On the morning of Friday, February 16, I clicked a link on my friend’s Facebook page that led me to this story about past allegations of sexual misconduct by the British Columbia-based rock band, HEDLEY. I read it intently. I was dismayed. Sad for their fans who now have to wrestle with a difficult choice. Sad because the Court of Social Media is a difficult and ugly thing these days. Sad for the people who continue to argue that if you go backstage, or if you flirt with a band member, or if you’re anonymous and don’t want to press charges…”what did you expect?” (An argument older and dirtier than the hills.)
Then I read a bit of the hashtag devoted to the topic in which Fans A-through-Z talk about creepy behaviour she or a friend experienced, followed by Fans A-through-Z’s takedowns, defending the band. Hedley has now has been dropped by the Juno Awards (the Canadian Grammys), their management, their opening act on tour and has hired a crisis comms PR firm. Their tour continues, and their Facebook is a minefield of ” NO THEY DID NOT, I WILL ALWAYS SUPPORT THEM.”
Then I read their statement, in which they say that they “engaged in a lifestyle that incorporated certain rock and roll clichés. However, there was always a line that we would never cross.” That dehumanizing line – “rock and roll clichés” – rattled around my brain.
On the same afternoon of Friday, February 16, I was contacted by CBC Radio and asked to come into the studio to share my experiences and thoughts on the matter overall. You can listen to it all here. Slide the dial to 1:26:45.
Like I sort of allude to in the interview, I’m not really here to talk about HEDLEY and what they did or didn’t do. What I do know is that I’m sad and angry about the whole thing because I know shit like this has happened many times before. I’m sad for every victim of every abuse in every corner (music industry or otherwise) who has had to summon the courage to speak up against unspeakable odds, like a police or campus force that won’t listen, parents who won’t support, fear, misguided power balances, self-blame, insecurity, the list goes on.
And I understand – even if I vehemently want to pick apart every single argument – the banter supporting the band. It reminded me of the time when I was a pre-teen in love with Duran Duran, visiting my family in Copenhagen. My step-grandmother wanted to bring to my attention a gossip rag that had reported that one of the band’s members had been found carrying cocaine and had been detained at an airport, or something. It might have been true. It might not have been true. But Little Mikala defended the band until she was blue in the face. It couldn’t be true BECAUSE OF ALL THE THINGS. But later, when Young Adult Mikala interviewed John Taylor, he talked about the band’s past, including drugs, Little Mikala came back into view, and learned her lesson. Discovering that your Gods are flesh is a very difficult thing.
What goes on among consenting adults is one thing. And explicit consent is key. It’s super sexy to ask “are you okay with this? Would you like to continue?” despite what all the basement-dwelling, Cheeto-eating trolls want you to believe.
But bands that have underage fans have an even greater responsibility to be better humans and make better decisions. They are in a position of enormous power and all the rock and roll clichés “that make music so exciting and great/it’s been like this since forever/what about groupies?/you’ve read Motley Crüe’s The Dirt, or Hammer of the Gods, right?/ blah blah blah” doesn’t mean you are allowed to be a shitty human. Even to a person who is of age! Your amazing music and fascinating stories and incredible sex appeal do not entitle you to make terrible decisions. I’m not asking you to be a less-edgy musician, I’m asking you to try to be a better person. Even while you are drinking yourself under your Marshall stack.
I’ve done stupid things while wasted. But I don’t think I’ve meaningfully hurt other people (and if I have, please tell me – I will take responsibility). If you’re in a band and want to rock and roll cliché the shit out of your tour – that’s fine. I like a good party. Just keep it within the parameters of your own pale, beer- and Cracker Barrel-fed self.
Here’s how it starts, they’ll say. (And they will be right.) Musicians – who these days have to tour relentlessly to make any money – lead a weird and gnarly lifestyle. Whether you’re big enough to fill an arena or indie-enough to play to a handful of record-store clerks, tours are like dark and Vitamin-D-deficient Groundhog Days: moments of the real reason you got into this -i.e. the music itself – all are punctuated by the screams of doe-eyed people (I’ve been one, it’s awesome being a music fan!), kiss-ass sycophants, miles upon miles of boredom, stale coffee and the stink of your bandmates. Throw in a musician/human’s inherent, precarious sense of self-worth and you’ve got a powder keg.
I’m not saying it’s not tough, mistakes will be made, and the pressure for survival is even worse than it was before. In fact, I don’t think I know a single musician for whom it doesn’t take a few days to “come back to earth” when they’ve come home, aren’t on stage and surrounded by people telling them that they’re special. In further fact, some of my musician friends don’t even have many friends who aren’t other musicians. They simply give up trying to figure out how to reciprocate “vanilla” friendships or conduct normal interactions.
But none of this is a good enough excuse.
The rule is simple, if you have underage fans, you simply don’t go there. Or even close to there. EVER.
When a young fan – who lives and breathes your music comes backstage, she (or he) does not “want it.” They want to bask in your glow. They want to feel special. They want to have something to brag about. They want to get closer to the physical embodiment of the song that might have kept them from killing themself or which made them feel like they were invincible. They want to get away from their boring lives and into yours. If you’re too drunk to parse this, this is the time when you pose for a photo, wipe your drool on your sweaty t-shirt and tell them thank you so much for thir support.
If you’re in a band with adult fans, who still look up to you (or more, realistically, love your music – sometimes musicians forget that this is actually a different thing), well, as long as you get explicit consent, and don’t toy with them mentally, then have fun. Wear a condom and be safe. Just like in real life, though, when shit gets complex and feelings get hurt, be prepared to take responsibility. You’ve seen Killing of a Sacred Deer, right? You’ve got lots of time in the van between San Diego and Phoenix to send a decent or apologetic email or text.
I’ve been writing about music since I was 12 years old. When I was 14, I had the autographs of almost every cool band in Toronto, stalked the bands on a Saturday morning TV kids show, and waited 8 hours to meet the Cult. Guitarist Billy Duffy wrote on my Electric album sleeve, “Billy Duffy is God.” And he thought he was. Christ, even Ian Astbury signed it “Wolf Child” so you get the sense of where their heads were at.
I did my first band interviews when I was 16. I was backstage with Steve Earle talking about capital punishment when I was 17.
I was enormously lucky as a teen: my parents took me to concerts. At Depeche Mode, my dad went to get a beer because he found the music “repetitive” (but said he was doing it so I could do my own thing). At another show, my mom sat in the balcony while I was on the floor, letting me have my independence and worrying about whether the cigarettes being chucked over the balcony would set my hair-sprayed head on fire. They, and all-ages gigs, made who I am today as a music fan, possible. Some kids don’t have that luxury. So they’re out there on their own, all hormones and adoration. Still, I would hate to think that venues would cut down on all-ages gigs because there are grown child-men who don’t know how not to screw around with a teenager.
By the time I was 18, I was hanging out at the Much Music Video Awards (Canada’s MTV), I went backstage at shows, on tour buses, and to hotel rooms. I’ve made dinner for bands, or taken their road crew shopping for gear. I have flirted madly, and I have been hit on. I’ve had bands stay at my place (because I’m a nice person, not because I’ve wanted to shag them) and I have experienced much inappropriate behavior and “small” abuses. I have left band guys feeling confused and frustrated. I thought I wanted tea, but then I changed my mind, okay? (Actually, I just wanted to hang out.) And to this day I am thankful, no, grateful, that I was never barred at the door from leaving, or held down, or worse.
Musicians were gods to me, but for a short time. In the autograph stage, you think that there’s nothing more exciting than having a memento or proof that you met someone, someone you think is untouchable, or gilded, and emitting light.
But that fad ended quickly for me. Once I started actually hanging out with musicians, I learned pretty quickly that they’re just as flawed/anxiety-ridden/over-compensating/arrogant/self-deprecating/extrovert/introvert/or normal as the rest of us. I was, and still remain, simply keen to get to know the humans behind it all. But many people don’t get to this point. I still see grown men vibrating with excitement and wide eyes when they meet their guitar heroes. Can you imagine the head-fuckery if you’re a teenager having the same experience?
MUSICIANS – or anyone who gains public attention for work that brings joy to people – WIELD INCREDIBLE POWER.
And with great power comes great…oh for the love of gods, just be a decent human, not a rock and roll cliché. Okay? \m/