2015 was the year that outrage came to dance music. The most prominent incident involved chart-topping Lithuanian artist Ten Walls, whose abhorrent homophobic comments, posted on his Facebook page in June, led to him being dropped by his agency and forced off the festival circuit. But a series of lower-profile incidents showed that the outrage cycle affects every tier of the scene. This could be a good thing for the dance community, which is in the process of addressing some of the uglier attitudes in its midst. But outrage can be a blunt instrument, and if it's going to be used constructively then it could do with some finessing.
In May, UK producer Boddika took to Twitter to tell those who work in the service industry in the UK and "can't speak English" to "FUCK OFF!" A couple of weeks later, PC Music affiliate GFOTY called Malian duo Toumani & Sidiki Diabaté "Bombay Bycicle [sic] Club blacked up" in a since-edited article for Noisey. Wolf + Lamb signee Tanner Ross attacked RA's Andrew Ryce with a string of homophobic abuse, and a misogynistic tweet from Berceuse Heroique founder Gizmo led to a discussion of the troubling imagery he uses to sell his records. All offenders apologised on social media amidst a storm of criticism. Just this month, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, Levon Vincent urged his 73,000 Facebook fans to "arm themselves," with similar consequences.
Dance music is lagging behind by making 2015 its "year of outrage." Well before the Ten Walls incident, public opinion on the outrage cycle was turning thanks to the language of "shame." Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed, published in March, compared the phenomenon to communist East Germany's culture of fear. The same month, Monica Lewinsky took the TED stage to describe it as a "blood sport." In April, The Atlantic published an article titled Ending The Internet Outrage Cycle, asking whether the solution might be "for everyone to quiet down a bit?"
The "shame" analysis sees these events as instances of mob rule. We're asked to consider whether the crime merits the brutal punishment. But dance music's "shamings" have been relatively light compared to the subjects of Ronson's book, many of whom lost their jobs and spent months living in seclusion. Only Ten Walls' career took a major (and quite justified) blow, and even he is currently staging a PR-managed comeback, complete with an apology that was shopped around like an album announcement.
Besides which, the "shame" angle ignores the productive side of outrage. Perhaps there is an element of blood sport in these incidents, but they're more concerned with working towards a shared set of values. It's important to see discriminatory attitudes for what they are, particularly the subtle but pernicious ones articulated by some of these artists.
Levon Vincent's case is a little different, and tells us a lot about the potential pitfalls of the outrage cycle. Following the terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13th, the producer told people to "arm themselves. If you don't like guns, you can get whatever maximum length knife allowable by your government." He soon deleted the Facebook post but the controversy rumbled on, and two days later he published a further two statements "against the advise [sic] of those close to me." He seemed keen to reach some kind of compromise—he eventually made the strange concession that he will no longer carry a pocket knife—but wouldn't backtrack on his initial statement. He has since deleted all of the posts.
For Vincent to tell his thousands of followers to carry weapons was irresponsible. But there is a difference between such a misuse of his platform—foolish, but well-intentioned—and the discriminatory comments of Boddika or Tanner Ross, or GFOTY's mindlessly offensive expressions of privilege. Several commenters likened Vincent's statements to those of Ten Walls. Doing so is unfair to the former and trivialises the conduct of the latter.
It's nobody's place to decide who's allowed to get angry. In all cases the issues at hand are extremely sensitive, relating to real-world harm inflicted on groups of people. But there's a risk that anger can cause language to escalate. Criticism of the act—"you said a racist/homophobic thing"—becomes an unprovable judgement of character: "you are a racist/homophobe." Talk of a particular misdeed wanders into vaguer realms, where the offender can trot out character references or stock "I'm not an [x]" protestations. The debate following Boddika's tweet quickly boiled down to the question of whether or not he "is a racist." There was a subtler discussion to be had, relating to the political climate in Britain just weeks after the xenophobic UKIP party performed well in a general election. Perhaps that discussion might have enlightened some of his defenders.
When criticisms become character judgements, the person accused is more likely to get defensive rather than examine what they've done. Making amends is no longer an option for them—after all, they're already a racist, or a homophobe—so instead they see themselves as victims of an injustice. Hence Gizmo, whose apology was only ever deeply evasive, subsequently cracking jokes about "the scandal." Or Vincent—who surely could have been convinced of his error—lashing out at his fans and their "750 euro iPhones." When the dust settles, it too often feels like nothing has changed.
It's clear that many artists are out of their depth on social media. Vincent's initial tactic was to delete critical responses; that and his equivocating followup posts, in which he made vague check-your-privilege rebuttals, turned a mishap into a meltdown. Tanner Ross published several rapidly-deleted posts on his social media before settling on an apology he was happy with. In the process of accusing former Thump editor Lauren Martin of instigating a "witch hunt" (she didn't), Gizmo published a screenshot in which a browser tab titled "how to take a screenshot" was clearly visible. In all three cases, the artists' bungling responses only made things worse.
Vincent captured their bewilderment when he wrote, "I've somehow become some kind of hyped up public figure and part of pop culture. I'm supposed to [be] a musician, working independently and operating my own network and interfacing with fans directly." He later announced his withdrawal from social media, explaining that he rejects "any fakeness that I would otherwise have to adhere to if I wanted to continue forward with engaging personally online."
The truth is, in the social media age there is no longer any clear distinction between "public" or "pop" and "independent." The cosy consensus Vincent pines for comes from a time when subcultures were closed communities and dissenting voices were more often absent or silenced. All of these artists believed themselves to be in this kind of comfortable bubble when they clicked the send button. They have a responsibility to consider who their words might hurt, and their community to deal with that hurt in a way that will minimise it in the future.