By Chris Troop
Instantly clicking with an album is a rare experience for me. Much to the chagrin of roommates and the passengers of my car, I’ve always been an extremely iterative listener – it normally takes me a few days of obsessive rewinding and looping for me to be totally convinced of any musical project. Cardinal, Pinegrove’s 2016 debut studio album, was one of those few precious exceptions. Evan Stephens Hall’s arresting quiver, lyrics bursting with sincerity and soft harmonies all underscored by distinctly emo-Americana instrumentation culminated in a brilliant mix.
I wasn’t alone in my sentiment. Pinegrove quickly became the hottest thing in Indie, thanks to what was seen at the time as a legendary tour and an unbelievably fanatic fan base – the self-christened Pine Nuts, who quickly tattooed themselves with the overlapping squares of the album cover. I unfortunately missed their Philly show in 2016 but promised myself I would catch them the next time they were in the city. I had felt spoiled with Cardinal anyway – I distinctly remember saving the album on my phone as a matter of principle.
It would only take a couple of months to feel extremely conflicted about my resolve to hold this album close to my heart and make sure I had it available at my fingertips. In late November of last year, Evan Stephens Hall penned a strange post on Pinegrove’s Facebook page, acknowledging that he had been accused of “sexual coercion” and that Pinegrove would cease touring. It eventually emerged that he had engaged in a relationship with a fan who was in a relationship at the time and had felt immense external pressure to satisfy Hall’s advances. For a band seemingly so in line with progressive sensibilities and so concerned with maintaining their gigs as ‘safe spaces’, this came at some personal shock to me. It felt strange that a band that had quickly become intimate to so many people, including myself, would be the next shameful exposé of the #MeToo movement. I honestly didn’t know how to process it and hesitated to return to an album that I was frankly obsessed with.
Last month I was finally forced to confront this predicament when Pitchfork released this article and Pinegrove announced that they would release their new project Skylight. While the piece was informative, detailing Hall’s journey into therapy and year of self-reflection, it seemed odd that Pitchfork, a magazine who have supported Pinegrove since their earliest days, felt it was appropriate to write what was effectively a redemption piece. It felt like they were covering for themselves and justifying any past or future support. Unconvinced and looking for answers as to “whether it was okay” for me to listen to the new project, for the first time, I was forced to fully consider the music listener’s role in the context of abusive artists.
Other problematic artists such as XXXtentacion, 6ix9ine and R. Kelly were always easy for me to avoid. Each of them committed obviously repulsive criminal acts and I hadn’t necessarily aligned any kind of identification with them. It sounds cheesy, but before Hall’s post I trusted Pinegrove. After reading a few more articles and attempting to become better informed, I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to come to an answer anywhere close to definitive. Stumped, I went to countless friends to ask what they thought. Two recurring questions emerged from those discussions:
“What constitutes an ‘abusive artist’”?
“Does your decision make a difference?”
Both of these questions require some kind of value judgement – they elicit the response ‘that’s up to me to decide.’ My distinction between an artist who is a convicted felon or an artist who treats women badly might not mean anything to someone else. At the same time, for every 1 person who refuses to listen to XXX, 10 new fans take their place. It’s not my place to answer either of these questions, but there are some factors which I believe might help someone reach a conclusion.
One factor that I believe to be relevant is time. Classic Rock and Roll has an enormously prolific history of sexual abuse – from Elvis’ beatings to John Lennon’s gaslighting on Yoko Ono. The “it was a different time” defense doesn’t excuse the actions, but it might excuse you listening to an old project, especially if it’s been totally ingrained in culture and many of the allegations have surfaced only years later. Supporting a new project or a current artist, however, is a different matter. Armed with the knowledge we are now privy to via social media and a much more scrutinizing public, being a fan of a contemporary artist isn’t just listening to their music. The fact that I know what Freddie Gibbs’ kid dressed up as for Halloween is indicative of that. Chances are, if you’re a fan, you know what an artist is up to. I will never be able to remove the place that Cardinal has in my heart, but once the news of abuse spread, I could choose not to listen to Skylight.
Content should also be a factor to consider. I have no issue with watching Woody Allen’s Love and Death – it’s a silly spoof of a Tolstoy novel. In the context of recent child abuse allegations, however, Manhattan – a story about a 42-year-old dating a 17-year-old girl – is unbelievably uncomfortable to watch. The same applies to musical content. An artist is egregiously out of line when the content of their songs actively talks (or even boasts) about the abuse they have doled out. At that point, downloading their music seems like an active greenlight. The feedback loop for the artist is conduct abuse à trivialize victim for art à share with audience à be praised. Being complicit to that kind of complacency and valorization of toxic behavior is highly alarming.
The reality is that the artist’s veil of secrecy is gone. Thanks to social media and how wedded artists are to their public persona, we know so much about the people making the music we listen to these days. Separating the art from the artist is impossible and not defensible. If you want to listen to an abusive artist, that is your choice, but it must be an active choice. I still don’t know how to feel about Pinegrove and I’m not going to disclose the conclusion I came to with them, but I did come to a decision and it is a decision that I should have come to faster. It’s almost impossible to draw up a set of rules as to how to assess what your listening to – the only rule is that you should.
If 2018 has taught us anything, it’s that we have a responsibility to vet the media we consume. Whatever decision one arrives at is impossible to influence, but I hope I have succeeded in forcing you to consider how you listen to music. Listening to music is an extremely private process and you don’t have to be held accountable for what you blast in your headphones when you’re walking to work or at the gym. The only person who can hold anyone accountable is you, and whether you care about a certain artist is absolutely your own choice. Just make a decision.