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Good artist, bad person?

Last week, while I was sleepily perusing through my Facebook newsfeed, scrolling through the usual 10-second cooking videos, memes and clickbait, I came across the headline “Frankie Valli took me at 16 and used me in decades-long affair.”

Frankie … Valli? My Frankie Valli? The celebrated ’60s/’70s pop-rock-Motown-ish singer that singlehandedly gave me the will to continue junior year of high school? The crooner of the uplifting melodies that served to revive me from any slump teenagehood could throw at me? The man who defined the soundtrack of my young life? Sir, I think there’s been a mistake. Not him.

I still remember the first time I listened to Frankie Valli so clearly. The night before my 16th birthday, I was dancing with friends when Valli’s hit single “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” came up next on someone’s playlist. The chorus’ “I loooove youuuu baaab-ay!!!”, the horns at the heart of the instrumental, Valli’s ethereal vocals booming from the speaker I was so moved that sudden tears pricked my eyes and I stopped dancing to listen carefully.

A year later, my friend and I saw Valli in concert, accompanied by the majority of the over-60 population of Austin. The long-held adage of respecting your elders was lost on us that night as we mercilessly shoved aside Deborahs and Bettys and Harolds to make our way to the front. And then the unthinkable happened: Valli came over to us, bent down ceremoniously so close we could see the individual wrinkles on his face and gave us his hands to hold. It took us months to fully comprehend that we held hands with Frankie motherfucking Valli holy shit.

So. Whoever this article is talking about, definitely not the guy I navigated a sea of white-haired heads to see in real life and scream at and touch. I click on the link anyways.

Let me be clear: I really, really dislike and mistrust sensational tabloid “journalism” designed to attack people over unfounded or just straight up stupid claims. The Daily Mail once published an “article” with the headline “Kylie Jenner treats herself to fries at drive-through with beau Tyga after sparking fan backlash with ‘obviously photoshopped’ snap of her derriere.” As my friend sarcastically remarked: “First the ass, then the fries?”

But lo and behold, as I’m reading this particular exposé, I’m horrified, and I can’t simply brush it off. The woman telling her story includes an alarmingly high level of detail, and there are quite a few pictures of her with Valli, from when she was 8 years old to 40. It’s disconcerting. She speaks of how she wanted Valli to marry her, and I feel sorry for her. Maybe I’m supposed to. Maybe she’s telling her truth and doesn’t care how I feel.

This story is obviously not something I’ll ever be able to verify, but whether it’s 100 percent accurate or not, it wouldn’t be an isolated case either way. That’s the issue. Many other famous artists with legions of dedicated fans have had affairs with underage girls. It’s common knowledge that rock legends such as the likes of David Bowie and Jimmy Page had sex with underage groupies — apparently girls who were “willing” at the time but who were just girls nonetheless. Grammy-award winner R. Kelly has had literal dozens of similar allegations, the most disturbing of which involved a sex tape with a 14-year-old. Practically a middle schooler. And if these accusations have no basis, why are there so many of them?

I’ve asked people on the subject of “art vs. artist” before, and I often receive the same answer: that we should separate the artist from the art. Take famed painter Caravaggio, for example. Caravaggio was a known murderer in his time, but his work is still hung hundreds of years later in the best art museums and studied with fervent intensity in art history classes all over the world, due to the sheer scope of his artistic influence how he inspired countless of artists and spurred entire art movements.

I see the logic there. Art makes the world a better place, period. It keeps people in touch with our humanity, our propensity to feel compassion. It allows us to freely express ourselves and marvel at our own existence and the existence of others. Like German visual artist Gerhard Richter said, “Art is the highest form of hope.” I couldn’t agree more.

But if separating artist from craft entails me dancing to Kodak Black’s music the next time “No Flockin” blares at a frat party and steadfastly pretending that a woman hasn’t stepped forward this year to accuse Kodak Black of rape in harrowing detail, I don’t think I want to do that, even if I enjoy the music. Not if it means ignoring the implications of lawsuit after lawsuit by continuing to let R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly” occupy a beloved place in my “happy vibes” Spotify playlist not if it involves unabashedly giving validation to artists that have inflicted an incredible amount of suffering onto others, regardless of the quality of their music.

 

Contact Yanichka Ariunbold at yanichka ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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