Artists: XXXTentacion and PWR BTTM
Albums: “17” and “Pageant”
Publication: Pitchfork, 2017
Writing Disorders: Broke Woke
It’s been two years now since Meaghan Garvey broke up with Drake. In a lengthy Pitchfork op-ed, she went through her reasons for the split, including an incident of “underhanded misogyny,” specifically a “legitimately toxic” event that featured an edited image of a married couple with the heads of Nicki Minaj and Meek Mill, only gender-switched. At the end of the divorce proceedings, Meaghan concluded that Drake is the “chilling logical extreme of the beta male’s triumph over the last decade” and as such, she was done with him and his music. Incidentally, that was two weeks after she gave a glowing review to Future’s Dirty Sprite 2, not exactly a seminal document of female empowerment from a man who “ain’t got no manners for no sluts.”
Okay, fast-forward two years. I brought up the Drake breakup because after a lengthy hiatus from Pitchfork, Meaghan took it upon herself to review XXXTentacion’s debut album 17 last week. For anyone unfamiliar with the man, let me give you a little primer. XXXTentacion, born Jahseh Onfroy, is a very popular Soundcloud rapper from South Florida. He’s gotten tens of millions of plays across digital platforms, and he’s only 19 years old. Drake is even accused of ripping off the song that launched him, “Look at Me!” Jahseh has also served a chunk of time in prison for a handful of criminal charges, and he has a trial scheduled for October. BUT — and this is where it gets interesting — in addition to the rather blasé ones that few people seem to care about (aggravated battery with a firearm), he’s also facing assault charges that a lot of people DO care about, namely punching and kicking a pregnant woman to the point where the “victim could not not see.” To me that’s the sort of “legitimately toxic” action that most sane people would probably consider “underhanded misogyny” at the very least, even if the punches were technically overhand or straight to the face. Pitchfork seemed to think so too, and senior staff writer Marc Hogan took the opportunity to probe the ethics of separating the musician’s behavior from the music in an article entitled “”XXXTentacion Is Blowing Up Behind Bars. Should He Be?”
So the fact that vehemently anti-Drake Meaghan reviewed an album made by an allegedly overhanded misogynist is bizarre enough, especially when she had this to say in the body of the review:
“it is soul-crushing enough to exist in 2017 without the obligation to engage with music made by even alleged abusers.”
It’s interesting that she used the word “obligation,” because the mere existence of this review raises the question of why Pitchfork’s management authorized it in the wake of editorial action taken against New York punk duo PWR BTTM back in May under similar circumstances.
Aside from their similar taste in caps-locked stage names, PWR BTTM have little in common with the rapper XXXTentacion. Up until the spring of this year, they were darlings of a scene at the vanguard of queer culture and politics, drawing comparisons to gay punk pioneers Pansy Division. But here’s where things get interesting. Just days before the release of the band’s sophomore album Pageant, accusations of sexual assault were leveled against lead singer Ben Hopkins, culminating with allegations on the day of the album’s release that he had repeatedly forced himself on an intoxicated woman.
The reaction was swift and brutal. Not only did the band get a direct and damning editorial entitled “Queer Kids Deserve Better than PWR BTTM” penned by Pitchfork’s Sasha Geffen, who states that “PWR BTTM’s music and behavior have always been inseparable,” but the sophomore album WAS NOT REVIEWED — not that week, not even to this day. And for a formerly praised band steeped in a burgeoning queer music scene that Pitchfork normally can’t shut up about, this was a big deal. It wasn’t coincidence. This was a powerful publication putting its foot down on the throat of an otherwise high-profile indie band seen to be at the forefront of modern progressive politics. Allegations were enough, and the message was clear. It doesn’t matter if you make “complicated statements on what it means to be young and queer and confused and somehow othered.” If you’re even accused of abusing women, you don’t get to enjoy the privilege of exposure on our website.
Given the punishment meted out to PWR BTTM, it made sense that Pitchfork would apply the same blacklisting to XXXTentacion, since he hasn’t been exonerated from the assault charges in the months since Marc Hogan’s editorial. Yet six months after running that article designed to explore the ethics of even listening to music made by a man accused of despicable crimes, Pitchfork nonetheless decided to greenlight an 11-paragraph review of the 22-minute debut album that Anthony Fantano pithily described as being akin to “really dreadfully boring emo-folk” and that Meaghan Garvey herself rated a humdrum 6.5. Oddly enough, her review of Lil B’s 8.5-rated “masterpiece” just a week earlier clocked in at a mere seven paragraphs. Mediocrity needs more explanation apparently.
Okay, so now we run into the obvious question. Why did Pitchfork review XXXTentacion’s album but not PWR BTTM’s even though anyone with half a brain can see that Ben Hopkins and Jahseh Onfroy are both facing odious charges of crimes against women? Well, Pitchfork would have you believe that there’s a level of necessity at play here. Here’s the headline emblazoned below the garden-variety rating:
“The reasons it is difficult to listen to can overshadow the need to listen to it.”
Reading that, I immediately asked myself why I needed to listen to an album rated 6.5 by a publication that routinely dishes out sixes like molly on a mixtape, or why I needed to listen to it any more than the new Deem Spencer or Filthy Friends albums since they’re rated at exactly the same musical caliber. And even today I find myself asking why I “need” to listen to this more than other popular recent albums that Pitchfork hasn’t reviewed but were nonetheless recorded by people who aren’t facing aggravated battery charges. What about Tyler Childers or Steven Wilson? I mean, they don’t have 92 million Soundcloud plays, but they’re movers and shakers of their respective genres, and I don’t doubt that fans and curious listeners alike would be interested in a Pitchfork writer’s take on their latest efforts.
But more importantly, why do we “need” to listen to 17 any more than we “need” to listen to Pageant, especially when you could easily argue that the latter deals with prescient, highly personal social issues that the average Pitchfork reader finds important?
Meaghan explains why. Apparently it’s because this man is depressed — like REALLY depressed, and not the kind of ho-hum depression that countless musicians have struggled with or continue to struggle with during the course of their careers:
“But if the songs on 17 often feel like unfinished thoughts, well, that’s what existing inside the black hole of depression and PTSD feels like.”
“And for those who have suffered from mental health issues, it’s hard not to relate, on some primordial level, to the visceral despair here.”
“X seems sincere in his hope that his words might be a balm to others in pain.”
“Others in pain” …that sounds familiar.
So I guess the takeaway here is that the palpable mental anguish made 17 worth reviewing because it’s a harrowing document of a man’s descent into the void. Well, let me pose this question. What if Ben Hopkins brought up struggles with mental illness in an interview or touched on the sore point of a difficult home life in his formative years like Jahseh Onfroy did? What if he kicked off Pageant with a spoken-word track identical to the one on 17, intoning solemnly into a microphone about how he made this record “in the hopes it will help cure or at least numb your depression”? Is that a signal that Pageant is suddenly worth critiquing and that we “need” to listen in order to better understand why a pitiable product of a bad upbringing and clinical depression allegedly forced sex on someone? Does it demand a shift in focus to the man’s struggle with mental health so long as the charges against him are given cursory mention in the fourth paragraph?
I wouldn’t be surprised if the decision to blacklist Pageant was partly an act of contrition for running a review of the latest Swans album in 2016 despite rape accusations against band leader Michael Gira. In her editorial about PWR BTTM, Sasha Geffen acidly referred to Swans’ ability to embark on “unremarkable album cycles” despite the allegations, even though the band has only released one studio album since those allegations surfaced and I’m not sure how that constitutes a cycle. But even that doesn’t explain why 17 was reviewed and why it’s apparently so much easier to separate Onfroy’s behavior from his music, especially since he only has one “album” to his name, PWR BTTM has two, and Swans have at least 14. Also, if Pitchfork’s managers realized the error of their ways in giving publicity to Swans and tried to make up for it by blacklisting PWR BTTM, then wouldn’t it make a hell of a lot more sense to continue the policy a few months later with XXXTentacion instead of reverting to the “separation” defense?
As much as I don’t want to believe it, the cynical side of me says there’s a driving force behind their ultimate decision, and it has plenty to do with politics of “woke,” as Meaghan calls it. I don’t think it takes a genius to observe the overall level of immunity that rappers and the genre as a whole enjoy from an increasingly woke music press while the last two years have seen plenty of editorial broadsides against other genres, particularly when it comes to sexism and misogyny. And I also don’t think the disproportionate level of scrutiny exists because of the popular kneejerk explanations that misogyny in rap is a dead horse beaten too many times or that those who still see obvious sexism rampant in the music just don’t understand the culture. Ponder for a moment what the reaction might be if someone like Mark Kozelek beat XXXTentacion to the punch and sang about how he “took a white bitch to Starbucks” and “that little bitch got her throat fucked.” I have a feeling there’d be a slightly more visceral reaction than Meaghan Garvey’s charitable description of an “inhospitable introduction” to the subgenre. Yet somehow we end up with Laura Snapes hammering Slim Twig’s “ally”-to-women album on the same day that Future gets the “Best New Music” designation from Meaghan. That’s a weird kind of woke.
It’s also worth noting that the discrepancy in consequences for PWR BTTM and XXXTentacion extends beyond Pitchfork. After the allegations against Ben Hopkins surfaced, PWR BTTM was dropped by Polyvinyl, which also ceased production and distribution of Pageant and issued a statement saying “There is absolutely no place in the world for hate, violence, abuse, discrimination, or predatory behavior of any kind.” The album was also removed from the streaming services Apple Music and Spotify, and the duo were forced to cancel their tour because of the upswell of pressure from both listeners and fellow musicians. Well, apparently there’s still a place in the world for 17, since it’s still available on Apple Music, and XXXTentacion’s label Empire still released his album last week when they could have at least waited until his trial concludes in the fall. Onfroy has had to cancel tour dates, but not because of pressure stemming from his assault charges, instead most recently issuing a statement that “I am and must choose to maintain my mental health and physical health before anything.” Well, apparently we “need” to listen to that because The Pitch didn’t make a point of saying that rap kids “deserve better.”
If I’m being shortsighted or unfair to a complex situation, then I’m open to suggestions on how I can better wrap my head around this. What’s the actual takeaway here? That we’re supposed to split hairs on our level of moral indignation over physical assault of a pregnant woman versus sexual assault of a non-pregnant one? I don’t think that’s a hell of a lot better in the absence of an official explanation than suggesting that MAYBE one musician got treatment with kid gloves because he’s a rapper of color and the other got hammered with brass knuckles because he’s a white New York punk. Who knows? Maybe it was purely a business decision. Maybe Pitchfork decided that “Soundcloud rap” has a wider audience than queer-oriented punk and thought getting in on its popularity was worth the double standard it might raise for people actually paying attention. Is that a better explanation? Or maybe literally NO ONE in the Pitchfork contributor dugout agreed to write a review of Pageant and the editorial staff couldn’t do anything about it because the allegations surfaced so close to the release date. Maybe Meaghan raised her hand to bite the bullet and review 17 for the sake of critical posterity and Pitchfork gave her the go-ahead because enough time had elapsed.
Who the hell knows.
But regardless of what I think about this, it still boils down to the hard decision faced by any music publication, not just Pitchfork. Do you try to maintain an air of impartiality in order to review an album for the sake of critical inquiry even if the artist has been accused of crimes you find repugnant? In other words, do you act out Meaghan’s fantasy of “receiving 17, X’s first official album, on unmarked CD or anonymous zip file” with no knowledge of him otherwise? Or do you draw a moral line in the sand and refuse to give the time of day to artists who cross it as Pitchfork did with PWR BTTM? Either way has its pros and cons. Personally I wouldn’t have reviewed either album because I don’t enjoy queer-oriented punk any more than I do listening to something that “sits somewhere between Staind and unplugged Chris Cornell.” Call it a cop-out, but I guess I’m just old-fashioned and enjoy the luxury of choosing which music deserves my opinion.
But I will say this. I do have a problem with UNEVEN application of a blacklisting policy when the charges against two different fledgling artists are hovering around on the same plane of reprehensible. It doesn’t look good, and it certainly isn’t “woke.” And I think at the very least it merits an explanation.