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Picture it: Connecticut, 1998. A college kid with boy problems, a little inebriated -- OK, definitely not sober -- throws himself onto a ratty couch and snaps on MTV. The lush video for Lauryn Hill's "Ex-Factor" is starting. There's Lauryn wearing all white, looking sad and beautiful. There's her lamenting the crimes of her lover as she slow-dances with him in a club. There she is, telling him she'll let go if he does, as the music swells and lights explode behind her. Tears stream down that sensitive kid's face, and a hard-core devotion to the former Fugee is born.
After waiting a decade and a half, that kid -- me -- finally sees a new Lauryn Hill album on the horizon. But wouldn't you know it, the first single, "Neurotic Society," is getting attention for all the wrong reasons. It's homophobic and transphobic, some say, with lyrics that seem to disparage "girl men," "drag queens," and "social transvestism." Hill's response to the accusations is meandering and esoteric: "'Neurotic Society' is a song about people not being, or not being able to be, who and what they truly are, due to the current social construct. I am not targeting any particular group of people, but rather targeting everyone in our society who hides behind neurotic behavior, rather than deal with it. The world we live in now is, in many ways, an abhorrent distortion, an accumulation of generations and generations of response to negative stimuli. Everyone has a right to their own beliefs. Although I do not necessarily agree with what everyone says or does, I do believe in everyone's right to protest."
Lauryn, refusing to disavow her song's connections between gender nonconformers and a screwed-up world, is putting me in an awkward position.
I can't really enjoy her new music without worrying that I'm part of this problem she sings about. It's depressing that I must now consider placing her in the same category as Chris Brown, a musician I once enjoyed, but who's now banned on my Spotify thanks to his homophobic, violent, and generally nasty behavior.
I'd like to think that an LGBT person downloading a Chris Brown album gets to encounter what it's like to have him as a boyfriend: First there's the rush and thrill, then the abuse, shame, and self-loathing. But whether we still welcome any artist, athlete, or corporation into our lives after they've kicked us in the teeth is a very personal decision.
Some gays still won't shop at Target, even with its many attempts at reconciliation, and even with the cheap toilet paper and the commercials that somehow make prenatal vitamins sexy. Three years ago the retailer donated $150,000 to a Republican political action committee supporting a homophobic candidate for Minnesota governor, ostensibly because Target execs simply thought Tom Emmer was good for business. I have a feeling the suits were being honest about that one -- their company scored 100% on HRC's Corporate Equality Index -- so I'll admit I bought my latest bike there (and if you think any giant corporation is going to place "doing the right thing" before the bottom line, it's time you put down Family Circle and read the business section). There's a difference between shopping at Target, which made a financial decision in supporting Emmer, and pumping gas at ExxonMobil, a company that refuses to protect its LGBT workers for no apparent reason other than animus.
Regardless of what Mitt Romney or the Supreme Court says, corporations are not people, and the latter should be held to higher, or at least more personal, standards. Everyone in my work circle had stories of disappointment and woe to share. Diane Anderson-Minshall, the editor-in-chief of HIV Plus magazine and editor-at-large for The Advocate, told me she remembers lesbians doing Eminem karaoke when Em was dropping hits and antigay epithets in similar frequency. "But I like his music!" she remembers a gay girl saying to her at the time. Around the office some of us felt conflicted when the toned, shirtless men of Homen disrupted the French Open this week to protest Gallic marriage equality. Can you ogle hot guys who hate you without hating yourself?
This website's commentary editor, Michelle Garcia, sheepishly admits she once lived for John Mayer: "Surprise -- I'm a black girl who has listened to John Mayer since high school. I didn't like admitting that to most people, because I felt like it was really corny, but then he decided to completely poop out of his mouth when he told Playboy in 2010 that his 'dick is sort of like a white supremacist. I've got a Benetton heart and a fuckin' David Duke cock.' And then he said Kerry Washington was white-girl hot. Because, you know, the rest of us black girls are on a lower level of attractiveness, so it's such a big deal if one of us can ascend the scale of hotness. I was enraged for a solid day. Seriously -- I'm clearly enraged now just thinking about it. Did I ever take anything he said seriously? No, of course not. But after that mess, I stopped listening to him for a solid year. He eventually apologized, and my anger died down. Sorta. But I'm not paying money to see him in concert or for his albums."
The Advocate's editor-in-chief, Matthew Breen, recently tried to make peace with his own teenage idol and current crackpot, Michelle Shocked. He tweeted back and forth with her recently, hoping to make sense of her antigay meltdown in March (look for the exchange in an upcoming issue).
"Since high school I was drawn to Michelle Shocked's sensitibilities," Matt says. "Her music and lyrics were punk-folk -- skateboarders and campfires -- and even her album art on Short Sharp Shocked was of her getting arrested at a protest at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. She was perpetually sticking it to the man -- an appealing notion to a gay non-Mormon kid in Utah. Then she said she was lesbian, and I felt I'd found a musical kindred spirit. So when she started saying antigay things, I took it really personally, it felt like a betrayal. I had to do what I could to find out if there was a way to reconcile what I thought of her and what she thought of herself -- but also, I wanted to let her know what that betrayal felt like, see if it resonated with her."
Part of the fun of idolizing an artist is imagining you'd be best friends if you ever met (don't ever meet them). My idol, Nina Simone, was salty and temperamental, but fiercely loyal and whip-smart. I recently caught a blog post about a young woman who met Nina on a San Francisco bus, struck up a conversation with her, and then soon embarked on a road trip to L.A. with the high priestess of Soul.
"Throughout the drive she spoke to us like we were lifelong friends," writes yoga instructor Dana Flynn. "She spoke of bad marriages, bad managers, greatlovesand of her daughter, Simone."
Nina was kindly to toll booth workers and abruptly played piano in a nearly empty hotel lobby. Had she spouted off about gay men spreading AIDS or Jews running the world, "I Put a Spell on You" would never have the same magic.
For me, loving an artist is wrapped up in loving the person behind the art. (Kanye makes it so hard.) If you want to put cash in Lauryn's pocket, more power to you; better her than ExxonMobil. (Hill also owes millions in back taxes, so in the end your purchase will benefit me and everyone else who files a W-9.) "Ex-Factor" will always wreck me, but I've decided I won't buy Lauryn's new album because she's probably homophobic, definitely a millionaire who doesn't pay her taxes, and, well, "Neurotic Society" just isn't that good.