by Jade Curson
Content note: sexual assault / rape culture
You would think, in a period of history as uncertain and chaotic as ours, that it would be a pleasant change of pace to happen upon something steadfast – a reliable event or experience which might ground us in a shared reality even for a moment. Unfortunately, the only real certainties in this existence of ours seem to be deeply unpleasant, and it would appear that as well as the inevitability of death and taxes, we can be secure in assuming that somewhere, for some reason, someone is attempting to resuscitate Ben Hopkins’ music career. In the mid-2010s Hopkins’ star was rising rapidly as one half of queer punk duo PWR BTTM; a band with a devoted and quickly growing fanbase, whose trajectory suggested they had the potential to cross over into mainstream culture and really Make It. Just days before their hotly-anticipated second record was released, allegations surfaced about Hopkins engaging in predatory behaviour, including accusations of sexual assault. Jezebel was quick to pick up the story, and within days the band were dropped from their label, from the hearts of their fans and from the face of the earth.
Earlier this month, several DIY musicians took to Twitter to once again denounce Hopkins, following rumours that they would be releasing a comeback single in late June, and what appeared to be a leaked PR schedule of potential press outlets that may be running promo or features pegged on the new track. While a number of the cited publications were quick to refute their involvement with any upcoming project, the single has been released as of 3rd July, and a long and jarringly sympathetic feature with Billboard emerged today. This will be, by my count, Hopkins’ third attempt at a grand re-entry into music, and appears to be averaging out at one crack at it every year. Perhaps in the future survivors of sexual assault will be able to designate themselves a national holiday in honour, or preferably in lieu, of the annual failed attempt.
The responsibility for Hopkins’ continuous failure to return to music is, of course, in the hands of the community who refuse to allow them to ever inhabit a position of power and influence within the scene. We already know the drill – it’s no secret that many music publications have at some point offered a platform to an artist accused of abusive behaviour to promote their records and their redemption arcs. With the single and Billboard fluff piece signalling a full return looming in the not-too-distant future, we find ourselves in the position – once again – where we are confronted by the utter absence of ethical practice in corporate, for-profit music journalism.
This is of course just the most recent example in a long, long list of artists who continue to receive airtime and page space after having serious allegations of sexual assault or misconduct levelled against them. You would be hard pressed to find one single major publication that hasn’t been guilty of this within the last few years. In 2018, Pitchfork ran an overwhelmingly positive piece on Pinegrove to coincide with their album release, just a year after allegations were made against Evan Stephens Hall and the band withdrew from the public eye for what a sceptic might view as just long enough for the dust to settle and for the outrage to die down. Kerrang! continued to run uncritical press on Moose Blood long after a series of allegations about multiple members were made public. Rock Sound, not ever wanting to be outdone, didn’t settle for simply ignoring allegations against poster boys and guaranteed moneymakers Neck Deep, but actively defended them and engaged in a disconcerting piece of victim-blaming editorial which has since seemingly disappeared from the internet (don’t worry RS, we don’t forget!).
A few weeks ago, Alt Press ran an uncritical article about ex-Of Mice and Men vocalist Austin Carlile’s big come-to-Jesus moment. This caused a tangible wave of rage within the alternative community when it was revealed that not only were Alt Press well aware of a series of allegations previously made about Carlile, but they had in fact interviewed a number of women about their experiences with Carlile a couple of years prior with the intention of running a piece about his behaviour; only to shelve it on the grounds that they could not make the necessary verifications to run the piece without opening them up to legal consequences. While no one can expect a publication to willingly open themselves up to a lawsuit (in this economy??) it does point to a certain level of either casual disregard or active callousness to then run a sizeable feature showing Carlile in a positive light. More galling still was the ‘apology’ issued by editor Mike Shea. The opening sentence of his statement read: “I want to sincerely apologize to the survivors who have felt silenced by us,” – an interesting choice of phrasing considering the survivors were actively, literally silenced by Alt Press, rendering this statement nothing more than a meaningless “sorry you feel that way!”
This might have flown a decade ago, but unfortunately for these publications (and ideally the artists, although the assertion that accusations ruin careers has in the very pages of these aforementioned mags has shown this to be untrue), we are currently living through a huge cultural shift towards accountability and consequences, and it’s time for those of us in the punk/alternative community to start examining which of our own institutions and structures should be pulled down and replaced with something more accessible, more compassionate, more ethical.
Printed music press has been shrinking and shrivelling up for almost two decades. Its decline arguably began during the rise of the internet message board, when infinite music recommendations became available at our fingertips and the major mags could no longer claim to be the all-seeing arbiters of taste they once were. Now, instead of trying to retain their reputations by elevating unique or interesting bands doing innovative things within the genres, they follow the money; chasing maximum ad revenue and featuring whatever they’re fed by publicists who they need to keep onside for other, more bankable artists in their roster. In other words, they’re throwing any old shit at the wall to see what sticks, and while that process does occasionally reveal a gem or two, it feels more and more as though that’s a bug rather than a feature – as Scroobius Pip said, “make no mistake, your wall is still covered in shit.”
There are endless criticisms of so-called ‘cancel culture’, some more legitimate than others. For instance: the idea that it effectively targets members of the LGBT+ community or people of colour more successfully than other demographics is something worth analysing. However, this is less a criticism of cancel culture itself than the fact that straight white men are able to get away with more as a result of their societal privilege, and suggests that we should be working harder to make sure all abusers face the social consequences of their actions. The suggestion that it is a way for accusers to potentially receive clout by making up stories about famous or respected members of the community holds such little basis in reality that to even address it would give it undeserved status as something worthy of considered refutation. The problem most people seem to have with ‘cancel culture’ is that it rests on a foundation of trusting the accuser over the accused without necessarily having any hard evidence to support that.
As a society, we are conditioned to see the legal system as the only or most reliable route to justice, despite the overwhelming amount of information that suggests it is not a robust or appropriate system for handling a whole spectrum of crimes, but particularly issues surrounding consent and assault. Decrying this method as “trial by social media” or as a “witch hunt” (a particularly poor choice of phrasing that is a whole other conversation) is reductive and undermines the fact that this process of calling out behaviour in a social setting came about specifically as an alternative to a legal system that is fundamentally weighted against survivors of abuse and sexual assault; a community-led approach to justice where the existing legal system so often fails us. Call-out culture is a way of making an alleged abuser accountable and experience consequences for their actions: people (often, but not always, men) fear this not because they are all certified rapists on the verge of being outed – although that is definitely sometimes the case – but because it reflects a shift in the social contract that is now being more widely challenged than ever: that men (not always, but often) can act in ways that make others uncomfortable, can take up as much space as they want, can pursue whatever or whoever they want beyond reasonable means, and that is their birthright to do so. When we see backlash against ‘cancel culture’ we are witnessing an inevitable pushback to our pushback – those who have been used to getting their own way since time immemorial now have to be the ones to shrink themselves, to consider their actions and thoughts and behaviour and the effect these may have on others.
We need to do away with the idea that cancel culture is the modern-day equivalent of execution – because realistically, it’s much closer to taking a court-ordered class after getting a DUI: you fucked up, and maybe you really hurt someone in the process – now you’re going to take a step back and learn not to do that again. And when you can get back on the road, none of your friends or acquaintances are obliged to get in a car with you again just because it’s legal to do so. If you continue to fuck it up, you get a lifetime ban. Does that deprive you of a livelihood and infringe on your human rights? No, buddy, you just can’t work for Über anymore. You can do literally any other job. And you know what? If it meant that much to you, you shouldn’t have continued to put others at risk while doing it. Welcome to consequences.
This type of community-led approach towards those who may be a threat has become such a big thing within subcultures like the punk community specifically because there is no larger recourse system in which we can reliably trust. We depend on victims coming forward, on whisper networks between friend groups, to be aware of who is a threat to vulnerable people in our community. The rise of social media and connectivity between groups of people have made it all the more glaringly obvious that we are being let down by – among many others – the corporate press that claims to serve us, but in fact profits from our passion while offering little to nothing back to us.
It’s worth noting that when we speak up against a hailed return of someone who is a potential threat to a community, we are often asked to provide a concrete example of appropriate retribution: “What, so X has to just disappear forever?”. It’s true that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for those who have acted in an abusive or predatory way. Unfortunately, the accountability process we see currently is only one half of the work – ‘cancel culture’ as we recognise it today is borrowed from anarchist approaches to crime and justice, but misses the crucial aspect of a community working with the accused person to find a solution that is appropriate for the victim, the accused and the wider community. This can be a long and ongoing process and depends not only on a community having members with the right skills to facilitate the work, but also on the accused party being willing to do the work. Realistically, how many are likely to even try to commit to this sort of long-term, difficult process when they can just hide out for a year and then make a successful comeback, when it is an unspoken agreement that those troubles from the past will not be addressed or even mentioned by the media? Publications might present a brief veneer of solidarity at the point an accusation is made (especially if they can mine the outrage for hits), but they ultimately bank on us having short memories; a year of private contrition seems to be the price of admission for (alleged) predators to be welcomed back to their pages with open arms.
It’s time to hold major publications accountable for their editorial choices, and in doing so let go of that which no longer serves us. Countless independent music publications are embracing a more diverse roster of artists and writing more honestly and creatively, because they have no advertisers to placate. It’s time to change the narrative around who is featured and who is not, instead of feeling obliged to give inches to people with a history of shitty behaviour simply because rage clicks are still clicks.
This leads us back to the inarguable power of community-led justice; if we are organised and willing to work together, we have the power to hold the industry to account. With that being said, we can hold up Ben Hopkins as an example of effective resistance, but also really the only example so far of that resistance being effective – and as we enter yet another Hopkins comeback season, it’s hard to even hold onto that with much conviction. It’s impossible to say definitively why this is, but there’s some weight to the idea that the very reason Hopkins was so firmly rejected from the community was because what they were accused of betrayed the very thing that people loved them for. PWR BTTM meant so much to so many within the queer punk community specifically because they spoke out loudly about the importance of inclusivity, of self-acceptance and self-love, and of consent and respecting boundaries.
It is undoubtedly a concern that those from marginalised groups are more likely to be successfully blacklisted or removed from the community than straight white dudes. But one could argue that this is because, for a lot of bands with more diverse lineups, their success is built more on direct relationships with their fans – whereas bands who are exclusively or primarily all white and cis-male can depend on significant press coverage rather than word-of-mouth from existing fans. Subcultures are able to hold people to account more successfully because the community is more tightknit and, especially in communities such as anarcho- and queer-punk groups, ensuring community safety is of primary importance. The further up the scale of commercial success you travel, the less important this becomes. It’s time for those further up the chain to pay attention to the politics and actions of smaller communities and take note. It’s time for fans of bigger bands who continue to receive favourable press despite their many (alleged) crimes to hold their musical heroes to a higher standard. I don’t have any other arguments to make about this, all I can do at this point is reiterate the message from Kayla Chadwick’s iconic thinkpiece: I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People
How does this apply to music journalism? Established magazines, whether physical press or online, are part of a dying breed that can still just about remember when this industry was thriving financially, and inevitably want to hold on to that. While we do have the power, to some extent, to influence what they will and won’t promote, it takes a huge amount of organisation and work to have any sort of regular, consistent impact – because these publications appear to be working on the basis of ‘what can we get away with?’ rather than ‘what is the right thing to do?’. We can throw huge time and effort into the long, possibly futile process of trying to encourage reform – or we can pinpoint what has failed us and rebuild the industry ourselves, by supporting independent outlets, blogs and magazines that do it out of love for the art and for their communities. We’ve waited long enough for publications to choose to do the right thing, it’s time to show love and support for the DIY collectives that already refuse to sacrifice their principles for something that might get more hits.