Part of my late highschool soundtrack was Swans. I was introduced to them by way of their 1994 album, The Great Annihilator, which was their temporary (har har) “swan song” – what with it being the last classic Swans line up of Gira and Jarboe. Since it was released by Invisible Records (later to be reclaimed by Gira’s own Young Gods label), and because I was then a Pigface fan and into anything Invisible released, I dubbed it from a friend and then listened to it over and over and over. I remained a Swans fan for years, slowly accumulating their past discography, and was extremely excited when Gira rebooted them in 2012 with The Seer. Lord, I was such a fan that I followed Gira and Jarboe’s side projects. And three years before The Seer was released, right before I defended my doctorate, one of the last live shows I attended (I’ve actually lost interest in seeing bands live because I’m getting lazy) was a Gira solo performance – preceded by James Blake – at the Drake in Toronto.
All of this is to say that it is massively disappointing when an essential part of your adolescent, and indeed post-adolescent, soundtrack is undermined by the reality that your beloved artist is a fucker. Here, in case my readers are unaware, I’m talking about the recent statements made by Larkin Grimm, a musician formerly part of the Young Gods family, about how Gira raped her years back. And then, because she was upset about being raped (because apparently she shouldn’t have been), dropped her from his label.
Look, I know that there’s a school of thought out there that says we should separate the work of art from the artist – maybe following a death of the author line of thought – and I really get that. We talk about the same thing in critical thinking, warning students about circumstantial ad hominems and how, regardless of a person’s circumstances and interests, it is fallacious to use this as an excuse not to judge an argument on its own merits. So maybe dismissing Gira’s music because of these rape accusations, and that they are most probably (according to an inference from the best explanation) not baseless allegations, is some kind of ad hominem art criticism. Obviously there are a lot of artists I enjoy who did extremely problematic things in their life times – and obviously I don’t think Tolstoy’s work should be dismissed because he was an abusive patriarchal asshole – but when it comes to artists in the present, and not dead assholes whose work now stands over and above their dismal lives, I cannot help but find it difficult to separate their work from their practices and commitments. Take Burzum, for example: the first time I heard them, before I was given a name to look up or told about Varg Vikernes, I thought the music was brilliant… But the moment I learned about Vikernes’ beliefs and activities there was no way I could stomach the music no matter how interesting it was (though, confession time, I have a guilty soft spot for Chelsea Wolfe’s cover of “Black Spell of Destruction” – is this liberalism because it’s slightly removed, thus allowing me to avoid the epistemic fallacy?) because Varg’s a fucking fascist. So yeah, my desire to listen to Swans now, which has been part of playlist for twenty years, has utterly evaporated.
I want to pause here, because I suspect I’m going to get a random google-warrior wandering onto this post chastising me about believing in these so-called “allegations”, and explain why Larkin Grimm’s accusations are convincing. Leaving aside the fact that, despite what MRAs falsely maintain, false rape accusations aren’t endemic – that is, while they do happen they are statistically miniscule – an inference to the best explanation should lead us to believe Grimm’s account over Gira’s denial. First of all, Grimm has nothing to gain from making this accusation: it came out, years later, because she had accused someone else of sexual harassment and realized that, in order to be consistent, she should be open about Gira even though, if she had made it to “get” something (because in the mind of the rape denier these claims are made to get things, whatever these things are) then it would have made much more sense to make it when she was dropped from Gira’s label rather than, as is consistent with rape victims who have been victimized by people they respected, living with the trauma and making excuses for the rapist; since she made this statement about Gira she has been re-victimized by the typical rape-sheltering abuse of online fans of Gira – why the hell would anyone that? – which anyone with half-a-brain would know would happen the moment such an accusation is made. Men in position of power, even if it is in a small corner of indie fandom, are able to count on fans leaping to their defense. Grimm’s silence for years is consistent with the profile of a woman who experienced the trauma of victimization and was scared to speak out about a man who wielded a certain amount of power in the indie music community of which she was a part. The only argument that undermines the fact that she wouldn’t be aware of this cost-benefit analysis is some bullshit appeal to female hysteria, and fuck that.
Secondly, Gira’s second statement regarding Grimm’s accusations is pretty bloody revealing. Earlier, supported by his partner, Gira referred to Grimm’s accusations as a “slanderous lie” and went to great lengths to deny any form of sexual encounter with Grimm, implying that she was obsessed with him, that he was a poor beleaguered dude dealing with a fangirl, and that no sort of sexual interaction happened. And then suddenly he makes another statement, undermining his previous claims, that there was an intimate encounter… That sort of resembles precisely what Grimm claimed only that it was consensual and he didn’t rape her when she was sleeping. Of course his current statement spins it so that it was just a romantic tryst, but it’s pretty telling that he initially denied this but is now providing a distorted non-rapey version of her “slanderous” story. Good Lord, now he even agrees with Larkin that he said “this doesn’t feel right” in the moment of rape, only with him it’s not rape but a consensual affair. This is seriously creepy.
Okay, with the inference to the best explanation out of the way, back to the problem of listening to Swans in the wake of this event. When I was kid getting into all of these indie and underground bands, one of the things that drew me to them was that, unlike the shitty mainstream music, they were cool. But it’s not very cool to think about the artist behind the music raping women when they sleep – that is the very essence, and violently so, of lame – just as it is not cool to realize that an artist is committed to a fascist politics. Hell, I stopped finding Thurston Moore cool when he cheated on Kim Gordon in such a way that he ended up looking like a creepy old dude, and the only reason I still find Sonic Youth to be cool is because of Kim Gordon and not because of Thurston Moore. And thinking of Gira as a rapey dude is far worse than this; it renders his music obnoxious. He ends up being the same as all those sad mainstream fuckers who take advantage of their groupies because they believe they have the right to use women who like their work.
Part of me wants to believe that I can listen to Michael Gira’s work pre-2008, and thus still appreciate the old Swans catalogue, since it is prior to the moment where he “allegedly” raped Grimm. Sadly, but far less sad for me than it is for women like Grimm who have had to deal with this bullshit for years, this part of my life’s soundtrack has been irrevocably ruined. As one of my good friends texted me upon hearing about this controversy: “I feel like it’s a matter of time before basically all of the male artists I like will turn out to be scumbag rapists.” Yeah, who next?