For an event that helped launch the careers of emo and pop-punk behemoths blink-182, My Chemical Romance, and Fall Out Boy, the twentieth anniversary of the Vans Warped Tour should have been a momentous occasion. Instead, it found itself mired in controversy. Jake McElfresh - who goes by the stage name Front Porch Step - had been booked to play the tour’s Nashville date. The problem? McElfresh had been at the centre of a barrage of unsavoury allegations; namely that he’d been sending sexually explicit messages and pictures to underage fans. 13,000 people signed a petition against his appearance. Warped Tour ignored it.
A photo that McElfresh purportedly took of his penis is circulating around Tumblr alongside accusations he sent it to a 13-year-old fan. A girl called Angela, who was 16 when she claims she met McElfresh, says she received the same picture and had phone sex with him, which she was "never comfortable with". Another girl, Francesca, says that McElfresh asked her for nude pictures within a month of them meeting, and later, sent her a text acknowledging she was underage: "I don’t go hitting on underage girls [but] I still am with one". Elsewhere, an anonymous essay includes screenshots of highly explicit text messages which purportedly show McElfresh repeatedly asking a girl he knows to be 16 for oral sex. The most detailed account, though, comes from Autumn Brooke. It’s an unsettling read. Brooke claims that, over the course of almost two years, she was involved in an emotionally abusive relationship with McElfresh, in which he alienated her from her friends, slept with prostitutes and repeatedly lied to her about his online involvement with other fans. McElfresh has denied having any physical contact or romantic involvement with any of his accusers, but her account paints a different story.
In her Tumblr essay, Brooke writes that she spoke directly to Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman after McElfresh entered ‘a two-month treatment program for sex addiction’. Lyman told her that if McElfresh stuck to the treatment, he could play the show as part of his recovery. But soon after starting the program, McElfresh allegedly called Brooke and told her he’d slept with another girl. She relayed this info back to Lyman as proof he wasn’t sticking to the treatment (a condition of him playing the show). But her warnings seemed to fall on deaf ears. On 1 June, he appeared on the Acoustic Basement stage in a so-called rehabilitative show. Lyman told the Alternative Press that “if he was a legitimate danger…he simply wouldn’t have been here”. In an interview with Billboard, he also said "The kid got himself in a little trouble. No charges, no court appearance, no restraining orders, nothing, it was a 'stupidity of the road' kind of thing. We stepped in and got him into counseling right away in Nashville."
We contacted McElfresh’s publicist for a response. She initially reiterated that there had been no criminal charges but didn't respond to our further requests for McEldrige to comment on this story. In a statement on Facebook posted in April, McElfresh wrote:
“To be associated with words like child molester, pedophile, and rapist - are disgusting and deplorable and I am neither and NEVER will be. To be lumped in to that category is just gross. I have never had any romantic and/or sexual physical interaction with an underage person nor do I have the desire. Any woman that I had online interaction with was consenting and part of the conversations, they sought me out and I answered.”
To find out more about what constitutes effective rehabilitation for individuals accused of sexual crimes, I spoke to Glyn Hudson-Allez, a forensic psychosexual therapist at the Specialist Treatment Organisation for the Prevention of Sexual Offending (StopSO). She wasn’t convinced that putting McElfresh on a stage in an environment that - to all intents and purposes - was the start of his problems was helpful to anyone.
“I think, morally, it’s a stupid idea,” she says. “By his own admission he isn’t in a position to deal with the kind of attention celebrities get." [Elsewhere in his Facebook statement, he says he was “being called ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’ by a bunch of women, people who I had never met in person and frankly I was not prepared for it”].
Does Hudson-Allez think this a symptom of the anonymity of the internet? “It’s never been any different – when the Beatles were in their heyday, young girls would be at the shows, thinking they’d give their right arm to date one of them. I’m not for a moment saying the alleged victims were at fault. Celebrities have the same duty of care towards their fans as teachers do to their pupils.”
Of course, because no charges have been brought against McElfresh, he isn’t - in the eyes of the law - a sex offender. Is there a case to be made that he should be allowed to continue with his career unless he is found guilty of an specific crime? “The allegations against him on Tumblr and other social media should have set alarm bells ringing,” says Hudson-Allez. “He described suffering from self-confidence issues in his statement, and low self-esteem could indeed have led him to behave in an unacceptable way, but if that’s the case, he needs professional help, not putting on a stage in a position that could make him not only a risk to fans, but to himself.”
McElfresh was receiving professional help, but according to Brooke in her post on Tumblr, he may not have adhered to the rules of the program. Hudson-Allez’s assertion that the dynamic between fans and musicians has always included an element of idolatry is somewhat true, but the ‘duty of care’ she mentions is something that’s frequently absent. To really understand why Warped gave McElfresh a platform, and indeed, why someone in a position like McElfresh might have behaved as he is alleged to have done, you need to look back at the evolution of punk-rock culture.
In the Paul Rachman and Steven Blush documentary American Hardcore, T.S.O.L frontman Jack Grisham blithely describes himself as a “violent, robbing, gravedigging rapist”. In Blush’s book of the same name, he describes women at metal shows as “sucking dick”, and hardcore chicks as “ugly trolls”. It’s these foundations of disdain toward women - which were laid in the early days of hardcore - that continue to exist in alternative rock culture. In a recent conversation with the two front-women of metal band Butcher Babies, they recounted how they were asked by a member of Norwegian black metal band Mayhem if they were only at a gig ‘to look good’, when in reality, Butcher Babies were playing the slot before Mayhem. At Download this year, Hollywood Undead bellowed words to the effect of “get your tits out” at the crowd.
These attitudes aren’t everywhere in rock by any means; indeed, most of the musicians condemning the inclusion of McElfresh on the Warped line-up were male. But the undercurrent of misogyny in some corners of rock is insidious and dangerous. It’s often explained away with the same tacit acceptance that leads to statements such as “boys being boys” and it’s that culture of acceptance that appears to be what led to McElfresh being included on that single date of the tour.
Of course, McElfresh isn’t the first musician to be caught in a scandal. Steve Klein of New Found Glory was also embroiled in a scandal last year; the difference being that he was arrested and charged with lewd conduct with minors and possession of child pornography. Like McElfresh, he claimed the exchanges were consensual. He was promptly kicked out of the band and has since fallen out of the public eye, but it seems that some musicians with equally checkered pasts are awarded a free pass. Ronnie Radke of Falling In Reverse has been imprisoned for his part in a murder, arrested for allegedly assaulting an ex-girlfriend and most recently, accused of gang rape, which he denies. Yet petitions for a blanket ban on him playing US venues and to revoke his visa got just 1,128 and five supporters respectively, while one to remove McElfresh from Warped amassed 13,000.
Rock has a reputation to uphold. For the culture to really be what it purports to be – a place where everyone is welcome and festivals are proudly trouble-free – it needs to look beneath the veneer of positivity and accept the problems within. Of course, there’s no blanket solution; as one experienced rock publicist points out: ‘If bands had to do a morality test before playing a show, 90% of them would fail’. But when questionable morals become something that could put fans’ safety at stake, something must be done, and that responsibility undoubtedly lies with the people responsible for giving artists a platform - which, in the case of Warped Tour, is Kevin Lyman.
One British Festival booker - who agreed to talk on the condition of anonymity - told me that “if there was enough genuine public objection to an artist playing an event, then the organisers should make the decision for them not to perform”. In McElfresh’s case, there wasn’t just a petition – vocal objections on social media came from Hayley Williams (“No more excuses for boys just ‘being boys’”), The Swellers’ Jono Diener, and The Wonder Years and Beartooth guitarist Taylor Lumley, to name a few.
It’s difficult to understand, then, why Lyman felt it was appropriate to have McElfresh on the bill. In an ideal world, artists would feel the ‘duty of care’ that Hudson-Allez mentions, but when they don’t, it’s up to the rest of the industry to pick up the pieces. McElfresh’s acoustic set was over in under an hour, but the message that his appearance sent to fans is far more long lasting.
Eva Cookney, 21, a punk-rock fan who also runs political art workshops and a zine called Bad Bad Mouth, thinks that “those kinds of actions should never be tolerated. I feel like people will often overlook the questionable morals or actions of artists they admire because they don’t want to ruin the illusion.” As for the message that Warped sent out by letting McElfresh perform, she’s disappointed.
“It makes it look like we can dismiss the allegations and that people like McElfresh, who have a young fan base, can do what they like without apology and still get booked. The average age of attendees at Warped Tour is 17, and the young people there are looking up to the musicians as role models and seeing allegations overlooked. This strengthens this horrible culture we have where allegations of rape, sexual harassment and abuse being ignored, and the more complicated details of stories being dismissed as “grey areas”.
The fans deserve better, the scene deserves better, and victims of abuse by people in the public eye deserve better. Hayley Williams implored fans in her tweet to ‘demand better’, but it’s time for the people whose careers are made possible by those fans to listen, and leave misogyny, acceptance and negative stereotyping of female fans in rock’s distant history.
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