Problematic Idols, Cancel Culture, and What to Do About Them: A Personal Opinion

By: Ralka Skjerseth |

I still could recall being 11 and liking Varg Vikernes (or Burzum, or any of his projects) without even being aware of what his socio-political stance is like, and things he had done. I only liked him for his music, and didn’t feel the need to dig up more about other things than his works. I didn’t know what political correctness was at that age. Years later I discovered a lot of things about his stances and track record; the murder and arson he had committed, and his white-supremacist, racist, national socialist stances. Being a person who is up to equal rights and on the left side of the political spectrum, I definitely do not support what he does and how he thinks, and I think he is problematic. But did I implement “cancel culture” on him right after discovering what he is like?

Before we move on to a “yes” or “no” from me, let’s talk about what a “cancel culture” is first. Cancel culture is an act of deciding that a person (mostly public figures, artists, people who create things and/or are of fame) should no longer be supported, right after discovering that they have said or done problematic things. In other words, no longer supporting the person due to knowing their problematic attitude is called “cancelling” the person. Cancel culture has caused quite a controversy amongst people on the internet, mostly because of the varied opinions about it that later caused polemics. Some said that we should separate a problematic artist from their arts. As an antithesis to the previous statement, some also said that an artist’s work reflects who they are as an individual and both aspects should not be separated. It’s quite a conflicting issue, ain’t it?

Back to my experience of being a fan of a problematic artist, namely Varg Vikernes as I said above; I did not exactly stop listening to his works once I learned that he is problematic for his views, and the murder and arson, because I admit that his kind of tremolo-picking riffs and distortions are one of a kind and I still think highly of the music he makes, but discovering his problematic attitude definitely changed how I see him as a person. I listen to his music, and other national socialist black metal acts, while obviously opposing their views at a same time. Because the more I read about, do research on, and analyze their works, the more I could gather relevant points to debunk their views. At the age of 19, I once wrote a research paper to debunk the emergence of Varg’s neo völkisch ideology, namely Ôðalism, using Critical Race Theory which is a theoretical framework that involves progressive political struggles for racial justice and a race-conscious approach to understanding inequality and structural racism. What else do I do to show that I don’t support what they do besides writing a paper that debunks their views? Not buying their music in physical format. I’ve never had a physical Burzum album, or merch. I still think it’s okay to enjoy the works of a problematic artist as long as you don’t benefit them financially, and you could do that by only listening to their works through free listening platforms, for example. So, whether I ended up implementing cancel culture on him— it’s a “yes” and “no” at the same time from me. I admit that he is “cancelled” to a certain extent while still listening to his music at a same time. But I listen to his works and read about him just so that I could debunk and criticize his views, and besides that, even though he creates good works, I have stopped seeing him as my idol ever since my high school years due to his views. 

So, my stance on cancel culture; first of all, I think the definition of “being problematic” is varied and it has different degrees too. For example you can’t just equalize “problematic” in the context of saying politically incorrect things with “problematic” in the context of committing acts of sexual abuse because both acts are of different degrees. In my opinion, cancel culture is indeed allowed when the thing that an artist commits is related to sexual abuse, because I just don’t forgive rapists in general and I don’t think they deserve a second chance. I don’t agree with “separating art from the artist” in this case because if we choose to separate art from the artist who is a rapist, it means we are celebrating their works and giving them a platform to do more assault. Consuming their works also gives us a sense of guilt towards the survivors of their misconduct because the survivors can’t get away from the fact that the artist did something bad to them no matter what. 

When the problematic deed that the artist commits involves things like saying a problematic thing, being ignorant towards a certain issue, or having a problematic stance, I think “cancelling” them sounds lazy; we could try calling them out and educating them instead— see if they actually want to learn from call-outs and redeem their past mistakes by educating themselves or not. Then we could discern and observe how they deal with the call-out; their reaction towards call-outs reflects whether they are really problematic or not. If the case is like this, it doesn’t mean I agree with “separating art from the artist” either. Discovering that an artist is problematic definitely changes the way I see the artist’s work, but I sometimes ought to admit that there is a certain moral conflict inside me when I consume the works of an artist I have been into for so long, once I discover that they are problematic. The conflict is between maintaining my idealism that the artist “had helped me through things for years” and accepting the fact that they are problematic and no longer worth idolizing. Sometimes, since this degree of “being problematic” (ignorance, problematic political stance) is still forgivable, I still fall into the earlier when facing the conflict. But I still strive to be better every day by learning to accept the fact that they are problematic, and by not supporting them financially. 

My conclusion? Cancel culture comes in diverse kinds of implementation, and it shouldn’t be just generalized. Different problematic acts need different treatments and executions, and while in some cases cancelling people is one of them, it is not the only way to deal with a problematic artist. 

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