“I’ve been in the business for 20 years,” says Montreal singer-songwriter Paul Cargnello. “I’ve been touring for a long time and I’m not surprised at many of these allegations. I’m surprised it’s taken this long for some of them to surface.”
As a new wave of sexual assault allegations in Quebec has swept across social media, the province’s music scene has been particularly hard hit. Accusations of sexual misconduct and violence have been levelled against singers Kevin Parent, Dan Bigras, Yann Perreau, and Éric Lapointe; Maybe Watson from hip-hop group Alaclair Ensemble; and Simple Plan bassist David Desrosiers to name just a few. Lapointe has been accused of assault by more than a few women over the course of his career and was recently in court fighting domestic abuse charges.
Many well-known Quebec public figures and celebrities have felt the brunt of this groundswell of anger and frustration, fuelled by what survivors say is a lack of justice and support and a culture that is often too quick to protect and forgive abusers.
“Am I surprised at allegations against Kevin Parent or Éric Lapointe?” says Cargnello. “Not really. But when it hits closer to home, that’s when it gets more upsetting.”
A scene that facilitates abuse
As small as the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” scene may be in Quebec, it still produces stars, placing people on pedestals and rewarding them for their talent and revenue-generating abilities. It allows for excess and enables it with drugs and alcohol. People routinely get away with stuff, and their entourage is tasked with making sure they do. Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet, who is himself facing allegations of sexual misconduct, was Lapointe’s long-time manager and suggested during an interview that making sure Lapointe stayed out of trouble was a full-time job. There is no denying that the celebrity scene — music, comedy, TV — is ripe for abuse.
“Even though things are slowly changing, the music scene was and still remains a boys’ club,” says Cargnello. “I can understand why many women don’t feel comfortable working in it, because it’s simply not a welcoming environment. You learn early on who to avoid, where to draw the line.”
Aly Neumann is a singer-songwriter and lead singer for Old Time Honey, host of Chick Pickin’ Mondays at Grumpy’s Bar, and a former audio engineer. She says she faced sexism regularly while she worked as a sound girl at a large punk venue that has since closed down. “I was routinely asked, ‘Are you sure you know what you’re doing, sweetheart?’ or some version of that, by aging punk rockers and metalheads that, on occasion, would touch me inappropriately and without consent. I had bosses constantly express surprise that I was good at my job.
“The amount of times I heard, ‘Wow, I can’t believe how good you are for a girl!’ was infuriating.”
Sexism and misogyny in music: chronic and widespread
Sexism in the music industry is nothing new and has been denounced by many women musicians over the years. Madonna, Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, Kesha, Dua Lipa, and Janelle Monáe are just a few stars who have exposed what goes on behind the scene.
Alanis Morrissette and Liz Phair would have been touring together this summer if not for COVID-19. Instead, the two met for a Zoom conversation moderated by the L.A. Times. During their exchange, the two talked candidly about the music industry and its underlying sexism.
“Back then, it was a very guy-centric time,” says Morrissette. “Labels, musicians: They didn’t know what to do with me. If they couldn’t fck me, they would ignore me. It was like I was an alien. I was going to sleep with them, or I wasn’t going to exist. There were exceptions of course, but that was pretty much how it was. A lot of men in the ’90s would say to me, ‘Oh, I love women. Women are amazing.’ I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no. You like to fck women. That’s not the same thing.”
Cargnello says that many artists such as himself make the mistake of thinking that the music industry is a sensitive industry, where people are fairer and better to each other. But in the end, it’s just one of many industries that needs to evolve.
“I went into it with rose-coloured glasses and I was shocked to discover that sexism and anti-feminism were just as rampant there,” he says. “We may think that we’re exempt because we’re artistic, sensitive beings, but we’re profoundly flawed. You look at some people’s behaviour and sometimes you just want to yell, ‘Grow up, you teenage man-child!’”
Toxic, sexist scene
While Cargnello has met and worked with many men who support women, he also met many booking agents who wouldn’t take on women clients, thinking “they don’t sell, they’re too hard to manage, etc.” He says that a lot of women musicians had to make it on their own because they lacked support.
“It’s just a hypersexual environment,” he says. “Tons of cheating goes on, fuck-loads of drugs and drinking, it’s so easy for someone to become an asshole. I’ve seen how moderate sexism can turn into something very dark.”
Neumann agrees the scene can often be toxic and deeply sexist.
“I played drums in a hardcore punk band years ago, and some of the other male musicians — not in my band, thank god — in that music scene apparently were awarding points to each other if they could trick me into sleeping with them,” she says. “I was also only ever referred to as ‘girl drummer’ by the same men so that was also weird.”
A wake-up call is needed
Cargnello doesn’t find many of the current allegations all that surprising, taken in the context of a culture that routinely shames and blames rape survivors, who face police and a justice system that, too often, fail them. “The justice system when it comes to sexual assault is a joke,” he says. “Rape kits are not even followed up on. Things really need to change.”
He says that more men need to be honest about the scene, come out in support of survivors, and actively work to change things. Neumann affirms that, despite many negative stories and disturbing allegations now popping up in the business, there are “lots of fabulous men in the music community.” The new wave is seen as an opportunity by both local artists for growth, an opportunity for a much-needed wake-up call.
Cargnello says he’s pleased to see the new #MeToo allegations forcing a reckoning for his own industry. “I’m happy to see the cracks forming,” he says. “Let the old boys’ club crumble. I’m good with that.”