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By Daniel Arkin
The #MeToo movement has toppled powerful men in film, television, the news media, politics, finance and other high-profile professions. The music industry, however, has largely avoided a sweeping reckoning.
But that might be changing.
In recent weeks, three popular stars — R&B singer R. Kelly, pop icon Michael Jackson and alternative rocker Ryan Adams — have come under intense scrutiny over alleged sexual misconduct, pointing to what could be a new chapter for #MeToo.
“I don’t know why it took so long to get here, but I think more is very likely to come out,” said Caryn Rose, a veteran music journalist who has written for Pitchfork and Vulture. “It’s not just musicians, either. It’s club owners, staff at venues, publicists. It happens all the time.”
The industry response to recent allegations suggests tolerance for alleged bad behavior is growing thin.
“These record labels are finally waking up to the idea that it’s not good business to be in proverbial bed with alleged serial abusers and sexual harassers,” said Lola Ogunnaike, a culture critic and People TV anchor. “I also think the industry, unfortunately, is driven by the bottom line and the M-word: money, not morality.”
Sony Music, a leading recording company, cut ties with R. Kelly after a six-part Lifetime documentary series brought renewed attention to his alleged pattern of sexual, emotional and physical abuse. Lady Gaga and Chance the Rapper apologized for collaborating with him. The singer has vehemently denied the allegations.
The release of Adams’ new album was reportedly canceled after The New York Times reported that seven women, including his ex-wife Mandy Moore, have accused him of emotional and verbal abuse that was in some cases tied to sexual overtures.
Adams, 44, and his attorney denied the allegations. “I am not a perfect man and I have made many mistakes,” Adams said in a statement. “To anyone I have ever hurt, however unintentionally, I apologize deeply and unreservedly.”
R. Kelly and Adams join a comparatively short list of music industry titans who have been publicly accused of sexual harassment or assault since #MeToo seized the national conversation in late 2017.
The list includes Def Jams Records mogul Russell Simmons, who has denied assault allegations, and former Republic Records president Charlie Walk, who has denied harassment allegations. In 2014, three years before the rise of #MeToo, pop star Kesha accused her former producer, Dr. Luke (Lukasz Gottwald), of sexual and emotional abuse; their legal battle is ongoing and Gottwald has denied the allegations.
Michael Jackson, who was acquitted of child molestation charges in 2005 and died in 2009, could be subject to a cultural reappraisal with next month’s HBO debut of “Leaving Neverland,” a documentary in which two men accuse him of molesting them when they were children. Jackon’s estate has condemned the film, calling it a “public lynching.”
The spirit of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” has long been used to excuse abuses of power and exploitative behavior in the music world, according to Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“When you talk about a culture of ‘bad boy’ behavior and sexual conquests, it sanitizes the prevalence of abusive experiences in the music industry,” Houser said, adding that slang terms like “groupie” often mask a darker reality.
The history of American popular music is littered with examples of “male artists preying on women and young girls,” Ogunnaike said, referring to a dynamic that was often glamorized in lyrics during rock’s pinnacle in the 1960s and 1970s.
The longstanding gender inequities of the music industry also “help support and hide bad behavior,” Houser said. A study published this year by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that women make up only 21.7 percent of recording industry artists, 2.1 percent of producers and 12.3 percent of songwriters.
A recent survey of 1,227 musicians by the Music Industry Research Association found that 72 percent of female artists had faced discrimination because of their gender and 67 percent had been the victim of alleged sexual harassment.
But the #MeToo movement could eventually help reshape the music industry’s status quo, Ogunnaike said.
“I think people across the board have been emboldened by the #MeToo movement, and more and more people are taking courage from those women who have dared to come forward. People are comfortable with the idea of no longer being silenced.”