On April 10, Cactus Jack Instagrammed a slideshow of billboards with the location tag “Coachella.” The billboards, four in all, situated on the I-10 highway in Southern California, read: “PSST……. / Looking for UTOPIA? / WRONG WAY!” Many fans reacted to the post in anticipation for Travis Scott’s much-delayed Utopia album, speculated to drop later this year. Some interpreted the cheeky messages as an effort to intentionally “troll” Coachella, which the rapper was supposed to headline before he was dropped last December in light of the Astroworld tragedy.

The billboards come exactly five months after the fatal Astroworld disaster in November, which resulted in the deaths of 10 festival attendees. Their cause of death was compression asphyxia, or suffocation, from the unregulated crowd surge during Scott’s performance. Scott has been heavily criticized for his conduct during and after the incident, about how he handled – or failed to handle – the tragic losses, essentially refusing to admit any responsibility or liability for them.

Scott’s Utopia billboards ahead of this weekend’s Coachella are problematic on two main fronts: First, they’re too soon; and second, their poor execution perpetuates his apathetic, insensitive, and guiltless stance on what happened to the victims and their families.

Last week, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announced that they will ban Will Smith from attending any and all events – both IRL and virtual – hosted by them for the next 10 years. Although this can’t be directly compared to the Astroworld calamity, a decade-long ban over a slap is a stark contrast to Scott’s imminent comeback just five months after a catastrophe of arguably much graver proportions. Under the negligence of Scott and his team, actual lives were lost, and hundreds more have been left injured and traumatized.

Will Smith’s “slapcident” and the tragedy of Astroworld are wholly different in that the former was a fully intentional – although shortsightedly spontaneous – act carried out on Smith’s own accord, while the latter was an accident. The Academy was also able to reach a swift disciplinary decision for Smith because he violated the board’s delineated code of conduct, whereas the conversation on how Scott should be held accountable treads on murkier waters. It is difficult – impossible, even – to set a moral standard by which to appropriately punish or restrict Scott in this case.

It’s also worth noting that Smith’s Academy ban is not a “cancellation.” He may still be nominated for the Oscars and go on to make movies. He might even make more buzz and win more popularity post-slap. But the core issue with Scott is not whether we should jump to cancel him now – it’s about his unconcerned behavior thus far, and our collective passivity or even acceptance of it.

Even without setting any subjective moral standards on the “reasonable” amount of time for Scott to grieve and go on hiatus, the Coachella-targeted PR stunt is still ill-timed. They come in the middle of the rapper’s ongoing mass injury lawsuit, a giant multidistrict litigation consisting of at least 387 claims for nearly 2,800 alleged victims. This lawsuit should be to Scott what the Academy board was to Smith: The courts have to decide whether and how, if at all, the disgraced musician should be held accountable. His choice to erect billboards with such playful and ironic messaging in the midst of this court battle is a carefree gesture that disrespects those who were permanently scarred by Astroworld. Imagine: Would he be able to pull the same billboards in Houston, the site where the fatal tragedy took place? Placing them in California does not make them any less horrid.

More trouble looms ahead with the impending Astroworld documentary, Concert Crush, which is already garnering a lot of controversy on its own.

The Astroworld casualties have been most compared to the 2000 Roskilde Festival, where nine people were trampled to death in a mosh pit during a performance by Pearl Jam. And while this comparison yields haunting similarities between the two misfortunes, what sets them apart is how the artists reacted afterward. Pearl Jam canceled their subsequent shows and invested in programming that actually improved safety protocols of music festivals throughout Europe. On an emotional level, the band seriously considered disbanding and never playing again, but when they did release another album two years later, they dedicated a heartfelt song to the nine Roskilde victims. To this day, Pearl Jam continues to pay their respects to them.

Last March, a month before the Utopia billboards showed up, Scott unveiled Project HEAL, a charitable initiative “addressing challenges facing today’s youth” and a “tech-driven solution for event safety.” But their exact intentions and actions remain vague, as they’ve yet to propose a concrete preventative solution to future concert mishaps. Attorneys representing the alleged Astroworld victims in Scott’s lawsuit actually argued for a gag order on the rapper when he revealed the project, citing that it’s just another PR move to sway potential jurors.

Scott did pull himself out of the Day N Vegas Festival which took place a week after Astroworld. But he was far from stepping down from his other more lucrative deals, like the 2022 Coachella stage and Dior collaboration, until he was booted by both of them first (Scott might have still received a cancellation fee for Coachella). Another drastic contrast from the self-reflective actions set forth by Pearl Jam two decades prior, and even those of Will Smith, who voluntarily resigned from his Academy membership before any disciplinary decisions were made.

All this is to illustrate that Travis Scott has shown little to no remorse over the death of his fans, a trauma we must not forget, regardless of who is at fault. It is very possible that he and Live Nation will be found not guilty on their charges of negligence. But until that judgment is made and the victims’ families are properly compensated and/or apologized to, it’s extremely insensitive, even offensive, for Scott to be putting up such billboards.

Yet, when the tongue-in-cheek Utopia boards showed up last weekend, and when Highsnobiety shared the news on our own feed, the overwhelming reactions in the comments sections were anticipation and excitement over the forthcoming album. Despite and after all this, is Travis Scott so culturally invincible that he can just move on along with his all-too-eager fans? Is he ultimately uncancellable, and if so, what allows him to be?

Of course, Scott is far from the first or only controversial figure in pop culture who is seemingly shielded from the Cancel Culture chopping block. Although for different reasons, arguably just as problematic is Kanye West, whose unpredictable and erratic pattern of harassment is disturbing to witness through his “work.” The example of Ye is also interesting in that he’s associated with Scott and other, even more controversial people, like Marilyn Manson. For these musicians, does their “uncancellability” also stem from their support of each other?

What is it that stirs the public to accept different levels of accountability from different people? Is it the subject’s diehard, loyal fanbase, their star power and cultural capital, financial wealth, or all of the above? What standards should we set when questioning if and how to hold them accountable?

Scott is a free man and has the right to express what he pleases. And if he could be legally absolved of this controversy, he should absolutely go on to continue making music. But as a public figure, he has the duty to act with maturity and moral integrity, if not for the lives that were lost, then at least in light of his lawsuit.

It remains to be seen what Scott will do with his Utopia proceeds; for all we know, he may have plans to donate most or all of it to the bereaved families. But his lighthearted Coachella billboards were not the right move. He can and should do better. We the people must also think twice before jumping to support him so fast, and other situations of this nature, and look back on the magnitude of the real issue.

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