Tyrrell: Should we cancel Elvis?

Columnist Eileen Tyrrell encourages readers to consider if artists’ actions make their works more or less valuable, including that of Elvis. 

Eileen Tyrrell

Elvis Presley, the “King of Rock and Roll,” will forever be lauded as one of the most impactful musicians in all of history. From his breakout hit “Heartbreak Hotel” to his untimely death at the age of 42, Elvis reshaped our perception of music entirely, fusing gospel, country and rhythm and blues music to create a brand-new genre: rock. Elvis’s impact on not just music, but American pop culture as a whole, cannot be overstated. 

Elvis was also an abusive, pedophilic womanizer whose preferred age in sexual partners was 14 years old. 

Should we cancel him? 

Art has a long history of genesis by complicated, sometimes terrible people. Pablo Picasso wrote the textbook on modern art and also was a psychologically abusive misogynist. Michelangelo da Caravaggio, famed 16th-century painter, was a murderer. It might be too soon to compare any 21st-century artists with the genius of Picasso, but the intermingling of creative brilliancy and a general lack of human decency lives on in artists like Michael Jackson, XXXTentacion and Woody Allen. 

But now, with the advent of the internet and the ability to cancel via crowdsource, we’re beginning to ask whether we should separate the art from the artist in the first place. Does the fact that the movie was created by a sexual abuser make the movie itself less valuable? 

I used to think the answer was a resounding yes. My main case study was the complicated legacy of the late Jahseh Onfroy, a rapper who went by the stage name XXXTentacion. Onfroy openly grappled with a troubled childhood and mental illness in his music and provided a light to many who struggled in similar ways. He also was horrifically violent toward his pregnant girlfriend and reportedly stabbed his former manager in 2016. To me, for so long, those acts of violence and hatred negated Onfroy’s contributions to art. I believed that you couldn’t celebrate the art without also glorifying the artist, who in this case, did not deserve to be glorified. 

Now, I am not so sure. 

Perhaps it is my realization of exactly how many artists and public figures leave behind troublesome legacies in addition to their contributions to society. There is virtually no arena of modern life untouched by someone who would probably get canceled were they alive today. (If you don’t believe me, do some research on the racist and sexist beliefs of Mahatma Gandhi. Even the birth of civil disobedience escapes unscathed.)

Plus, the terrible actions or beliefs perpetrated by such people don’t automatically cancel out the good that they also did. If XXXTentacion’s music helped someone get through a really dark time in their life, who are we to say that his contributions to music should be wiped from the slate? We can’t say that. So we must find a better way of addressing the complicated and sometimes awful people who nevertheless have done great things for society. 

I don’t think there is a prescriptive or one-size-fits-all answer to this quandary. But one approach we can take is to stop placing public figures — activists, reality show stars and every type of celebrity in between — on pedestals. There is no reason to idolize any one person to the extent that we do in American culture today, because as we’ve seen time and time again, people are flawed.

And when we hold celebrities up as shining ideals for the rest of society — no matter how genius or influential they may be — we’re taking away some crucial element of what it means to be human from them. And we’re taking away the opportunity to have a more meaningful dialogue about mistakes, forgiveness, accountability and art itself from ourselves. 

I don’t believe we should cancel Elvis. I actually don’t think anyone believes that. What we should do instead is include the bad with the good in our telling of his story. We can say that he changed music forever — and he also displayed misogynistic, pedophilic behavior toward the women in his life. That story is much more true than one that only includes half the facts.

Art, at the end of the day, is about truth-telling. We do ourselves no favors by erasing artists from the register because their truth was a dark one.