Content Warning: Mention of sexual assault
On Monday evening, I come home from class exhausted. I dump my backpack on the ground and collapse head first onto my bed, ready to scroll mindlessly on TikTok. It’s then that I first hear the news: Indie artist Rex Orange County has been charged with six counts of sexual assault. Within 30 minutes of finding this out, I see at least three more videos reacting to this news. One person takes their Rex Orange County merch out of their closet, one person laments that they have a tattoo based on his album, one person declares that they trust “absolutely not a singular man on this spinning rock after this one.”
I turn off my phone and go to dinner. It’s concerning how unsurprised I am, both by the news and by these reactions to it. The cycle feels a little too familiar: News like this comes out about a beloved, often male, celebrity, and we react with shock, betrayal and a trending Twitter hashtag before finding another well-dressed man to idolize. Rinse and repeat.
I’ve never been a big fan of Rex Orange County, so I don’t have the emotional investment that elicits a strong reaction. But with the internet’s continuous pattern of obsession and cancellation, I’ve seen plenty of celebrities I admired be “exposed” as problematic in some way. I know that it’s natural to feel surprised and betrayed when someone you love does something wrong. I get it — I just don’t like it.
Humanity has a long history of parasocial relationships, exacerbated by the rise of social media and influencer culture. We’ve become so used to seeing public figures as our friends, even interacting with them in similar ways (remember when Taylor Swift personally delivered gifts to fans for Christmas?), that the sense of betrayal when we find out they’re not who we thought they were is as deep as if it were someone close to us. This is especially true for musicians, the vulnerability of whose work can lead us to believe we know them well when in reality, most of us have never stepped foot in the same room as our favorite artists.
That disconnect is exactly how we end up in this situation. It’s what creates the “You think you know someone …” sentiment about people who none of us really know at all. But why does this keep happening? Have we not learned that just because a man wears a pearl necklace, it doesn’t mean that he’s a good person? It’s a phenomenon that echoes throughout the entertainment industry: We are quick to cancel famous women and quick to applaud famous men for … I don’t know, letting their daughters cut their own hair. We deem them feminists because they make a living off of professing their love for their girlfriends and are shocked when it proves to be a faulty litmus test once again.
To me, that’s why this public outpouring of grief seems a little bit ridiculous. To the TikTok user who writes, “Heartbreaking to have someone you loved disappoint you…” while peeling the Rex Orange County sticker off their record player, I want to shout, “You don’t know this guy!” Recording and posting a video of yourself throwing away your Rex Orange County vinyl is incredibly performative, an attempt to prove yourself as being on the right side of the conversation while centering your own sadness as a fan over concern and empathy for the survivor.
Other reactions are tinged with a reluctance to believe the allegations and a sympathy for the perpetrator that makes my skin crawl. As writer, actress and survivor Tavi Gevinson puts it, the “audiences’ infatuation with fame takes priority over a survivor’s needs.” Mourning the death of an artist’s career or their place in your Spotify Wrapped is so completely beside the point, only serving to reinforce their fame without reconciling with the real consequences of their actions and the people they harmed. After half an hour of combing through Rex Orange County fans’ tweets and TikToks, I felt like I needed to take a shower. “Nothing worse than waking up and finding out your favorite artist was charged with 6 counts of SA,” reads one TikTok. I can think of a few worse things.
The role music plays in our lives can be highly personal, and mistaking that for a connection with the artist is something we all fall victim to, myself included. But with Rex Orange County being only the latest in a consistent string of similar cases, I’m not sure how we learn from this. Will we ever stop idolizing people we know nothing about? Will we ever get it through our heads that self-proclaimed feminist men can be abusers too? As exhausting as it is to watch the cycle repeat itself, I’m left without a good answer. Reframing the conversation around empathy for the victim rather than our own devastation as fans is a start, but it doesn’t prevent us from being fooled again. Maybe if we held our favorite male celebrities to higher standards of feminism than the pseudo-political statement of nail polish, we might find ourselves falling into this trap less often.
Daily Arts Contributor Nina Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.