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Hedley: Let’s Talk About Fan Culture (And How Problematic It Is)

The #MeToo movement has been rocked as well as the Canadian music scene as Vancouver pop-punk band Hedley has been hit with numerous allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behaviour with underage fans. The allegations started on twitter and range from the band being vulgar and handsy with girls after the show, to one that outlines them bringing back a 16 year old fan back to their hotel room for sexual acts. Police are even investigating a potential rape that occurred in London, Ontario in 2005. The alleged victim was 14. (It should be noted here that at that time, the legal age of consent in Canada was still 14, not being changed to 16 until 2008. So the girl may have been of legal age, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the band’s actions were consensual).

Although I was heavily entrenched in the Vancouver music scene for years – either through interviewing bands or reviewing shows – I was not among Hedley’s fanbase, although I have seen them perform three times. My only experience with Jacob was a five-second hello and handshake backstage at the Saddle Dome in 2005. Up until two days ago, I had no prior knowledge of any of the allegations against Jacob Hoggard, Tommy Mac and the members of Hedley. I am not here to add anything substantive to those reports. Rather, what I’ve noticed is a strange divide.

Obviously, this kind of behaviour is nothing new. The 60s and 70s were legendary for their rock and roll behaviour and the general hedonistic lifestyles that often came with being a touring musician of that era. That’s not to say that every single artist engaged in these types of questionable morals, but it certainly was more common than not. But this is not your grandparents and these aren’t your parents concerts. If the recent events in Florida are anything to go by, it’s the young people – men and women – have had enough of being ignored. This being the digital age though, those accused are often able to share their shade of events easier and more quickly. In their statement on facebook that Hedley posted after the accusations surfaced, the band alluded to engaging “n a lifestyle that incorporated certain rock and roll clichés”, while remaining adamant there was a line they would never cross. The band can say one things, but fans can tell a different tale.

It all started on twitter, where many of the accusers first spoke up, there were recurring stories of Jacob having an unpleasant and in some cases creepy nature. Yet others are vociferously defending their chosen Gods and engaging in various levels of disbelief, name-calling and victim blaming. While a good number of commenters are polite in their defence, others are hurling curse words and various attacks at anyone who tries to say anything bad about the band and calls out those who haven’t given “true facts”. One facebook user felt that accusing men of heinous acts is now the cool thing to do, although I’m sure survivors and victims of assault would strongly disagree.

Many of Hedley’s defenders are supporters of the #MeToo movement and at least one is a survivor of assault. So what, if anything, makes these specific allegations different? Every case is different – whether it’s the multitude of bizarre sex antics levelled against movie producer Harvey Weinstein, or a single allegation as is the case with actor George Takei and journalist Steve Paikin. Certainly, any sort of emotional connection will play a role, but at what point does fandom become irrelevant? Musicians and rock stars are, to certain a degree, often held in higher stature than actors or sports figures, and often have a seeming greater amount of infallibility than there famous counterparts. But is there something in the Vancouver music scene and pop punk culture in particular that make it a breeding ground for inappropriate behaviour? I spoke with a few avid concert goers and pop punk aficionados to try gain some insight.

Lydia Bader says although she was never assaulted by any members of the band, she had a rude encounter with them years ago, which included lead-singer Jacob Hoggard cursing at her when she asked for a photo. She was about 14 at the time. While her experience wasn’t as bad as some of the allegations, Bader points out the type of behaviour that is pervasive in the Vancouver music scene; on her Tumblr page she goes into great detail about how she was assaulted by Sheldon Stenning, lead singer of another Vancouver-based pop-punk band – Sharks! On! Fire! (Although these allegations have also yet to be proven, as of Sunday night, it is now an active and ongoing police investigation). She stresses however, that it’s not limited to just this one type of music. Fans of all genres are vulnerable to the exposure of certain “rock and roll cliches” – the type alluded to in Hedley’s facebook statement.

For fan Lizzie, although she found Jacob to be “quite attractive”, she says pop punk appeals to her because of the “sense of community” it brings. When pressed if similar stories of behaviour were ever to be alleged against her all-time favourite band, Lizzie flatly states that she would be “extremely heartbroken” and may have “to let them go”, as much as she would try to see all points-of-view. She is also quick to note that the whole Hedley situation has been a “lesson” for her as they were one of her favourite bands.

Many fans are still fervent supporters however. On twitter, many users lament that it’s no longer innocent until proven guilty, or point to the lack of real, tangible evidence, as reasons for why they are sticking by their favourite musicians. Many of them try to place the burden of proof with the alleged victims, which can be a difficult thing to ask, as something that happened years in the past and often leaves no physical evidence can be a tough sell. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. To point to a real-world example where this happened, one can look at the trial of U.S Gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, sentenced to over 60 years in prison after upwards of 30 victims testified. Now it may never come to that with Hedley, but in many cases, the court of public opinion ends up in the right corner.

With supporter Charlie however, the relationship with Hedley goes beyond simple fandom. She worked for them as a merch girl in their early days. On why she is still supporting them even after they have been dropped by the Junos, their management, radio stations and their openers, she believes that it’s important to acknowledge that there are two sides to every story, especially since some of the allegations took place over a decade ago. But she doesn’t necessarily think that the accusers are all lying. “ These are their stories and this is how they felt at the time and still do” she laments. “To them, this is how the meetings took place.” It’s not my place to say they’re untrue” but she is to point out that if the band is proven innocent, “I definitely think an apology” would be in order.

Given that all the accusers are female, and that Hedley and to a larger extent pop-punk’s fanbase is mainly comprised of teenage girls and young adult women, does that aspect of fan culture play into certain “rock and roll cliches”?

For Bader, this is absolutely true, especially in Vancouver. “Fan culture in Vancouver is a mess. There’s no boundaries or respect from either side”. For her, there can be a lack of maturity on the part of the fans. “The problem is that the mainly female fan base is so young that they put themselves in horrible situations not truly knowing the [potential] outcome.” For Lizzie, she says that while the fanbase can be problematic in terms of drama, she hasn’t experienced anything too negative, but knows that a lot of other fans have. For her, “concerts should be definitely treated as a safe zone. Everyone goes to concerts to run away from their own issues and to be happy.” Bader however, is skeptical that “safe spaces” will make much of a difference stating “If people want to lie about their age, they will. If musicians want to believe these girls are old enough despite clearly being 16, they will.”

As a survivor of assault, Charlie sees things a little differently. “I personally wouldn’t explain my story as a hashtag on the internet. What happened to me is private and if I want my story spoken I tell those I trust. If that’s someone’s choice to tell their story then that’s their prerogative.” A key objective of the #MeToo movement is giving victims a voice and a supportive community. The challenge for anyone accused is that they now have to contend with the court of public opinion more than ever before. Charlie feels the fan base will ultimately make their own decision although “parents with younger children will have something to say about it.” She then harkens back to a situation with British band Lostprophets when their lead singer, Ian Watkins, was charged – and ultimately convicted – of numerous sexual offences against children and possession of child pornography. “You don’t hear from them anymore” says Charlie. (In June 2014, a year and a half after the allegations first came to light, and roughly months after Watkins pleaded guilty, the remaining members created No Devotion with new lead singer Geoff Rickly.)

Fans on the both sides of the debate though do seem to be in agreement about one thing: Hedley’s apology could have been better. Bader called it “disappointing” and claimed it did nothing to save their image, while Charlie was a bit more nuanced in her criticism “It’s as sincere as their PR wanted it to be. I think they’re stepping around the issue and could have been more personal about it. It got turned around onto them instead of about the victims. But that’s just a “ rock and roll clichè” right?”

While all three agreed to be interviewed for this piece, only Lydia Bader consented to have her name published in full.

Update: Since this story was first published, the police investigation against Sheldon Stenning has been closed without charges being filed. Vancouver police are not pursuing the matter any further.

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