Charlie Harding can still remember the moment R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” began to play at a wedding four years ago. The co-host of the music podcast “Switched on Pop” couldn’t believe it. He thought to himself, “Do we really want to have this person celebrated at this wonderful event?”
“It would no longer be culturally acceptable,” Harding, who with musicologist Nate Sloan has created the No. 1 music podcast on the Apple charts right now, said. “As a music critic, I was already aware of his history and made a choice of not participating with his music.”
In the last month, two documentaries about music icons have divided the nation and wedding dance floors: “Surviving R.Kelly,” the six-part investigation into the singer’s sexual abuse allegations and “Leaving Neverland,” about Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of minors. Harding believes music listeners must reckon with the fallout from these revelations about Jackson: “The reality is, even if we choose to not play his music, we can’t stop playing his influence.”
So what can music fans do? Harding has analyzed the making and meaning of music on “Switched on Pop” since 2014. In the past, the podcast has used R. Kelly and Michael Jackson as examples of how current artists like Bruno Mars and Beyoncé have made hits.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean Kelly and Jackson are good people, Harding told TheWrap during an interview from SXSW. While the art can be analyzed on its own, analyzing the artist with the art is a delicate, case-by-case process.
What responsibility do music fans have when deciding to listen to artists who have faced serious accusations of misconduct, like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly?
There’s a responsibility here for anyone who’s continuing the business of Michael Jackson by enriching his estate. It’s obviously complicated because Michael Jackson is one of the most influential musicians of the 21st century. We can’t hear Justin Timberlake or Bruno Mars or Beyoncé without hearing the influence of Michael Jackson. His sound and identity permeates our culture. It makes his history uncomfortable to deal with. That’s part of the reckoning that we have to do culturally. We live in a world in which there is great wrongdoing. There’s abuse. Just as much as we get to celebrate American exceptionalism, we have to accept all of the most difficult sides of our history.
There is a responsibility right now for radio to not harm living people who have been abused by Michael Jackson by continuing to play his music. A moment of silence feels appropriate. It’s not that hard to find other great music.
How do you separate the art from the artist since your job is to analyze the song in front of you. If a song is clearly inspired by Michael Jackson or someone like Ryan Adams, what would be your approach?
I have a gut reaction to music that doesn’t deserve attention. The thing is, there are a lot of good songs in the world that are lyrically abhorrent. Music is one of the few places where you can say something in a microphone to everyone that you may not be able to anywhere else. I’m often looking to choose music that is interesting, so I know that’s sometimes going to overlap lyrically with music that I think is backwards. But you have to call that out and say these are the parts I find interesting and here are the parts I don’t find interesting.
It has to be case-by-case too. Take citing an influence to Ryan Adams compared to Michael Jackson. They are radically different in both what they did and their legacy. Also, one is deceased and one is not. For someone who was accused of being a serial abuser, we have a responsibility to not further enrich the person that can go on and harm other people. This addresses R.Kelly, whose allegations of abuse are undeniable. We don’t want to abet his crimes by enriching him.
Why do you think people tell themselves that “insanity” drives genius, that the best of the best will almost always have something flawed about them? Is that a sound argument?
No. That’s an absurd argument that touches on the ongoing obsession with genius. That anybody who happens to do something wildly creative is somehow absolved from not only crimes but also a narcissist. It’s an old adage to say there is a “required suffering of the artist,” you have to put someone in a dark state in order for them to produce good works. That’s absurd. Take CEOs. We tell ourselves, “They are the only people with the innovative minds to lead a Fortune 500 company.” But we see again and again that we give space for these people to be put on a noncritical pedestal.
What makes “Switched On Pop” different from other music podcasts?
“Switched on Pop” is about the making and meaning of pop music. We often break down a particular song or album, even an individual artist in order to look at what musical insights it has that maybe you won’t see culturally.You have to listen very deeply and we take them along that journey to think about things like how the music and the lyrics of a song contradict. Sometimes you won’t be listening directly to the chorus and when you listen back, you notice the melody and rhythm is where you missed an essential component.
What did you feel when you learned you were the No. 1 podcast on the Apple Charts?
I’m grateful to have this community of really thoughtful and critical listeners. There’s this joke that every podcast is just two dudes and a mic, and our show started that way because that I had this long-distance musical relationship with Nate Sloan. He’s a musicologist and we did it for fun. But when you’re covering popular music, you are looking at distillation of not only our American but global identity. So we wanted to make sure we would bring on people who knew more about certain genres and certain issues that we aren’t aware of.
Again, we started the project out of a genuine passion for the subject. Up to last fall, I didn’t know I would be doing this podcast full-time.
For me, being the No.1 podcast feels less like a personal accomplishment than a collective “‘I’m so glad there’s this place where a larger discourse about music can take place.” We are treating everyone to the height of their intelligence. Podcasting wants empathetic honesty. People can hear gamesmanship. We would have never found an audience.