At the risk of stating the obvious, man has the landscape changed for anyone who goes into rock and roll thinking that it’s going to be all about no-strings sex and endless debauchery.
Consider the current cancel-culture furor surrounding Arcade Fire’s Win Butler. You might have seen last week’s story on Pitchfork where multiple women came forward to accuse the frontman of sexual misconduct. In the piece, Butler responded that all incidents were consensual, adding in a statement that “every single one of these interactions has been mutual and always between consenting adults. It is deeply revisionist, and frankly just wrong, for anyone to suggest otherwise."
Put yourselves, for a second, in the ethically sourced shoes of the inarguable king of Canadian indie rock. (Sorry, Chad Kroeger, who’s career path was more DIY and built-from-the-ground-up than the Pitchfork crowd will ever know.)
For decades, rock ’n’ roll was a place where the rules around sex were different.
Long before Chuck Berry was farting on sex workers in cheap hotel rooms (Google it, with the warning you’ll be sorry), rock has been all about beyond-casual copulation, grotesque excess, and indecent shit that makes one wonder what the hell is wrong with the human race. Or, more accurately, those who get famous in rock bands, and then take that as a green light to do things that normal sex partners would shut down in a second.
A short list might include the members of Led Zeppelin and Vanilla Fudge reportedly stuffing a freshly caught Seattle mudshark into a reportedly willing and happy-to-participate-groupie. Should you require more details, consult Frank Zappa’s live album Fillmore East, where, after talking about “a succulent young lady with a taste for the bizarre”, he recounts “Let’s say you were a travelling rock ‘n’ roll band called The Vanilla Fudge / Let’s say one night you checked into the Edgewater Inn with an 8mm movie camera.”
In the book Rock Star Babylon, Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee and Nikki Sixx recall a competition they had with each other “to see who could go the longest without washing, showering or bathing in any way, yet still be able to sleep with groupies without them being ill or bailing out.” After two months of bedding up to four presumably olfactory-challenged women per night, something finally gives, with Sixx coming out the loser. After making the mistake of going down on him, a groupie ends up puking up her Italian dinner in the hair metal bassist’s crotch.
Not that you need more, but additional stories—whether real or exaggerated—include Marianne Faithfull, the Rolling Stones, a days-long party, and a chocolate bar. Police reputedly arrived at the home of Keith Richards to discover an “interrupted an orgy of cunnilingus in which Jagger had been licking a Mars candy bar pushed into Marianne’s vagina”. And a French fan offering a “praline” (consult Urban Dictionary) to a member of Rammstein. And, actually, enough.
What’s interesting about the Butler accusations—none of which has been proven in court—is how they show times have changed, for the better, in the often-anything-goes world of pop music.
First, let’s make it clear that any sexual encounter that isn’t 100 percent consensual between two adults is wrong. When one person is in a position of power and the other isn’t, things become even more complicated.
Think of starting an indie-rock band with dreams of nothing more than playing for friends and like-minded music geeks in cool art spaces. A band that’s so artistically pure and grassroots-focused that it’s still hard to believe that it today headlines major festivals and hockey rinks.
The thinking is—and it's probably correct—that no one starts a forward-thinking indie-rock band with the goal of topping the bedpost-notch scoresheets of Gene Simmons, Mick Jagger, John Mayer, Tom Jones, or Rod Stewart.
What stands out in the Pitchfork article is the nature of the allegations. And before you go grabbing our own pitchfork, again, let’s make it clear that any sexual encounter that isn’t 100 percent consensual between two adults is wrong. No means no.
One of the four women details getting sexting messages from Butler that she never asked for, or wanted. Butler remembers meeting the woman for drinks, and then declining when she, seemingly drunk, asked him if there was somewhere they could go to sleep together. Pitchfork recounts the story of the woman, identified as “Stella”, as follows: “Stella acknowledges that she was drunk on that occasion and does not remember every detail of the evening, but does not believe that she made such an advance.”
Sexting is also reporting as playing a pivotal part of Butler’s relationship with two other women in the story.
Pitchfork reports: “One screenshot shows Butler apparently asking Sarah to FaceTime after she had repeatedly told him she was not ready to video chat with him. “I did everything because it was him,” Sarah told Pitchfork. “I don’t like doing any kind of video stuff, especially sexual stuff. I remember being so nervous and so ashamed that I did it. I’d be like, ‘I don’t feel well.’ And he’d be like, ‘Send me a picture right now.’ He used me, basically, as his personal therapist, and easy way to get sex over the phone. The FaceTimes would be strictly: he gets off, hangs up. I felt sick every day after I did it.”
Butler goes on to counter “I love our fans but this was an unhealthy fandom,” his statement reads. “We started sexting and talking a lot, but I became increasingly uncomfortable when she started coming to all my DJ events and showing up to my restaurant multiple times, to the point I had to tell security to make sure she didn’t get too close.”
Not to downplay what any woman feels that she went through in their alleged interactions with Butler, but what stands out, again, is how perception can be everything. Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt wouldn’t have been the insanely readable best seller that it was if it had been packed with stories of Sixx and Lee sexting their fans, and seemingly having trouble reading their sexual cues—or lack thereof.
For a whole host of reasons then—some tied to culture shifts, some because the world has, against all odds, somehow become a better place—your parents’ version of what makes a rock star is now different than the so-called golden years of the genre.
But Butler, for all of his efforts to suggest that the Pitchfork, article gets things wrong, is on some level still playing the rebel. Amidst all the controversy over the allegations against the frontman, Arcade Fire kicked off its world tour in Dublin on August 30. Some fans are demanding refunds for tickets purchased weeks and months ago. The band has so far refused.
Today opening act Feist quit the tour, taking to Instagram to write "This has been incredibly difficult for me and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it’s been for the people who came forward. More than anything I wish healing to those involved." That was followed with "I can't continue."
Arcade Fire evidently can. Rightly or wrongly, sometimes it’s hard not to think that, weirdly, the song remains the same.