Rex Orange County and the morality of artists

After the musician was charged with six counts of assault final week, heartbroken followers took to social media to burn their merch – however who’s this serving to?

It looks like each individual has no less than one artist who broke their coronary heart with a grand, evil ethical transgression. Possibly it was an actor or filmmaker or musician, somebody whose work holds which means and reality, a sort of artwork that builds an intimacy swiftly shattered following an allegation or accusation, often of racism or sexual violence.

I keep in mind precisely the place I used to be when the information broke about PWR BTTM, a math-rock duo whose unabashed queerness in each music and presentation stays largely unmatched as we speak. One member was accused of participating in a repeated sample of aggressive and inappropriate behaviour in direction of underage followers, the opposite member was accused of understanding and failing to react. Maybe as a result of the group was so fashionable with queer, social justice-oriented communities, the response was swift: they had been rapidly dropped from their label, had their upcoming tour and album cancelled, and disbanded.

On October 10, the information broke that pop musician Alexander O’Connor, recognized by his stage identify Rex Orange County, was charged with six counts of assault allegedly having taken place over a two-day interval in June 2021. He pled not responsible. Little is thought in regards to the particulars of the case, however one can solely think about the worry and trauma that will accompany six assaults in two days.

I don’t intend to report on the case in opposition to O’Connor or speculate on his potential guilt or innocence. However I’m captivated and horrified by the web response to the information. Shortly after the story broke, numerous former followers created movies, tweets, posts and infographics confessing their private heartbreak over the state of affairs. This heartbreak is notably not sympathy for a sufferer – it’s heartbreak over their very own sense of betrayal from O’Connor himself. These posts, which amassed tens and tons of of 1000’s of likes in a matter of hours, reframed the difficulty: Man Repeatedly Assaults Lady turned Man Makes His Followers Really feel Unhappy. Misplaced in all of this social media pity is any sympathy for the sufferer. Even worse, it turns into materially useful to make a lot of these posts as they development; we all know that likes and views and clicks, no matter their origins, ultimately translate to financial compensation.

It’s completely regular to be upset to listen to that somebody whose work you revered has probably dedicated actions you discover reprehensible. However to document your disappointment, carry out it for a digital camera with trending key phrases and hashtags, feels insensitive at greatest, and actively dangerous at worst. It obscures the narrative, drowns out the core subject, and most significantly removes the sufferer from the discourse.


“I spoke with two pals about [Rex Orange County], every of us having little to say initially moreover expressing disgust,” college scholar Norma, 21, tells Dazed. “One specific buddy went so far as to name him a ‘vile man’, including ‘I’d by no means have anticipated this from him’, which reveals how his music actually formed our concept of him as an individual. When issues like this occur – allegations, accusations, trials – I at all times discover myself torn between two sides: reticence guilty somebody for one thing I don’t but know is true, feeling unhealthy for the possibly harmless individual whose life is being torn aside, and but understanding those that select to make their very own judgment, not having religion within the justice system.”

Some artists who’re accused (and even convicted) of main social transgressions ultimately go on to dwell completely regular lives and undergo subsequent to no materials penalties (Roman Polanski, Chris Brown). Others are promptly faraway from the general public eye and don’t re-emerge. There’s something to be stated for the truth that artists whose audiences are largely comprised of marginalised teams are inclined to face the harshest social {and professional} blowback for his or her actions, whereas artists interesting to straight, white, and/or male crowds are typically let off the simplest.

Across the time of the PWR BTTM controversy, I keep in mind a number of feedback from individuals questioning in the event that they had been nonetheless allowed to hearken to their music. And final week, a TikTok about Rex Orange County, wherein a younger man makes an attempt to make use of the scandal to advertise his personal music, contains the phrase “you came upon about Rex Orange County SA allegations so now you possibly can’t stream his music anymore”. Each of those approaches are troubling. In addition to the plain (that utilizing a girl’s sexual assault to advertise your personal music profession is exploitative and rank), each presume that there’s some exterior authority dictating what artwork can and can’t be consumed. They assume that the explanation to cease interacting with an artist’s work is as a result of it’s now socially unacceptable to take action. They place the social transgression of sexual assault above the fabric violence of sexual assault: the evaluation of which content material “can” and “can not” be consumed boils down as to whether or not it’s socially acceptable.


I don’t hearken to PWR BTTM now. The rationale I don’t hearken to PWR BTTM isn’t as a result of they’re “cancelled”, it’s as a result of I can not hear their music with out considering of the numerous younger individuals (a few of whom I do know personally) who had been exploited and brought benefit of in an area that was alleged to help and uplift younger queer artists. The rationale we ought to keep away from content material made by individuals who do unhealthy issues needs to be as a result of we recognise the hurt these actions trigger and we empathise with the victims, not due to some social media consensus about what’s now a foul look.

However right here is an unlucky reality: unhealthy individuals could make good artwork. Unhealthy individuals could make nice artwork. Good individuals could make unhealthy artwork. The dialog round “separating the artwork from the artist” is drained and performed out; unfortunately, modern media tends to reward artwork based mostly on its morality. Loads of artwork that’s uninspired or by-product or mediocre is lauded if its political messaging feels well timed (Don’t Look Up, Saturday Night time Reside, Promising Younger Lady). And this appears innocent – in any case, if one thing brings consideration to a urgent subject, ought to it not be rewarded? 

Nevertheless it’s not this straightforward. As a result of if we consider that good politics make good artwork, then we consider that good artists have good politics and thus good morals and thus are good individuals. The musician who sings songs about rising like a sunflower is granted a halo of positivity; the tv star who performs a healthful father is granted an assumed kindness offstage. Victims then let their guard down, assume a stage of security, after which are notably weak to being exploited. For a lot of predators (take, for instance, the autumn of Burger Information), their picture of being anti-establishment permits them to actively discredit victims, dodge accountability and keep their status, permitting for the continuation of abuse. If the allegations in opposition to O’Connor are true, then his healthful picture doesn’t exist regardless of his actions, however as an alternative instantly embodies the kind of man who makes use of photos of softness and vulnerability as a canopy for violent misogyny. Mimi, a school scholar and former Rex Orange County fan, tells Dazed that when heard the information, she felt “very shocked” for that reason. “[I] have at all times felt very secure in these sorts of areas,” she says. “His aura and fan base may be very type and that ‘quirky’, ‘my first indie artist’ vibe.”

The tender boi turned alleged abuser; the actor who takes on the language of social justice to realize proximity to trusting followers; the photographer whose work is dubbed feminist sufficient to make up for many years of sexual assault allegations… these incidents will not be self-contradicting, however prime examples of a tradition that sees media as a commodity, one to be worn like a bit of logo-studded clothes, its worth as a social signifier exceeding its precise materials which means.

Tradition is produced industrially by multi-billion greenback firms, manufacturing homes, and colleges with impossibly giant endowments. Additionally it is produced by people – people that damage one another, lie, and construct their picture on values they don’t maintain. To debate sexual assault allegations as gossip, to make use of them as social forex or TikTok content material, is to disregard the human influence of interpersonal sexual violence. It additionally distracts us from the precise cultural mechanisms that enable these manifestations of oppressive methods to repeatedly occur within the first place.

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