abusers don't get redemption arcs
Updated: May 26, 2020
Cover photo by Brennan Schnell.
I want to preface this piece by defining my lens: I am an educated, middle class, white woman. My experience will not reflect that of all identities, and I do not want to speak over anyone else regarding such a serious issue. I’d love to have a discussion about others’ experiences concerning this topic, so if you have anything to say, please feel free to reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram! I check my DMs!
Recently, I was canceled on TikTok. I posted a video, assuming only my friends would see it (dumb assumption, I know, but the algorithm is usually my friend), talking about Liam Payne not in a negative way, but not necessarily praising him, either. I’ll save you the gory details, but essentially, the Liam stans found the video and expressed their disappointment that I was not “treating Liam with kindness.” Now, I’m all for Harry Styles’ infamous motto, “Treat People With Kindness,” but (hot take?) I don’t think we have to be kind to anyone who looks at an entire demographic as less deserving than them.
Kindness is one thing, but respect and support are a whole other ballgame. I feel like I have to disclose this, for the sake of the plotline, but I truly did not say anything incriminating against Liam Payne in the godforsaken TikTok. I said that his PR team seems to be working very hard, considering his many very public controversies as of late. Which is true, if you’re unfamiliar with 1D discourse. Liam’s been One Direction’s most controversial member since the hiatus began, if not for dating a freshly eighteen-year-old girl, then for releasing a song fetishizing bisexual women on his debut solo album, LP1, and months later apologizing by saying, "I am sorry to anyone who got offended by certain songs or different things on the album, for sure... I was pigeonholed into this kind of thing and of course, I am a young guy. I am interested in that sort of stuff.”
I hope this goes without saying, and I hope that it’s alright for me to throw away impartiality for the moment, but the apology (given in an interview with the Daily Star, by the way) is not really an apology. For future reference, “Sorry if…” is never an acceptable way to apologize for anything. Yet, all these supporters of his were in my TikTok comments, defending his honor and denying all of his actions, despite the basic factuality of all of them.
It got me thinking about redeemability in the music industry. As someone who grew up going to Warped Tour and listening to artists of whom a majority have been accused of something or other by now, it’s easy for me to say that the music scene is not a safe place for young women. Many of the people in power, both in artist and management positions, are white men who are ready to use that power to prey upon others. What makes a straight, white man feel more powerful than manipulating a young girl who thinks the world of him?
“Why are people so willing to vehemently support and defend celebrities they not only don’t know, but who have been outed as being less than imperfect?”
I bring this up not because I’m out to get Liam Payne, or to destroy a career, or think his solo album was bad (it was), but because I think this discussion needs to be had until there’s no more discussion left to have. In recent years, it seems like there’s been a little bit more focus on it, but artists like Eminem, Justin Bieber, and Chris Brown still sit at the top of the charts despite their personal shittiness, for lack of a better word. Liam is what put the topic in my head in the first place, but the stakes kept rising as my thoughts spiraled- specifically to the context of abusers and perpetrators who remain successful in the industry. “Why are people so willing to vehemently support and defend celebrities they not only don’t know, but who have been outed as being less than imperfect?” escalated to “why are people so willing to continue supporting and even defend artists in the face of serious allegations, especially when it comes to things like predatory behavior, abuse, and sexual assault?”
I said this earlier, but I grew up listening to a lot of artists who can no longer be deemed ‘good’ people. This is common for anyone who had an emo phase in high school, or is still in an emo phase, or who has ever cared about any genre of music in any way at all. It’s eerie to think about just how common it is for musicians to be outed as predatory. One of my first experiences with this kind of thing (that I can remember, and that I picked up on) was when I was just a measly fifteen years old. My very cool older brother had taken me and my cousin (also a fifteen-year-old girl) to the Real Friends holiday show. There were four bands on the bill, the first of which being Front Porch Step. Like any young fan, I wanted to be prepared, so I listened to all the openers weeks before the show, and I decided I really liked Front Porch Step’s music. When the day of the show arrived, it was announced that Jake McElfresh (the sole member of the band) was feeling ill and would not be playing. My cousin and I were both bummed at the time, but the allegations against him really started to surface not even a week later. McElfresh, 23 at the time, had been accused of sexually harassing multiple girls who were the same age as me.
We missed him, luckily, but it’s haunting to think about what could have happened. It just makes me feel icky, still today, six years later. There were probably predatory artists, crews, and even fans, all around me in my formative years, but I was just too naive to pick up on it. We had gotten the barricade at that holiday show. All a fifteen-year-old female fan wants is to impress the band.
And I have more stories like this. My first concert ever, if you exclude the Jonas Brothers in ‘08, was Pierce the Veil’s Spring Fever Tour in 2013. I was fourteen years old at the time, and Pierce the Veil was my favorite band. It was a great first show, and I had an awesome time, honestly. It wasn’t until four years later, in 2017, that it was revealed that drummer Mike Fuentes, 23 at the time of the incidents, engaged in sexual misconduct (...pedophilia) with multiple girls, aged fourteen and fifteen.
The thing about Fuentes, is that rather than apologizing and taking responsibility (not that McElfresh did either), he gave a half-hearted apology and promised to “step away” from his role in the band. The statement begins by reminding everyone how long ago his actions in the allegations occurred, then goes on to note that he does, in fact, have “a moral compass.” There’s a clear lack of willingness to take responsibility, and the entire statement reeks of an absence of any empathy for his victims.
Not only that, but Fuentes recently took a step back into the band again, as shown in a video posted on the Pierce the Veil Twitter account last month. The video, which has since been deleted, was a home performance featuring all four members of the group, Fuentes included. The replies, as could be expected, were tumultuous, a large portion of them wondering why the drummer was back. Instead of addressing them, the band utilized the ‘hidden replies’ feature and attempted to bury them all, proving that not only is Fuentes unwilling to be honest, take responsibility, and confront his actions, but the rest of the band is too.
Ask any girl around my age for a story like the ones above, and she’ll have one, if not multiple. It’s disappointing to watch the curtain fall on a band I once loved and looked up to. What I’m sure is even more disappointing, and a million times more heartbreaking, though, is being a victim of one of these perpetrators, and having to watch hundreds, thousands, or millions of fans sweep your trauma under the rug.
I can’t speak for how every victim feels, but I can’t imagine that having to watch your rapist top the charts feels good. I can’t imagine that being constantly reminded of someone who completely traumatized you sparks any sort of positive emotion. Fans constantly overlook allegations for the sake of convenience, so they don’t have to face their playlists. I’m not over here standing on a pedestal - I cave and listen to New Found Glory sometimes, too - but what I’m unable to ignore, as a fellow fan, is someone who denies the allegations altogether, disregards the trauma held by the victim, and continues to listen to the artist as though nothing has changed.
Fans constantly overlook allegations for the sake of convenience, so they don’t have to face their playlists.
Does it not make you sick to your stomach? Separating the art from the artist is not something that should apply when the art stems from the experiences of a rapist, pedophile, or abuser. When the art is a result of causing other people trauma, it should not be celebrated, monetized, or streamed nostalgically. You should not be able to listen to Deja Entendu and feel the same way you did in 2016.
Often, people will defend an artist, saying they were never taken to court or convicted for the allegations, so there’s no way of knowing if they’re true or not. I shouldn’t have to explain this, so I’m not really going to, but google literally any public trial regarding a rape. Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is the first that comes to my mind. What did she gain by coming forward? What did her perpetrator gain?
Even if the allegations do get taken seriously, and the artist does take a break in the industry momentarily, many times, they’ll attempt to make some huge comeback, claiming they’ve taken time to reflect and better themselves. Sure, this might be cool for those who have made some insensitive jokes, or someone who made a touchy comment purely out of ignorance, but we have to draw a line somewhere. No abuser deserves a redemption arc.
Supporting artists who have been outed as perpetrators is a slap in the face to victims everywhere, a slap in the face to your friends who are victims, and a slap in the face to the friends who might be too afraid to tell you they are victims because of the way you are directly sustaining (sorry for the buzz word) rape culture. The music community should be a place where all of us are comfortable and welcomed, and by allowing these shitty people to run free and remain successful in the industry, you are preventing that. So, make it clear to your friends that you are not willing to back artists that harm women and, as a result, the community as a whole. Words are reassuring, but they can’t take the place of action. Remove “Sic Transit Gloria” from your goddamn playlist.
I think that if you’re on this page and reading this essay, it’s safe to assume your music taste strays from the mainstream. It’s easy and comfortable to tell ourselves, yeah, that’s all happening, but not in my scene. But it is happening, constantly. Think of artists like The Orwells, BØRNS, Nothing But Thieves, and Brockhampton. In fact, it seems like it’s almost more prevalent in the alt and indie scenes, but that’s likely only due to the mainstream-as-a-whole’s refusal to address issues like this in an effort to preserve profit. Male aggression is not absent from any genre.
Things like this happen constantly in other industries - in politics, in sports, in Hollywood - and it goes without saying that it runs rampant in the music industry, too. But it shouldn’t. The music world should be a place where everyone feels welcome, where everyone feels safe, and where victims’ experiences are met with empathy. And it’s not right now. So, start listening to good music made by good people! There’s plenty of it out there!