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Rex Orange County
Rex Orange County

Rex Orange County and the morality of artists

After the musician was charged with six counts of assault last week, heartbroken fans took to social media to burn their merch – but who is this helping?

It seems like every person has at least one artist who broke their heart with a grand, evil moral transgression. Maybe it was an actor or filmmaker or musician, someone whose work holds meaning and truth, a kind of art that builds an intimacy swiftly shattered following an allegation or accusation, usually of racism or sexual violence.

I remember exactly where I was when the news broke about PWR BTTM, a math-rock duo whose unabashed queerness in both music and presentation remains largely unmatched today. One member was accused of engaging in a repeated pattern of aggressive and inappropriate behaviour towards underage fans, the other member was accused of knowing and failing to react. Perhaps because the group was so popular with queer, social justice-oriented communities, the response was swift: they were quickly dropped from their label, had their upcoming tour and album cancelled, and disbanded.

On October 10, the news broke that pop musician Alexander O’Connor, known by his stage name Rex Orange County, was charged with six counts of assault allegedly having taken place over a two-day period in June 2021. He pled not guilty. Little is known about the details of the case, but one can only imagine the fear and trauma that would accompany six alleged assaults in two days.

I don’t intend to report on the case against O’Connor or speculate on his potential guilt or innocence. But shortly after the story broke, countless former fans created videos, tweets, posts and infographics confessing their personal heartbreak over the situation. This heartbreak is notably not sympathy for a victim – it is heartbreak over their own sense of betrayal from O’Connor himself. These posts, which amassed tens and hundreds of thousands of likes in a matter of hours, reframed the issue: Man Repeatedly Assaults Woman became Man Makes His Fans Feel Sad. Lost in all of this social media pity is any sympathy for the victim. Even worse, it becomes materially beneficial to make these types of posts as they trend; we know that likes and views and clicks, regardless of their origins, eventually translate to monetary compensation.

It’s perfectly normal to be upset to hear that someone whose work you respected has potentially committed actions you find reprehensible. But to record your sadness, perform it for a camera with trending keywords and hashtags, feels insensitive at best, and actively harmful at worst. It obscures the narrative, drowns out the core issue, and most importantly removes the victim from the discourse.

@tthecowboyangel burning my pony merch bye bye rex orange county jail x #rexorangecounty ♬ Corduroy Dreams - Rex Orange County

“I spoke with two friends about [Rex Orange County], each of us having little to say initially besides expressing disgust,” university student Norma, 21, tells Dazed. “One particular friend went as far as to call him a ‘vile man’, adding ‘I would never have expected this from him’, which shows how his music truly shaped our idea of him as a person. When things like this happen – allegations, accusations, trials – I always find myself torn between two sides: reticence to blame someone for something I don’t yet know is true, feeling bad for the potentially innocent person whose life is being torn apart, and yet understanding those who choose to make their own judgment, not having faith in the justice system.”

Some artists who are accused (and even convicted) of major social transgressions eventually go on to live perfectly normal lives and suffer next to no material consequences (Roman Polanski, Chris Brown). Others are promptly removed from the public eye and do not re-emerge. There is something to be said for the fact that artists whose audiences are largely comprised of marginalised groups tend to face the harshest social and professional blowback for their actions, while artists appealing to straight, white, and/or male crowds tend to be let off the easiest.

Around the time of the PWR BTTM controversy, I remember several comments from people wondering if they were still allowed to listen to their music. And last week, a TikTok about Rex Orange County, in which a young man attempts to use the scandal to promote his own music, includes the phrase “you found out about Rex Orange County SA allegations so now you can’t stream his music anymore”. Both of these approaches are troubling. Besides the obvious (that using a woman’s sexual assault to promote your own music career is exploitative and rank), both presume that there is some external authority dictating what art can and cannot be consumed. They assume that the reason to stop interacting with an artist’s work is because it is now socially unacceptable to do so. They place the social transgression of sexual assault above the material violence of sexual assault: the assessment of which content “can” and “cannot” be consumed boils down to whether or not it is socially acceptable.

I don’t listen to PWR BTTM now. The reason I do not listen to PWR BTTM is not because they are “cancelled”, it is because I cannot hear their music without thinking of the many young people (some of whom I know personally) who were exploited and taken advantage of in a space that was supposed to support and uplift young queer artists. The reason we should avoid content made by people who do bad things should be because we recognise the harm those actions cause and we empathise with the victims, not because of some social media consensus about what is now a bad look.

But here is an unfortunate truth: bad people can make good art. Bad people can make great art. Good people can make bad art. The conversation around “separating the art from the artist” is tired and played out; unfortunately, contemporary media tends to reward art based on its morality. Plenty of art that is uninspired or derivative or mediocre is lauded if its political messaging feels timely (Don’t Look Up, Saturday Night Live, Promising Young Woman). And this seems harmless – after all, if something brings attention to a pressing issue, should it not be rewarded? 

But it’s not this simple. Because if we believe that good politics make good art, then we believe that good artists have good politics and thus good morals and thus are good people. The musician who sings songs about growing like a sunflower is granted a halo of positivity; the television star who plays a wholesome father is granted an assumed kindness offstage. Victims then let their guard down, assume a level of safety, and then are particularly vulnerable to being exploited. For many predators (take, for example, the fall of Burger Records), their image of being anti-establishment allows them to actively discredit victims, dodge accountability and maintain their reputation, allowing for the continuation of abuse. If the allegations against O’Connor are true, then his wholesome image does not exist despite his actions, but instead directly embodies the type of man who uses images of softness and vulnerability as a cover for violent misogyny. Mimi, a college student and former Rex Orange County fan, tells Dazed that when heard the news, she felt “very shocked” for this reason. “[I] have always felt very safe in these kinds of spaces,” she says. “His aura and fan base is very kind and that ‘quirky’, ‘my first indie artist’ vibe.”

The soft boi turned alleged abuser; the actor who takes on the language of social justice to gain proximity to trusting fans; the photographer whose work is dubbed feminist enough to make up for decades of sexual assault allegations... these incidents are not self-contradicting, but prime examples of a culture that sees media as a commodity, one to be worn like a piece of logo-studded clothing, its value as a social signifier exceeding its actual material meaning.

Culture is produced industrially by multi-billion dollar corporations, production houses, and schools with impossibly large endowments. It is also produced by individuals – individuals that hurt each other, lie, and build their image on values they do not hold. To discuss sexual assault allegations as gossip, to use them as social currency or TikTok content, is to ignore the human impact of interpersonal sexual violence. It also distracts us from the specific cultural mechanisms that allow these manifestations of oppressive systems to repeatedly happen in the first place.