On letting music go.
For reasons that have never been clear to me, people occasionally listen to my opinions about music. It’s not a huge audience I have. I’m sure even the most moderately popular TikTok influencer has a larger platform than I do. But still, I write words about albums I enjoy and sometimes people read those words and give the music a chance. I’ve written about dozens—probably hundreds—of bands in the time I’ve been doing this music journalism thing. Sometimes, when I really get behind an album that excites me, this amazing ripple effect happens where it catches on with my moderate audience as well. Then it feels like we’re all part of a little fan club together and it becomes a communal enjoyment. But the thing about the words I write is that once they’re out there, they’re out there forever, even as my opinion changes.
This has happened on a few occasions, where some previously unknown information will surface about a band I’ve championed—information that is uncomfortable and unfortunate and, at the very least, would have led me to reconsider my words. This has happened to just about every music writer I know, as well. It’s a peculiar position to be in, wherein the job is to essentially be on record putting your weight behind a band. Professional associates of the artist who profit off their work—labels, managers, booking agents—are in a different boat. They are usually quick to distance themselves from their clients and sever financial and professional ties. (Or at least they are quick to do so once the public backlash starts mounting.) Carefully worded statements and social media posts typically follow. But with journalists, there are no financial transactions happening. We are not professionally bound to these artists. We are simply fans just like anyone else.
The band this happened with most recently for me was Beach Slang, whose singer, James Alex, was accused by their tour manager, Charlie, of “constant emotional, psychological, and narcissistic abuse.” Beach Slang was a band I got behind early on. From the very start, actually. I interviewed them, I voted for them on those prominent albeit completely overhyped Albums of the Year lists, I booked them on shows, I am thanked by name in the liner notes of some of their early records. A wave of feelings has hit me while I’ve watched this situation with James shake out. Anger, certainly. Sadness. Disappointment. But also a sense of betrayal for sticking my neck out for someone’s music and having it come back to bite me, and for that music to be used as the vehicle for someone’s pain. Further complicating my feelings is that I am also friendly with Charlie and have been messaging with her offline about this. It goes without saying that I stand behind her and, in my opinion, she has been quite generous about keeping the worst of the details private. (Charlie is also aware I’m writing this, and I am doing so with her consent.)
James issued a response to Charlie’s accusations recently, apparently through his family. I realize most apology posts are performative and hardly ever heal the wounds, but this one reads as particularly bad, namely in that it deflects blame, dodges responsibility, hides behind mental health issues, and fails to mention Charlie at all. I don’t even know that I can call it an apology post, as it contains no repentance.
The post goes on to mention that Beach Slang is done. So that’s that. Hopefully that will prevent further harm in the music scene, which is always an immediate concern. For myself, the news of their demise was sort of a non-issue as I’d grown detached from their music over the last couple years—both as a result of being turned off by watching the tumultuous shake-ups of band members and by the musicianship which had, in my opinion, run its course.
But what about the dances we’ve already danced? As a writer, I certainly can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube and rescind the praise that is already out there. As a fan, I can re-evalute my own relationship with Beach Slang’s music, and will likely let it fade from the doldrums of my mind. At the same time, I am hesitant to encourage others to do the same. Beach Slang’s music is an interesting case because their lyrics pushed a message of relentless, and often absurdly over-the-top, positivity. It’s what appealed to most fans and also what most often drew detractors. Although the words have proven to have come from a questionable source, is their effect on those who derived meaning from them not still valid? If you have taken anything from their music which has helped you in some way, has that now been undone? If you have relied on the music of Morrissey or PWR BTTM or Ryan Adams to ease the burdens of your personal troubles, has your mending been negated by their transgressions? I’d like to think that any healing you may have incurred as a result of any form of media, regardless of its creator, is valid and real.
This of course is not a novel ethical dilemma among music fans who are coping with revelations about the artists they once admired. Writers and fans have been grappling with it with more and more frequency. In one of my favorite essays on the subject, Nina Corcoran faced her relationship with the music of Brand New with candid self-reflection, and ultimately arrived at this conclusion:
“What becomes of the artist and his legacy doesn't matter. What's more important is the personal confusion that fans feel now that the art they had built their personalities around is fractured. Watching a pillar in your support system crumble before you is scary. It can feel like you’ve lost a therapist, a supportive friend, or the sense that over time you, too, will heal. …But just because you sought comfort in those words years ago doesn’t mean the lessons you took away are not valuable now.”
I write all this not with the aim of any sort of professional distancing because who cares. I’m writing it to work through my own thoughts and feelings about it all—about extricating something from my life to which I was once privately and publicly attached. And it’s not something limited to the relatively brief run of Beach Slang, either. Like many 90s teens of the tri-state area, I was also once a fan of James’ old band, Weston. It was a musical bond that I shared with my best friends and even my first girlfriend. She and I spent our high school years going to their shows and listening to their records and singing their songs. She is still my best friend to this day and I owe so much to our longstanding friendship. I’m thankful for the memories we have and I’m grateful to the songs that soundtracked them. I would never abandon those dances we danced for anything in the world, but for now I must turn the music off.