Indie rockers can’t commit violent crimes

For hopeful musicians, the internet is both a technocratic angel and an unflinching monster with billions of ever-scrutinizing heads. Virtual hype can both elevate a band unheard of outside their area code into blogosphere heaven and the next day rip them into innumerable shreds quickly swept away by the next viral sound.

Indie rock quartet Surfer Blood has had the misfortune of being simultaneously thrust to the front page of music blogs while being ripped apart in the process.

Thanks to early write-ups from prominent online music outlets such as Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan their debut album Astrocoast was highly anticipated and well-reviewed. They were considered one of the breakout acts from CMJ’s 2009 Music Marathon and maintained a significant level of blog attention.

In March 2012, their 26-year-old front man John Paul Pitts was arrested for domestic battery against his then-girlfriend. There was visible damage to both parties in the conflict yet they chose not to seek medical attention.

In April 2013 all charges were dropped against Pitts and he has since maintained his innocence in the matter. However, his guilt in the matter, the most tangibly important aspect of the case, was a moot point to the blogs who had already cast their verdict for the entire band.

The incident defined their image and every bit of music they will ever make will be seen as at least tangentially related to one unfortunate night experienced by one of the band members.

In May 2013 Pitchfork published an update with the band as they were on the heels of the release of their second album, Pythons. Writer Ian Cohen proceeded to ask Pitts and guitarist Thomas Fekete 15 questions which were all related to the arrest, only mentioning Pythons in the context of incident.

Unsurprisingly, the resulting reviews for Pythons were mixed to negative. Pitts could have released an album of Gregorian chants with lyrical themes speculating on the broader philosophical implications of My Little Pony and it still would have been seen as his ‘domestic abuse’ record.

Pitts even knew this, he read his own musical death sentence and then lived it out. In a June 2013 interview with, Pitts stated that, “It does cause me a lot of grief that a lot of people won’t be able to listen to our music without [the arrest] in mind. And that they may see that as the spark that triggered all of this, this whole album, when the songs are about so much more than that.”

Now, Pitts may have been guilty and all of his songs could have been some weird self-indulgent musings on why he doesn’t need to be apologetic for domestic abuse. But that is not why indie rock blogs care about his arrest.

They care because Surfer Blood isn’t supposed to have a violent criminal record. John Paul Pitts is just relateable enough to be an indie rock music blogger. As a result endorsing his music is just like having him over for a party, it makes the critic or party host look they are somehow indirectly endorsing domestic abuse.

Initially, this realization was deeply confusing to me. So I decided to list ways in which musicians can not only get away with violent crimes, but actually have their stardom helped by them.

1. Have influence and/or die before the internet.

There are plenty of morally reprehensible musicians who hold permanent places in the canon of popular culture. Frank Sinatra was a gangster, Chuck Berry was a pervert, John Lennon admitted to abusing women early in his career, but all these seemingly blatant judgments of character are anecdotes in the view of musical history.

However, these seminal musicians had influence and they didn’t have the internet to track their movements. It also helps that two out of three are dead. It’s hard to insult the dead without seeming like a jerk.

2. Become a celebrity.

What about current musicians who have been both irrevocably guilty of violent crimes and faced the grueling moral gauntlet of internet criticism?

Naturally, Chris Brown is the first to come to mind. His 2009 violent attack on Rihanna garnered him a significant amount of negative attention and it is almost impossible to have any conversation about either artists without mentioning the incident.

Brown was just fortunate to be famous enough to where assaulting Rihanna wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for him. For those who are thrust into the celebrity lexicon, all press is good press. Sure, Brown did the expected damage control, calculated apologies, and public domestic abuse counseling. But he didn’t even need to.

The day when the news broke about Brown’s arrest he was labeled with the best adjective possible for a celebrity, or really any artist wishing to remain relevant. Brown became polarizing. The debate was split between those who despised his music on the grounds that he was a terrible person, and those that thought it was intellectually edgy to appreciate his music without using it to self-identify.

Even though Brown claimed to show remorse, it is better for his fame if he doesn’t. He has been embroiled in other cases of violence against Drake and earlier this year against Frank Ocean over a parking space.

Brown can continue to be famous and actively be seen as unjustly violent because he is absurdly famous and the absurdly famous are expected to be absurd.

3. Be metal.

Varg Vikernes has the unofficial title of being the most metal person to ever exist. He is a Norwegian black metal guitarist who completed the check list of how to be definitively, unquestionably metal.

In the early 90s he was found guilty of burning down several centuries old churches (even being brazen enough to use a photo of a burned church as the cover to an EP), and was convicted in the most high profile case in the history of black metal.

Vikernes played bass in pioneering black metal band Mayhem in 1992 and got in a conflict with lead guitarist Øystein Aarseth which led to Vikernes stabbing him with a knife a total of 23 times. There have been wildly divergent theories which claim that Aarseth was unfairly attacked and that the murder was premeditated. Vikernes still claims that Aarseth was planning to fool him into receiving a contract when his true intentions were to stun him and then torture him until death.

Again, the specifics are unimportant. In fact the uncertainty of it all makes it even more metal.

Vikernes was sentenced to 21 years of prison, and released in 2009 after only serving 15 years. Upon hearing of his sentence, Vikernes gave a gleeful, boyish smile which has become something of a meme in the black metal community.

He continues to release albums under the name of Burzum and holds a powerful influence over black metal and his music has been reviewed by broader musical blogs who delivered the same news of Pitts’ alleged domestic abuse.

Punk rockers are expected to be punk, black metal musicians are expected to be metal, trap rappers are expected to deal in the trap, indie rockers are expected to be (somewhat) normal.

Of course, these expectations are completely illogical and entirely unfair. Yet they won’t change.

As listeners and critics we unfairly assign certain musicians to be our moral pallbearers while others are allowed free reign in their personal ethics.

Pitts and Surfer Blood will likely be remembered only in the context of other fledgling bands who were on the threshold for success only to be fatally dropped the next day. Their absence will not be based on their objective judgment on their music which still falls in with other power pop bands which dominate college radio.

They were simply in the right place with the wrong faces.