Power and lust are themes often explored through music, although usually operated under an unspoken promise of their expressions being exaggerated or performative. When these become tangled in public issues of relationship consent, power imbalances and money, something of the sense of separation from reality becomes lost. We come to see that, funnily enough, some of these musicians who sing about ‘banging bitches’ and exploiting women are much the same in real life. Why does this happen and why should we care?
The prompt for this discussion comes from the recent allegations about Ryan Adams concerning a history of manipulative behaviour, emotional abuse and harassment of many women – including a minor. He has denied all of these accusations. Adams is a singer-songwriter who has built a career on representing himself as emotional and authentic. The allegations against him have included his promises to catapult young women’s careers in exchange for sexual favours. This blatant abuse of power calls into question how so many musicians are seen as trustworthy simply due to their status; just because somebody has seven Grammy nominations, it doesn’t mean they have your best interests at heart. Adams grossly used his status to manipulate and control young women, and it’s important to remember that this is entirely his fault, not theirs for wanting to believe the best of someone they admired or felt a connection with.
Other than Adams, there are other musicians who have received similar allegations of abuse. Most notably, R. Kelly has recently been charged with 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse. There had been rumours of his horrific behaviour that went un-investigated until Surviving R. Kelly, a documentary detailing the sexual abuse allegations against him, was released and circulated the internet. How had he been able to get away with this for so long? Power. Not only the power he had, as a wealthy musician, but the power systematically unavailable to the demographic of many of the survivors of his abuse – young black women. His record label and supporters were able to turn a blind eye as there was little expectation for them to listen to what these women said…until the media attention was too intense to ignore and remaining affiliated with R. Kelly would be career suicide. There needs to be a change in the music industry, to hold all musicians to account and to value people’s lives over profit.
Let’s take our headphones out when we see news about these allegations
There is a level of arrogance that I believe can come as a musician gains everything they ever wanted; recognition, fame, adoration, money, influence. If you knew you had fans hanging on your every word, and the knowledge that you had enough money to make problems go away, why wouldn’t you feel brave enough to act cruelly and even criminally? A common feature of these abuse allegations, from R. Kelly and Adams to BØRNS (accused of sexually taking advantage of intoxicated women, some underage) and Melanie Martinez (accused of sexually assaulting a female friend), is a sense of entitlement. Perhaps after being so used to receiving everything else they could want – fame, fortune, awards – it would feel inconceivable to not be able to receive sex when they wanted it too. This is obviously unacceptable. It always has been, but now there is a whole community of enraged people ready to stand up and challenge these behaviours. So why should we care too? Because if we don’t, sexual harassment in the music industry will continue and more people will be damaged by the actions of these seemingly untouchable celebrities. The separation of art from the artist is a contentious issue, with many conflicting views. This isn’t necessarily about that, but it’s important to consider the message it sends when artists suffer few repercussions from reports of their sexual misconduct and abusive behaviour. Perhaps hitting them where it hurts - in their pockets - is one way to show that audiences do not wish to buy into a musician who is seen to be exploitative or abusive. With Adams’ upcoming album being cancelled and R. Kelly being dropped from his label, it shows that money talks. Or, the threat of losing money from continual support of suspected abusers is enough for industry powers to withdraw their funding.
Hitting them where it hurts - in their pockets - is one way to show them
We need to change the culture, and fast. R. Kelly’s arrest is a step in the right direction. With multiple pieces of physical evidence reportedly being investigated by authorities, it seems likely that the allegations are true and a trial and judgement will follow. Other allegations against musicians remain unproven by courts, but this doesn’t mean they should be dismissed. Any reports of sexual harassment need to be taken seriously by musicians, industry professionals and, perhaps most importantly, by music fans. Music should be a safe haven, an art form for anyone to enjoy; not a place of fear with a lack of surprise when another musician is accused of misconduct. Let’s take our headphones out when we see news about these allegations, and tune into the important conversations going on about power, consent and the tricky role celebrity plays in all this.