What do we do about a problem like Win Butler?

Win Butler of Arcade Fire . (Photo by Amy Harris/Invision/AP)

Win Butler, the frontman of Arcade Fire, is facing questions over his behaviour after four people have come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct extending back to at least 2015.

As first reported by Pitchfork, “Win Butler’s virtuous public reputation is not entirely in line with his offstage behavior.”

Three women aged 18 to 23 claim that they were the victims of inappropriate sexual interactions with Butler. A fourth person who identifies as gender-fluid tells of two sexual assaults: one in a car, and one in the person’s apartment.

Win hired a New York-based crisis management/PR person named Risa Heller to address the allegations, none of which have been proven in court. (The full statement can be found on Pitchfork.) While Win maintains that everything was consensual and independent corroboration is lacking, the news is nevertheless most disturbing. Radio stations have already pulled Arcade Fire from their playlists and there are calls for the current Arcade Fire tour, which began in Dublin this week, to be cancelled.

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So, what now? People have questions.

What, exactly, is being alleged?

The four people involved, all unknown to each other until recently and all using pseudonyms, revealed their claims to Pitchfork, complete with screenshots of text and Instagram messages between them and Butler. There’s no mention of outright rape in any of the allegations, but there are stories of forceable touching and kissing. There was also allegedly some sexting and unwanted pictures sent by Win that continued after he was told to stop.

While Win has fessed up to what he did, admitting to “consensual relationships outside of my marriage,” he also maintains “I have never touched a woman against her will, and any implication that I have is simply false. I vehemently deny any suggestion that I forced myself on a woman or demanded sexual favors. That simply, and unequivocally, never happened.” The two statements I’ve seen so far offer multiple apologies.

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What’s his excuse?

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According to the statement, “Mental health issues and the ghosts of childhood abuse.” He also cites a spiral into depression and drinking after his wife and bandmate Régine suffered a miscarriage.

What’s this about “power dynamics?”

Quite simply, it’s alleged that Win leveraged his position as a famous musician and an older man in these relationships. They were between 18 and 23. He was between 35 and 39 during the time of these interactions. Power dynamics are often cited in cases of sexual harassment, especially in the workplace and schools. When it comes to relationships between artists and fans, things are a little murky because the roles aren’t as well defined as, say, a case between a boss and a subordinate or a teacher and a student. Still, it’s something that needs to be considered.

Isn’t this the way it’s always been in music?

Yes, and it’s always been wrong. There is never — and I repeat never — an excuse for sexual assault. While such behaviour was once commonplace, tolerated, and even encouraged in the music business, we’ve evolved beyond that. And with the power of smartphones (screenshots, cameras, audio recordings) and the #MeToo movement, engaging in bad behaviour is riskier than ever. But celebrities often live in a bubble where they think certain rules don’t apply to them. (To illustrate how bad that can get, I highly recommend Ken Auletta’s book Hollywood Ending, which goes through the entire wretched and awful Harvey Weinstein saga.)

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Makes you wonder why brother Wil left the band back in the spring…

It does, doesn’t it?

What happens to Arcade Fire now?

What’s an appropriate punishment and sentence? Good question. Some sort of censure is certainly called for, but what?

No charges have been filed — at least not yet — so nothing has been proven in court. But the damage has been done to Arcade Fire’s virtuous band-of-the-people image. While Win and the group have engaged in many philanthropic endeavours, including relief for the people in Haiti, speaking out on social issues and supporting various liberal political causes, this incident will leave an indelible stain on the band’s credibility and reputation.

And plenty of damage has already been done.

A couple of decades of goodwill created by the band have already been blown up. Many fans will choose to abandon them, unable to reconcile their fandom to what might have happened with the good-looking chap who sings for their favourite band. While some will call for the outright cancelling of Arcade Fire (you can’t separate the band from Win), there will be attempts at rehabilitation. How will that be received? At this point, it’s unclear.

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Not all fans have abandoned ship, however. At the first world tour stop in Dublin, the group received “rapturous applause.” However, opening act Feist, who donated proceeds from her merch sales to Women’s Aid Dublin, an organization that deals with domestic violence situations, has dropped off the tour, saying that she must distance herself “from this tour, not this conversation.

Should radio stations pull Arcade Fire’s music?

This has become standard practice since these situations started arising earlier in the century.

Remember the long debate over Michael Jackson’s music after all those allegations of sexual assault on children? That led to a long, often fraught discussion on the ability to separate the art from the artist. In the end, Jackson’s music returned to the airwaves of virtually every station that would play it. The same debates are heard surrounding R Kelly.

I guess it’s up to the individual to figure out where they stand…

In light of further evidence, it appears so. But I have a feeling that this story will be around for some time.

Alan Cross is a broadcaster with Q107 and 102.1 the Edge and a commentator for Global News.

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