Over the past year, my husband looked newly aghast each time the #MeToo movement revealed yet another shocking example of predatory behavior in the film, music and media businesses. “I just don’t know any men like that,” he said, incredulous, after hearing yet another lurid story about a seemingly upstanding man.
“Yes, you do,” I said, with some frustration. “You just don’t know that you know.” Or, as a friend said to her husband who made a similar comment: “Wake the fuck up!”
The waves of revelations wore away my own compartmentalized memories about what it’s like to be a woman in the music business. The regional label-promotion guy who drove me around to radio stations in his car, the menacing sexual overtures he made to me, and how scared I was, in the middle of nowhere, wondering how I could get out of his car and who would find me if I couldn’t. The radio guys who grabbed my waist and slipped their hands down my back and over my ass, whose pecks on the cheek became unwelcome nuzzles on the neck. And much worse. The rock star I opened for who pursued me relentlessly, no matter how many times I rebuffed him, all in front of his band and crew — all of whom knew his wife and kids. The sudden hostility from a renowned musician in a private moment, the verbal abuse from another that threatened to become — and became — physical.
The stories I heard from other women were worse: some violent, others career-ending, all heartbreaking. We put up with it because Sex, Drugs and Rock’n’roll was the world we worked in, even if we only wanted to do our work. Life on tour was seductive, too — constant motion without responsibility. I remember insane nights at hundreds of bars, backstage dressing rooms and hotels around the world. For women, it all took place on a knife’s edge between seeming to belong to the club and real danger.
You can call Human Resources about “sexual harassment.” But who do you call when the behavior in question isn’t only tolerated but expected, encouraged, even applauded as part of a male artistic temperament that frames women as accessories without any regard for their experiences? Women were expected to adopt that temperament while being shamed for doing so. I was told, to my face, that the marketing plan for my first album was to make me seem “more fuckable.” The tolerance for “artistic temperament” wasn’t limited to artists, either: Before major labels reported to multinational corporations, many executives were just as out of control.
Early in my career, on tour with all men, I turned a blind eye to behavior that would have ended any relationship they had back home. It’s not unusual for men — and women — to behave badly on the road, and I’m sure dentist conferences have their share of debauchery. But the hotels they visit are the ones touring musicians live in. Only the music business has codified egregious behavior into a marketing plan, sold it to an audience as a vicarious thrill and welded it to a backbeat.
So why did I stay in the music business if it could be such a horror show? Because I never felt like I was in a business. I’m an artist, and I had to do my work or die inside. My open heart is matched by thick skin. And as I grew up, I realized that I could make better choices — about who I worked with, where I hung out, how I allowed myself to be treated. I shifted my focus from the road to the performance, put real effort into marriage and parenting, and learned to treasure friendships outside of my band. All of this changed my life. I was also just plain lucky, so I’m not smug about my resilience: Plenty of women make all the right decisions and still end up in bad situations.
There are also murkier moral issues that many of us wrestle with: How should we separate the art from the artist? And what happens to those artists who realize the damage they cause, express remorse and change? Do we forgive them? What about the men who “grow out” of bad behavior? I knew many men in my 20s who did evolve. Do we allow them to chalk it up to youthful indiscretion or freeze them in amber to effectively end their careers? Are there gradations of offense and corresponding consequences? I think so. There is an enormous difference between selfish promiscuity, coupled with appalling sexism, and sexting a 14-year-old, or rape. There is the redeemable and the unforgivable. And when we get the perspective that comes with time, hopefully there will be a consensus that forms a collective moral compass to guide us in making those determinations. I’ve forgiven plenty of men who acted like asses, fueled by ignorance and testosterone. I can’t forgive those who acted with real malevolent intent, driven by misogynist rage and the urge for physical dominance.
What happens in the present is as crucial as the insight we get from the past. Some women are still living these terrible stories, desperate to write their songs and play their music, and get the respect they deserve for doing so. But the music business wasn’t built for women. We’ve gained purchase through our own probity and by creating a community. It’s time to bring us into the larger community, to make a collective commitment to nourishing creative fire that doesn’t incinerate others.
I’m fortunate: I’m still as excited to show up for work, to write songs and perform, as I was 40 years ago. I surround myself with artists, men and women both, who are more interested in creating music than in gratifying their basest instincts. Every man and woman who’s paying their rent in Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song” deserves the same — on tour, in a studio, through life. We should all be able to say we just don’t know any men who make women — or children, or other men — collateral damage in the course of their creative fulfillment.