As a preface to the argument presented here, let's start off by making a point that this is not an article defending Bill Cosby, nor is it defending Roman Polanski, John Lennon, Ernest Hemingway, OJ Simpson, Ezra Pound, Eric Clapton or any other artist who may be mentioned here.
These people all have one, singular fact in common; they objectively did terrible things throughout their lives. In specific, Cosby allegedly drugged, raped or sexually assaulted 41 women, Polanski raped a 13 year-old girl, Lennon habitually beat women and abandoned his first son, Hemingway was a hapless drunk who beat his wives and children, Simpson allegedly murdered his wife and her alleged lover, Pound was a rabid anti-semite and proto-fascist and Clapton beat, and possibly raped, his wife and has been a fairly open racist.
What's interesting is that there is a pretty big divide there in artists likely recognized for those actions and others that seem like a revelation. However, none of these are really disputable, and, in fact, Lennon and Clapton openly admitted to these faults, while Hemingway and Pound's legacies are well documented. They aren't theories as much as realities that every fan must inevitably accept. Which begs the question of "how?" How does an artist overcome their own horrible deeds to be remembered as some of pop culture's most legendary figures?
The answer is complex, and some harsh realities have to be faced to truly answer that question. In simplest terms, there is a direct correlation between fame and artistic credentials with the general public perception of the person. In other words, the more famous and historically relevant the artist is, the more likely the public is willing to forgive their negative attributes. Perhaps no greater symbol of this relationship in recent memory is Michael Jackson. Jackson, of course, allegedly molested 20 children, and subsequently paid $200 million in hush money to the victims' parents. By his 2009 death, Jackson was a pop culture pariah, a figure still equated with perversion and evil.
Today, however, those allegations have all but been forgotten. Major media outlets continue to pump out quirky stories about Jackson, such as Jane Fonda skinny dipping with him in the '80s, a story released less than a day prior to this article's writing. Even the New York Times, writing on Jackson's death, was eager to paint him as a tragic figure rather than demonize him. In the years leading up to Jackson's death, the court of public opinion had ruled him guilty, and called for blood. Yet, with the pop star buried, the allegations seemed to be simply tossed to the wind.
Why? Well, the answer may be astoundingly simple, albeit a pretty dismal view of pop culture. That is, the public's attention span is akin to that of a goldfish strung out on methamphetamines. We are essentially the baby in a game of peek-a-boo. It may be hard to believe, knowing the incessant controversy that the Cosby scandal has invoked, but if the media were to drop all coverage of Cosby for a period of six months or so, we would all but forget about it. Of course, we may still remember that Cosby is a serial rapist, but that might not even matter. In almost every single case of a celebrity being called out for their crimes, the story is perpetuated by major news outlets bringing the case to light. Which is why, even though Cosby initially admitted to his crimes ten years ago, it is only being talked about now because the mainstream media decided to pick up on it. The same thing happened with Jackson, who was initially brought to court on molestation charges in 1993, but did not receive as extreme a level of public scrutiny until his second trial in 2005. Which isn't to say that Jackson's original trial was not a media spectacle, but rather that, in the years following the allegations, Jackson was able to continue an extremely successful career.
The point is, Cosby is admittedly guilty, Jackson is more than likely guilty, Lennon is guilty and Clapton is guilty. That does not change the fact that they are cultural icons, and it does not change the fact that, when the dust inevitably settles, the public forgets and forgives more so than we'd like to admit. When the next celebrity scandal breaks, redemption is equivalent to silence in regards to people like Cosby — all the more so if he dies. We will get tired of the jokes and outrage, just as we did with Jackson, and the music, or the comedy in this case, will still linger on.
Is it a good thing? Absolutely fucking not. But the court of public opinion is horrible with convictions. That is why Clapton's still touring and Lennon is seen as a symbol of peace. It is why Chuck Berry, charged with armed robberies, alleged child pornography and alleged child molestation, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame long after these allegations and convictions were known. Meanwhile, Simpson is only remembered for his trial. Why? Firstly, even as an actor playing minor roles in film and TV and as a highly sought after football player, he never reached the level of immortal fame these other stars did. He was a celebrity du jour, and thus, his infamy outshone his fame. Second, he couldn't keep his god damned mouth shut. It is arguable that if Simpson were to have fallen into obscurity following the trial, we may not be talking about him at all today. Instead, he refused to keep his nose clean, wrote one book answering all of his hate mail and then wrote another detailing how he would have killed his wife, if he had killed his wife. He gave the public eye a consistent, decade-spanning train wreck to latch onto that his minor, fleeting fame could not wash away.
So here's the cold truth; someday, maybe far off or maybe not at all, your kids will watch "The Cosby Show." They will hear "Billie Jean," "Cocaine" or "Johnny B. Goode." They'll read "For Whom the Bell Tolls," or watch "Rosemary's Baby." And it will not matter what kind of controversy those artists were caught up in.
As fame is fleeting, so is infamy.