Why Are There No Consequences For Serial Abusers In The Music Industry?

Photo: Ebet Roberts/Redferns.
At this year's Grammy Awards on January 28, Tina Turner will receive a Lifetime Achievement Award. But we nearly lost her decades ago.
As anyone who has read her autobiography I, Tina, or watched the film adaptation, What’s Love Got to Do With It?, knows, Turner was abused for years by her ex-husband, Ike Turner. People knew it was happening and accepted it because he was the man who collected their checks and led the band. Before their relationship ended, she tried to commit suicide. When she left him, people asked her why it took so long. Her story isn’t that different from many women in similar situations, famous or not. What makes it truly extraordinary was her second chapter, after Ike, in which she became an international success story as a solo act. She proved that she was the star in their relationship, while he became a punch line. Turner was both a seasoned performer and an exceptional talent when her comeback was launched, and she managed to make a lot of money. Sadly, when it comes to the music industry, that seems to be the bottom line: ethics are nice, but the bottom line is what matters.
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The music business has always had a big problem: From the days of Chuck Berry to Pete Townshend to Michael Jackson to Ian Watkins to Chris Brown, music labels consistently continued to support artists who are known to do harm to women — in many cases, choosing its bottom line over their safety. Some of them may be idols of yours, or favorite artists, or people whose music has become the soundtrack of your life. Reconciling this with the fact that they've all been accused of either rape, assault, abuse, or harassment in a court of law is complicated, messy, and uncomfortable.
It is easy for me to set aside or boycott the music of many of the major offenders. Like Michael Jackson, who was once at the cutting edge with “Thriller,” many of them have become eclipsed in my day-to-day music consumption by newer artists who are the current innovators. Like Chris Brown, some of them are artists who made perfectly respectable pop hits that I didn’t pay much attention to — until they were outed as serial abusers with more serious, deep-seated issues. Or, like The Who, they were before my time and, while they had a few singles I liked, they never infiltrated my life in playlists and mixtapes. But taking a moral stance becomes a lot more painful, and personal, when I'm asked to look at the actions of someone whose work is beloved to me: David Bowie.

What does it say about me that I enjoyed the art of a person who would do such a thing?

I practice conscious consumerism in most areas of my life. I don’t eat at Chick-fil-A, and I don’t shop at Hobby Lobby or Walmart. I don’t stay at hotel chains owned by Trump. Until now, I’ve only evaluated the art I consume with one question in mind: Do I like it? The outing of terrible men in Hollywood, tech, and politics has made me reconsider this. I decided that I needed to be more informed about the artists behind the music I love — but beyond that, the people who stand to profit from it.
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Which brings me back to Bowie, who allegedly committed statutory rape against a pair of underaged girls in the '70s. If even one is too many, as so many have said when expressing outrage about Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., Kevin Spacey, and Roy Moore, then one is too many for Bowie, too. Statutory rape is a crime we can all draw a line in the sand on, no matter the era or the perpetrator. Having sex with children is wrong; that is why there is an age of consent. Where I, and many others, stumble, is on the question of what this means for Bowie’s music.
At first, I tried to grapple with that question, as I’ve read others do with the work of many now-fallen men. Eventually, I came to the realization that, for me, it doesn’t diminish the art itself, though it has diminished the value of the art to me personally. It does leave me with an even more terrifying thought: What does it say about me that I enjoyed the art of a person who would do such a thing?
The statutory rape committed by Bowie came to light after one of the women, Lori Mattix, told her story to Thrillist in 2015. It wasn’t an accusation in the wake of the #MeToo movement. It was presented as the victorious confession of a groupie, in which she told the story of losing her virginity to Bowie in the early '70s during a threesome with Sable Starr when they were both 15. In her account, she says she waved off a potential encounter with him at 14 because, though he made a move and she “had probably kissed boys by that point,” she “wasn’t ready for David Bowie.” Five months later, when he toured back through L.A., he had his bodyguard (described as a “huge Black guy”), call her and invite her to dinner with him. She went and brought Starr, saying, “I figured that she would sleep with him while I got to hang out and have fun.” Not exactly the actions of someone who is looking to have a sexual encounter, right?
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Everything about the set-up here feels like a man in great power using it to coerce young women into having sex with him, which is a common thread through many of the stories of groupies from the ‘60s and ‘70s. This power dynamic is why I threw I’m With the Band, arguably the definitive groupie memoir, across the room about five times while I was reading it — it knocks the idea into women that they should be the muses to rock stars, rather than being the rock star themselves.
In Mattix’s story, there are drugs, celebrities, a posh hotel room, a physical moment of confrontation with someone who objects to Bowie’s look, a kimono, and more drugs. Mattix flips the script and says she felt turned on by him because he was “beautiful and clever and poised,” which I’m sure he was. Nothing she did was against her will and they continued seeing each other intermittently, she said, for the next 10 years.
When questioned about whether or not the power imbalance between them seemed problematic to her, Mattix said, “I was an innocent girl, but the way it happened was so beautiful. I remember him looking like God and having me over a table. Who wouldn’t want to lose their virginity to David Bowie?” Mattix went on to have a years-long relationship with Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page, which he did his best to keep out of the public eye because she was underage and, even then, it was illegal.
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The Thrillist story, which was released only two months before Bowie passed, didn’t make much of a splash at the time. Thrillist republished the interview after his death in January 2016, and a slew of think pieces were quickly published. The national dialogue about the systematic abuse of women was completely different then. Many of the response articles spent paragraphs either debating if we should object to the autonomy of Mattix, who remembers the incident with joy, or inspecting her credibility and attempting to debunk her account. Few of them spend much time analyzing what it means about Bowie, his legacy, or how we feel about his music.
It matters because Mattix’s story makes me wonder what could have turned out differently if there was a better representation of women in rock back then. Janis Joplin and Grace Slick were anomalies. They weren’t encouraged to be in the band or to rock. That was a masculine role. By the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, the women of rock (and the women of pop, who took the aesthetic of being a rock star into that genre) had fought tooth and nail for every bit of autonomy they claimed. When it comes to representation, we’re still paying the price today for those antiquated views about femininity. It’s why there is a serious gender parity problem in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Not only are there significantly less female artists who meet the criteria for induction, but the ones who do are frequently overlooked by both the nominating and voting bodies because their contributions to the canon are seen as lesser. If you don’t believe me, consider Stevie Nicks. She was inducted with her band Fleetwood Mac, but she's a singular source of inspiration as a solo performer and songwriter to countless female musicians and an icon to millions. She has never even been nominated for a solo induction into the Hall. There are dozens of examples like that; she’s simply one of the most egregious. If women don’t see models, then fewer women think they can aspire to, and when women don’t see fellow women’s achievements awarded, it further dissuades them. It makes me question if the way we thought about women “in those times” and how we think of them now has fundamentally changed at all.
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Bowie’s repellent moral decision was one I didn’t know how to deal with when it became a discussion point after his death. It was floated in pieces as an asterisk on his career that we should all give some thought to, but I found it hard to do when the news of his passing was fresh. Now it feels like a reflection on my willingness to accept the narrative that femininity is supposed to be soft, to sound high-pitched. That it is less likely to be rock music, which is masculine and aggressive. That women aren’t as likely to be genius visionaries like so many men are, or that they aren’t as equipped to be the voice of a generation and the catalyst for change. I was willing to let Bowie’s actions go because his music is important enough to excuse them. That tells me I’ve been putting too much value on the artistic contributions of men, at the expense of women.
I also can’t stop thinking about it because the number of men accused of sexual misconduct keeps growing every day. But the number of those accused in music who faced repercussions remains tiny. After publicist Heathcliff Berru was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women at the beginning of 2016, and was removed as head of his company, the floodgates did not open. In July, journalist Jim DeRogatis broke the news that R. Kelly is still abusing young women — a story he reported on for nine months, on a beat he’s been writing about since he got an anonymous tip in 2000. Kelly faced lawsuits from various women throughout the early 2000s, until he was acquitted of child pornography charges in 2008. The story resurfaced in 2013. In all that time, his label and his publisher have continued to support him and release his material.
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The music business hasn’t faced the same sort of reckoning that Hollywood, the media industry, or even the food industry has, yet. Of the big three outlets breaking most of these stories of abuse allegations, the New York Times and the New Yorker haven’t turned their eyes to the music industry yet. The Los Angeles Times discovered allegations against Russell Simmons in the course of their reporting on movie producer Brett Ratner, busting open a damn of misconduct accusations spanning decades against the grandfather of hip hop. Goldenvoice talent booker Sean Carlson was also outed as an abuser and fired. Jon Heely, the director of music publishing at Disney, was charged by police with sexual abuse of minors (he is currently suspended without pay pending the investigation.) Warner Bros. Records EVP of A&R Jeff Fenster and a second, unnamed WBR exec were subject to disciplinary action after being accused of misconduct (Fenster is stepping down from the company.) Country publicist Kirt Webster stepped away from his firm following allegations, but he denies any wrongdoing. It was uncovered that Berklee College of Music, a mining field for talent in the industry (and John Mayer and Charlie Puth’s alma mater), has fired 11 faculty members for sexual assault over the past 13 years, creating a culture of abuse. Those stories are far from covering every abusive man in the music industry. There are still plenty of men I know about from the whisper network, with whom women don’t let other women be left alone.
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In the New York Times, Jon Caramanica detailed how the hip hop charts this year brought wins for abusers currently facing criminal charges for sex and/or domestic abuse, including XXXTentacion, Kodak Black, and 6ix9ine. The former managed to land a deal said to be worth $6 million with Caroline Records while in the midst of gruesome allegations that he assaulted and beat his pregnant girlfriend. Maybe listeners don’t know what these emerging artists are accused of, or maybe they don’t care. It’s just a stream, right?
While I’m not ready to absolve all music fans of the obligation to be conscious consumers, Caramanica raises a fair point: quite a lot of music streaming is passive, delivered via autoplay or programmed playlists that are simply consumed without much thought, while the labels who control their streaming rights and the publishing companies who collect money on their behalf continue to passively pull in bank. Unlike in other industries, no musician who was accused of sexual misconduct last year was truly canceled. When Louis C.K. admitted the allegations against him were true, FX erased his credits on multiple shows and dropped their overall deal with him while HBO removed his original content from their streaming platform (Netflix and Hulu did not). After Buzzfeed dropped yet another dossier on R. Kelly, one in a string of allegations of misconduct throughout his career, his tour was canceled by Live Nation in the face of public outcry. However, he was not dropped by his label or publisher, and his catalog lives on Spotify, YouTube, and other streaming platforms, slowly collecting money while the heat on him dies down. Those checks cash just fine.
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If consumers and critics don’t feel an obligation to hold artists accountable for their actions, record labels won’t either. And there will never be a reckoning in music. We won’t ever have to negotiate who goes away and when do they get to come back. Women, both artists and fans, will get the message that it’s business as usual. It leaves the door open, signaling that it is still okay to value women less, pay them less, and give them less representation. I, for one, am done with it. I will be conscious of my consumerism and criticism of music because the value of a talented man is no longer worth all the women it means we lose, isolate, and disenfranchise.
I’ve come to two conclusions. First, I don’t have any appetite to listen to Bowie’s music. That can be how I feel without impacting the influence he has had on music at large, or on my life in particular; I just want to turn his voice down. I don’t need to stream his music. I don’t need to buy the latest box set. I don’t need to see the next biopic. Second, as I turn down the volume on his voice, I can replace it with the voices of women — which, in the end, is what should come of all these outings. These days I find myself gravitating to the weird wonderfulness of Björk, Kate Bush, Margo Price, SZA, and Tina Turner. I find myself going through NPR’s 150 Greatest Albums Made by Women, listening to those I know and those I ignored. I’ve been wondering which women we didn’t take seriously enough in the history of music and which talents we’ve underrated and let waste away.
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