Photo by Ben Kaye
Music, Movies & Moods is a regular free-form column in which Matt Melis explores the cracks between where art and daily life meet. Today, three top music critics discuss a year full of sexual misconduct allegations against bands they loved.
There’s a glaring, Brand New-size hole in our year-end coverage. Many of you have noticed it. Indeed, anyone who has followed our take on the musical narrative of 2017 can tell a significant plot point has been torn out. Over the past several months, we’ve delved into the Long Island rock band’s legacy, celebrated their return on the suddenly dropped Science Fiction, and praised the band for their commitment to going out on their own terms. Hell, until allegations of sexual misconduct were brought by multiple women against frontman Jesse Lacey in early November, Brand New were set to place high on both our year-end albums and songs lists and even appeared on our shortlist for Band of the Year. None of which, given our coverage of the band, should surprise you, and all of which, despite allegations against Lacey, might disappoint, if not outright anger, some of you.
Transparency has always been important to us as a publication, but just as much so is our mission to not skirt difficult conversations. And let’s face it: the conversation about sexual misconduct isn’t going away anytime soon, nor should it. In fact, as we continue to trudge through year-end month and turn toward awards season, there’s every reason to suspect the issue will continue to gain salience. While charges of editorial cowardice, crippling political correctness, or just simply overstepping our boundaries don’t exactly give us warm, fuzzy feelings, we’re not here to go on the defensive or tell you you’re wrong to be upset with our decisions. In what we hope results in a more productive dialogue, I’ve reached out to some of our most esteemed music critics – journalists who helped shape our publication’s coverage of later-accused acts like Brand New and PWR BTTM – to see where their minds are at amid the swirl of allegations surrounding bands they’ve cared about as both critics and fans.
Speaking to these journalists quickly dispels the myth of the indifferent, detached critic. Most of the artists and bands music writers cover are acts they themselves love or admire, so these allegations have hit closer to home for critics than some fans might realize. “That band [PWR BTTM] meant a lot to me,” says critic Kayleigh Hughes, who glowingly reviewed the group’s sophomore release, Pageant, just days before allegations came out against member Ben Hopkins. “It never doesn’t suck when allegations emerge. It’s an experience of betrayal every single time, and it’s a reminder of your vulnerability in the world and the ease with which various cultures, like the music industry, allow some to exploit vulnerabilities.”
Sasha Geffen, a longtime CoS contributor and fan of both Brand New and PWR BTTM, echoes that sense of betrayal that many critics and fans now share. “When you champion somebody, when you root for them, and invest your energy, time, and thought into these artists and then learn that they’ve been misusing that power to harm people, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” says Geffen. “Nobody, critic or fan, wants to put their good faith into a band that was using their platform irresponsibly or toxically.”
Dig Boston Assoc. Music Editor Nina Corcoran, whose personal ties to Brand New go back to her middle-school years, understands firsthand the pain the band’s die-hard fans are experiencing right now. “When allegations come up, it’s hard for fans, like me, to hear because we’ve cultivated such a personal connection to the band and their music,” she explains. “As fans, we base part of our identities around the band and relate to them beyond just music or words. It’s really hard to dissociate from something in your life that’s been an integral part of it for so long.”
Corcoran’s response brings up an age-old dilemma that an entirely new generation of music fans are now facing. Nobody wants to have their favorite music associated with the disturbing behaviors brought forth in recent allegations, so we often try to separate the art from the artist and have it both ways. All three critics I spoke to were skeptical of that attempt at self-compromise. “I’ve grown to think it’s best to remove a band’s music from your life,” says Corcoran, “because that awful news is now attached to that music and taints that work. Even if you can make it through a song, those thoughts are still there lingering in the brain.” By no means, though, does she suggest that it’s easy to cut such emotional ties. “It’s hard to snip that chord and exhausting to point out to others that it’s no longer connected to you,” she admits, “especially when there are so many chords connecting it to you. It hurts. A lot.”
“I really hate that phrase [separating the art from the artist] and that it becomes the default question,” says Hughes. “I think it’s a really lazy way of trying to explore this massive, worldwide issue of people being taken advantage of by those with more power and that being encouraged and allowed.” For Hughes, like all the critics I spoke to, the victims are never far from mind. “For me, it’s not difficult to not consume the work of artists I liked that hurt people. Listening to music that makes you feel good shouldn’t matter more than working to create a culture in which [sexual misconduct] doesn’t get condoned.” She also understands that many trying to reconcile these issues often haven’t been the victims of harassment or abuse.
Geffen believes it’s a personal choice to stop listening to a band’s music, but she doubts the legitimacy and value of separating music from its creators. “I don’t think artists and music are necessarily separate; it’s on a continuum. A huge part of the music economy in this country comes from live shows. It’s the physical presence of these artists,” explains Geffen. “If they can’t be given a stage or platform without abusing that power, they shouldn’t get to play. It seems pretty simple to me. Playing shows is part of the art, part of the story of the artist, so I don’t see what’s useful about drawing a line.”
Photo by Philip Cosores
At the same time, Geffen points out that cutting ties as a fan doesn’t mean wiping out one’s entire personal history with that band and their music. “It’s not like all the good a band has done disappears or is worthless. If there’s a young, queer kid who learned to be comfortable with themselves because they found PWR BTTM, that doesn’t mean that that was invalid,” they explain. “You can’t separate the art from the artist so to speak, but you can separate what you learn from the art – what it gave you – from the people making it.”
By not including bands like Brand New and PWR BTTM in our year-end accolades, Consequence of Sound have made the decision as a publication that we can’t draw that distinction between art and artist in good faith. Some have argued that we need to stick to what we know – covering music – and limit our judgments to reviewing records. It’s an argument that’s been hurled against just about any artist who ever paused a concert to weigh in on a political issue. Is it really our job as a pop-culture publication to insert our ethics into our music coverage?
“As an arbiter of culture, of course you should consider what kind of world you’re curating for your audience,” says Hughes. “As a music critic, if outside information impacts how you experience that record, then that matters, and it’s worth writing about, considering, and analyzing. It contributes to the cultural conversation around the artist.”
Corcoran also worries about the precedent it sets when you elevate and reward an artist facing these serious types of allegations. “There’s a difference between punishing an artist because they’re an asshole or rude to their fans and not giving a platform to an artist who abuses their fans, who causes physical or mental harm to fans. Doing that says, ‘Hey, what they did was bad, but if you make art that’s really great, they get a pass.’”
“If you continue to cover, say, Brand New or give them Band of the Year, that’s an ethical stance,” says Geffen. “You’re stating that these allegations don’t matter, that these people who have come out with the accusations don’t matter. Fans are as much a part of the music experience as anybody, including the bands. It’s important to listen to them and make sure they’re not being harmed.”
And that’s a fact that often gets lost in these conversations. The victims are usually fans of these artists – music lovers who have had their trust betrayed by someone they once admired. And yet, many of the complaints we’ve fielded have tended to depict the band as victims. Even those who agree that a band like Brand New shouldn’t be given accolades right now still often wonder if and when we’d consider covering them again.
When new victims are surfacing almost daily to bring accusations of sexual misconduct to light against musicians, people in the film industry, and even those holding or running for political office, it seems almost petty to concern ourselves with the futures of the perpetrators. As Hughes points out, “Women, and other marginalized groups, have had to confront how to live in a society where bad things happen to them, and they’ve had to cope and deal and ask these questions for a lot longer” than many of us who are now just realizing the scope of this problem.
Our hearts remain with the victims, but it’s admittedly difficult not to wonder if there’s a life beyond “banishment” possible for those who have committed such terrible acts. And, of course, the sad truth remains that sexual misconduct is so prevalent in our society that we all likely know someone who has used their power to harass someone or worse. I asked my colleagues if they believe artists who have committed sexual misconduct can turn their lives around.
Corcoran stresses that not only does she believe that change is possible, but that it’s a necessary component of fixing the current culture. “Holding perpetrators accountable requires forward growth, and that expects something in them to change, or else we’re just acting like dog catchers,” she explains. “If you’re not also asking them to get better, in no way does that entice those who are harming others to come forward. There should be space for people who do the wrong thing to change themselves.”
Likewise, Geffen believes that the accused can get better, but she questions whether their environments offer the best opportunity for that to happen. “I’m very much a proponent of community accountability, community-based justice, and reparations, and I think it’s hard to do that when celebrity is a factor. When there are people involved who consume your art but haven’t been harmed personally,” they explain. “I think these are very personal processes where you have to step back from the spotlight and really reckon with what you’ve done and why you’ve done it. Celebrity probably isn’t the best thing for that process, and I think it takes a lot of work to escape those toxic power structures. We’re still trying to figure out what reparations look like in these situations.”
“There’s clearly a way to make music without hurting people,” Geffen adds, a statement that seems like it could have gone without saying until a couple months ago. But that’s the sentiment expressed more than any during my time speaking with Geffen, Corcoran, and Hughes — that there needs to be changes going forward so that celebrating music and loving a band no longer puts fans in harm’s way. “Holding people accountable for actions in their past needs to be done, but what will be done to make sure these sorts of things no longer happen?” asks Corcoran. “We need to all question what we’re doing.”
At Consequence of Sound, one of the small steps we’ve taken is to not bestow accolades on artists and bands with members who are presently facing allegations. Does it leave a hole in our 2017 musical narrative? Perhaps. But to celebrate these musicians and pretend that they didn’t use the power their art has given them to harm others would be to ignore a story far more important than who’s topping our year-end lists.
Those who have committed sexual harassment or assault and are looking for a positive path forward might start with this article.