Why Men Should Address Music’s Rape Culture Problem Right Now

More men need to be in on these discussions, asking questions and not pretending to know the answers, myself included. Please pardon any mansplaining contained herein.


Kesha turned 29 yesterday, her birthday officially marking the end of an awful February that saw her long-publicized legal battle to free herself from producer Dr. Luke and her attempts to sever ties from him rejected by the courts, which ruled that the producer’s exclusive recording contract with Kesha would remain intact.

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At the center of this case are a litany of claims citing Dr. Luke’s alleged emotionally and physically abusive behavior, including the allegation that he raped Kesha when she was only 18. The producer’s legal team maintained that the claims were part of an extortion scheme instigated by Kesha to free her from her contract with Dr. Luke, and though the courts initially threw out Dr. Luke’s lawsuit against Kesha and her mother for breach of contact in a separate ruling, this second decision didn’t sway in her favor.

Whether or not you particularly enjoy her music or care about her career it’s hard not to feel for Kesha over what seems an awful lot like indentured servitude.

Where the court of public opinion often distorts, society relies on the court of law to act with impartial litigious precedents to achieve justice. But whether or not you particularly enjoy Kesha’s music or care about her career at all (I plead the fifth) it’s hard not to feel for Kesha over what seems an awful lot like indentured servitude. The #FreeKesha campaign communicates how hungry her fans are to hear Kesha release new music, and she’s clearly eager to put something out there, too. But legally, she still can’t record new music with anyone other than Dr. Luke; and the whole situation seems like an odd sort of contractual possession because of it.

Kesha’s label, Sony, has claimed its hands are tied, as Kesha’s contract is exclusively with Dr. Luke’s imprint, but they could sever ties with the producer if he wasn’t such a cash cow for them. Countless celebrities have voiced their support for Kesha, from Akon to Lady Gaga, and in the pop music community, Dr. Luke might be public enemy No. 1 right now. The question, then, of why he still wants to maintain Kesha’s contract after she publicly called him a rapist and inspired so many to hate him is utterly mystifying. At least until you remember how much money he makes off of her.

Lady Gaga’s support for Kesha echoes her own history of sexual abuse, which she has bravely and candidly alluded to in the past. When Gaga told Howard Stern in 2014 that she wouldn’t name the prominent producer who sexually assaulted her, Kesha’s lawyer implied that it was Dr. Luke on Twitter, a claim Gaga’s reps soon dismissed. But fast forward to her performance at the Oscars last weekend, when she performed the Oscar-nominated “Till It Happens to You” from the documentary about the rape epidemic on college campuses, The Hunting Ground. Onstage with Gaga were several survivors of sexual assault, who had branded themselves with written messages of resilience and courage.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TZhsJ1saExI&w=560&h=315]

By showing their faces on national television, these women not only refused to play the role of victim—they rejected the last iota of power their abusers ever could have hoped to have over them. And beyond their healing, its wider impact was a reminder that the tipping point has finally arrived for how we discuss sexual assault and rape in this country. It’s arrived due to the frequency with which we hear about it in the news, on campuses, inside hallowed halls of religious institutions and around the glut of corporate America’s fraternally hierarchical workplaces, and it’s arrived with how we talk about rape culture in music.

One would expect that the larger culture of music was more all-inclusive and evolved, that men like Chis Brown, R. Kelly et all (we still know what “What Do U Mean” is really about, Bieber) were not the norm outside of the hierarchy of pop. But a similar frequency of sexual harassment and assault still occurs in other arenas of the music business, lasting far past the deaths of Phil Spector and Kim Fowley.

More men need to be involved in these discussions, asking questions and not pretending to know the answers, myself included.

It was just in January when indie publicist Healthcliff Burru resigned from Life and Death PR after Amber Coffman of indie rock band Dirty Projectors recounted an incident on Twitter before several other women came forward with similar tales. The outpouring of support and shared experiences demonstrated a tremendous power of social media not just to fuel social justice warriors, but to create them around mutual trauma and outrage. The vast majority of coverage around this scandal was written and led by women, instigating a substantive dialogue across music journalism Facebook groups and Twitter accounts.

The critics of the court of public opinion in the age of social media note how fast outrage can snowball without facts and complete pictures, and most of the time when that happens it’s borne from the collective ire of a group with members whose personal views and histories are already firmly decided on the matter. Hence, discussion and anger quickly become a torch-wielding, pitchfork-waving manhunt, and the criminal justice system that tends to more often than not fail the popular opinion of what justice means becomes the only recourse for closure.

Social justice warrior culture, born out of liberal PC identity, can fast become a form of policing in of itself, a restrictive teardown of loaded language and opposing viewpoints. It’s unavoidable that personal passions and tensions will come aflame when such sensitive issues are being discussed, but we can’t let those passions undermine the diplomacy of a truly progressive conversation, either.

(L-r) Kesha and Lady Gaga
Kesha and Lady Gaga.

I feel that more men need to be involved in these discussions, asking questions and not pretending to know the answers, myself included. In the digital social age, public opinion is often measured by metrics and volume, not the diversity of the people speaking up. There are ways for us good men to acknowledge and engage with this uncomfortable topic that has unfortunately become an evergreen, and they don’t need to involve mansplaining. (Please pardon any mansplaining contained herein.)

If we can all agree that the long-exploitative music business still has the same serious problem with sexism and misogyny as it did 75 years ago, then we can all agree that there are corners of the business where such progressive dialogue isn’t happening.

‘Sex can be so beautiful and fun, but it can also be so cruel, life-destroying, and devastating. Teach them that at 13. See what happens.’

I fear that such a corner was identified this week, when musician Larkin Grimm came forward claiming that Michael Gira, the leader of experimental noise-rock giants Swans, climbed into bed with her and raped her after they both were out for a night of heavy drinking in a harrowingly frank Facebook post where she recounts waking up in a bed “with his penis inside me, no condom.”

Michael Gira denied the accusation, as did Gira’s wife in a lengthy teardown of Grimm’s claims, in which she called Grimm “sweetheart,” a “starfucker,” and “the boy who cried wolf.” Michael Gira later admitted to the incident but called it consensual, an “awkward mistake.”

Whatever the extent of romance between them, if Grimm wasn’t conscious and and did not give her consent, then she’s right, it was rape, and Michael Gira is a rapist. Whatever actually transpired though, Grimm is coming forward in a largely male-dominated noise-rock niche of music nerd-dom, speaking out against a man who is widely venerated as an artist and leader—a far cry from the kind of bro you’d expect to stoop as low as Dr. Luke, but still within a community that lacks the mainstream recognition to engage the populist communities of social justice warriors.

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Her heartbreaking song “I Don’t Believe” speaks to that evaporation of expectation for decency that one has when they no longer trust someone or feel safe around them. “I don’t believe you ever could be/So like those men around you/So hungry,” she sings.

What responsibilities do we have to the women in our lives, brothers?

On the music fan end of things, I can remember certain instances where what I thought was going down between a woman who was dancing with me at a show and what was actually going down were entirely different. Sometimes the reality of how a physical tryst is playing out in your head is completely different from reality, particularly when music, chemicals and alcohol get involved. It was my responsibility in these moments, then, not to only practice self-control, but to practice asking permission and knowing the difference between a vibe and a reality.

If we can all agree the music business still has the same serious problem with sexism and misogyny it did 75 years ago, then we can all agree there are corners of the business where such progressive dialogue isn’t happening.

At times I have been mistaken, humbled and even embarrassed. But I never breached that line of violation because even when you’re not in your right mind, some iota of a conscience still exists. That’s something everyone can agree to be accountable for, right?

“Sex can be so beautiful and fun, but it can also be so cruel, life-destroying, and devastating,” Grimm said in a later response to the incident. “Teach them that at 13. See what happens.”

Like those women onstage with Lady Gaga at the Oscars, our power over making sure the propagators and villains of rape culture learn accountability starts with not allowing ourselves to feel powerless. It’s not just about victims showing their faces, naming their accusers and uniting with like-minded support structures, but discussing these issues with people who we feel uncomfortable around or may reside in ignorance, as well as holding those who perpetuate the problems properly accountable.

The criminal justice system and the court of public opinion are each fucked in their own ways, and each could do a better job at learning from the other. What we men must commit to going forward is not letting gender lines, assumptions or ambiguity cloud a clear confirmation of consent and a propensity for dialogue. That’s a matter of self-respect, too.

Why Men Should Address Music’s Rape Culture Problem Right Now