Partial artwork provided by Margaret Deignan
We’ve all been stuck inside, waiting for something new, for what seems like endless months. In the meantime until it is safe to leave the house uncovered, many have been taking weeks long deep delves into their favorite movies, tv shows, and music. Within this social media age, you could have equal diets of the private lives of celebrities along with their creative output. Coinciding with these two facets of our modern pop culture, numerous calls campaigns of cancellation for some notable artists have arisen in recent years. Starting with a more underground origin, they’ve increased to an almost bi-weekly rate.
It’s not surprising that we’ve ended up in this perspective of hyper-analysis. The label of “canceling” something is a recent addition to the history of boycotting, which boiled down to its simplest terms is what canceling really is.
Boycotting has been an influential practice to incite political change since at least 1790 when British abolitionist citizens boycotted slave-produced sugar products in the arguably first organized boycott. People found that taking money away from unjust industries actually led them towards the change they desired, which led them to gain more prominence. Boycotting took a more conventional turn in the early to 20th century, with events like the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Delano grape strikes, and The 1980 Summer Olympics. Mostly with the burgeoning civil rights movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s, these affairs were broadcast on the new medium of television and plastered within newspapers; these boycotts became some of the most defining images of their era.
With the technological revolution of the past two decades and the blending of the personal and public, the beginning of digital boycotting kicked off in corners of various social media platforms. It’s tricky to find an exact starting point, but most cite the Tumblr blog Your Fave Is Problematic. Started to document and bring awareness to questionable photos, quotes, and artistic choices by famous people, it was one of the first of its kind; It used a social media stage to show that these actions should be both familiar to and questioned by the fans.
I remember reading it myself back in my days of being an affected teenager on Tumblr. Both with this blog and the overall call-out community of that era, it really awoke me to how actions I would’ve previously shrugged off or not even noticed can really be perceived in a completely negative way by someone with different experiences than myself. It was an important wake-up call for myself and my first introduction to the ties between social activism and media consumption.
While Your Fave is Problematic kept to a smaller subsection of the internet until it’s ceasing in 2016, the spirit of the blog drifted into the burgeoning call-out culture that was bubbling on other social media platforms. The term “canceling” is only a recent addition to the already existing culture. Vox writer Aja Romano attributes the term to a bit from an episode of the Vh1 reality show Love and Hip-Hop: New York. Romano also describes how Twitter became the most popular platform to showcase reasons for someone’s cancellation.
“From there, the idea of canceling began to disseminate from Black Twitter throughout 2015, used as a reaction to someone doing something you disapproved of—either jokingly or seriously. As it caught on, however, the term began to evolve into a way of responding not just to friends or acquaintances, but also to celebrities or entities whose behavior offended you.”
In recent years, it has become a more commonplace phrase with the MeToo movement and more momentous cancelation campaigns. Rather than the previous focus on microaggressions, more widespread campaigns showcased more intense and serious crimes. The #MeToo movement drew its attention to decades of sexual abuse. This was the case of Harvey Weinstein, the first widely seen object of scorn for this movement.
This cultural development clashed hard with my education. I was in a Women’s History class that year, my last year at high school; with every fresh outing and incident, my teacher would print off tons of articles for us to read, dissect and discuss within the class. It made what I was learning seem real, not so distant from my own reality and experiences; it made me present in my history and where I would go forward.
It wasn’t surprising to me that a powerful man like Weinstein would take advantage of women in the search of opportunities, the cover-up and going forward was what really troubled me. Some of these people that were publicly shaming Weinstein also stood in honor when Roman Polanski’s The Pianist won the Best Picture Oscar in 2004. If those people would defend a man who fled the country to avoid rape charges, how can they say these things about this known monster with a clear conscious? Did they know? Were they scared of vengeance or blacklisting? Or were they totally aware of everything going on and decided to turn away to keep their careers intact?
This paradox has made many, including myself, have a coustic relationship with the media they consume. Anybody at any time could be exposed as committing heinous crimes, thus tainting the indirect relationship we have to these people who make stuff we enjoy. Some often think this an evolution of our politically correct culture, where every action can be perceived as having some negative effect on some people. However, our past can often be just as disgusting, atrocious, and heinous as we think our present time may be. Where there might be some sort of innocence that is lingering, there are still wrinkles of rotten moments in our past.
Groupie Culture: a paradox of the past
Groupie culture rose to prominence in the latter half of the sixties, colliding with the counterculture and sexual revolution. In the earlier half of the decade, this culture began to bubble up surrounding American pop acts and the recent wave of British groups following the Beatles. This more sleazy side of rock and roll, however, despite its dangerous image, was still kept on the underbelly of the scene. They still were there though, especially with the rise of British Invasion era bands. The term “Groupie” also began to pop up around this time, being tied to female fans of The Rolling Stones. When the music got a little more experimental, looser, and more drug-influenced, the groupies began to have a more important place within the counterculture.
Rolling Stone defined them and all their eternal coolness in a now-iconic cover story from 1969. Writers Jerry Hopkins, John Burks, and Paul Nelson epitomized the groupie lifestyle within the first line.
She got her man. He was the cat they all were after and she got him! In the groupie’s place in the culture of rock and roll that makes her something. She was already something: She had already balled 17 (or 36 or 117) musicians (…) but now her status was elevated again. She had scored with this cat the first night he was in town. She might get him for the whole weekend. He seemed to dig her, you know; you can’t always tell, but he did seem to”.
This cover solidified the iconic groupie; a cool dressed young rock fan who’s obsessed with the musicians that she adores and wants to hang out with them. This would continue into the next decade as well, with the rock bands getting even larger and the lifestyle growing increasingly more excessive.
The troubling roots of misogyny also began to plant their seeds during this era as well. Despite the then ongoing sexual revolution, which allowed for casual sexual encounters, young women were often used and discarded by the musicians they adored. Some groupies understood the role that they played within the scene, While iconic groupies, like Miss Pamela Des Barres or Bebe Buell, were of legal age of consent when they began their quests, the groupies of younger ages began to arrive on the scene in the early ‘70s.
Dubbed “Baby” groupies because of their extremely young ages, with some of them being as young as 12. Mostly swarming around NYC and Los Angeles, music capitals even now, these girls would follow the stadium rock acts as well as the club residing or uprising stars of the early ‘70s. Eagles and Black Sabbath fans would mingle with David Bowie and New York Dolls fans; there was a lot of cross mingling with the
musicians and with the fans that would hang around. This included the “Baby” groupies, two of the most famous being Lori Maddox and Sable Starr.
Starr and Maddox were both uncomfortably young when they entered the music scene, both 13 and 14 respectively. With numerous relationships with older musicians under her belt, Maddox had a secret relationship with Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page at age 15, with some uncomfortable overtones throughout their time together.
“…Maddox got a phone call from Jimmy Page, guitarist and founder of Led Zeppelin, the biggest rock band in the world at the time. He invited her to his hotel and even sent a limo to collect her. ‘I felt like I was being kidnapped,’ she said. ‘I got taken into a room and there was Jimmy Page.”
Sable Starr showcased the darker side of this scene . Rumored to have lost her virginity to Iggy Pop at age 13, Starr was rumored to have relationships with countless rockstars at an intensely young age. She was interviewed about her groupie lifestyle with the short-lived glam rock magazine Star in 1973, when she was fifteen. While not explicit, she does describe experiences with much older rockstars, which somehow never garnered any legal action or investigation. Iggy Pop immortalized his time with Starr in the song “Look Away”.
“I slept with Sable when she was 13/Her parents were too rich to do anything/She rocked her way around LA/’Til a New York Doll carried her away”
The “New York Doll” he was referring to was guitarist Johnny Thunders, member of the eponymous group, who Starr ran away to live in New York with when she was just 16. Thunders, himself an intense drug addict, mistreated and abused Starr in more ways
than the obvious. She eventually moved back to California and gradually fell out of the scene once the music shifted towards punk, like many groupies of that time. Maddox has spoken out about her time as an underage groupie with an uncertain memory; she didn’t regret anything she did, but she did have some reservations about it. In an article for The Guardian by Thea De Gallier, Maddox spoke out about her problematic relationship with Jimmy Page.
“…the affair with Page was “the most beautiful pure love I thought I could ever feel. I’d only had sex once before in my whole life. I felt like I’d won the lottery.” She juxtaposes it with other experiences ‘where men have harassed me … it’s a different thing when you allow someone to be with you”.
Maddox also spoke about her late realization of how problematic her time with these musicians was. “I think that’s what made me start seeing it from a different perspective because I did read a few [articles], and I thought: ‘Shit, maybe,’” she says… Still, Mattix sounds conflicted – rapturous reminiscences (“honestly, I had a great time”) are followed by cautionary notes. “I don’t think underage girls should sleep with guys,” she says. “I wouldn’t want this for anybody’s daughter. My perspective is changing as I get older and more cynical.”
Maddox’s delayed realization of the disturbing background of her teenage years shows how prevalent statutory rape was and non suprisingly still is. It leads to many consumers of media wondering what they can still consume with a clear conscience; it’s something I’ve deeply struggled with and continue to find myself within grey areas. David Bowie, another one of those rockstars meddling within that early ‘70s scene, took
Maddox’s virginity when she was just 15. I listen to him all the time, adore his work, and have deeply intense memories attached with him and his music. I’ve built up a false idea of who Bowie was, what he means to my own life and the world at large. With these music figures, who often are larger than life, this inflation of the person and their actions is quite common.
Many others have this similar paradox with their music consumption, particularly within the internet sector that is fascinated with classic rock. These people have been canonized, lionized and cemented into the history of pop culture. Their roots rip up our modern sidewalk, both with the beauty and detriment they caused. It no doubt will lead to hypocrisy from fans and music critics, as it’s difficult to separate the art when you’re profiting a problematic artist. We all can’t watch Good Will Hunting on VHS or listen to The Smiths exclusively on CD, we can try, but there is going to be overlap somewhere with some artists.
I am no doubt a hypocrite with the music I consume. While I don’t condone any of the problematic actions of the music I listen to, I still continue to listen to it; with no less than an anxious conscience. But on the other hand, I find it a lot easier to write off or ignore artists like 6ix9ine, R. Kelly, and Aerosmith who’ve committed the same
crimes as these men I love. This is probably easier since I don’t have any real attachment to the music. Still, we all have some sort of hypocrisy with the music we deem unable to listen to.
However, in some cases, certain artists are irredeemable; in these cases, their actions often infect and scar whatever they’ve created. While we can learn about the
diva tendencies of our favorites, this isn’t a cancelable factor. When the figure begins to use their position to harm others however is when a line in the sand should be drawn to keep those people out.
One example is that of MySpace scene band Blood on the Dance Floor, who’s lead singer Dahvie Vanity has been accused of multiple accounts of sexual assault, grooming and overall nefarious behavior. With the overwhelming amounts of accusations, evidence, and the unremorseful attitude of Vanity make it impossible to ever listen to his music with a clear conscience. Similar to R. Kelly, who also has a defensive attitude towards his proven crimes, people who behave this dangerously do not deserve to be redeemed; they’ve hurt fans, directly and indirectly. They’ve shown themselves to be destructive so we’re better off moving away from figures like that.
How to comprehend the actions of some of our favorite creators is only one half of the debate; the other being, people who act in this manner shouldn’t be allowed to shove their skeletons away, waiting for a leaked thread on twitter to expose the truth. The fact that we buried these deep truths for so long has led to our modern cancel culture of hot spotlights. With our musicians, we shouldn’t take the good with the bad. We deserve artists who aren’t criminals and contemptible. We deserve artists who make both amazing music and are stand-up humans away from the spotlight. If these artists keep screwing up behind the scenes, they should deserve to be called out for it and, if the crime is redemptive, maybe even come back. But until then, we as fans should be educated about our favorite artists and make decisions on who we feel best listening to.