How Do You Solve A Problem Like Swans?
The line outside the Swans show swells and shrinks. Under a glowing marquee, men with tattoos and women in all black wait their turn to show their driver’s licenses. It’s mid-July, and the experimental rock band are about to headline their second night at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, a 500-capacity club just north of DePaul University in Lincoln Park. Swans won't play until midnight; by 10:30, when the venue’s doors open, the sun has been down long enough for a few leather jackets to appear among the attendees, layered over band t-shirts that depict a disembodied set of bright, white teeth.
A handful of people smoke outside. It’s never a long line. Lincoln Hall splits entry across two doorways in order to cut down on wait times when there’s enough demand, but tonight people file into the left door only. A single bouncer checks IDs. The woman working the door tells me there are “at least 50” tickets still available.
Some of the people trading cigarette smoke on the sidewalk look like they’ve been around long enough to have followed Swans since the 1980s, when the band emerged from the fringes of New York City’s post-punk scene. Swans are hard to pin down; their early recordings, like 1983’s Filth and 1984’s Cop, established a lurching, spittle-streaked breed of noise rock that sounds little like anything else from the era. By 1987’s Children of God, they’d slowed their songs, tried clean singing and acoustic guitars, and adopted an almost devotional attitude toward sex, love, drugs, and often violence. Their music offered the escape of quasi-religious fervor directed at humanity’s baser drives.
Swans disbanded for the first time in 1997, then regrouped with different members 13 years later, in 2010. Their second coming sounds like the culmination of their initial run: sometimes abrasive, sometimes tender, always enormous. Their live shows leave your ears ringing for days. Many describe their concerts as a transcendent experience.
In 2014, Swans’ show at Lincoln Hall sold out so quickly that the venue added a second date, which also sold out. They were touring their 13th studio album, To Be Kind, a varied musical undertaking that ran as long as a feature film and was studded with indie-famous collaborators like St. Vincent and Cold Specks. Two years later, on what’s been billed as the final tour for the band’s current incarnation, they haven’t sold out either of their Chicago dates.
There are a few reasons why Swans might not fill Lincoln Hall tonight. Both of their concerts are taking place after Pitchfork Music Festival wraps up for the day, meaning the city is dotted with associated parties and official after-shows — in other words, Swans have competition. Throughout the late afternoon and evening, festival attendees spill out of Union Park and wander off, to other shows or who knows what.
These are also the first shows Swans will play in Chicago since the band’s frontman and creative nucleus, Michael Gira, was accused of rape by a former collaborator, Larkin Grimm.
In February, Grimm posted an account on Facebook of an incident she said occurred in 2008, when she was signed to Gira’s Young God label. The post (which has since been deleted in the wake of the online abuse that Grimm endured after sharing it) alleged that Gira and Grimm had been out drinking with friends after they’d wrapped recording sessions on her album Parplar. “I’m a pretty lightweight drinker. At the end of the night it became obvious that I was too drunk to drive home, too drunk to even walk straight,” she wrote. “Michael invited me to stay with his friends. They said they had a bed for me and that Michael would sleep on the floor. I trusted them and agreed.”
Some time after she passed out, Grimm alleged, she woke up to Gira penetrating her without a condom. “As I opened my eyes, he said, ‘Uh, this doesn’t feel right,’ and he pulled out.”
“I loved him more than I have loved just about anyone,” she wrote, “but I did not want to have sex with him, and I made that very clear over and over.”
The post made headlines on music websites like Pitchfork and Stereogum. Gira quickly responded, calling the accusations “horrible and untrue.” His wife, Jennifer, also took to Facebook to deny Grimm’s allegations. In a statement issued the next day via Swans’ publicist, Gira described the alleged incident as a “consensual romantic moment that fortunately was not consummated” and “an awkward mistake.” “My hope is that Larkin finds peace with the demons that have been darkening her soul since long before she and I ever met,” he said.
Four months later, Swans released their 14th album, The Glowing Man, and embarked on a world tour. Like To Be Kind and 2012’s The Seer before it, the new album was rated highly by critics. A representative for Swans told me that preorders for the album had sold at roughly twice the rate of To Be Kind, and that tickets for the tour had been selling at approximately the same rate as Swans’ 2014 tour.
Discussions around sexual assault and abuse have changed dramatically since Swans began making music more than three decades ago. Rape allegations involving a certain tier of musicians in rock’s early decades are now disturbingly common, as with The Huffington Post’s harrowing 2015 exposé of Runaways manager Kim Fowley; with time, it has become more difficult to sweep such accusations under the rug. Social media allows people without national platforms to tell stories, and stories about sexual abuse tend to spread, especially when the alleged perpetrator is well-known.
Grimm’s story did spread, but its reception has been ambivalent. No dates were canceled after Swans’ tour was announced in April, according to the band’s representative and their booking agent. The Glowing Man’s promotional cycle rolled out on schedule, seemingly without a hitch.
At Lincoln Hall and via email, I spoke to 22 Swans listeners about Grimm’s accusation and its aftermath. Many had loved Swans’ music for years, and many felt conflicted about continuing to consume it. Others, like a concertgoer I spoke to named Adam, didn’t find that their experiences as fans were affected by Grimm’s account.
“It’s important to separate the artist’s personal life from the music,” Adam tells me. “I try not to let it impact my experience.”
Adam is here with his friend Devin. Both saw Swans play Lincoln Hall two years ago, and both bought The Glowing Man as soon as it came out. “It seems like a very neutral situation. I don’t think it’s actually obvious that he did rape the woman,” Devin says.
When allegations of sexual assault or other interpersonal crimes surface against beloved artists, fan bases must decide what to believe and whether their beliefs will change the way they consume the art they love. Hollywood is currently being roiled by this tension, as filmgoers sort out how and whether Nate Parker’s acquittal on a 1999 rape charge affects their viewing of his film, The Birth of a Nation. The same questions apply in music, where fans, publications, labels, festivals, venues, record stores, and promoters make decisions about whether such allegations will impact how they support an artist who has been accused of being an abuser. There is no rulebook for how to interpret these allegations, and their repercussions tend to vary, often for reasons that remain opaque.
When Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst was accused of rape by a then-anonymous xoJane commenter in 2013, his career took a tangible hit. “The album he was promoting at the time, Upside Down Mountain, earned some of the worst first-week sales of his career,” a recent Vulture profile of the singer reports. “Numerous major outlets declined coverage of Oberst, according to his publicist, because of the scandal or because Oberst was not willing or legally able to discuss the situation. The Daily Nebraskan published a column in which the writer urged readers to stop buying Bright Eyes records.” After seven months, the accuser fully recanted, disowning her previous statements as “100% false.” People in the Bright Eyes fan community had found that details of her account didn’t add up, and information surfaced suggesting that she had posted false and manipulative information online before.
Grimm’s story cannot be proven or disproven by internet sleuths, and neither she nor Gira is taking legal action of any kind. The wording of their statements suggests that both agree that a sex act took place that night in 2008. Where they differ most clearly is on consent — whether Grimm gave consent, or whether she was even capable of doing so. This ambiguity, coupled with a lack of legal proceedings, has resulted in a quiet response from both the band’s followers and the music industry at large. No columns urged readers to boycott Swans’ discography, and Gira has done plenty of interviews supporting the band’s new album.
Other cases can gain momentum due to the presence of multiple accusers. This past January, the music publicist Heathcliff Berru left his job after multiple female musicians accused him of sexual harassment or assault. The allegations were spearheaded by Amber Coffman, a vocalist and guitarist who has played in the indie rock band Dirty Projectors; following a series of viral stories about the allegations on music websites, Berru issued a broadly phrased public apology, though he denied raping and drugging women.
Reality is built socially, and people tend to look to others to decide the truth of events they did not personally witness. Multiple accusers lend credence to the idea that someone is an abuser. So does investing in a legal attack, as widespread support of Kesha in her battle against alleged rapist Dr. Luke seems to indicate. The disavowal of an alleged abuser by their friends or colleagues may also stir public empathy for the person who claims to be their victim. To date, Gira’s bandmates and label associates have not commented on Grimm’s accusations, nor have they appeared to withdraw their support of Swans.
Who gets to decide the truth of an incident with only two witnesses? In a follow-up Facebook post, Grimm acknowledged Gira’s account, insisting on her story without accusing him of lying. “He admits the act happened but cannot conceive of himself as a rapist,” she wrote. “Thank you Michael Gira for your honesty. This is your truth as you remember it. Unfortunately, this was still rape.”
Anti-rape initiatives like RAINN encourage people to believe victims who confide in them, but few Swans listeners know Grimm or Gira personally. What responsibility do people have in choosing whether to listen to music made by somebody who has been accused of rape, but whose culpability can never be formalized?
“I don’t have enough information to believe he’s guilty or not guilty at this point, but I can’t think of Swans’ music now without remembering Grimm’s words,” a fan who requested anonymity told me over email. “As much as I am a fan of Gira’s work and would like to believe he isn’t guilty, Grimm’s statements have a lot of weight to them and I can’t be dismissive to what she’s saying.”
The same fan repeated a refrain I heard in many conversations with Swans listeners: that the violence described in Swans’ music takes on an uncomfortable quality in the context of the alleged violence in Grimm’s account. “There’s a lot of power and aggression present in many of Swans’ recordings, and to listen to that music with associations of rape in my head is far too off-putting,” the fan wrote.
“I can’t separate the visceral and hypermasculine qualities in Swans music, which I enjoyed indulging in occasionally, from these allegations,” Matthew Sage, who runs a small label in Chicago, told me over email. “I have very consciously not listened to Swans since hearing about these allegations.”
A fan named Dylan Jezek said she felt that Gira had “betrayed [her] himself.” Via email, she wrote, “I was particularly repulsed by the alleged actions of Gira because he’s specifically made a career out of documenting abusive power dynamics and I would have liked to think that a man that understood them so well would be greater than to partake in them himself.”
Stories of rape, harassment, and abuse follow prominent figures in many creative communities, from journalism to photography to Hollywood. But music is often consumed in such a way as to make such allegations feel especially personal. In the recent discussion around Parker and The Birth of a Nation, writers have pointed out that a film is the result of many people’s work. It can have a social impact that transcends its director’s history. Music, on the other hand, can feel like a direct emotional line from creator to listener. Listening to an emotionally rich album can be an intimate experience, and fans tend to integrate music deeply into their identities. Lyric tattoos and band t-shirts are more common sights at concerts than at film screenings.
Some of the Swans listeners I spoke to relayed their deep emotional history with the band. “Swans are capable of making amazingly cathartic and powerful moments,” said a fan who had followed the band for 25 years. “It’s safe to say that Gira and Co. carried me through some difficult times and gave voice to complicated and hard-to-articulate feelings.”
“Swans’ music is so cathartic in a way no other band is,” another fan, Donald Borenstein, told me over email. “The world is painful and unfair and full of evil, and if listening to Swans makes something better for you, it’s not my place to take that away. But I can’t listen to them anymore.”
Of the 22 Swans listeners I interviewed for this story, all but one had learned about Grimm’s allegations soon after she went public with them. Many saw the story on Twitter or read it on Pitchfork; others found out via discussions among friends on Facebook. Outside Lincoln Hall, Devin tells me he read about the accusation on the music blog Tiny Mix Tapes.
The question of whether art can or should be separated from the artist who produced it has circulated for decades without much resolution. In popular music, songs are generally tethered to the personal histories of their writers through supplemental materials like interviews, liner notes, and music videos. But some listeners I spoke to had no trouble keeping Grimm’s story separate from Swans’ music.
“I didn’t want to make any judgments until I’d heard the full story,” a fan named Chris tells me outside Lincoln Hall. “A lot of music I’ve listened to [was made by] not-great people. Music’s music. Sometimes it comes from people who don’t make the best decisions.”
Chris has never seen Swans play live before, but he got into the band two or three years ago, around the time To Be Kind came out. “I just love it so much,” he says.
A fan I surveyed via email, Daniel Nicoletti, relayed a similar sentiment. “Great art is great art. Keeping an artist’s life away from their craft is not only a mature thing, but important to appreciate music in an impartial manner,” he wrote.
Though Donald Borenstein told me he couldn’t listen to Swans after reading about the allegations, he noted that he’s still able to listen to another artist who has been accused of misconduct. “[Grimm’s accusation] came right on the heels of learning about Bowie’s [alleged] sexual abuses in the immediate aftermath of his death,” he said, referring to David Bowie’s sexual relationship in the 1970s with Lori Mattix, who was under the age of consent at the time. “It’s weird — I can still listen to Bowie, mostly because I’d probably be dead without David Bowie. Everybody becomes a hypocrite somewhere, and I guess that’s where I drop the ball. I wish I was a stronger person, but I’m not.”
Borenstein continued: “One day I’m going to just end up with a closet full of records and Blu-Rays and books by heroes who turned out to be monsters. It’s just overwhelming how many of them have managed to hurt people. I know there will be more.”
Artists are flawed because humans are flawed. Artists hurt people. But many find themselves insulated from the consequences of their harm because of fame, money, or other forms of power. A conviction for unlawful sexual intercourse in the late 1970s hasn’t stopped Roman Polanski from earning acclaim for his films to this day, and R. Kelly sells albums years after his lawyers talked their way into an acquittal on a potentially career-ending charge.
An invisible matrix of influence determines how we respond to the stories we are told about rape. The calculus of human empathy is hidden from us even as we practice it. I don’t know if there is a moral imperative to avoid music made by alleged rapists. I just know I haven’t been able to listen to Swans since February.