Vince Staples Is Right, We Treat Musicians Like Shit... But Why?

Sometimes we—the public—need artists to call us out on our shit.
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Sometimes we—the public—need artists to call us out on our shit.

As someone who writes about music, my relationship with it is steeped in paradox.

Music is art, and throughout my life, it has provided both an escape from and valuable context to some of my darkest moments. I also make a living from analyzing that art, however, and I’m able to do so for the same reason the music industry exists—because of our culture's collective fascination with the art and the people who make it.

As fans, we ascribe value to music because it’s important to us. We can’t be faulted for wanting to know about the artists who make our favorite music or the inspiration behind it, but a perfect storm of circumstances has turned that innate love of art into something that can be cruel, ugly and unforgiving.

In a recent interview with Noisey, Vince Staples spoke on our relationship—​as a culture—with musicians, and in the midst of his musings was a sobering moment of candor. 

We hate musicians. We treat 'em like shit. Especially if they're good.

That comment elicited the kind of knee-jerk defensive response of someone who knows deep down that it’s true but hasn’t sidestepped their ego to get to that truth yet. I immediately began rationalizing the inaccuracy of the statement—we actually love musicians, it’s why they get to play music for thousands of people as their primary means of income, right?

But the more his words sank into my psyche, the more inescapable the truth was: we, the general public, do treat musicians like shit. We do kind of hate them.

Whether it's ignoring the clear signs of mental distress from Kanye to call him egotistical and trash his music, dogpiling on an artist like Drake for using any and all resources at his disposal to conquer music, or effectively trying to "bounce" someone like Lil Yachty out of the culture for not meeting our puritanical standards, musicians are consistently the brunt of our scrutiny and often, persecution.

But, why?

Like I said earlier, I believe that it’s a perfect storm of circumstances. The first factor, the one that’s the hardest to accept but probably the most deeply-rooted cause of all: jealousy. The average music listener that works a 9-to-5 is lying their face off if they say they’ve never wished for the life of a musician, and who could blame them? The perception most of us are privy to is that of a young star making tens of thousands of dollars per night to perform their songs for crowds of adoring fans who place them above doctors, teachers, soldiers and even athletes in the hierarchy of social value. Sounds awesome, right?

The realities of a musician's life are rarely exposed to the average listener, and if they were, I'd bet most of us would cling to our regular-ass jobs a little more tightly. The truth is, it's really fucking hard to be a musician and even harder to be a famous one.

The pressures that come along with essentially commoditizing the human spirit are uniquely intense and taxing, and they're only compounded by a media landscape that analyzes music more intensely than any other artistic medium.

Hip-hop, more than almost any other popular genre, is especially subjected to moral inquisition in the pursuit of keeping the constantly waning attention span of our internet piqued, as artists are perpetually being prodded to justify their art in ways that would be unfamiliar to a film director or sculptor. Coverage of music in the media is a vicious cycle that keeps content producers like myself and the rest of the DJBooth squad trapped in a purgatory between whetting the appetite of readers enough to keep making a living, and treading carefully atop an art form we’ve dedicated our lives to studying.

All of these factors come together to form a Voltron of undue pressure that then gets hefted onto the backs of artists while label and streaming service executives swim in pools of money, Scrooge McDuck-style.

You’ll notice this article’s title contained a “why” and not a “but what are we going to do about it?” That’s because I don't have an answer. This isn’t an easy fix. This is a culture of art consumption that’s been slowly snowballing out of control for decades, and I don’t know what it will take to switch the tracks.

All I know is that Vince’s comments have made me really inspect how I interact with this art that’s given me so much throughout my life, and how quick I am to judge those that make it. At the end of the day, I think that was Vince’s immediate goal, and I can only hope it’s a seed that sprouts into a new paradigm in the way we perceive musicians.