Can I Still Listen to My Favorite Band After Learning They’re Awful People?

Jesse Lacey of Brand New
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Jesse Lacey of Brand New
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Jesse Lacey and Brand New (photo by Chloe Muro (CC 2.0))

Last Friday, amidst the deluge of sexual allegations that have been inundating our society, a friend texted me.

“Jesse Lacey, man.”

He didn’t give any details.  He didn’t need to.  In the last few weeks, with new scandals being uncovered every day, it’s gotten pretty easy to surmise details from a simple name.

For those of you who aren’t as big of fans of third wave emo as I am, let me give you a refresher.

Jesse Lacey, the frontman of emo stalwarts Brand New, had been accused by two separate women of soliciting nude pictures from them when they were minors.  According to a now-deleted Facebook post, they each met Jesse at shows and started chatting with him through instant messenger.  He stayed in contact with them for years, grooming them, asking for nude photos, and masturbating over video chat.

In a post on the band’s Facebook page, Jesse admitted to these accusations, which he vaguely referred to as “the actions of my past”.  The band has cancelled the remainder of their current tour.

The day after the news broke, I got an email.

The vinyl copy of their new album Science Fiction that I ordered had finally shipped from the record label.

I was in a quandary. I still wanted to listen to the album (I enjoyed it enough to buy it, after all).  But how could I do so knowing what Jesse Lacey had done?

Is it possible—or even ethical—to separate the artist from their art in a situation like this?

I should back up a little bit.

When my friend texted me with the news, I wasn’t surprised. In his always-witty, often self-deprecating lyrics, Jesse had never portrayed himself as anything but a too-smooth-for-his-own-good scoundrel who wasn’t to be trusted.  And to be honest, I believed him.

This is especially true of their first two albums (which honestly, I’ve never cared for).  Those albums were riddled with threats that he’d “tear you apart” before offering to “die at your hand,” all between hushed references to “The Quiet Things that Nobody Knows.”

Their third album, The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me (the album written after seeking treatment, according to the Facebook apology), found Jesse fighting his demons.  The confessions are especially chilling now—especially “your daughters weren’t careful/I fear that I am a slippery slope.”

I’ve gone through the lyrics on TDAGARIM and was stunned by how many pieces have fallen into place.  We’ve put a face to Jesse’s demons, and it’s a bit nauseating.

And yet, none of that can change the impact that album has had on my life.  The tone of the lyrics were a huge inspiration for writing my first album.  A number of my friends’ bands list that record as their chief influence, both in sonics and in mood.

But in the light of these allegations, can we listen to Brand New the same way without somehow endorsing his actions?

It’s a conversation I’ve had with a number of fellow fans.  And it’s been heavy on the emo community the last several days, with different responses.

One of my friends said it felt like a breakup. Another said it tainted their music. Almost everyone I talked to agreed that we won’t give them any more of our money.

But some members of the Brand New group on Reddit even defended him.  That includes one disgusting assertion that 14 is the age of consent in some countries, so it’s really not that bad.

I’m not sure I’ve come to a completely cohesive answer, myself—I’m still in process.  But I know this isn’t just about Jesse Lacey.

First, I want to say something loud and clear.

If emo kids can’t listen to Brand New anymore, that “loss” doesn’t even begin to compare to the damage done to these two girls (and any other victims that might not have the courage to step out).  It’s easy in a conversation like this for fans to feel like they were betrayed and victimized.  But that’s nothing compared to the real and long-lasting psychological effects these women have gone through.

Now that that’s out, let’s move on.

As I’ve thought about these incidents, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot on the independent music scene of the mid-2000s.

Specifically, MySpace.

If you remember MySpace circa 2004-2006, you probably remember how creepy and sexualized it was.  That site was littered with underage girls in their underwear, many as young as fifteen or fourteen.  We told those girls that this was a good and worthwhile thing to do.  And we rewarded them with thousands of friend requests — many of these from dudes in their twenties.

And since MySpace started out as a music hosting site for bands, there was a lot of crossover between MySpace culture and music culture.  I remember hearing underage girls crushing on band members in explicit terms (I’m pretty sure fellatio was mentioned a couple times).  And despite all better judgment (and applicable laws), a lot of these band members welcomed and even rewarded that attention.

The truth is, Jesse’s actions, heinous though they may be, are just the tip of the iceberg. He was not alone. This sort of behavior was absolutely endemic in the scene. And every time I brought this up with a female friend, there was a sort of break in the conversation. A sigh of acknowledgement, a moment of dull recollection. One friend said, “I was a teenage girl once, and I hung out with band dudes. And…yeah.”

This isn’t only isolated to mid-2000s emo though. This is true of rock and roll’s entire history.

Since the dawn of the music industry, teenage girls have been told that the way that they engage with the music community is with their bodies.  Boys were allowed to pick up a guitar and start a crappy pop punk band.  But if a girl wanted to be part of the music scene, she had to offer her sexuality up to rock stars like a virgin to a pagan god.

And throughout music history, we’ve told these musicians that this was their right.

Priscilla was 14 when she and Elvis started dating.  Jimmy Page kidnapped 14-year-old Lori Maddox and kept her locked up for years.  And in both of these cases (and, to some degree, Jesse’s victims), these girls had been so brainwashed by the bullshit misogyny the scene pushed on them that they felt lucky that they had been chosen.

These stories aren’t rare.  The sexual deviance of rock stars is well known.  But we’ve looked the other way for decades, forgiving these misgivings as long as they pushed out hits like “Sweet Child of Mine.”

It’s easy to look back into rock and roll history and say it was a different time.  But Jesse Lacey’s actions—and the hard look into the third wave emo scene—has shown us that this problem is a lot more recent than we’d like to admit.

And I want to be very clear to make sure that I’m not giving Jesse a pass because of his environment.

So as music fans, what do we do?

Because it’s not like anybody loves Led Zeppelin because of Jimmy Page’s appetite for young girls.  Instead, their catalogue transcends the men who made it—and their wickedness.  Page’s relationship with Lori Maddox doesn’t change the fact that the man commissioned the first overdrive pedal.  In the same way, Jesse Lacey’s relationship with these underage girls can’t undo the way TDAGARIM resonated with me the first time I heard it.

Music fans have always separated art from their artists.  For a long time, we did that without critique or judgment.

But in a world that is rapidly waking up to the prevalence of sexual abuse and standing up to the powerful men who have misused that power, we can’t ignore it anymore.

That said, it is possible to engage with a piece of art while acknowledging how problematic it is.

And for those of us who aren’t ready to throw out the whole of pop music history, that’s a good thing.

16 Responses

  1. Jono

    I believe a large number of people are struggling with this issue. Art, in all of its forms, means something different to each recipient. Whether it’s a classic painting depicting an ancient war full of the tragedy that comes along with that, a sculpture of exquisite beauty that depicts a God who raped the daughters of men, or a song that fills you with joy, we all interpret and take from these works to make ourselves feel something.

    In this case, the music means something to me. I grew up with it, it helped mold who I am today, and it means something completely different to me than it does to you, the person next to you, or the scumbag that wrote it. I think I can still enjoy what it means/meant to me.

    I likely wouldn’t go to another show, or wear any of their t shirts, and that decal will come off my car, but I can’t forget what their music has given to me through my adolescence.

    So, I’ll keep listening… and feeling.

  2. Angela

    Finally! A more level headed article about this whole mess. I, too, was a young teen girl during that scene and I remember this kind of behavior was the norm. Actually, not until this Jesse scandal broke did I even think of anything that had transpired with me. Funny now too because I have seen other bands denounce Jesse and Brand New for these allegations and in my head I am thinking “seriously? I SAW you after a show meeting up with underage girls”….or I personally talked to one of them.
    Everyone in that scene is acting holy-ier than thou but that’s not the case at all. And not saying it is RIGHT, but at 15 I knew the weird sexual power I possessed and I knew how to use it to get attention. It’s a weird cycle on both ends.
    Brand New is my favorite band, tops. I initially was really upset and hurt, but I have come to the conclusion that I just can’t throw away a band that means SO MUCH to me. TDAG defined me growing up. I always say that album changed my life and how could I ever take that back? And Science Fiction is a masterpiece.
    Was Jesse a creep? Sure. Any fan who actually listened to his lyrics could gather that. Do I feel that he has some massive struggles because of his behavior? No doubt. You can’t write lyrics that deep without it. I guess that was the beauty of the band to me. When you felt so low and like a POS…well, hey…thers was another man out there struggling to fight off his demons too.

  3. Meg

    I agree with this post so much because when I was 15 the lead singer of the band Aiden had made me feel so special by bringing me on stage and literally grabbing my face and putting it onto his crotch. That was just one incident that happened at that show. I took photos that night where you can clearly see him standing right over me. Some other girls tried to get on stage but the singer, WiL, said only I was allowed up despite what security had cautioned. I felt so special to have him give me this kind of attention but now that I’m 23 and I look back on that experience it makes my skin crawl. How could an early 30 year old man do those things to a 15 year old girl? And in front of a crowd?? But unfortunately that’s what a lot of rock bands were and are still like.

    • Roland of Aragon

      Creep or not, you let it happen. Both of your are responsible.

      • Nathaniel FitzGerald

        She is one hundred percent not responsible for what an older man did to her when she was fifteen. No part of her could have expected that when he called her on stage, that he would have put her face in his crotch.

        Out of here with your victim blaming.

  4. Anonymous

    I agree that it is wrong to attempt to defend or explain away such actions. As to whether or not we separate art from the artist, I think that decision is subjective and personal. Ultimately, you should do whatever you feel comfortable with, you should not judge those who choose differently than you, or let others bring you down for whatever your decision may be. There is no wrong answer. Do what you think is right.

  5. Paul Resnikoff

    I can’t do it.

    I found out an artist I liked was a secret white supremacist, the romance was dead. It just smelled so bad, I had to shut it down. I get the struggle, but, hey, there are others who play great music out there. Maybe more than ever, I have access to the greatest music in massive quantities. Even if I found out that Mozart (one of my all-time favorite composers) was a white supremacist, I’d just focus on Beethoven and Vivaldi. It’s not worth the mental compromise for me.

    • Versus

      Shouldn’t historical context be considered?
      If Mozart (or someone else) were found to be a white supremacist during a time when that was the mainstream and unquestioned ideology, that’s very different from someone being a white supremacist in our (at least in some ways) more enlightened times.

      Surely the future will look back on us and think of us as morally suspect as well.

  6. Todd

    The Jimmy Page references are quite exaggerated… portraying him like he kept Lori literally locked in a room for years. Maybe while they were in LA back in 1972 during a residency at the Riot House on Sunset.

    Off topic I know…

  7. Troglite

    Doesn’t this expose a fundamental truth that is common to all human experiences? Each and everyone of us, no matter how many wonderful we may be, is flawed. All Saints are also sinners. Most sinners will act like saints in a certain context.

    I understand the desire to simplify the world by painting in the broad strokes of “good” and “bad”. But, these all or nothing labels mask important truths and create potentially damaging distortions.

    If the good things someone does cannot undo the bad things they have done.. then the inverse would seem equally true. The bad things Jesse Lacey may have done cannot undo the great art he has created.

    • Troglite

      Sorry, hit enter too soon. 🙂

      Just want to add that the feelings of “disappointment” may have more to do with the tendency to put our favorite artists on a pedestal instead of accepting them as the flawed human being they truly are (and have been all along). In other words, don’t conflate the art with the person who created it in the first place.

    • Versus

      Indeed we are all saints and sinners, but the degree and proportion varies drastically from one person to the next, and that’s essential. Some have minor sins on their conscience (e.g. jay-walker), some have major sins (e.g. mass-murderer).

      Also, large or small, it’s the responsibility of all of us to aim higher, become better persons, no? That is to say: to increase our inner saint/sinner power balance.

  8. Versus

    A thought experiment…

    1. If you found out the scientist who developed a medicine you used were in fact an awful person, would you stop using the medicine?
    2. If you found out the musician/artist who created the music/art you love were in fact an awful person, would you stop experiencing that music/art?

  9. good guy

    careful to insist that people have the power of choice at any age, people might call you a name! careful to try and discuss accountability and responsibility with anyone other than the accused, again you might be called a name? haha. freedom of speech is a fucking joke with all the rampant spread of self righteous, sycophantic and pandering mindsets clearly exhibited in people. we dont need to be censored, we censor ourselves! i mean, what is more important than being liked by people you dont even like? this current wave of people feeling like taking individuals to task for decades old mistakes, and trying to reverse history essentially, is bullshit.

    ive raped someone. im not saying what i did was right. what i did was completely take advantage of someone who was drunk, and although i was drunk, i wasn’t as drunk. am i invalid now? should i go hide somewhere? should i be locked up and raped too? haha. oh yeah i got raped too. does that valorize me? does that negate my own choice to take advantage of someone? sorry, being fully cognizant and of legal age somewhere in the world and having a long standing relationship with an individual is not the same as brutalizing an individual, nor is it the same as drunkenly taking advantage of another drunk person.

    actually nevermind, hes a rapist!!!!! rape!!!

  10. M J

    I have two issues with your article.

    1) you keep referring to “they”. Vin, Garrett and Brian are not and were not involved. To imply they are guilty by association is as wrong as victim blaming and frankly, ridiculous.

    2) you cannot accept that good people can do bad things. If this is the case, you lack the ability to forgive people for their fuck-ups, recognise what they’ve done right and move on.

    He was in a bad place, he behaved in a way that is not acceptable. Since then he has done everything he can in order to improve himself as a person – he has admitted mistakes, sought help and is trying to move on with his life. Also I’m not victim blaming but being a high school teacher for several years I have to say I know what teenage girls are like. If we do not allow them to take some responsibility for the activities they engage in then we perpetuate the blame culture where everything is always someone elses fault. With that in mind, they were idiots, too.

    Storm in a teacup.