Read: It’s not callout culture. It’s accountability.
Whatever the reason for Wallen’s enduring popularity, it shows the limits of the power wielded by the music industry’s kingmakers. Digital listening gives consumers a new ability to make or break stars: A song such as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” can blow up without being spoon-fed to the public by labels. Streaming services themselves don’t enjoy total control either. When Spotify announced in 2018 that it would stop promoting the work of abusive artists, the ensuing criticism was so intense that the company walked back the policy within weeks. Streaming services have now removed Wallen from the playlists that they promote to hundreds of thousands of users, but the ability to fully yank his music from availability likely lies with his record label.
That label, Big Loud, is presumably still profiting from Wallen’s music, even though it says that it has suspended Wallen’s record deal indefinitely. What suspension means, exactly, is not publicly known. What it sounds like is a public-relations measure that leaves the door open for Wallen to return to stardom. Is there any doubt that such a return will happen after a little bit of time and a redemptive interview or two? Almost from the moment that Wallen’s TMZ video was posted, fans—and some fellow artists—have been talking about the need for forgiveness and the inhumanity of condemning someone for a mistake. The long history of musicians continuing to prosper after a “mistake” indicates that such calls are probably redundant.
Wallen himself knows how easy a comeback can be. In October, after partying maskless and kissing random fans days before he was scheduled to perform in the quarantine bubble of SNL, Wallen put out a solemn apology video. In it, he said that he was going to take some time off to reevaluate his priorities, because “I think I have some growing up to do.” A little more than a month later, he was re-invited to SNL, on which he acted in a skit that made light of his transgression. Weeks after that, he put out Dangerous, and weeks after that, he was shouting the N-word on the street.
The public is going to listen to catchy music by charismatic people regardless of what the media say or what big corporations do. That doesn’t mean a star’s conduct should go unscrutinized—especially when that conduct indicates a broader problem. In his latest apology video, Wallen said that his offense was the result of a 72-hour bender. But Maren Morris hit on an important subtext of the situation when she tweeted, “We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word.”
We all know—who can argue with that? Scroll through any Wallen-related comment thread lately and you’ll see that the defenses fans furnish for Wallen rest on the idea that his use of the slur wasn’t that big of a deal. They portray it as casual, flippant, unthinking (and tend to add, uselessly, that Black rappers say the same word all the time). According to Billboard, the insurance company SpottedRisk “rated Wallen’s use of a racial slur as Tier 3 out of 7 in its Public Outcry scoring system, reasoning that it was perceived to be directed at a friend and that the public expected this kind of behavior from Wallen.” All sorts of assumptions are embedded in such expectations—and the point of public-outcry campaigns is to make people aware of such assumptions.