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Disgraced but Embraced: Pop Culture Outcasts Make a Comeback

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Last weekend, the comedian Shane Gillis hosted “Saturday Night Live” five years after being licensed of the show before appearing on it, when old podcast appearances in which he used slurs came to light. During his opening monologue, Gillis showed how he’s evolved since then, which is to say, only slightly. In a quick note about his parents, he fondly remembers his time with his mother when he was younger, sweetly noting, “Every little boy is just their mother’s gay best friend.” »

Over the past two weeks, Ye – formerly Kanye West – has served on the topped the Billboard albums chart with “Vultures 1”, his collaborative album with singer Ty Dolla Sign. In late 2022, Ye unleashed a public stream of anti-Semitic invective that, for a time, effectively imploded his career, leading to the dissolution of his partnerships with Adidas and the Gap. He seemed, for a time, persona non grata. But he, too, returned to something close to the old form, with a single, “Carnival,” which reached No. 3 on the Hot 100, and a series of arena listening sessions which have been the hallmark of his album releases in recent years.

Cancellation has always been an incomplete concept, more a way of talking about artists with controversial and offensive personal histories than an actual fact of the market. Except in the most extreme cases, moral failure has never been an automatic disqualification when it comes to artistic work.

What has changed in the years since the #MeToo movement began is the presumption that a strong enough discursive pushback could actually lead to outright banishment. This has proven true in the wake of #MeToo, during which powerful men like Charlie Rose, Bryan Singer and Matt Lauer were effectively barred from public life after allegations of sexual misconduct. (And it’s worth noting: Most of those facing banishment or banishment are men. Roseanne Barr is perhaps the most high-profile woman to have suffered this fate, following racist and anti-Semitic public statements. )

The feeling that bad actors could be eliminated at the root, however, satisfied the liberal fantasy. What happened was the emergence of a class of artists across disciplines – let’s call them the Disgraced – who found a way to thrive despite some public resistance. Their success suggests several possibilities when it comes to cultural consumption: the audience that doesn’t care about an artist’s indiscretions may be more important than the audience that does; those who campaign publicly on these issues may give in privately; or that perhaps some audiences may have a tolerance – or perhaps even an appetite – for offense.

This disgraced group includes country star Morgan Wallen, still ostracized by many for his use of racial slurs in 2021, who nevertheless spent the better part of the last three years at or near the top of the Billboard album chart with his two latest releases, “Dangereux: the double album” and “One thing at a time”. It could also encompass famed fashion designer John Galliano, who has essentially been fully publicly rehabilitated after a 2011 anti-Semitic outburst and subsequent period of exile; its Maison Margiela Spring 2024 couture collection was among the most lauded shows of recent years.

These are cases where an artist is saved from moral expulsion and brought back into the spotlight largely by his followers — Wallen’s music remains at the forefront of the country mainstream, and he is its biggest live draw. Country fans place him at the center of the genre – perhaps partly in protest – out of sheer force of adulation. Galliano is and has been one of the masters of fashion fantasy. Those who adore his blend of craft, theater and subversion have largely left his troubled past in the background and offered him the opportunity to pursue his career in peace. He has been the creative director of Margiela for almost a decade now.

Rehabilitation can even continue after death. Toward the end of his life, Michael Jackson, who died in 2009, was besieged by allegations of sexual misconduct and criminally charged with child sexual abuse. And yet, in death, he enjoyed enormous success: The jukebox musical production “MJ the Musical” grossed more than $176 million on Broadway in just over two years, and half of his catalog music and recording have recently been sold as part of an agreement which values ​​those assets (which include some works by other artists) at $1.2 billion, suggesting that the sordid accusations against him had virtually no practical effect on the financial strength of his estate.

Some notable public figures have whitewashed unsavory business practices behind crowd-pleasing gadgets – for example Elon Musk, whose highly anticipated Tesla Cybertruck, essentially a bulletproof emoji on wheels, is countering news of his Twitter defacement, now X. or Dave Portnoy, whose pizza assessment videos and the summer pizza festival are a favorite diversion of fans of the occasional coarseness of its media, Barstool Sports, and a series of allegations of misconduct sexual. Musk and Portnoy know that it’s possible to exist in the world in more than one way at once, and that the wackiest, tastiest version often gets the most attention. It’s not so much about owning the libraries as it is about ignoring them.

While others who have faced public scrutiny for their behavior remain in their closed markets (Louis CK selling his comedy specials on his website, or Woody Allen essentially being denied major national releases for his recent films), these artists are increasingly outliers. What distinguishes disgraced but embraced artists is that they exist, by choice and also by algorithm, in the mainstream—and perhaps, by some measures, are the mainstream.

In siled, algorithm-driven spaces like Spotify, TikTok, and Netflix, content is delivered and promoted without any additional context. Last year, “I’ll Be Around,” a 20-year-old CeeLo Green track — from Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley — became the soundtrack to a particularly exuberant viral dance trend on TikTok. In 2012, a woman accused Green of rape, and he ultimately faced a lesser charge, pleading no contest to supplying ecstasy. He then posted a series of provocative comments on social media, including “People who were actually raped, REMEMBER!!! » (He later apologized for tweets.)

In 2018, Spotify tried to take a stand deletion XXXTentacion and R. Kelly from his playlists based on “hateful conduct.” But a few weeks later, the streaming service gave in, stating in a blog post: “We are not in the business of playing judge and jury. » The week of its release, the music from “Vultures 1” was promoted on the streaming service New Music Friday’s flagship playlist.

Netflix has become something of a value-agnostic safe space for comics that traffic in offenses, ginormous or otherwise. This is the primary platform for Dave Chappelle, whose latest Netflix special, “The dreamer,” is largely a metanarrative about his own insistence on antagonizing transgender people and their allies with his previous Netflix specials.

These shows have been both popular and met with hostility, in what feels like a return to earlier, messier eras of popular culture. In a sign that there may no longer be a moral litmus test, even OJ Simpson now has a platform: He has been a recurring guest on “It Is What It Is,” the popular online sports talk show hosted by rappers Cam’ron and Mase. . (“If he was guilty, we wouldn’t have him on the show,” Cam’ron said Complex.)

It becomes even more striking when a person who has been pushed aside is not warmly welcomed back. Take R&B singer Chris Brown, whose career continued in the shadow of his physical assault on then-girlfriend Rihanna in 2009. Recently, he was invited to participate in NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, then seemingly unprompted. , which sent him into a social media tirade against Ruffles chips, one of the sponsors.

Although he has struggled to regain the attention and support of mainstream institutions, Brown remains a reliable hitmaker and collaborator in the realms of pop, R&B, and hip-hop. For 15 years, he has been suspended between rejection and return.

This in-between space is also where DaBaby, who in 2021 makes homophobic comments on stage at a music festival and experienced a rapid decline in his career, lives. But his rehab tour recently made a stop at the “What Now?” With Trevor Noah,” where he explained how these events shook him. Unlike Brown, who has largely refused to confront a direct conversation about his misdeeds, DaBaby seems to have realized that there is no moving forward — or path to broad acceptance — without owning up to the past.

It’s the only way to escape the double bubble of your own limits and those of your most devoted fans and without judgment. It also provides an opportunity to determine what version of oneself might be viable outside of these bubbles.

This has been the case for Gillis, whose work appears primarily on “Matt & Shane’s Secret Podcast,” which he co-hosts and which is by far the most popular podcast on the subscription platform Patreon. But unlike others who were content to stay in their enclosed worlds and not feel the heat or sting of sunlight, Gillis gradually moved toward less welcoming spaces.

In September, he released a comedy special on Netflix, which announced last month that Gillis would host a second stand-up special, as well as a scripted workplace comedy. And then there was “SNL,” which might well have never reopened its doors to Gillis, but seemed to be making a calculated bet that the buzz and curiosity generated by giving him a stage would outweigh any potential ethical backlash. It was something of a statement of intent for the show, indicating that it was willing to engender a little discomfort and that perhaps it saw a future for this kind of comedy in the world.

It was also a test for Gillis, and during his opening monologue he did some real-time calibrations, as some punchlines didn’t quite land in front of an away team crowd. “I don’t have any material that can be broadcast on television,” he joked, and yet there it was.

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