For Ryan Adams and PWR BTTM, Overcoming Abuse Allegations Is Just Business

Both artists quietly teased new music over the holiday weekend

July 7, 2020 9:12 am
Ryan Adams performs onstage during I Am The Highway: A Tribute To Chris Cornell at The Forum on January 16, 2019 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Chris Cornell Estate)
Ryan Adams performs onstage during I Am The Highway: A Tribute To Chris Cornell at The Forum on January 16, 2019 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Chris Cornell Estate)
Getty Images for The Chris Corne

Even in the middle of a pandemic, most of us found ways to celebrate the 4th of July this past weekend, whether it was taking in one of the many DIY neighborhood fireworks displays, attending a socially distanced cookout or simply using the holiday as an excuse to unplug and relax.

But while we were busy watching Joey Chestnut shove 75 hot dogs down his gullet in the name of America, not one but two artists who have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct and abuse tried to fly under the radar and quietly test the waters regarding their attempted comebacks. On Friday, Billboard ran a profile of PWR BTTM’s Ben Hopkins, who is readying a new album after allegations of rape, assault and anti-Semitism in 2017 derailed their career. (Hopkins is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.) That same day, The Daily Mail published an apology penned by Ryan Adams — who fell from grace after a 2019 New York Times piece chronicled allegations of abuse, harassment and sexual conversations with an underage fan — in which the singer/songwriter revealed he’s now sober, sorry for his behavior and, surprise surprise, working on new music.

The fact that both articles were news-dumped over the holiday weekend (and Adams’s in a British outlet, for that matter) suggests that those involved know how these attempted comebacks would go over if they had our full attention. That alone should have been a clue that maybe no one wants to hear from these artists; ask yourself why you’re worried about potential backlash and you might get some insight into why it’s a good idea to remain out of the spotlight. Worse than the timing, though, is the insincerity. Both pieces are pegged to new music, making it clear that they’re only addressing the elephant in the room because they’d like to sell some records.

Despite insisting in his Daily Mail piece that “to a lot of people this will just seem like the same empty bullshit apology that I’ve always used when I was called out, and all I can say is, this time it is different,” Adams hasn’t apologized privately to Mandy Moore or Karen Elson. (Moore spoke out about Adams’s psychological abuse during their marriage in the Times piece, and after that piece was published, Elson wrote on Instagram, “I also had a traumatizing experience with Ryan Adams. I’m not quite brave enough yet to speak about my specifics. The trauma that lingers is often a very powerful silencer of women as is the business that enables these men to thrive without ever facing consequences.”)

When asked about Adams’s apology during a recent Today Show appearance, Moore revealed she hadn’t heard from her ex-husband. “I find it curious that someone would make a public apology but not do it privately,” she said. “I am speaking for myself, but I have not heard from him, and I’m not looking for an apology necessarily, but I do find it curious that someone would sort of do an interview about it without actually making amends privately.”

Elson, on the other hand, wrote in a since-deleted tweet on July 3, “My thoughts on Ryan Adam [sic]. I believe in redemption and amends even for him. However he has not reached out to me since 2018 to apologize for his terrible behavior. In fact back then he called [me] a liar which added more pain and made me disillusioned with the entire music industry.” She followed it up with another tweet on July 5, writing, “His actions going forward will dictate the sincerity of his statement and if I’m able to forgive. I’ve never demanded anyone to boycott his music. I’m just expressing my opinions on my personal experience and mine pales in comparison to others.”

Actions speak louder than words, of course, but it’s worth noting this isn’t Adams’s first botched apology. Last July, texts he sent his former manager Ty Stiklorius shortly after the Times article surfaced online. “I want my career back,” he says in the messages. “I want a professional to handle it. And I want to work and move on. I’m not interested in this healing crap. I want a plan and I want to work, that’s it.”

Of course, it’s entirely possible that he had a change of heart over the last year and truly is “interested in this healing crap” now. “Sobriety is a priority in my life, and so is my mental health,” he notes in the Daily Mail apology. But even if that’s the case and he genuinely is sorry this time, the apology is cheapened by his references to new music given what we already know about how badly he wanted to “work and move on” a little less than a year ago. The apology should have been released on its own, months before any indication that he’s working on new material; at this moment, it just feels like a hollow PR exercise to mitigate backlash.

Meanwhile, the Hopkins article can’t even really be described as an apology. They insist they’re innocent, and the article is shoddily reported and sloppily written (despite noting that Hopkins is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns early on, the piece originally misgendered its subject by referring to them with male pronouns, and while that has since been corrected, the article still currently misgenders Hopkins’s former bandmate Liv Bruce — who identifies as transfeminine and non-binary and uses she/her pronouns). It’s hopelessly lopsided and weirdly accusatory toward Hopkins’s alleged victims, focusing instead on the pain that “being canceled” caused the musician. “All of a sudden — in a weekend — this is my new reality forever because I’ve been canceled or whatever?” Hopkins asks in the piece, offering no contrition. “This is what I have to look forward to until I’m dead?”

No one is entitled to a career in music, and ultimately it’s up to fans to decide whether or not they’re willing to forgive. It’s hard to know exactly what an acceptable apology from a “canceled” artist should look like because we haven’t really seen one yet. But it’s obvious that it shouldn’t be promo for a new album. (And under no circumstances should it attempt to blame the alleged victims, as the Hopkins piece did by questioning their motivations for remaining anonymous.) Show us you’re doing the work, and then continue to do it for a while before you even dream of making a comeback. Show us specifics: What have you learned? What actions have you taken? And put your money where your mouth is; earn our trust back before asking us to open our wallets. And it should be obvious, but a good apology isn’t something you try to slip in when you know we’re all going to be too preoccupied to notice; it’s something that needs to be screamed from the mountaintops.

Ultimately, these shallow attempts beg the question: Why are alleged abusers like Hopkins and Adams granted precious editorial space at all? Why, after a month of national reckoning over race and representation, are we giving a platform to problematic white people when we could be using it to highlight more BIPOC artists who are fighting to be heard? It’s clear that these two musicians both still have a lot of work to do on themselves, but the articles also made it clear that we — the media — do too. And that tendency to enable the bad behavior of some while ignoring the talents of others is something that can’t be buried any longer, even on a holiday weekend.

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