The Myth of Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll is Not an Excuse For Being A Terrible PersonPhotos by Theo Wargo/Getty, Kevin Winter/Getty, Evening Standard/Getty Music Features #MeToo
While the music world is still yet to have its full-fledged #MeToo moment of reckoning, there have been a few instances where an artist has actually faced consequences as a result of their actions—though unfortunately, nowhere near enough. One of the reasons that rock music’s abusers and harassers remain unscathed is because the myth of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll is still often seen as an acceptable excuse for this behavior.
Most recently, Chicago rock outfit, The Orwells split up amid a mounting list of disturbing sexual misconduct allegations. The victims of the three accused members of the band may never see justice, feel fully comfortable at a show again or recover from their horrible experiences, but as Paste contributor Justin Kamp reported, Chicago is now supporting organizations to prevent something like this from happening again and fans are realizing the power of their voices on social media to call out abusers, crowdsource for shared experiences and pressure venues, festivals, promoters and fellow bands to disassociate themselves with abusers.
One of the most disheartening things about instances like The Orwells is a segment of their fanbase condoning the band’s actions because they think the myth of “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” somehow gives bands a hall pass to be terrible human beings and commit crimes against innocent victims.
While it’s well-known that famous rock stars like The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry have all allegedly treated women heinously in the past with little to no repercussions, that doesn’t excuse that behavior in any way. To just say, “Plenty of other musicians got away with it, so it must be okay” is a terrible rebuttal for committing a crime. To simply shift blame is a tu quoque fallacy. This isn’t about excusing the past wrongdoings of musicians in the heyday of rock ’n’ roll and now proclaiming that times have changed. It was immoral and illegal then and it most definitely still is now.
There’s nothing rock ’n’ roll or punk or rebellious about abuse, rather it degrades human dignity, which is the antithesis of what music is supposed to be about—making meaningful, unifying connections with people through art.
It’s clear that all these crimes can be prevented if people just act like decent human beings, but the narrative of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” certainly doesn’t help. This narrative has been pushed in popular music for so long, especially with the prevalence of rockism, which was ingrained in music journalism for decades, even though it’s finally on the decline.
By definition, rockism mythologizes rock music and in effect, the whole lifestyle that is associated with it—cocaine, groupies, unhinged live performances and wild, pompous on-the-road interviews designed to make the lives of rock stars seem as glamorous and desirable as possible. Although it’s become more diverse recently, rock music has historically been a straight, white male’s game and historically, a straight white male’s game is often the most immoral, misogynistic, homophobic and self-serving game there is.
For decades, this macho rock ’n’ roll stereotype has been fed with album reviews, features and op-eds written by middle-aged men who sneer at “manufactured” pop music and beg for the invention of a time machine to go back to whatever decade they deem to have produced “real music,” which, of course, is usually used as a code for traditional rock music.
It’s no wonder we’re still dealing with egotistical, hedonistic rock musicians. The system was built for people like them by people like them. Many rock musicians think they hold a monopoly on “real music,” own the world and thus, own their fans. They see young, often female, fans as a resource to endlessly exploit without any worry of ramifications. Remember last year when Queens Of The Stone Age’s Josh Homme kicked a photographer? Not only did he intentionally assault a female photographer by kicking her in the head, he also reportedly called the audience “retards,” encouraged the crowd to boo him and told everyone to take their pants off, saying, “I want to give you all a night you’ll never remember.”
After that show, Homme caught a lot of flak from social media and news outlets, so he released an initial statement, saying he was “lost in the performance.” Obviously, that’s an absolute joke of an excuse, so he released a video apology and addressed the photographer, “I don’t have any excuse or reason to justify what I did. I was a total dick and I’m truly sorry and I hope you’re okay.” So, we have a rock star who is a self-described dick and admittedly assaulted someone while using the hubbub of performance as an excuse, but soon after, most people forgot about the incident and were more than happy to continue supporting him and the band.
I’m not saying we have to lock everyone up (though those who commit crimes should have to face the justice system), but when most musicians face little to no consequences, this is why people, especially women, are so fed up with the music industry. This behavior has gone unpunished for decades, often times because it’s excused as testosterone-filled rock ’n’ roll and laughed off as “boys will be boys.” We need to think about how we’re ever going to have an open and inclusive music industry for fans and musicians if we still have people who think what The Orwells and Josh Homme did makes them “more rock ’n’ roll.”
It’s possible to embody the spirit and subversiveness of rock ’n’ roll without being a predatory or discriminatory asshole. Plenty of bands do it without having to make their shows “less fun” or tone down their energy. It’s just that fans, especially young or female-identifying fans, want to be comfortable and enjoy themselves at shows, and they’d also love to be able to chat with the band after the show without the assumption that they’re only there because they want to have sex with band members. So many guys in bands can’t seem to fathom the idea that young fans in the audience just like their music and aren’t necessarily sexually attracted to them. It’s not hard to understand why male musicians are so full of themselves, but with their level of body odor and likely low, unstable level of income, you’d expect them to be marred with constant self-doubt and insecurity instead of equipped with the kind of overconfidence, invincibility and lack of shame of a middle-aged corporate CEO.
The point is, if you’re a physical abuser, emotional abuser or sexual abuser, that’s where the problem lies. You can’t use the fact that you’re in a band to shield yourself from those realities. If you’re an abuser, you are a bad person, irrespective of your status as a musician. That said, the proliferation of the “sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll” myth does enable people who might not have been abusive in the past to throw their hat in the ring and become abusers under the guise of rock ’n’ roll, knowing full well rock’s longstanding leniency towards harassment and abuse.
Another reason we see so many traumatic cases of abuse is because we haven’t quite figured out how to transition from the generation of groupies to the present-day fangirls. Despite the fact that these two groups are vastly different, a lot of people think they’re cut from the same cloth.
The word “groupie” has negative connotations, but groupies’ ridicule was expected, whether you agree with it or not. The term, “fangirl” is similarly used as a derogatory term, even though the young girls stamped with that term don’t exhibit behavior often associated with groupies. Fangirls are enthusiastic young fans, usually female, who often spend a lot of money on merchandise and tickets, know the words to every song from a particular band and overall, are loyal fans who should be celebrated in a time when music industry revenue doesn’t flatter musicians.
Even if these “fangirls” scream loudly at shows and profess their attraction to band members, keep in mind, they’re likely underage and it’s not an actual request for sex. There’s also a power dynamic when it comes to band members initiating romantic or sexual relationships with young fans, even if they are of age. There’s a similar female obsession with film actors, but those women don’t get ostracized for it, so why should female music fans be criticized for their fanatical devotion to their favorite musicians?
Not only are fangirls not celebrated like they should be, they’re also used as scapegoats when musicians are abusive. People say things like, “Well, they must have been asking for it.” Just like women are blamed in every other industry for their own abuse, the music industry is no different. When the problem is largely men in power, vulnerable women provide a perfect opportunity for accusers to shift blame and, in effect, have others believe these men.
It doesn’t look like there’s going to be an imminent shortage of abusers or harassers, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to drastically change things. The Orwells’ downfall provides a decent blueprint for how these cases of abuse should be dealt with. People call out bands on their bullshit via social-media platforms or news outlets—anonymously or not. Then, venues, labels, promoters and other bands should take note and act accordingly. It should not be solely up to victims to bring about change. We have to expose this behavior and create a culture where this behavior is toxic—both morally and professionally. If we’re able to cultivate this environment, then there’s no way for bands to hide behind phony, half-baked rock ’n’ roll mythology.