Cardi B is challenging us, and our response will be revealing.
Arguably the most pressing question of the Me Too era, and this moment in pop culture when internet sleuths rake incessantly through celebrities’ records, now hovers over one of the music industry’s hottest commodities: Should bad behavior in an entertainer’s past disqualify her from popularity in the present?
In this case, Cardi’s past sins are horrific, to say the least. A three-year-old Instagram Live video resurfaced this week in which the rapper discussed drugging and robbing men to “survive” during her days as a stripper.
“Like, I had to go strip. I had to go, ‘Oh yeah, you wanna f-ck me? Yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s go back to this hotel,'” Cardi says on the clip, before admitting she would subsequently drug and rob the men. That’s obviously abhorrent.
In response to the controversy, Cardi posted a long statement to Instagram explaining she’s “part of a hip hop culture where you can talk about where you come from talk about the wrong things you had to do to get where you are.”
“I never glorified the things I brought up in that live I never even put those things in my music because I’m not proud of it and feel a responsibility not to glorify it,” she wrote. “I made the choices that I did at the same time because I had very limited options. I was blessed to have been able to rise from that but so many women have not.”
Her statement flirted with a quasi-defense of the behavior, claiming the men were people she had been dating and were “conscious willing and aware,” which is obviously not true if they had been drugged. Overall, however, her response amounted to a clear expression of regret, although the conduct in question remains repugnant. “All I can do now is be a better me for myself my family and my future,” Cardi captioned the screenshot.
This strange situation raises questions about double standards for men and women (Would we forgive a male celebrity if the sexes were reversed? Are there differences?), and gives people the opportunity to draw parallels between Cardi and other celebrities like R. Kelly (whose sins very much existed in the past and continue in the present). But it also implicates one of (a) today’s (b) biggest celebrities in (c) indefensible behavior. How will she fare?
As of now, Cardi’s career seems to be fine, which is probably the right outcome given her contrition. But is she getting by more easily because we don’t want to give her up? Without directly comparing their transgressions (which are not comparable), it’s still worth noting R. Kelly’s reckoning was pushed off until long after his career had peaked.
Of course, Cardi has actually shown remorse, but it’s fair to wonder whether that would be good enough for someone less popular, especially given the severity of her admitted wrongdoing. Kevin Hart, another megastar, lost his Oscars gig for much less, and like Cardi also expressed regret and pledged to do better.
For better or worse, people caught in Hart-like circumstances will now be able to say, “Cardi B drugged and robbed men, why am I being punished?” Precedent is on the line.
There’s also the matter of her current character. I’m sure Cardi’s graphic verses in “Please Me” alone are more than enough to disqualify her from many people’s rotations. Entertaining as she is, there’s clearly a legitimate argument to be made that we would all be better off without Cardi B at the top of the charts.
Even if you can get past that, however, there’s also a legitimate question as to whether it’s moral to boost the career of someone who drugged and robbed people, even if it was years ago. To that end, I recently came across an essay in Spin published after Michael Jackson’s death in 2009. One particular passage stood out:
Iconic pop stars should be weird and unknowable, that’s what we’re paying them for. They shouldn’t be typing their observations into their iPhones 140 characters at a time; they should be shooting their televisions and comparing themselves favorably to Jesus and collecting African babies at will and sleeping in hyperbaric chambers with well-dressed chimpanzees and possibly, regrettably, kindergartners. Because we cannot. We need them to live lives we’ll never know, lives we shouldn’t know; to be, if not above the law, then certainly beyond the pale.
To be perfectly clear, the writer’s bit about kindergartners is absurd. We don’t “possibly, regrettably” need that from our artists, we never have and never will. But I think the larger point stands.
If she weren’t crazy, Cardi B would be much less disruptive and interesting—and boring pop stars are a scourge. The kinds of people who produce compelling work aren’t perfect, and their lives will never fully meet our standards of moral behavior. We’re all flawed, and entertainers exist to help us work through those flaws; sometimes there can be value in learning from their mistakes.
The key is to consume their work when warranted without condoning it, intentionally or otherwise. That’s a tricky business to navigate, but it absolutely involves removing the incentives for future wrongdoing and holding bad actors accountable for past conduct. While we work on figuring that out, we can also try adjusting our moral standards to keep pointlessly crass inanity off the charts in the first place.