Photo by Lilian Cai
Power lends itself to abuse. Sun Kil Moon played another show recently, and Mark Kozelek allegedly said something gross, creepy, and abusive about a woman journalist. As John Mulvey noted in his review of the show for Uncut, the acclaimed singer-songwriter reportedly called her out by name for reasons that were unclear, then started singing “a spontaneous song about the writer — a woman — about how she ‘totally wants to fuck me’ and how she should ‘get in line, bitch.'”
This is not surprising, because Kozelek has leveled the B-bomb at women writers in his songs before as part of his well-documented, semi-comic feud with The War on Drugs. This is also not surprising because I’ve personally seen Kozelek make inappropriate comments to young women in his audience before. When he played Pygmalion Festival last September, he insinuated that he would like to see a woman in the front row naked. He was in an auditorium on a college campus; I don’t know if the woman was a college student, but she could have been.
Kozelek harasses people at his shows, but he is hardly the first or only musician to do so. His behavior stands out in part due to the quality of his music, which is soft, sympathetic, and deeply attuned to the nuances of human suffering. I am disturbed by and disappointed with his antics, and I will probably never see him play live again. But I don’t know if a Sun Kil Moon boycott solves the problem that Kozelek makes obvious. He is an easy indication of a larger power dynamic that lends itself to abuse on a much wider scale.
Photo by Ted Maider
Last year, I saw Queens of the Stone Age play Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, and lead singer Josh Homme kept up a running joke about having fucked somebody’s mom. That’s middle school stuff, throwing “your mom” jokes at another dude — it’s silly, juvenile fun, but it’s also weird as an insult when you think about it. Should the guy be more offended because Josh Homme fucked his mom against her will, or because she wanted to? Or, was it against his will? Is that funny? Last month, Mike Patton kept up a similar gag at the first Faith No More show in Chicago in more than a decade. He singled out some guy in a Behemoth T-shirt and kept fake-flirting with him, speculating about the state of his boner. It’s funny because it’s two guys, and Patton assumed this other guy was straight, and of course there’s no sexual tension between them, but what if there were? Is that homophobic? I think so, but there’s Roddy Bottum up on stage too, openly gay and in a rock band and getting well paid.
If you go to shows, you’ve probably seen this stuff, especially if you go to shows where the music is unapologetically masculine. Both Faith No More and Queens of the Stone Age invoke the middle school locker room because their music taps into something comic and sexual at a primal level. But singers say these things for another reason: because they can. They are on a stage in a room full of strangers, and they are asked to be loud, and no one else has the volume to talk back if they don’t like what they hear.
The stage itself comes loaded with histories of male power and desire. In 1964, The Beatles played one of the most iconic American stages, gracing The Ed Sullivan Show with “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”. Before that, Elvis Presley changed popular music forever with the way he moved his hips. Male sexual desire sold rock ‘n’ roll in its early stages, and the dynamic of male performer and screaming female fan became set in the country’s television-enhanced consciousness.
Don’t forget that John Lennon used to beat women offstage. The stage — the core physical infrastructure of music culture as we know it — can be empowering, but it can also immunize people from repercussions of behavior that might not otherwise get a pass. The rock club has a power divide built into it; one side elevates performers and pumps their music through loudspeakers, while the other puts people in a room where they have to hear everything the performers say.
The image of women on the side of that power is still uncomfortable for some men, though women have been making music forever. Ask any woman performer who’s been given “advice” after her set, or openly harassed onstage, or who’s had her settings bungled by the sound guy. These infractions seem harmless, but they are a way of policing the boundaries of the stage as a space reserved for men.
When you give Mark Kozelek — or anyone — a microphone and allow him to take a stage, you give him real, physical power. You privilege his physical standing within the performance room. I am not saying Sun Kil Moon should never play again. I am saying that venues and their booking agents should be sensitive to what it means to give power to people with a history of abusing it. I am saying that women go to shows and that women may be less likely to spend money on venues and festivals that willingly create toxic environments.
Photo by Kris Lenz
Maybe a feminist reimagining of popular music doesn’t just involve putting more women onstage. Maybe it includes creating spaces without stages: where power is fluid, where no one can play god, where art can be shared without elevating artists three feet above their audiences. Some of the most powerful concert experiences I’ve had have taken place in intimate, atypical venues, like record stores and bookstores and farms: places where live music can be an active experience rather than a product to consume. Plenty of women and queer artists have used the stage as a platform for creative play. Maybe it’s time to expand that sense of play to the spaces that dictate how creative transactions unfold.