2017 In Review

The Year Of Exposing Abusers

Most people who work in media will tell you that it has become increasingly difficult to keep up with the number of harassment, assault, and misconduct allegations that have surfaced over the past year. The Stereogum staff has reported on so many allegations as of late that even trying to remember which one was the most recent submerges you in a kind of fugue state. Just the other day, a coworker looked at me across the desk we share and asked: “Wait… what happened earlier this week?” He was referring to Brand New’s Jesse Lacey, who had been accused of soliciting nude photos from underaged women, masturbating in front of underaged women over Skype, and groping and kissing a woman without her consent. I couldn’t answer the question right away, despite having posted about the allegations myself. I published the story 30 or so minutes after I normally log off for the day and, always curious to see what commenters have to say on these topics, I hung out online for a bit. One of the earliest on that particular story was this: “Announcement: Stereogum Rape Week has been extended indefinitely.”

I will counter with this: Every week is “rape week” when you are a woman who has herself been a victim of sexual violence. I have been assaulted by male friends; I have been groped on the subway; I have been told by a man on the street that he would like to “fuck my face” while on my lunch break. None of this should read as shocking, it is simply the way the world we live in operates. The only difference now is that for the first time in the history of the universe, people are actually listening to survivors when they come forward. People are not just listening; they’re believing victims and actually punishing those who abuse positions of immense privilege. Cis men are finally beginning to recognize how pervasive and often invisible this type of violence is, that it is not simply a consequence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong body. What’s more: Abusers and the people who protected them are actually being held accountable for their actions, across industries.

With the #MeToo movement, the conversation has extended into our social circles. Many women/femmes I know who have shared their experience with harassment, assault, or general misogyny have been contacted by either their abusers or the people who stood by and made excuses for that abuser, asking for some kind of absolution. Others are quick to damn all of the Big Bad Men who have been outed, but very few are willing or able to acknowledge the role they might’ve played in keeping a survivor of assault silent or admit to the assault they themselves may have committed. I don’t wholly blame their perplexed reactions: It is difficult to take aim at systemic injustice when the bad guy looks like you.

The public shaming of abusers is one of the few productive things to come out of what can only really be described as a hellish year. While the recent deluge of allegations can be attributed to what has been deemed “the Weinstein effect,” the music industry has been grappling with how to handle instances of abuse made public for a while now. The wave of allegations against Heathcliff Berru in 2016 foreshadowed the reaction we’d see this year, but even so, Berru wasn’t in a band; he was the founder of a PR firm and a manager who worked with big clients, someone with whom most of the public wasn’t familiar. Since Berru, there have been a few other stories relating to allegedly abusive music-industry figures, but nothing that forced a real conversation about how the industry and the public handle these things.

When PWR BTTM’s Ben Hopkins was accused of sexual assault in May, first in an online forum and later in a particularly damning piece on Jezebel, the outcome was unprecedented: The band lost their label and management, cancelled a tour, and had their music yanked from streaming services within a week. By the time The New York Times ran an extensive profile on PWR BTTM the day their sophomore album, Pageant, was scheduled for release, the band had already been effectively cancelled. In the case of Hopkins, punishment was delivered swiftly, but I did not think we would see the same treatment extended to other industry abusers.

That hesitation stemmed from the fact that PWR BTTM is a queer punk band that advocated for safer spaces policies in venues and were seen as beacons heralding a new era of rock stars. Considerate ones who preached self-acceptance and championed social justice causes, who gave a lot of young queer kids music that they could really own. Hopkins identifies as non-binary, and uses they/them pronouns, and regularly shared encouragement with fans struggling with their own gender identity online. But PWR BTTM came up in a scene that espouses the need to show a zero-tolerance policy toward abusers, and the hypocrisy of Hopkins’ alleged actions was a direct affront to those who considered themselves fans of the band. Because of this, there is no universe in which PWR BTTM will be able to continue on in any significant capacity, despite a somewhat deluded assertion in a statement that implied they would return “soon.”

PWR BTTM’s undoing was unprecedented, yes, but it also echoed the mentality of certain DIY music scenes where lesser-known artists are brought down just as quickly, the concept surrounding outings being that no person deserves to gain social capital if they display harmful behavior. Communities like these are anti-capitalist and somewhat utopian in practice. They enact policies that the mainstream lacks; they police their own in a space that is by-and-large anti-police. I, too, was raised in these DIY communities, and was still completely blindsided by the public reaction to Hopkins’ alleged misconduct. I didn’t expect the same when cishet male musicians would be called out in the future for this reason.

In the months since PWR BTTM’s undoing, we’ve published innumerable stories of alleged rape, harassment, and sexual misconduct. I made a crass joke to my coworkers about how we need to start a new category on the site to make it easier to refer back to allegations because I truly am running out of space in my brain to keep track of them all. Here’s a sample of headlines:

It is exhausting to read all of these headlines and know that there are so many more stories just like them to come, and it’s fair to say that many writers working in music media are ill-equipped to handle these kinds of stories. We don’t all have journalism degrees, and most of us have spent the bulk of our careers writing about the way music makes us feel and the culture it influences, not necessarily the unappealing personalities and sometimes criminal behavior that drive its makers. Music criticism, even at its most critical, is emotional work. It is a personal, singular experience to listen to a song and put it into words. This current cultural moment has forced many of us, not just men, to question where we draw a line. When do we stop listening to or covering a band? It has led fans to feel cheated by some of these artists, robbed of memories associated with certain songs or shows. There are a lot of people out there with PWR BTTM and Pinegrove tattoos. There are infinitely more with Brand New tattoos. How conflicting and disappointing and ultimately painful it must be.

Jesse Lacey’s alleged behavior wasn’t just disappointing and inappropriate or just plain gross; it was against the law. The allegations against many of these musicians can also be classified as criminal. In the case of Lacey, his alleged behavior constitutes child grooming, and while the relations Lacey had with underage women might’ve seemed consensual at the time, in the eye of the law, people under the age of 18 are considered legally unable to give consent. One of Lacey’s alleged victims was 15 when she says he asked her to send him nude photos. “I didn’t really see it for what it was because when you’re a teenager you think, ‘I know everything, I’m an adult,'” she told Pitchfork. She was a big Brand New fan, as were the other women Lacey allegedly solicited.

A case like Lacey’s could conceivably go to court if evidence is substantial enough. (Much of the communication between Lacey and these women transpired over instant message or email.) But in many of these instances, particularly rape and harassment allegations from years ago, there’s a slim-to-zero percent chance that any of the accused will ever face legal consequences. It’s ridiculously hard to win a rape case if it’s not reported within hours of the assault, and even when it is, a perpetrator doesn’t always face the full extent of the law. One of the most highly publicized rape cases of the past few years was that of the Stanford rapist Brock Turner, who wasn’t technically convicted of rape because the state of California defines it as someone using “physical force, intimidation, duress, or threats to persuade the victim to engage in sexual intercourse.” Turner penetrated his victim with his fingers. To be clear: In the eyes of the law, the intent to commit rape is not the same as penetrating a person in a sexual manner without their explicit consent. This is a maddening technicality, and it is just one small example of the myriad reasons why victims of sexual violence don’t report it, because the law is written in such a way as to minimize these violations.

For many survivors the only real way to achieve any semblance of justice is to out their abuser. It is a means through which to displace shame, a way of saying, “This person did something terrible to me and I have been living with it, but now they have to live with it.” It’s a way of holding people accountable for violence that is hard to see. But holding someone accountable is not an easy thing to do, and, as has been proven in the music world this year, it comes with its own intimidating legal consequences.

After being accused of rape by two women, the Gaslamp Killer filed a defamation suit against them. He’s asking for $5 million in damages. Ethan Kath of Crystal Castles has sued Alice Glass for $300,000 after she shared a lengthy, harrowing statement about abuse she allegedly suffered during her time with the band, which included rape, battery, and repeated harassment. And when Matt Mondanile released a statement via lawyers regarding allegations of sexual misconduct published in SPIN, his team included a thinly veiled legal threat aimed at Real Estate. “Regarding Real Estate, the band required Matt to sign a ‘leaving agreement’ in February 2016 that prohibits both him and the band members from making any negative or derogatory statements about the other, or that may negatively affect the other’s reputation and career.”

The music media will report on more denial and retaliation in the coming year and there is really no way to hypothesize what will come of any of this. Defamation suits are difficult to win in the States, but contract law is exceedingly complex. It seems, though, that in the court of public opinion, all of these alleged abusers have already lost. Brand New cancelled the last few dates of what was supposed to be their one of their “final” tours over the allegations. Crystal Castles’ tour was cancelled. Pinegrove cancelled their tour after Evan Stephens Hall released an unnecessarily long statement that read as an attempt to get ahead of the story. Alex Calder doesn’t have a label anymore, and Matt Mondanile’s ex-girlfriend Julia Holter came out in support of his accusers, stating that during and after their relationship he was “emotionally abusive to the point where I had to have a lawyer intervene and was afraid for my life.” All of these men are not only losing their social capital, they’re also losing financial capital. Their ability to continue making music in the very near future has been undercut. There aren’t many institutions that will feel confident backing an alleged abuser during this particularly incendiary moment in time. Whether labels or distributors or promoters actually believe victims doesn’t really matter anymore; this zero-tolerance policy may very well become the new standard.

Whether or not that new standard will carry over to fans is a separate question, one that I think is personal and entirely based on individual ability to tolerate terrible behavior. Music is an intimate artform; it so often requires us to identify and empathize with its maker, to see ourselves reflected in their lyrics. Music fandom encourages an intense need to idolize artists, too, which is ultimately damaging once they’ve been outed. Perhaps the first step toward reckoning with these mass call-outs is to pull people down from these pedestals we’ve placed them on, to acknowledge that it is entirely possible for a person to hurt people and also make music that moves you. In the process of calling out contemporary artists for alleged abuse, I have been re-appraising some of the titans of rock, fixated on how intrinsic the mistreatment of women is to the genre. The trope of the sexually voracious male star has driven our perception of how we expect our idols to behave, and as victims come forward with their stories of abuse, I question which victims we prioritize over others and if this movement will expand to fully condemn someone like R. Kelly, who is the industry’s best example of an open-secret abuser. Although Kelly was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008, the voluminous allegations against him since then have generated few obvious consequences. Most recently, Kelly was accused of running a sex cult earlier this year yet continues to tour and has evaded persecution on any level outside of a journalistic one. An exposé doesn’t change the direction of an artist’s career — the condemnation from the industry at large, the people who fuel them financially, is what leads to their banishment.

The zeitgeist of this particular moment is perhaps best described as “living with the blinders completely off.” We have a president who essentially confessed to sexually assaulting women, and if that appalled you, then knowing that your favorite musician behaved in a similar manner should be equally appalling. Does continuing to listen to their music make you complicit? That’s a question fans will have to answer individually, based on their own moral code. I know that I find it difficult to imagine singing “Seventy Times Seven” at karaoke the way I have so many times, knowing full-well that the man who wrote it abused his young female fans. I find the two to be inextricable.

Though the fire is burning right now, in a few months it will undoubtedly simmer, and eventually, some of these abusers will resurface, apologetic and renewed by therapy or restorative justice practices. What will happen to these people — some of whom are in the nascent stages of their careers — after their images are splashed all over the internet next to words like “rape” or “harassment” or “sexual misconduct”? Are they banished forever? Is it too early to talk about their redemption? I have struggled with these questions for the past month, as have many men who are scared shitless and many women/femmes whose instinct it is to be nurturing and concerned for the fallen. I haven’t been able to answer any of these questions, but I have decided to put them aside. It’s simply not my responsibility, as a woman and a music fan, to labor over whether any of these abusers can ever be forgiven. This movement is just getting started. Holding our idols and peers accountable is only the very first step.