Entertainment vs Ethics: The James Brown-Woody Allen Paradox

Sometimes disparate experiences collide to form an opinion or, at the very least, some thoughts pop out. A recent viewing of the amazing documentary Muscle Shoals as well as CNN’s The Sixties -The British Invasion prompted me to further my oldies education.  Today at work, I listened to the entire catalog of The Animals and The Rolling Stones, after which I realized that a) I knew many of the songs by heart without realizing it, and b) I’m a dumb-dumb for not already owning all their albums on vinyl. I also listened to a lot of James Brown as a result of this assignment to myself, which brings me to my thoughts on experiential collisions.

To begin with, I will plainly state: James Brown is one of the greatest, most influential performers EVER. If you saw the Super Bowl Half-Time Show this year, then you already know this since Bruno Mars would cease to exist if James Brown had never happened. I point this out because I’m somewhat annoyed by this fact: instead of kids getting amped about James Brown, they’re watching a watered-down version that lacks the raw magnetism of the authentic source. That said, the national treasure that is James Brown had a checkered criminal past and was repeatedly arrested for domestic violence. This puts people who enjoy his music in a tough spot, particularly if you’re a feminist-leaning music journalist like Moi. As I began ruminating on this quandary, my brain inevitably stopped the Thinking Train at Woody Allen Station.

If you don’t Twitter, access the internet regularly or occasionally partake in the TV news, Woody Allen is (again) at the center of a child molestation scandal courtesy of his Ex, Mia Farrow, and selected members of her/his adopted/biological brood. I don’t want to get into the particulars here, but you can read Robert B. Weide’s article published on The Daily Beast if you want a thorough examination of the case. As with James Brown, this revelation makes me squeamish. Woody Allen’s writing of and Diane Keaton’s portrayal of Annie Hall in the film of the same name changed my life. In Annie Hall I found a lovably awkward, tomboyish lifestyle guru that encouraged me to go with the crazy and accentuate my eccentricities. Blazers, hats and ties became and still are my wardrobe staples, and I encourage all new bosom buddies to watch Annie Hall in order to understand me on a deeper level.


Respecting James Brown’s rightful position as the Godfather of Soul and loving Woody Allen for gifting me a respectable role model (when compared to, say, any character played by Marilyn Monroe), how do I reconcile right with wrong? Logically, I should abhor them if they beat their wives and sexually assaulted their kids, respectively (and, ehrm, allegedly). Following this reasoning then I, as an ethical person, should be unable to watch Annie Hall or listen to “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” without dry-heaving in disgust. But it’s not that simple, is it? We’re part of a much larger societal dynamic that glosses over bad behavior if the offending individual is also really good at entertaining us (R. Kelly anyone?). As one good buddy put it, “Every time I listen to Ike Turner I can see him slap Tina in the face, but his music is just so damn good!”

So what do we do? For now, I have more questions than answers. I can tell you that I read “I Wear The Black Hat” by Chuck Klosterman–an entertaining examination of why we forgive some people and crucify others for the same or similar malfeasance. In it, Klosterman delves into the collective psychology of these situations utilizing insightful prose laden with a heavy dose of black humor like only Klosterman can. The conclusion he eventually reaches is that “over time, the public will grow to accept almost any terrible act committed by a celebrity; everything eventually becomes interesting to those who aren’t personally involved.” I don’t feel good about this rationale, but I understand it because it is true. Truth is hard to uncover from situations in which we aren’t directly involved, and, sometimes, even the ones that we are. It’s unclear what Woody Allen did or did not do because the waters are muddied by powerful emotions, and we weren’t there to know the facts. James Brown pleaded guilty to battery, but in this world of 24-hour news coverage we are too savvy to blindly accept a confession or a conviction as the final word on guilt because the system is broken and things are never quite what they seem.

Despite myself, I will always watch Annie Hall when life has kicked my ass, and I’m fast becoming one of the most prolific viewers of James Brown videos on You Tube. This might make me a bad person, I don’t know. If it does, then please know that I’m just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.