Assholes and the Arts: Can We Ever Truly “Cancel” Our Pop-Culture Icons?

Should we “cancel” our heroes, or can we maintain both our appreciation for someone’s legacy and our abhorrence of their aberrant behaviours?

I have a guilty confession to make. I still occasionally listen to the music of Gary Glitter, and I still enjoy it. When I was a music-obsessed five year old, with her own little turntable and speakers, I commandeered my mother’s 45* of “Rock’n’Roll Part 1” (with its equally successful B-side “Rock’n’Roll Part 2”) and played it relentlessly.

(* For the benefit of younger readers, a “45” was a vinyl single played at 45 RPM, sometimes also known as a 7" single. It, and its counterpart the LP or Long Player, which was a full album on a 12" vinyl disc played at 33 1/3 RPM, was how we oldies used to buy our music.)

Even through my teens, when the music scene was all about artists like Madonna, Bon Jovi, INXS and U2, and glam-rock dinosaurs like Gary Glitter and the Glitter Band were old-hat and très unfashionable, I would still secretly spin “Rock’n’Roll Part 1” and dance around my bedroom.

Come the the mid-90’s, Gary Glitter’s music started to come back into vogue. Noel Gallagher “borrowed” a refrain from the 1973 hit “Hello! Hello! I’m Back Again” for the opening track of Oasis’ phenomenally successful “(What’s the Story) Morning Glory” album, and Glitter filmed a cameo for the highly anticipated Spice Girls movie, “Spiceworld”, with the girls singing the 1972 single “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)” on stage in Italy while Glitter appears in a gold costume on stage behind them. It was looking as though Gary Glitter, like many other artists from the 1970s, was enjoying a comeback.

Then, in November 1997, Glitter (real name Paul Francis Gadd) was arrested after a computer repair technician found child pornography on his hard drive. It was soon revealed that Glitter was a paedophile with a long history of raping young girls. In 2006 he was imprisonment in Vietnam for child molestation, and in 2015 Southwark Crown Court handed down a 16 year sentence for sex crimes against children, including attempted rape, four counts of indecent assault, and one count of sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of 13. Not only was the predicted comeback over, but the appalling depravity of this man, who used his fame and notoriety as a lure to ensnare his young victims, was laid bare for the world to see. And it was an horrific, highly upsetting sight indeed.

The Spice Girls perform “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am)” in the film “Spiceworld”, with a cameo from Gary Glitter. The scene was cut from the movie before its release when Glitter (real name Paul Francis Gadd) was arrested for possesion of child pornography. He was subsequently imprisoned for sex offences in Vietnam, Cambodia, and the UK.

When Heroes Go Down

While Gary Glitter was never a particular role-model or hero to me, I had fallen in love with one of his best known songs — and it was one that had gone on to have a significant place in our cultural lexicon way beyond its 1972 release and chart success. In 1988, dance outfit The KLF, working under the name “The Timelords” paid homage to “Rock’n’Roll Part 1” in “Doctorin’ The Tardis”. In North America, “Rock’n’Roll Part 2” (AKA “The Hey Song”) became a regular fixture in professional sporting events, and a crowd’s chanting of the track’s famous “Hey!” refrain was sometimes even credited with spurring a team onto success.

More recently, the track featured in the “Stairs Dance” scene from the 2019 Warner Bros film “The Joker”. Though the director’s decision to use a track made famous by a now-imprisoned paedophile understandably met with controversy, the scene went onto become iconic. Though the film makers explained the songs inclusion as a representation of the character’s mindset — “What we’re dealing with at that point is not exactly a good guy”, said editor Jeff Groth — it is unlikely that the creators of the many Joker stair scene memes were conscious of this connection.

Gary Glitter is only one example of a famous pop-culture icon whose legacy turned dark as their abhorrent behaviour came to light. Arguably, he is not even the most famous example, with the likes of Michael Jackson, R.Kelly, Bill Cosby, Chris Brown, Rolf Harris, Woody Allen, and Roman Polanski being just a handful of stars whose fame turned instead to infamy.

In the field of sports, the untimely death of NBA superstar Kobe Bryant led some of his most devoted fans to attack anyone who dared mention the accusations of sexual assault made against him in 2003. The stark reminder that Bryant was not always the shining paragon of honour and heroism that his fame and celebrity might have somehow implied sat uncomfortably with his fans’ adoration and worship of their hero. However, as Tirhakah Love writes, “how we talk about Kobe from here, if we are to talk about him in truth, has to include the living, breathing reality that his celebrity gave people a reason to silence survivors”.

Such is the confusing dichotomy we are faced with when our heroes fall from grace. That being the case, is there any way that we can reconcile both sides of the cultural coin, and maintain both our appreciation for someone’s legacy and our abhorrence of their aberrant behaviours?

“Mechanical Animals”, Marilyn Manson (1998, Nothing/Interscope)

Cancelling Our Culture: Unwriting The Artist’s Legacy, or White-Washing Our Own Role in Its Creation?

In the age of social media, “cancelling” has become the mode de rigueur of expressing disdain for any public figure whose actions fall foul of societal expectations. Such cancellation is not just reserved for murderers, rapists, paedophiles, racists etc, but can often be directed against anyone with whom we may have a difference of opinion. “#Cancel_x” is wielded like the proverbial pitchfork and fiery torches of the angry mobs of our folklore.

Why might we feel the need to completely “cancel” and expunge them entirely from our past? Is it perhaps our own feelings of guilt, and our shame for not having seen the signs of their imperfection, their propensity to perform evil acts? By removing any trace of our former admiration, or indeed veneration, of our “problematic” former favourites, are we actually seeking to white-wash what we perceive as our own dirty part in the narrative — our hero-worship for a person who turned out to be far from heroic?

Most recently, Marilyn Manson’s abuse of ex-lover Evan Rachel Wood as well as several other women, is in the headlines. Wood has spoken before about her horrific abuse at the hands of an ex, though she had not named him until now. Manson has now, quite rightly, been dropped by his record label, and they will no longer work with him in the future. Where his past work is concerned, however, does it automatically follow that all copies of “Antichrist Superstar” or “Mechanical Animals” must be relegated to the proverbial bonfire?

Is it always necessary to excise from our history all the enjoyment we garnered from the work of artists we admire once we discover that they have been unworthy of that admiration? Must we never acknowledge the role their art has played in contributing to our cultural landscape, both personal and societal? Or is it okay to keep appreciating an artist’s work and the impact it may have had on our lives, even as we abhor the artist personally and consider their behaviour behind the public-facing facade contemputous?

One of my biggest musical heroes, David Bowie, had a disturbing history of sexual misconduct. Do I find his past behaviour odious and troubling? Yes, of course, I do. But does my revulsion mean that will I never again allow myself to listen to “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars?” In all honesty that is, I confess, unlikely.

The Truth Behind The Deleted Gary Glitter Cameo In The Spice Girls Movie, Ben Falk, (2016).
Gary Glitter Jailed for 16 Years, BBC News, (2015).
Gary Glitter Sentenced to 16 Years in Prison, Alex Hudson, (2015).
The Vibes of Victory: Sports fans know that the strains of ‘Rock and Roll Part II’ can turn chumps to champs, Lisa Twyman, (1992).
Joker Using A Gary Glitter Song Was A Mistake, Kayleigh Donaldson, (2019).
‘Joker’ editor explains Gary Glitter song choice for now-iconic steps scene, Alex Flood, (2020).
The Dance of Freedom. The Death Bells. The Meme-ing of the Joker., Rebecca Alter, (2019).
10 Undeniable Facts About the Michael Jackson Sexual-Abuse Allegations, Maureen Orth, (2019).
A Full Timeline of Sexual Abuse Allegations Against R. Kelly, Andrew R. Chow and Josiah Bates, (2019).
A Timeline of the Abuse Charges Against Bill Cosby [Updated], Matt Giles and Nate Jones, (2015).
Timeline of Chris Brown’s History of Violence Towards Women, Brittany Spanos, (2016).
Rolf Harris made brazen sexual assaults on seven people, court hears, Caroline Davies, (2017).
Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Soon-Yi Previn, Dylan Farrow: A Timeline, Sopan Deb and Deborah Leiderman, (2018).
What does Hollywood’s reverence for child rapist Roman Polanski tell us?, Hadley Freeman, (2018).
Snoop Dogg Threatened Gayle King And Called Her A “Bitch” Over A Kobe Interview. Now He’s Apologized., Amber Jamieson, (2020).
Remembering Kobe Now Means Remembering All of Him, Tirhakah Love, (2021).
He “Horrifically Abused Me for Years”: Evan Rachel Wood and Other Women Make Allegations of Abuse Against Marilyn Manson, Maureen Ryan, (2021).
In the Wake of Abuse Allegations Against Marilyn Manson, His Record Label Drops Him, AMC Cuts Him From a Series — And a Senator Calls for an FBI Investigation, Maureen Ryan, (2021).
Why Talking About Bowie’s Sexual Misconduct Matters, Angelina Chapin, (2016. Updated 2017).

Writer, Poet, Audiobook Narrator, Freelancer, Blogger. Living in UK & spending most of my time in my head. Buy me a coffee here:

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