You will probably remember that queer punk duo PWR BTTM made headlines earlier this year amid several claims of abuse allegedly carried out by their front person, Ben Hopkins.
Horrific headlines about men in the music industry using their status to abuse are all too common. Recall Kesha, trapped into a recording contract with her abuser. Rihanna and Chris Brown. Even the more recent allegations against American band Swans. All the same: powerful man abuses woman and gets to continue a successful musical career, facing little to no consequences.
Yet, of course, what is so striking about the PWR BTTM case is that it wrestles us away from the mainstream patriarchal narrative of ‘man abuses woman’. Since Hopkins, someone who identifies as queer, and uses the pronouns of ‘they’ and ‘them’, we enter a genderless narrative of abuse allegations unfamiliar to the mainstream public. We are all too used to the story of sexual abuse claims ending in indifference – however, the PWR BTTM case was strikingly unusual. The abuse allegations lead to the band being dropped immediately by their label, Polyvinyl. Every support act pulled out of their tour. Their music was instantly removed from all streaming services such as Spotify and iTunes.
The fact that this reaction was dizzyingly unexpected is devastating, and speaks volumes about the corruption we just now tiredly expect of the music industry. Of all industries, in fact. We’ve all heard the hackneyed line that ‘abuse allegations can ruin careers’ – usually from powerful men with powerful careers. In my twenty-two years, I’ve yet to see any actual truth in this statement.
What is illuminating about the PWR BTTM case is that it enables us to put heteronormative gender expectations aside, and allows us to ask – how would the story of abuse within the music industry change if the patriarchy was not so domineering?
A statement from the band’s new manager –Lisa Barbaris, who formerly worked with Cyndi Lauper- speaks volumes on the expectations of the usual way assault claims are dealt with within the music scene. In a recent interview with Pitchfork she is cited as calling the reaction to the abuse allegations ‘irresponsible’ and ‘impulsive’. ‘I’ve never seen a label respond in such an irresponsible way in the thirty plus years I’ve been in the music business’, she claims. Well, sorry Lisa, but it is clear that the music industry needs a wake-up call in regards to how it addresses abuse. It may be ‘inconvenient’ for bands and their management to have to ‘deal’ with serious abuse allegations, but deal they must. By dropping PWR BTTM, instead of hushing up the scandal, Polyvinyl have given a small but very meaningful feeling of justice and validation to survivors everywhere. We could do with following their example to challenge widespread patriarchal authority on how abuse claims should be treated. Another atypical move was that the band themselves, although denying the accusations, also opened up a ‘safe’ email space for a third party mediator to correspond with those who had come forward as being abused by Hopkins.
Although it is deeply questionable whether those abused would feel comfortable sending details of the abuse via email to an unknown party, the fact that any action at all was taken is positive, since it opens up a wider discussion about what the best way to deal with abuse allegations is. The main point is that we start discussing what might potentially be a good way to deal, rather than simply sweeping everything under the rug.
On a more cynical note, let us also consider the positive power of capitalism in situations such as these. Polyvinyl knows its audience – not abiding to heteronormative ideals or patriarchal assumptions, I’m guessing they bet that their fan base would absolutely not overlook these claims. Thus their own reputation would be dragged through the mud, and equal less record sales as a result. Clearly, the lesson here is that if those accused of abusing had more to lose, record labels couldn’t afford to have them, rather than couldn’t afford to lose them. In a capitalist society we can follow the money to what is deemed valuable – if record labels know that people will overlook abuse and buy records anyway, we can see that – despite what we may be told – sexual assault is not taken seriously. However, if we dismantle patriarchal values and make vilifying sexual abuse profitable, we could change the whole structure of the ‘abuse narrative’ within the music industry.
Yet, as we all know all too well, dismantling the patriarchy doesn’t happen overnight. For the moment, let’s all play our own part in restructuring the way abuse is dealt with. Don’t overlook sexual assault claims, even towards your idols. Don’t buy their records or go to their gigs. The PWR BTTM case shows that your buying power is perhaps your greatest weapon – so vote with your feet, and with your wallet. Hopefully – slowly but surely – we will start to see a shift in how seriously sexual assault claims are taken.