Ariel Pink is an indie rock singer who is about as famous as you can get without being famous-famous. He writes solid, usually silly, sometimes great songs that sound like smudgier versions of the classic pop you're glad to hear at weddings or the supermarket, as a Facebook friend sort of put it. He looks and dresses like Kurt Cobain, except that Kurt Cobain died at 27, and Ariel Pink is currently 36. And he is as much a character as he is a musician, which is a big part of his fame, but also a problem.
In October, a Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker called him "an indie darling for the better part of a decade," noting the positive attention he has received from Pitchfork, "the millennials' Rolling Stone" (Pitchfork gave his newest album – pom pom, released this week – an 8.8 out of 10). The same piece contained some characteristic quotes: "Everybody's a victim, except for small, white, nice guys who just want to make their moms proud and touch some boobies," he said, responding to accusations that remarks he'd made about Madonna were misogynistic. More recently, he called the Canadian musician Grimes "stupid and retarded" for saying so. He also referred to himself as the "male version of her," which I don't hear or see.
Pink's music is generally acclaimed, but he gets a lot of attention for talking like a bigot, or at least a total jackass. Partly it's because music writers need something to write about, and persona is at least relevant; partly it's because Pink can't seem to stop talking like a bigoted jackass. "I don't understand what all this gay-marriage stuff is about," he told an interviewer from Pitchfork in 2012. "… I love gays, by the way. And I love pedophiles, too. And I love necrophiliacs … when do they get to talk about their sexual repression and how society doesn't accept them?" (In a recent Guardian article, he clarified that he loves pedophiles "like Jesus loved pedophiles.")
It's not wrong to like the art and scorn the artist. To disregard the good things that "bad people" do strikes me as a little medieval: It presumes that people who do or say bad things are wellsprings of badness rather than complex individuals who make choices every day. And while I have no sympathy whatsoever for Pink's stated views (whether they're sincere or not is too generous a consideration at this point), or for him in light of the backlash they've caused, I do have some general sympathy for the artist whose job is to make music, but who is still expected to answer thousands of questions a year in a sensible manner.
A better example than Pink – both because her work is, in my opinion, much more interesting, and because her career has suffered more for her public rambles – is Azealia Banks, who also released a new album this month, Broke with Expensive Taste. (It contains a collaboration with Ariel Pink, Nude Beach a Go-Go, a song that's featured on his record, too; the two are friends.)
Banks blew up in late 2011, when the video for her single 212 came seemingly out of nowhere to rack up millions of views on YouTube; within months, a deal with Interscope was announced. The following summer, she released a great mixtape called Fantasea, but pretty soon she was getting more attention for her Twitter feuds – sometimes funny, often obnoxious, and sometimes just not okay, as when she called blogger Perez Hilton a "faggot" (a word she's used elsewhere, and hasn't really apologized for – it's been pointed out that Banks is openly bisexual, but, obviously, that doesn't make it all right).
Her debut studio LP was originally slated for release in September, 2012, but the date was pushed back again and again; last January, Banks publicly pleaded with her label to drop her already, and by July, she was free. She won back the rights to her songs, entered a new partnership with management and record company Prospect Park, and, on Nov. 6, released a distinctive, genre-skipping and lyrically gymnastic debut that was entirely worth the wait. The only impact her dickishness has had on her music is delaying it. (And really, let's put this in perspective: Banks was barely out of her teens when millions of people started caring what she had to say. She's a black woman, with her own vision, making her own way through the music industry – her patience has had to withstand a great deal more than, say, Ariel Pink's.)
I'd like to make a fine distinction here: You can love the art of an artist whose actions offend you. But I don't think you can – or at least, I can't – separate the art from the artist altogether. It's just that most people are multifaceted; a neat thing about art in general is that it comes from an iteration of self that is not always the same one giving interviews or making the tabloids. In the end, it's not a matter of whether you approve of an artist's words or actions, but whether you like them or not. We're drawn to artists the way we're drawn to friends, which is to say, for nebulous reasons that often have nothing to do with morals. (And I think even villains deserve friends, not that Banks or even Pink are villains.) This matters more in a climate in which many, many artists are vying for attention, but no amount of image management will change the impression someone gets from your work.
I like Banks. I don't know if I like Pink. Not just because he's a 36-year-old white guy ranting about feminists, gay people and his own sense of persecution, but because he has a lousy attitude. I'm less upset by his comments, which seem more idiotic than barbed, than by the fact that he trolls his audience. (At his most callous, he comes across like the walking genital wart Tim Heidecker plays in The Comedy, of which A.O. Scott wrote: "His racist, homophobic and misogynist rants are delivered not with any evident irony, but rather proceed from the sense that he is entitled never to be taken seriously.")
Furthermore, I hear it in the music. Considering his public persona, Pink's overall kookiness – his at times inflammatory lyrics, the thing where he slips into a silly falsetto right at a song's emotional peak – starts to piss me off. He seems to go out of his way to undermine his credibility as an emotionally endowed human being, which makes me feel like a sucker for responding to his work. It's like dancing with someone who insists on doing goofy, exaggerated moves because they'd rather seem like a "bad dancer" than a bad dancer.
An artist's flaws and missteps aren't always hurdles to their work. Next to her incredible talent, Banks's short fuse is sometimes relatable, even endearing, whereas Pink's defensive goofing makes me feel as though I'm wasting my time, no matter how good his records might be. There are plenty of great artists to pay attention to.