Seán Moncrieff: Are there such things as heroes anymore?
Difficult to separate admired musicians' creative output from fact they were really monsters
James Brown was a brilliant stage performer, a major force in soul and funk music, and an icon for Black America. Yet, in the words of his daughter Yamma Brown, he was also a “monster”. Photograph: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images
The other day I bought a James Brown record. Early stuff, when he was lead singer with a group called the Famous Flames. They were all teenagers when they first met. Brown had already done time for armed robbery.
His family was dirt-poor and moved around a lot. For a while they lived in a brothel. Brown’s education was patchy: he was once sent home from school for not having enough clothes. His mother ran away, no longer able to endure the beatings meted out by Brown’s father. Growing up, he spent a lot of time alone and for the rest of his life, James Brown was a keen advocate for education. He spoke at schools, donated the proceeds from singles, and met with presidents. A week before his death, he visited an orphanage to hand out presents to kids.
James Brown was a brilliant stage performer, a major force in soul and funk music, and an icon for Black America.
Yet, in the words of his daughter Yamma Brown, he was also a “monster”. He was subject to more than one rape allegation (at the point of a gun) and had multiple arrests for domestic abuse. In a 2014 book, Yamma gives a graphic and sickening account of her father’s regular and frenzied attacks upon her mother: the rhythmic thumping sound coming from another room.
Yamma hated her father at those times. But he was her father. She loved him too.
Children are sometimes forced to make a division between how they feel about a parent and how they feel about the appalling things they do. To reject the parent entirely may seem like a double punishment: though in certain situations it’s the only survivable option. For those of us not directly involved, it’s usually more straightforward. They are bad people; have nothing to do with them.
But what if that person is a writer or artist or musician – like James Brown – whose work you admire? I bought the record in a flush of enthusiasm, to discover more about a period of his career I was unfamiliar with. But I haven’t played it yet. I don’t know if I will. I’m not sure if I can manage that division between his creative output and the kind of person he was.
I had no difficulty never listening to Gary Glitter again after the revelations about him, as I wasn’t a fan in the first place. For a while, I thought it might be okay to listen to early Michael Jackson, when he was still a member of the Jackson 5. But the joyousness and innocence of his singing – he was just 11 when they recorded I Want You Back – only reminded me of the damage being done to him then, and of what that would metastasise into.
Admittedly, these are the extreme, more clear-cut examples: although some may argue that even here the songs and the man can be separated from each other; and in fairness it is difficult to pretend that Michael Jackson’s music never happened.
But there are many more musicians who, if not monsters, weren’t or aren’t nice people, who did bad things: and in the super-judgey social media universe, anyone in the public eye – musicians, celebrity chefs, comics, actors, politicians – can be parsed for acceptability, for past lapses or stupid statements. Anyone found wanting can be condemned for life.
Of course, this depends on the offence. But it means a musician can be judged not just for their music, but for something idiotic they said a decade ago. A career can be ruined because someone didn’t emerge into the world fully-formed.
The hero with the tragic failing is no longer just a Shakespearean trope. It’s modern reality. And the rest of us judging the doers of great things for their terrible flaws has become the norm.
It explodes the very idea of heroism, yet it’s also egalitarian: the rest of us, with our terrible flaws, could still do great things.