Love the music, hate the artist

Wagner may have been a vile anti-Semite and Bono might be a self-righteous plonker, but their music can still be great.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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Is it possible to like the work of an artist but simultaneously dislike the artist as a person?

It is a quandary that has always haunted fans of Richard Wagner, a vile anti-Semite who was also responsible for some beautiful operas. In a recent BBC documentary, the actor and comedian Stephen Fry tried to reconcile his love of Wagner with his own Jewish heritage. Elsewhere, the conductor Daniel Barenboim made quite a few enemies in July 2001 when he led a German orchestra in performing a piece from Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde at the annual Israel Festival. And the furore that accompanied the announcement a fortnight ago that the Israeli Chamber Orchestra was to play Wagner at Bayreuth, the composer’s spiritual home, shows that the association between the anti-Semitic composer and his most famous fan – Adolf Hitler – continues to anger people.

I can’t see people’s ire towards Wagner abating any time soon. As long as the Holy Land remains in a state of potential or actual turmoil, anti-Wagnerian prejudice will always be a pastime of Zionists. It’s not that I’m anti-Israeli, it’s just that people latch on to music when they feel, rightly or wrongly, that their nation is threatened with being subjugated politically or culturally. This is why the Scots fell out of love with ‘God Save the Queen’ in the 1960s: they began to feel that British Unionism was just English rule by the backdoor. Likewise many England football fans now demand that ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ or ‘Jerusalem’ be sung instead of ‘God Save the Queen’ at the beginning of international games because the latter two are seen as truly authentic English anthems. Mind you, with recent events in mind, ‘I Predict a Riot’ by the Kaiser Chiefs or ‘Police and Thieves’ by The Clash would probably be more accurately representative of Englishness right now.

The matter of whether you can differentiate the artist from his work was further brought to mind by a recent transmission on BBC4 of U2 performing at Glastonbury. Now, most right-thinking people agree that U2’s lead singer Bono is a bit of a silly man, casting himself as world saviour and wearing those idiotic dark glasses even when indoors, while the guitarist The Edge does likewise with his hats. And let’s be honest, aren’t they both a bit old for using pseudonyms that they invented when they were teenagers? The band’s tax policies have also frequently been called into question, and yes, their music does betray Bono’s evangelical, quasi-utopian Christian disposition, from ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ to ‘One’ to ‘Beautiful Day’.

Yet watching that BBC4 programme I was reminded just what a spectacular and evocative musical outfit U2 are. You don’t have to agree with what Bono says about poverty in Africa, global warming, world peace, AIDS and so on, to appreciate what he sings.

I’m old enough to remember when they released ‘Pride (In The Name of Love)’ in 1984, which is ostensibly a tribute to Martin Luther King Jr, but which as a youth I mostly recall being played by Irish teenagers on ghettoblasters on the Sealink ferry from Holyhead to Dun Laoghaire. I doubt many of those youths with mullets, drainpipe denim trousers and leather jackets were much interested in its political message; they probably just recognised it as one of the greatest pop songs of the 1980s.

Like actors with their usually simplistic political opinions (as parodied brilliantly in the 2004 film Team America: World Police), pop stars’ views should not be taken seriously. Strip the likes of Sting, Radiohead or Coldplay of their music and you are mostly left with lyrical musings that would be laughed out of a sixth-form debate. I loved the Dead Kennedys, but their sloganeering lyrics could easily have been the inspiration for Private Eye‘s alternative voice, Dave Spart. And as much as I enjoyed moshing to Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name Of’ in the early 1990s, it seemed less an anthem against corporate America and more an anthem for teenagers who were very angry at being told to clean up their bedrooms.

John Lennon used to get a lot a flak for his 1971 song ‘Imagine’, the lyrics to which stood in stark contrast to his materialistic and opulent lifestyle. Exasperated at this criticism, Lennon once reprimanded a music critic by saying ‘It’s only a song’. I think this was admirable. To make a comparison with literature, Nietzsche was an extremely difficult and quarrelsome character, James Joyce famously used to sponge off his friends (most notoriously Samuel Beckett), and Bertrand Russell had numerous affairs with other people’s wives. But this shouldn’t diminish our experience of their great works of writing. Similarly, you don’t have to be an alcoholic to appreciate the genius of George Best or Jackson Pollock. And you don’t have to approve of taking drugs to enjoy Byron or Amy Winehouse.

Music is no more real life than novels or movies or TV soap operas are. We should stop being so literal-minded about artists who we abhor or who just get on our nerves. As the Doobie Brothers once sang, ‘Listen to the music’.

Patrick West is a freelance writer based in the UK and Ireland. Read his blog here.

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