Led Zeppelin’s and David Bowie’s contribution to rock will still stand, but we also have the obligation to look behind the music and the culture that glorified and perpetuated it.
By Emil Hansen
Recently, we have seen a radical shift take place in the way the public understands the perniciousness of sexual harassment and misconduct. After the scandal that led to film producer and media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s downfall took hold in October, the viral #MeToo campaign has put gender relations and harassment claims under scrutiny–all in a way that has increasingly revealed the structure and inherent imbalance of power between genders.
Hopefully, 2017 will be remembered as the year when gender relations took an essential and long awaited step towards equality. It does, however, leave us with a list of difficult issues to discuss. How do we deal with art made by sexual harassers? Are cultural products as bad or subversive as their creators? Is sentencing in public space and on social media the way to go forward, or should we be reticent? What do we do with figures who have a known past of sexual misconduct but who have never been publicly defamed? How should we measure the consequences? Do we judge the past by current standards?
The questions are many and the answers few. That is not necessarily a bad thing – it gives room for a broad public conversation, but it is also an important discussion that should be undertaken with consideration and thoughtfulness.
A month ago, the Chicago-based music website Consequence of Sound published an article questioning the sexual misconduct of legendary rock musicians. It opens a newly energized look at rock music’s long history of sexually excessive behavior that has also included relations with minors and underage girls, often seen as part of (and excused by) the mythology and ethos of the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle.
A few days after Consequence of Sound posted its article, the acclaimed online music magazine Pitchfork dug deeper into the specifics of the issue, publishing a piece on the sexism of the prevalent post-millennium emo scene. It examined the allegations of sexual harassment directed against the alt-rock/emo band Brand New’s frontman Jesse Lacey.
The sexual misconduct of rock stars
Looking into the annals of rock history, stories of inappropriate behavior are not new. Actually, they have been present from the very beginning. Rock musicians always had a thing for young women – or, should we rather say, young girls. The all-American figure also known as the King of Rock and Roll, Elvis Presley, fell for his future wife Priscilla Presley when she was just 14 years old and he was 24. They eventually married when Priscilla was 22.
This, however, was nothing compared to the story of rockabilly hero and “Great Balls of Fire” songwriter Jerry Lee Lewis, who, right when he was about to become rock’s biggest star, married his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown. The controversy that followed devastated Lewis’s career, nearly ending it for good (it took at least a few decades before he was able to make a comeback).
At this point, in the mid- to late-1950s, the rock ‘n’ roll mythology of sexual exploitation had yet to be established. The crucial period for that “elevation” was the 1960s and the ’70s: the rock star became a hero. A rebel against the mainstream and the conventional, the rock musician took on hero status to those who wanted to confront Western society’s conformity, the US war in Vietnam, and the systemic repression of the working classes as well as ethnic and racial minorities.
The rock star became a spokesperson, a protest singer, a voice of hope and change. But he or she was also more than this: he (because it was most often a he) mediated the frustration of a whole generation and thus became a myth. Entrenched in the wild and hedonistic lifestyle now widely associated with the rock music of the ’60s and ’70s, the rock star became, in the public eye, nearly untouchable, an almost godlike figure. That mystique remains.
However, even deities make mistakes, and it is time that we confront these head-on.
The lost virginities
In November 2015, the culture and dining website Thrillist published an interview with Lori Mattix (sometimes spelled Maddox) titled “I Lost My Virginity to David Bowie” and written by journalist Michael Kaplan. Here, Mattix chronicles her experiences from the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles in the early ’70s, where she was part of a larger group of “baby groupies” who hung around rock stars such as Jimmy Page, David Bowie, Iggy Pop, and Mick Jagger.
To some, Mattix’s story will be one of coming-of-age, sexual liberation, finding yourself, and falling in love for the first time. To others it will be one of pedophilia, statutory rape, and the abuse of a minor by famous, adult, and rich males.
Mattix describes how, at the age of 14, she was “terrified” when she met David Bowie the first time. She at first rejected his advances but ended up losing her virginity to him months later. The same night, she had a threesome with Bowie and another baby groupie, Sable Starr.
Even more disturbing is Mattix’s detailing of how she later met and fell in love with the Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page. At this point, Led Zeppelin was at the height of its success, one of the biggest rock bands in the world. Mattix was 14-15 years old and, according to her, Jimmy Page was so captivated by her he ordered Zeppelin’s manager to kidnap her. Mattix describes the arrangement:
“That night we all wound up at the Rainbow, where I got approached by Led Zeppelin’s manager Peter Grant. He was like 700 pounds and scary as hell. He said, ‘You’re coming with me, young lady.’ I wound up in a limo and didn’t know where I was going. But it was to the Hyatt. I felt like I was being kidnapped.”
“Felt like” is probably a mild way to put it. And she gives a vivid picture of how her feelings shifted from fear to joy over the course of the evening: “I got taken into a room and there was Jimmy Page. He wore a wide-brimmed hat and held a cane. It was perfect. He mesmerized me. I fell in love instantly.”
To anyone reading this seduction today, in the context of Weinstein and #MeToo, it is daunting, to say the least. It is also, unfortunately, representative of the behavior of the progenitors of rock. There’s an eerie moment of rock history resonance when Mattix talks about her mother’s knowledge of the relationship: “She knew that I was dating the biggest rock star in the world. She used to say, ‘My daughter is like Priscilla [Presley].’ I was Jimmy’s little angel.”
The list of these stories goes on and, as both the pieces from Consequence of Sound and Pitchfork have shown, reach into our present as well.
A relevant question to pose is what we (the public) should do about it. Clearly, today’s sexual misconduct should be spotlighted, its perpetrators called out. But we should also be wary of judging the past by current standards too fast.
An important aspect of the defense of Lori Mattix and her peers is their dependence on a liberal, if not directly feminist, argument. They were aware of what they were doing, and thought that they were in control of their bodies, the result of the sexual revolution of the late 1960s. As Mattix herself puts it when describing doing drugs and having sex with Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones: “The sex was very consensual.”
Are we ready to undermine a young woman’s right and autonomy to make her own decisions and explore her own sexuality, even if it includes older men? Would it be against the spirit of #MeToo and would it contradict the acts of female empowerment that are so crucial in the wake of the Weinstein scandal? Or does this issue dig deeper than those questions?
Even Harvey Weinstein clung to the rhetoric of sexual liberation in his official statement from October 5 in The New York Times, observing that “I came of age in the 60’s and 70’s, when all the rules about behavior and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”
It might seem hard to admit, but that quote is true. The culture was different back then.
However, that is not an excuse. What Weinstein and #MeToo have taught us is that, whether it be in the industries of entertainment, media, or politics, sexual harassment and sexual misconduct must be seen in a broader context. Often, they are systematized and recurring actions, inherently inscribed in the dynamics of power relations and hierarchy, where the few powerful men at the top behave badly at the expense of the women below them. As Weinstein assistant Lauren O’Connor stated in a memo quoted by the New York Times in October after the allegations broke:
“I am a 28 year old woman trying to make a living and a career. Harvey Weinstein is a 64 year old, world famous man and this is his company. The power of balance is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.”
The cultural revolution of the ’60s resulted in sexual liberation, at least for some, but it also gave men the opportunity to take advantage of this “freedom” and exploit it for their own sexual benefit. These dynamics were also part of the culture in the ’70s rock scene, where Bowie, Pop, Page, and Jagger were “liberated” to make sexual advances, their unbounded behavior reinforced by power, fame, and money. Like Weinstein, they were at the top of the hierarchy, preying on the girls and women below them – but unlike Weinstein, they went for the youngest they could get, and there have been no repercussions until now, 45 years later.
To better deal with this issue, now and in the future, it would be good to heed the words of actress, screenwriter, and film producer Brit Marling, also a victim of Weinstein’s harassment. In an opinion piece titled “Harvey Weinstein and the Economics of Consent,” published in the Atlantic, she convincingly argues that consent is a matter of power, and that power is a matter of economy. It might seem obvious, but clearly it is not, even in today’s political climate.
Independence, financial and social, enables independent choices. Being independent as a woman, as a male, as a minority, or merely as a human being, is not just a matter of inalienable rights. It is also a matter of economic strength, which is instrumental for the fight for fairness.
Led Zeppelin’s and David Bowie’s contribution to the history of rock will stand, but with the arrival of #MeToo we also have a political/ethical obligation to look — with a skeptical eye — behind the music and the culture that glorified and perpetuated it. We have to carefully examine the air-brushed celebrity images, deconstruct the rock ‘n’ roll myth, and see these rock deities for what they were and are: people who are just as capable of exploiting and demeaning others as anyone else. How else are we going to provide the equity and economic parity that is necessary for sexual harassment to be stopped? Power corrupts – even those who claim they are against the Powers-That-Be.
Emil Hansen is an MA student in Modern Culture at the University of Copenhagen and has just concluded a semester abroad at Boston University. He holds a BA in Musicology and is a frequent freelance music writer for the Danish cultural outlets Soundvenue and Devilution.