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Why Spotify’s Decision To Censor Artists Opens A Bottomless Rabbit Hole


Last week, Spotify—the music industry’s leading streaming service—announced a new policy excluding “hate content” and refusing to promote via its playlists artists who have engaged in “especially harmful or hateful” conduct (even if their songs remain available on the service). Pandora and Apple Music quickly followed suit.

The immediate impact was to de-promote rappers R. Kelly, who faces decades of allegations of sexual misconduct toward minors, though acquitted on some charges, and XXXTentacion, who faces charges in Florida including aggravated battery of a pregnant woman and witness tampering. But the move will likely have a broader effect, which is unnerving other artists, music business figures, and even some Spotify execs and some of the advocacy groups recruited to assist in executing the new policy.

Their anxieties are well-founded. In this age of identity politics, some baselessly claimed the new policy was racist. But Spotify expunged white supremacist content from its service in 2017. PWR BTTM, an indie LGBT darling whose rise was ended by allegations of sexual misconduct, was expunged from streaming services for months and de-playlisted upon returning. Ducktails, another indie band, seems similarly de-playlisted following allegations of “unacceptable treatment of women” by frontman Matt Mondanile, which the former Real Estate guitarist denies.

But what will Spotify or its rivals do in a few years if their policies have a disparate impact on one group or another? The logic of progressivism may haunt them eventually, particularly when activist groups committed to disparate impact theory have been made part of the music police.

The streaming services’ more serious and immediate problem involves a different question of discrimination:

Obligatory: that list includes many un-adjudicated allegations backed by varying amounts of evidence, which is XXXTentacion’s point. Also obligatory: “sexual assault” includes statutory rape—a topic Spotify, its partners, and its rivals will be forced to address.

Consider Lori Maddox, who lost her virginity to David Bowie at 15, had a lengthier secret relationship with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, and at least one encounter with Mick Jagger. Bill Wyman, Jagger’s longtime bandmate in the Rolling Stones, dated a 13-year-old when he was 47 (and slept with her when she was 14). Iggy Pop wrote “Look Away,” which begins with the lyric “I slept with Sable when she was 13,” an apparent reference to Maddox’s friend and fellow groupie Sable StarrMarvin Gaye reportedly seduced 17-year-old Anna Hunter.

Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kleidis wrote about his relationship with a 14-year-old Catholic schoolgirl in his biography, “Scar Tissue.” Ted Nugent and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler became legal guardians to girls with whom they wanted relations. Prince struck up a relationship with Anna Garcia, a.k.a “Anna Fantastic,” when she was 17.

This behavior has a long history in rock and roll. Sonny met Cher when she was 16 (he was 27). Elvis Presley met Priscilla when she was 14, and she moved into Graceland at 17. Jerry Lee Lewis was already blacklisted from radio once, after it was discovered he married his 13-year-old cousin while still married to another woman.

Rock and roll—itself a euphemism for sex—has often been an enterprise in which adult men who disdained conventional morality sold fantasies of sexual rebellion to infatuated teenage girls. The results are sad but entirely foreseeable.

Spotify has put itself in the position of deciding whether such conduct is “especially harmful.” Will they embrace a standard of consent that diverges from the law in most jurisdictions? If so, what happens if minors decide later in life that these relationships damaged them? Also, if this standard acts as a de facto statute of limitations, will the effect be to excuse predominantly older white men?

Statutory rape is just one of the issues facing streaming services. What to do, for example, about The Who: Pete Townshend was placed on a sex offenders register for five years after admitting he accessed child pornography on the internet (he still maintains his innocence). What to make of Led Zeppelin’s alleged pattern of sexually degrading its fans (including the infamous “shark incident”)? What of Don Henley, who was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor when police found a drugged, naked 16-year-old girl at his Hollywood pad? (He was fined and given two years of probation.)

And then there will be the claims of domestic violence or other abuse that have been lodged against legends like James Brown (by his children) and Jackie Wilson (by Patti LaBelle).

This less-than-comprehensive list (hello, Gary Glitter and Michael Jackson) suggests the size and depth of the swamp into which Spotify and its rivals are now wading. The questions raised about Hollywood following Weinsteingate pale in comparison.

The predicament these companies face represent the convergence of larger societal forces. In the Internet age, the decline of many traditional institutions has accompanied the rise of platforms. The emergence of social media facilitates the creation of movements or mobs, depending on whose ox is being gored.

Tech companies and their PR departments tend to be of a generation that leans left. They may like being mobbed, because it allows them to pretend they are remaining platforms, rather than assuming the responsibilities of institutions.

These companies are discovering the identity politics they have indulged are ultimately revolutionary. Identity politics presumes that America and most everything about it is irredeemably corrupt, the product of white privilege, the patriarchy, and so on. It cannot separate the art from the artist any more than it can separate the personal from the political. Smashing the patriarchy now threatens to smash streaming music services.

The story probably does not end here. The activists who so swiftly brought these companies to heel should feel emboldened to take their case to broadcast and satellite radio, where de-playlisting would also constitute a blacklist.

Moreover, as streaming services struggle with the issues immediately before them, the army of the woke will be busy looking for ways to expand censorship. If the past decade or two has taught us anything, it is that expression can go very quickly from being conventional wisdom to problematic to unacceptable.