrs. Kennedy, as if all were equal in terms of costuming. But they aren’t – one uses another person’s cultural experiences as a prop. The rest are pearls and play-acting.
And yet I can choose to forgive her for the headdress as a Native American woman. I can say, “I practice sovereignty in who I choose to forgive, and who I choose to love, and I choose to love her in spite of her errors, egregious though they are.”
This was a personal decision, but if you have a hard time making up your mind, Jonathan Steinklein notes a good way to deal with problematic faves with the following checklist, stating, “We must take into account the FACTORS.”
1. Is your problematic fave being problematic all the time, once in a while, or was it a one time thing?
2. Did they apologize at all or acknowledge they said something wrong?
3. Is you enjoying and supporting the artist public or private?
4. Is you enjoying and supporting the artist giving them money or exposure?
Jonathan explains that at this point, you make a decision, how and in what capacity do you want to support thist artist. Social justice warriors will point out every problematic thing an artist does, but that’s so you can make an informed decision. Lana wearing a headdress doesn’t make her a disgusting person, even though it does mean she did a disgusting thing. Macklemore unintentionally clowned on himself when he wore a bowl-cut Beatles wig and witch’s nose, but it doesn’t discount the good work he did with Same Love. And Miley, damn, she was being Miley. But I didn’t unfollow her on Instagram two years ago, and that’s what I want to talk about now: how she’s changed ever since.
In 2013, Miley had yet to find herself, and so she co-opted Black culture and Black sexuality as a means to exploring her own sexuality. That was wrong, no doubt, but if you kept up with her, you’ll see all the good she’s done since she came into herself as Genderqueer. She started the Happy Hippie foundation in an effort to help end Youth Homelessness, specifically LGBTQA+ youth, some of the most at-risk in the population. She no longer feels the need to wear another person’s skin to exist in her own, and spends much of her time working with her foundation, rather than pursuing more fame and stardom.
Steinklein points out that we will always have problematic faves, but:
I think like acknowledging problematic material is a step where you can enjoy it without being influenced too much by it. That is where I’m at in my life.