Seven years ago, I wrote about my love for New Model Army, a post-punk band from England.
I got into New Model Army in Kilbirnie Library, in the late 1980s. I was going through a bit of a punk/new wave thing at the time, and the library’s collection of vinyl LPs included one whose cover was a painted leather jacket, the words “only stupid bastards take heroin” disguised but still recognisable on the shoulders. That’ll do me, I thought.
In the decades since I’ve bought a lot of their records and merchandise and been to lots of their gigs. But no more, because the person who designed their record covers and their merch – someone I’ve met, someone I chatted to briefly in my previous life, someone whose art I’ve worn on my chest – turns out to really hate people like me and is very vocal about it.
So a band whose gigs used to feel like sanctuary – a band whose own Twitter bio says “we welcome everyone – equally” – is now a band I can’t go and see anymore, because rightly or wrongly I now worry that some of the band’s fans will share those views. I’m sure most don’t. But it only takes one person to beat you up.
It’s not the first time a band I loved has turned out to be problematic. The drummer of Teenage Fanclub (not the original one everybody liked) is similarly obsessive, and I’m told that the main songwriter in that other famously nice and decent band, Elbow, has also been venomous about people like me. So that’s two more former loves whose logos I won’t wear and who I’m not going to pay to see any more.
It’s as much a practical decision as a moral one. For me, gigs are an important release. They’re a source of joy, an opportunity to escape from the stresses and strains and sadness of everyday life. It’s impossible to have that transcendence when every time you look at the stage you see someone who doesn’t just hate you, but who spends an inordinate amount of their time trying to encourage others to hate you too.
Art can’t offer escapism when the artist is one of the people you’re trying to escape from.
And it’s not just transphobes. People are awful in all kinds of ways, and the older I get the more I discover that people I revered or whose art really connected with me were terrible. It sometimes feels like somebody is going through all the records, films and books that mattered to me and poisoning them. That sensitive author? Beat his girlfriend. That delicate lyricist? Howling racist. That comedian? Sexual predator. The soulful songwriter? Rapist.
I know I’m not the only one to do this: now when someone tells me to check out a new band, a new author, a new comedian, the first thing I search for isn’t their material. It’s whether they’re problematic. All too often, they are. And that applies even at a local level. I was speaking to a promoter the other day who has a never-book list of artists proven to be problematic for reasons ranging from sexual predation to Nazism. It’s a long list.
The artist is not the art, I know. But the artist can poison the art. I can’t watch Louis CK now I know what he did to women, or watch the UK version of The Office without seeing Ricky Gervais the transphobe rather than David Brent the character, or feel the connection with the songs of The Smiths since Morrissey’s racism became apparent.
I feel it most in music, because music is such a personal thing: the good stuff becomes more than just a soundtrack. It becomes part of your identity. Part of your life. So when the people who make it turn out to be terrible, that news feels personal too. The more their art mattered, the more it feels like a betrayal.
I’ve joked before that being trans has saved me a lot of money, because I don’t knowingly spend money on people or things that are problematic. But I’d much rather have music than money.