Spoiler – This Story Has No Winners…

If what I’m about to describe hasn’t happened to you yet, it probably will. In fact, it’s in the post. And when it drops through the door, it will feel miserable. Soggy and miserable.

But let’s not start on the day that someone you admire gets cancelled. Let’s start at the beginning.

From nowhere, something crashlands into your life. A new world, or an unignorable perspective on ours. A passion. A voice, a face, a persona ushers you into that world, and within that world, they become your north star.

Am I being too abstruse? Fine, let’s say they’re a band. But not just any band. You thought you’d heard it all. Knew what you liked. Nothing’s new under the sun. Everything is of a cycle, one you’ve already seen rotate the whole way, maybe even twice around. But these guys. You never heard anyone attempt what they’re attempting.

You find yourself fixated on the singer, who is also the lyricist. You’re unsure how someone can sing like that. Your headmaster would have kicked them out of choir, or more likely through the nearest window. Refused to let them take A-Level music, or perform in the school musical for fear of complaints from parents. Because there’s something slightly wrong about their sound. If music were maths, their answer would be incorrect.

But music isn’t maths. They’re wrong, but good. The wrongness makes it good. So good. Who was the first to tell them that this was good? And how did they get four like-minded musicians to form around them, heighten their own singular presence with an understated yet daring arrangement. Nobody plays to sound like the best musician in the room. Each serves the collective and makes the others sound better. And, emerging from that understanding, spring forth sounds like you’ve never heard.

The lyrics too. Who writes about stuff like this? How do these things even occur to someone as a subject for a song? Did it start as a poem, or a rant, and someone just started strumming in the background? Oh, and who in their right mind comes up with a band name like…

Hopefully you’re with me by now. Anyway, it’s two years later, so I’ll catch you up.

You know every song by heart by now. You pre-saved the follow-up album, and it exceeded your vertiginous expectations. To have physical evidence of their mark on your life, you got the vinyl edition aswell. You’re on the mailing list. You need to see these guys live. They were on a televised festival, touring their last album. Still, you don’t fully believe that what they do can be real until you’ve witnessed it for yourself.

Finally, one of several alerts you’ve set up comes good. No mention of a Belfast date, but they’re playing in Dublin and it’s on pre-sale. Gotta go for it. Make a day of it on the Enterprise. As you click to confirm purchase, you get genuinely emotional at the thought of other folks like you, dotted around Ireland doing the same thing. Meeting them in the queue for pit wristbands. Making friends straight away, because there’s no way you could only have this one thing in common. It’s enough that you have to blink a few times as you double-check the three-digit CVV number at the back of your card.

Confirmed. A picture of the band looks up moodily from the screen. Weirdly, you’ve stopped thinking about them. It’s now all about those fellow travellers at the front of the queue, all arriving at the terminus of a personal pilgrimage. You hope for a sunny day, though actually you kind of want it to rain a bit to intensify the bonding experience with your fellow die-hards. You find yourself wondering, randomly, what a Waterford accent sounds like, and if your new Waterford friend will have the same t-shirt as you. For several weeks, something in you tingle any time you hear the word ‘community’.

But there’s more than weeks to kill. Life goes on, and after a while, you have to make yourself stop bringing it up in conversation. People say, oh them, oh cool, I hadn’t realised they were playing. Oh well, too late for that person. Sold out within minutes of general release. It’s a medium-sized venue, which you’re delighted about because you’re certain there’ll come a day when they’ll only play arenas and stadiums. For now they’re still yours.

Then, one day, the email drops. From the mailing list. Tour postponed. Indefinitely. Due to unforeseen circumstances. Refunds will be issued. At the same time, your phone vibrates. It’s from your friend, whose ears you’ve worn out with talk of this gig. Now, they’ve sent you through a screenshot from their social media feed. Oh no.

The band’s own social media accounts have all been taken down. The website just has the same text you’ve read on the mailing list email. Then you find a statement from their record company. Who will be reviewing their relationship with the band. Seeking to clarify all the facts. In light of the allegations.

Those being the allegations your friend sent you in the screenshot. The record company is keen to say two things at once. That for legal reasons it cannot make any further comment. But, also, that it absolutely stands for zero tolerance of any inappropriate conduct of the type alleged, and is committed to being an ally to all victims of such conduct.

Don’t scroll. You don’t want to scroll. Yet, it seems to scroll by itself.

Because you searched for the band by name, all you see is the pile-on. People saying they used to like them, but this is inexcusable. Removing them from their library the second they’re done posting about it. Others quoting fragments of lyrics, completely out of context, saying this suddenly seems to all make sense, and how are we really surprised on retrospect. Others tagging the corporate accounts of streaming services, demanding all tracks be taken down, that nobody make another cent from this work until all sides are heard from and all facts are clear.

Facts? The majority seem uninterested in facts. You can’t find the original post your friend sent you, or the account it was sent from. All you find are versions of the same words reposted in quote marks, or in screengrabs similar to your friend’s.

To be clear, you revile what’s being alleged. You’ve participated in the occasional pile-on yourself. Just the odd politician, or public figure. Maybe an artist, or two.

So what do you say? To yourself, even, let alone to whomever reads social media posts. Or to your friend, to whom you still haven’t replied. Their most recent message reads, you ok? Must be a shock.

Yeah.

Vicarious cancellation. The experience of looking on as someone you admire is publicly admonished for unacceptable behaviour, utterances or associations.

Despite all contemporary rhetoric about hiveminds and sheeple and mob justice cancel culture enforced by The Blob, each of us is a complex individual and no two of us are the same. I’ve been saying ‘you’, but you are not me. Maybe you are better able to compartmentalise than I am. You, in your mind, can see scales. For if we’re to have mob justice, are we not better off that it be measured? And on those scales, artistic merits hold some weight, but personal morality is just a denser substance. Like a spoon of sugar weighed against a knob of butter. You can keep adding sugar on the one side, but you’d need a lot to tip the scales, and even then…

For me, sat here, trying to stop scrolling, it doesn’t seem so clearcut. Because art, to some of us, is a moral endeavour. To connect with people all over the world using new configurations of the same basic raw materials, sight, sound and emotional resonance, and to move those people, change them in even the tiniest way. That’s something. As glaciers shape our earth in tiny lurches, with little scratches and deposits here or there, before melting and revealing the totality of their contribution. The idea that all that is washed away in an instant, in a flood of allegation…

That’s the other thing. I’m not even sure what’s true here. I want to hear multiple sides of the story and move forward from there. But I daren’t say that. They could cancel me just as quickly. And I don’t even do anything worth cancelling.

For now, on this cataclysmic morning, I maintain my silence. As is my right. I quietly set that public playlist to private. Take down the celebratory posts about my ticket purchase, and the anticipatory ones since then. But in my mind, I maintain a mental reservation. I reserve the right to be relieved in the event of an innocent explanation, or an unfortunate misunderstanding. And I’ve got work to do, so best to block all this out. Reply to my friend first. I’m fine. Then, flight mode. Offline. For a while at least.

But later, I go to check the weather and there’s a statement. A quote from the band leader. Acknowledging some isolated instances where they did not uphold the standards they would wish to. Apologising to those affected. Promising to do better. A second quote, from a representative of the other band members. Who will be taking some time to take stock.

There’s no going back now is there. The toothpaste has bolted. No sense locking the tube now. I feel a bittersweet smile. That’s the kind of thing they’d put in a song. They’d have put in a song.

As the days and weeks and months crawl by, it’s not quite stages of grief, but nor is it a million miles off. The albums aren’t queued up as regularly, but tracks pop up on shuffle. Pull you back in. There’s a fair amount of rationalisation. They expect musicians to have boundless energy, party all night, accept endless adulation from the fans who get up close, in the knowledge those are only a tiny percentage of a greater polity. And then everyone dives for the fainting couch when…

Any time it comes up with friends, it’s a fact-free zone and the only common ground seems to be an abstract proposition. Can you continue to love the art while condemning the misdeeds of the artist? It all feels very theological. Love the sinner, hate the sin. Did the same force as set in motion the creation of the Himalayas not also bring about all of the great wars, and so on, and after a while it’s the night bus home and nobody’s much clearer on anything.

So it’s back to you. And me. And where do we go from here? Shouldn’t we both just stop moping and get over ourselves. There is such a thing as a one-strike-you’re-out offence and we should be able to call that out and move on. Plenty more tunes in the sea, and bigger fish to fry. Maybe safest just not to believe in anyone? Invest only in what you see around you, make no false idols. But then, what will we ever have that draws us into new configurations and binds those groups together? And how will anyone ever be redeemed for anything, when what is required for forgiveness and atonement is a community to atone to?

That’s the real loss, isn’t it, that queue we never got to stand in, you and I with our different accents and lives, united in among a community, even if just for that one day, which now we’ll never have because even if the show somehow gets back on the road, it still won’t feel like how it would have and the cloud won’t abate and the asterisk will sit their gloomily beside the name in everyone’s mind and sure the music will always be the music but we’ll each of us be standing there taking it in as part of our own private transaction and accommodation of what we’d rather look away from, just to feel something for a few hours.

It’ll probably rain and all. They’ll love that, won’t they.


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