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Disgraced but Embraced: Pop Culture Pariahs Are Making Big Comebacks

Disgraced but Embraced: Pop Culture Pariahs Are Making Big Comebacks

Last weekend, the comedian Shane Gillis hosted “Saturday Night Live,” five years after he was fired from the show before ever appearing on it, when old podcast appearances in which he’d used slurs were brought to light. During his opening monologue, Gillis showed how he had evolved since then, which is to say, only slightly. In a tame bit about his parents, he fondly recalled spending time with his mother when he was younger, noting sweetly, “Every little boy is just their mom’s gay best friend.”

For the past two weeks, Ye — formerly Kanye West — has sat at the top of the Billboard albums chart with “Vultures 1,” his collaborative album with the singer Ty Dolla Sign. In late 2022, Ye began a public stream of antisemitic invective that, for a while, effectively imploded his career, leading to the dissolution of his partnerships with Adidas and the Gap. He seemed, for a time, persona non grata. But he, too, has returned to something approaching old form, with a single, “Carnival,” that went to No. 3 on the Hot 100, and a series of arena listening sessions that have been the hallmark of his album rollouts in recent years.

Cancellation was always an incomplete concept, more a way of talking about artists with contentious and offensive personal histories than an actual fact of the marketplace. Except in the most extreme cases, moral failure has never been an automatic disqualifier when it comes to artistic work.

What changed in the years since the beginning of the #MeToo movement is the presumption that strong enough discursive pushback might indeed lead to actual banishment. That proved to be true in the wake of #MeToo, in which powerful men like Charlie Rose, Bryan Singer and Matt Lauer were effectively cast out of public life after allegations of sexual misconduct. (And it should be noted: Most of those facing banishment, or the threat thereof, have been men. Roseanne Barr is perhaps the most high-profile woman to meet that fate, following racist and antisemitic public statements.)

The sense that bad actors could be weeded out at the root was satisfying liberal fantasy, though. What’s happened instead is the emergence of a class of artists across disciplines — call them the disgraced — who have found ways to thrive despite pockets of public pushback. Their success suggests several possibilities about cultural consumption: Audiences that don’t care about an artist’s indiscretions can be more sizable than the ones that do; those who publicly agitate on these matters might be privately relenting; or that perhaps some audiences may have a tolerance — or maybe even an appetite — for offense.

This disgraced group includes the country star Morgan Wallen, still ostracized by many for his use of a racial slur in 2021, who nevertheless has spent most of the past three years at or near the top of the Billboard albums chart with his last two releases, “Dangerous: The Double Album” and “One Thing at a Time.” It could also encompass the well-regarded fashion designer John Galliano, who has essentially been fully publicly rehabilitated after a 2011 antisemitic outburst and an exile period that followed; his Maison Margiela spring 2024 couture collection was among the most lauded runway shows in recent years.

These are cases where an artist is rescued from moral expulsion and yanked back into the spotlight largely by devotees — Wallen’s music remains at the forefront of mainstream country, and he is its biggest live draw. Country fans put him at the center of the genre — perhaps partly as protest — through sheer force of adulation. Galliano is and has been one of fashion’s masters of fantasy. Those who crave his blend of craft, theater and subversion have largely put his troubled past in the rear view and afforded him the opportunity to continue his career in peace. He has been the creative director of Margiela for almost a decade now.

The rehabilitation can even continue past death. Toward the end of his life, Michael Jackson, who died in 2009, was besieged by allegations of sexual misconduct and criminally charged with child sex abuse. And yet in death, he has been a huge success: The jukebox musical production “MJ the Musical” has grossed over $176 million on Broadway in just over two years, and half his music and recording catalogs were recently sold as part of a deal that valued those assets (which include some works by other artists) at a reported $1.2 billion, suggesting that the sordid accusations against him have had almost no practical effect on the financial potency of his estate.

Some notable public figures have been laundering unsavory business practices behind crowd-pleasing gimmickry — say, Elon Musk, whose long-anticipated Tesla Cybertruck, essentially a bulletproof emoji on wheels, counteracts news of his degradation of Twitter, now X. Or Dave Portnoy, whose pizza-rating videos and summer pizza festival are a fan-favorite diversion from the occasional boorishness of his media outlet, Barstool Sports, and a raft of sexual misconduct allegations. Musk and Portnoy know it is possible to exist in the world in multiple ways at once, and that the goofiest and most palatable version often gets the most attention. This isn’t so much owning the libs as ignoring them.

While others who have faced public scrutiny for their behavior remain in their cloistered marketplaces (Louis C.K. selling his comedy specials on his website, or Woody Allen essentially being denied large domestic releases for his recent films), these artists are increasingly the outliers. What sets the disgraced but embraced artists apart is that they, by choice and also by algorithm, exist in the mainstream — and maybe, by some measurements, are the mainstream.

In walled-off algorithmic-driven spaces like Spotify, TikTok and Netflix, content is delivered and promoted without any additional context. Last year, “I’ll Be Around,” a 20-year-old track by CeeLo Green — of Goodie Mob and Gnarls Barkley — became the soundtrack for a particularly exuberant viral dance trend on TikTok. In 2012, a woman accused Green of rape, and he eventually faced a lesser charge, pleading no contest to supplying ecstasy. He then posted a series of defiant bromides on social media, including “People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!” (He later apologized for the tweets.)

In 2018, Spotify attempted to take a stand by removing XXXTentacion and R. Kelly from its playlists based on “hateful conduct.” But just a few weeks later, the streaming service relented, saying in a blog post, “We don’t aim to play judge and jury.” The week it was released, music from “Vultures 1” was promoted on the streaming service’s marquee New Music Friday playlist.

Netflix has become something like a values-agnostic safe space for comics who traffic in offense, ginned-up or otherwise. It has been the primary platform for Dave Chappelle, whose most recent Netflix special, “The Dreamer,” is in large part a metanarrative about his own insistence on antagonizing transgender people and their allies with his prior Netflix specials.

These shows have been both popular and received with hostility, in what feels like a return to earlier, messier eras of popular culture. In an indicator that perhaps there is no more moral litmus test, even O.J. Simpson now has a platform: He’s been a recurring guest on “It Is What It Is,” the popular online sports talk show hosted by the rappers Cam’ron and Mase. (“If he was guilty, we wouldn’t have him on the show,” Cam’ron told Complex.)

It has become more striking when someone who has been cast aside isn’t warmly re-embraced. Take the R&B singer Chris Brown, whose career has continued under the shadow of his physical assault of Rihanna, who was then his girlfriend, in 2009. Recently, he was invited to play in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, and then apparently uninvited, which sent him on a social media tirade against Ruffles potato chips, one of the sponsors.

Even though he has struggled to regain the attention and support of mainstream institutions, Brown remains a reliable hitmaker and collaborator in pop, R&B and hip-hop. For 15 years, he has been suspended between rejection and comeback.

That intermediate space is also where DaBaby, who in 2021 made homophobic comments onstage at a music festival and experienced a swift career decline, has been living. But his rehabilitation tour recently made a stop at the “What Now? With Trevor Noah” podcast, where he discussed how those events shook him up. Unlike Brown, who has largely declined to face direct conversation about his misdeeds, DaBaby appears to have realized that there is no moving forward — and no path back to broad acceptance — without taking on the past.

It’s the only pathway to breaking out of the dual bubbles of your own limitations and your most dedicated, judgment-free fans. It also presents an opportunity to determine what version of one’s self might be viable outside those bubbles.

This has been true of Gillis, whose work mostly appears on “Matt & Shane’s Secret Podcast,” which he co-hosts and which is by far the most popular podcast on the subscription platform Patreon. But unlike others who have been content to remain in their walled-off worlds, and not feel the warmth, or the sting, of public sunlight, Gillis has been inching toward less welcoming spaces.

In September, he released a comedy special on Netflix, which last month announced that Gillis would deliver a second stand-up special, as well as a scripted workplace comedy. And then there was “S.N.L.,” which could have very easily never reopened its doors to Gillis, but appeared to make a calculated bet that the buzz and curiosity generated by giving him a stage would outweigh any potential ethical backlash. It was something of a statement of intent for the show, indicating that it was willing to engender a little discomfort, and perhaps saw a future for that sort of comedy out in the world.

It also was a test for Gillis, and during his opening monologue, he made calibrations in real time, as some punchlines didn’t quite land in front of an away-team crowd. “I don’t have any material that can be on TV,” he joked, and yet there he was.

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