Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in a Cancel Culture World

Separating the art from the artist has never been so difficult.


Woody Allen, Ryan Adams, Aziz Ansari

I wonder if it will ever be OK to watch Woody Allen movies again.

I say this because Allen just finished a new movie called A Rainy Day in New York starring Timothée Chalamet, Elle Fanning and a slew of hot new Hollywood talent. The film opened last month in Paris but, as of this writing, still doesn’t have U.S. distribution, so it’s not looking so good that I’ll be able to see it, at least not on the big screen.

The reason there’s no U.S. distributor goes back to the sexual accusations made against Allen by his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, who says Allen assaulted her in the home of her adoptive mother, Mia Farrow, when she was seven years old. Allen denies the accusations, which first surfaced in 1992 but keep resurfacing only to be refuted by Allen. In the latest round, Chalamet and others have apologized for taking part in Allen films. On the other hand, Scarlett Johansson, who’s appeared in a number of Allen films, recently said she believed Allen’s side of the story and would work with him anytime.

The fact that Allen was never charged with a crime doesn’t make a difference.

I’m not going to tell you who to believe, only that I love Woody Allen films and have since I was a wee lad. Play it Again Sam, Annie Hall, Stardust Memories all had a huge impact on me. And while I find the accusations against Allen reprehensible, I don’t know what they have to do with his body of work. His films didn’t change after the accusations became public except in the minds of those who believe the accuser. And, of course, in the minds of the money people at Amazon who terminated a four-picture deal with Allen because they didn’t want to appear to be profiting from someone under the specter of such accusations, leaving A Rainy Day in New York high and dry.

Then there’s Ryan Adams. Back in January, The New York Times published a story that said Adams had an inappropriate internet relationship with a 14-year-old girl back in 2013. Adams denied it. Shortly afterward, sordid stories about Adams started rising like mushrooms from a shit cellar. His ex-wife, Mandy Moore, and indie singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers were among those who claimed Adams made unwanted sexual advances and/or was emotionally abusive, according to Rolling Stone.

Adams had plans for three new full-length albums this year, all to be released on his own Pax-Am record label and distributed by Capitol Records. But none have materialized as of this writing and likely won’t any time soon.

Again, I’m not going to tell you who to believe. This one’s a little easier for me personally as I’ve never cared for Adams’ music. After the story broke, a number of long-time Adams fans posted on Facebook that they were done with him. They were deleting their Ryan Adams tracks from their iPhones because the guy must be a piece of shit.

I think he probably is, but here’s the thing: Not a note of Adams’ recorded music has changed, not a word was edited. But whatever he sang on those recordings before all this happened now means something different to a portion of his fan base that could never support a guy accused of doing such sordid stuff.

Aziz Ansari, now that one hurt.

I loved his standup and his Netflix series, Master of None. When accusations of sexual misconduct were surfaced by an anonymous writer on an internet chat board, Ansari quickly went into hiding.

He and Adams joined a long list of celebrities that we’re all too familiar with. Researching this article, I came across a Hollywood perp list at glamour.com that seemed to go on forever — all men, all accused of doing shitty things. (Strangely, Woody Allen didn’t appear on it.)

In the old days before the internet, it was easy to separate the art from the artist. I can only think of a few men pre-world wide web who were brought down by scandal. I guess Pee-wee Herman tops the list. But now, with social media, there’s no place for the accused predators to hide. The women harmed by Harvey Weinstein may have created the #metoo movement, but social media is why it’s here to stay.

“Cancel Culture” — the rise of hashtag boycotts of artists (and others) accused of misdeeds — is nothing more than the free enterprise system on internet steroids. The marketplace “influencer” is social media, where anyone who dares admit to still consuming these artists’ work is shamed right alongside the artists.

Knowing all of this, I still like Woody Allen films. What does that make me? I still like Aziz Ansari.

And, apparently, so do a lot of other people. Ansari recently released a new standup special on Netflix directed by Spike Lee. And people watched it. Lots of them.

Look up Ryan Adams in Spotify, and you’ll discover he still has 1.4 million monthly listeners and nearly a half million followers on the platform.

In his new Netflix stand-up special Sticks & Stones, Dave Chappelle takes on cancel culture point-blank and appears to have walked away unscathed.

Because, just as the boycotts’ effectiveness depends on social media, the ability for artists to continue to have their art consumed depends on people consuming it… in the shadows. As one person recently told me, “I never stopped listening to Adams’ music, I just quit talking about it.”

It’s a “Don’t ask, don’t tell” approach toward consuming art made by dubious artists, but where the wheels fall off is when the art no longer is available to consume. Will Spotify keep Adams’ music available on its platform if he’s indicted of a crime?

Will I ever get a chance to see that new Woody Allen film? As Chappelle pointed out in his stand-up special — it’s not up to me; it’s up to you.

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com.


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