So it looks like we’re going to have to toss the Louis C.K. records along with all those copies of Bill Cosby’s Wonderfulness and his ironically titled 1969 album, It’s True It’s True. The latest celebrity disgrace made his case all the more loathsome with a languid and self-serving statement apparently intended as an apology. We were never fans to begin with — his comedy has always been sexist — so we’re not nearly as disappointed as we were when we had to say so long to Fat Albert.
The gloomy joke is that 2016 may have been the year your favorite celebrity died, but 2017 is the year your other favorite turned out to be a complete piece of garbage. The larger news story is the rapidity with which the entertainment industry has distanced itself from figures like C.K. and Cosby, and the head-spinning flow of additional accusations appearing in this new environment in which women feel safe speaking out about experiences of sexual misconduct.
The music industry has long been forgiving of many transgressions — for instance we’ve long been fascinated by fans’ willingness to forget Eric Clapton’s notorious ’76 endorsement of Enoch Powell, in a rant which included such nuggets as “keep the coons out” and “keep Britain white.” Clapton clearly hadn’t forgotten nearly thirty years later, when he declared Powell was “outrageously brave” in an interview with Uncut, adding that his feeling about this “had not changed.”
Clapton’s guaranteed escape from accountability — I was drunk — likely excuses Neil Young for his own offensive transgression. In a 1985 Melody Maker interview, at the height of homophobic AIDS hysteria, Young said, “You go to a supermarket and you see a faggot behind the fuckin’ cash register, you don’t want him to handle your potatoes.” He never apologized for the remark, but unlike Clapton he didn’t proudly reaffirm it either. Music blog Tunes du Jour points to a passage by biographer Jimmy McDonough to suggest why the singer never revisited the subject:
I found out that Young was planning on donating the proceeds from the ‘Philadelphia’ track to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis center. He acknowledged it was true but didn’t seem anxious to publicize the fact. I got the feeling there were other chartable acts I didn’t know about. ‘I’m not trying to score any social points,’ he said.
We’re not trying to equate Eric Clapton’s implicit racism or Neil Young’s ignorance with sexual assault, but rather to point out how fans are able to separate the artwork from the artist in regard to popular music. The reason we personally don’t own any albums by Eric Clapton is their oppressive blandness, but to many his is perceived as a living legend and a progenitor of the blues — accolades we find absurdly misplaced in light of behavior we believe would not have been forgiven if he’d been an actor. There’s something about being a rock star which allows you to get away with just about anything.
Heaven help you if you dare suggest that David Bowie’s deflowering of fifteen-year-old groupie Lori Maddox was, by definition of California law, statutory rape. Fans will have your head for such sacrilege, but they’re strangely silent on the subject of the pervasive pedophilia of 70s rock stars. Lurid accounts are sensationalized in books like Hammer of the Gods, an unauthorized biography of Led Zeppelin, but its hard to un-see the dehumanizing, degrading attitude towards young women shared by Louis C.K. Consider what the now-disgraced comedian said in his bullshit ‘apology’ when he wrote, “The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.” This is exactly what feminist author Rebecca Traister has pointedly observed in her essays for The Cut — the issue we should address is one of gender and power.
Fans of Led Zeppelin gleefully recount Jimmy Page’s obsession with the occult and often work kink into to the same story, as though accounts of his traveling with a suitcase of whips is somehow connected. That Zeppelin’s legendary sexual conquests were over underage girls is left out of the narrative because it rightfully fits John Paul Jones’ description: “It’s a very sad little book. It made us out to be sad little people.”
We’re a neighborhood record store so we can’t afford to throw all the Led Zeppelin records in the same trashcan as the Bill Cosby and Louis C.K. albums, but that’s where we believe they belong. People expect to find their albums in a record store — this is a band whose licensed apparel is sold in nice stores like Target, and Rolling Stone reliably reminds us just how much we should admire them.
Bowie’s case is complicated by an AIDS scare he caused himself. It was a lot more alarming than Neil Young’s regrettable remark. In 1987 a woman named Wanda Nichols accused the singer of sexually assaulting her in a hotel room. Her criminal complaint alleged that after the assault he bit her and told her he had AIDS. A grand jury declined to press charges against Bowie, then forty, for lack of evidence, and after conceding to an HIV test requested by Nichols’ attorney the matter was tidily resolved. Like Eric Clapton’s xenophobic racism, the issue was never raised in one of Rolling Stones‘ laudatory lists of “The 100 Greatest Whatevers,” or “50 Most Important So and So’s.”
To us the most perplexing example of this selective recollection is the conventional image of John Lennon as a peace-loving guru, sanctified by his tragic death. His narcissistic misogyny somehow erased, even though accounts of his violence towards women pre-date the Beatles. A non-discriminatory piece of garbage, Lennon was equally cruel to his firstborn son, Julian, who he once described as “born out of a bottle of whiskey” and struck for minor infractions. In one of the cruelest accounts of his behavior towards the boy, Lennon once responded to his giggle by snarling, “I hate the way you fucking laugh.”
In the much celebrated tell-all interview with Playboy shortly before his death in 1980, Lennon responded to a question about the song “Getting Better”:
All that ‘I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’ was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically – any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women.
The monumental phony goes on to explain that this is why he’s “all on about peace and love,” but it sounds about as genuine an excuse as his song “Jealous Guy.” His tendency towards abusive relationships was earlier immortalized in a song on the Beatles album Rubber Soul in 1965. It seems forgotten classic closes with one of the most alarmingly predatory songs in the dinosaur rock canon, “Run For Your Life.” Based off a throwaway line in Elvis’ “Baby Let’s Play House,” Lennon’s song is both menacing and demeaning.
Lennon’s largely undiscussed but unpleasant legacy lives on in the enduring perception of Yoko Ono as an interloping shrew who broke up the Beatles by forcing herself into their recording sessions. In truth, she attended out of fear of Lennon, who was so consumed with jealousy that he also required her to follow him into the bathroom. In some ways Ono got the best of those sneering fans who derided her appearance, her art and even her race for decades as she is now regarded as something of an elder statewoman and a pioneering feminist, as well as a pioneering performer in what eventually became punk rock and new wave.
Again, no record store in America can afford to throw away all the John Lennon albums because they remain best-sellers. Fans remain ignorant of his horrendous behavior, attributing his violence towards women to his grief at the loss of his mother at the age of nine. Never mind that he enthusiastically expressed a regret he did not have the opportunity to fuck his mother, something he insists “she would have allowed.”
Maybe the subject is better served looking to the present rather than the past. In this post-Weinstein world the pop band Brand New has faced unprecedented consequences following numerous accounts of assault and predatory behavior towards young girls by its lead singer. The band Real Estate dumped its guitarist similar claims. Electronica producer Gaslamp Killer lost his regular gig with DJ showcase Low End Theory following the revelation of rape charges. Punk label Plan-It-X Records lost several of its top selling artists after accusations of assault by its owner surfaced.
Country musician Margo Price recently told the story of having a drink spiked by a Nashville producer. “I feel lucky I wasn’t raped .. and shouldn’t have to feel lucky about it.” Another country singer, Katie Armiger, detailed similar behavior in a lawsuit with her former record label, and believes speaking out was detrimental to her career. Details of the suit reveal a culture of sexism and abuse in the country music industry.
All of this returns to what Traiser has been writing about power dynamics in The Cut. Armiger has not named her harassers for fear of reprisal.