Moving on After Brand New
After Jesse Lacey was accused of sexual misconduct, many fans of the Long Island band went through an identity crisis. It doesn't have to be that way.
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In their early days, Brand New were far from unique. Your Favorite Weapon, their 2001 debut, was just another pop punk record rife with angst-laced revenge lyrics and choruses about bitter breakups. But by 2003, when the Long Island band veered into Deja Entendu, things had shifted dramatically. Brand New built their songwriting on unfiltered emotion; there was an intensity that could be felt in frontman Jesse Lacey’s words. And as they rolled out The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me in 2006 and Daisy three years later, they became something else entirely—a band trudging through depression, self-loathing, and a vague but personal take on what it meant to be in limbo. That music connected with fans who felt a similar hopelessness; many used it as a personal crutch.
Now it feels like that crutch has been kicked out from under them.
Last month, two women came forward to accuse frontman Jesse Lacey of alleged sexual harassment, manipulation, and child grooming. Beginning in the early 2000s, the abuse allegedly stretched on for years. They're serious accusations that caused anguish for the women who lived through it, and that pain multiplies in strength when the alleged offender is in the headlines. It’s been three months since The New York Times reported on the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein but, with stories of sexual assault surfacing daily, it feels like it’s been a year. Dozens of others have been accused of alleged assault, including music figures like Def Jam Records co-founder Russell Simmons, ex-Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanile, and Crystal Castles co-founder Ethan Kath.
Abusers shouldn’t go unpunished; one abusive act can affect a survivor for the rest of his or her life. The burden, trauma, PTSD, and other invisible elements—like the worry that plagues victims years after sexual harassment—often get swept aside. And yet it’s disturbingly commonplace to question victims about how a past event has altered the course of their life.
But there's another layer that we don't tend to address. What do fans do with the art they loved—the art that they identified with and built a personality around—when that art is disturbed by its creator? There is often the question of whether or not it's possible to separate art from the artist. But is it possible to hold onto an identity that is so closely tied to that piece of art when the artist himself has sullied it? For people who shaped part of their character around an artist’s work, news of that idol’s alleged abuse can cause an identity crisis. A tool that helped us to grow has been broken. So what then? Are the lessons we learned through art still valid if the person who made it turns out to be abhorrent?
Part of the way we develop as humans is by learning from others, studying their movements, and trying to mimic the motions to better fit the mold of our society. There comes a point in our formative years when we try to understand ourselves by proxy and let the work of others guide our self-discovery process. It’s why we feel the urge to return to a powerful film a dozen times. It’s why a book can feel like personalized therapy, the spine cracked because of how often it’s been reread like an self-help manual. Part of the identity-forming process we go through as humans is formed by the art that others put into the world.
But what happens when that falls apart? Foremost, the needs of any alleged victim must be addressed, the most immediate of which is a clear apology from the offender and his removal from power. It’s up to each victim how their alleged abuser can compensate for the damage caused. Secondary to all of that is what to do with the offender’s cultural influence.
When the allegations of sexual misconduct were raised against Jesse Lacey, there was widespread dismay. The Myspace generation of emo and punk fostered an unsafe environment for women; bands profited from misogynistic lyrics and framed private accessibility via AIM or Skype as desirable rather than insidious. Yet for a large pool of fans, finding out an artist you supported is an abuser prompts a tidal wave of guilt and frustration. It’s the third act in a crumbling post-allegation collapse. An abuse of power that physically or mentally harms another person is a disgusting act, and knowing at one point passionately supported them can make a fan feel somehow complicit. The reasons we saw ourselves in their work start to appear invalid. We scrutinize years worth of personal growth. We wonder if a path to self-discovery, which helped cement your current identity, was ever legitimate at all.
This isn’t a pity party for fans. Two women were allegedly abused by Jesse Lacey. That should not be ignored. Fans are not victims. But sometimes that distance is still close enough to cause pain. The majority of fans know it’s not about them. That's why Crit Obara, a Brand New fan who created and ran the news account BrandNewRockFan, decided to move on in the wake of the allegations.
"I saw my life as chapters which fit into their work," says Obara. "I thought the band had reached their final form. It felt so great to have been along for that ride. And now the car just went off the road."
Brand New's brand of emo was so relatable because they did what so few emo acts didn't: they grew up. Instead of clinging to the elementary quips and dramatized values of their early days, Brand New pushed themselves to tackle grander musical scopes, essentially becoming an alt-rock band not marketable enough for radio airplay. Science Fiction was the final proof. The lyrics turned away from glorified date rape fantasies and towards confronting self-hate. They got married. They settled down. They seemed happy. To some fans, it symbolized that, as hard as it is to grow up with depression, it’s possible to slowly step away from it, or at least control it.
Brand New’s music is so entangled with death, for example, that it helped some fans learn how to grieve. Sammy Maine, the managing editor at music blog GoldFlakePaint, turned to the band at age 15 when her mother attempted suicide. "While the subjects covered in Deja Entendu didn't directly correlate with what I was going through, the emotional intensity the album exuded gave me this sense of relief," she says. "Keen to immerse myself even more in my chosen therapy, I began to figure out the chords to each track on the guitar my mother had bought me for my birthday the previous year. It gave me an excuse to reach out to friends without the fear of having to talk about what had happened." In the wake of the allegations, Maine detached herself from Brand New.
Other listeners, like longtime fan Michelle Buchman, made peace with Brand New and its music and impact on her life. "My best friend from college lost her battle with mental illness last year and I associate a lot of emo music with her. So when she passed, I dove into a time warp and kind of re-discovered what the first two Brand New albums felt like," says Buchman. "Though the subject matter isn't very connected with what I was going through [then], it really helped connect me with happier memories of my friend rather than just wallowing in this wave of constant grief. I do think other takeaways are still valid, like that the whole emo scene I grew up in had a lot of male toxicity, but if it did anything, it formed a strong bond in friendships that is still there almost two decades later. That's what I will take with me."
What becomes of the artist and his legacy doesn't matter. What's more important is the personal confusion that fans feel now that the art they had built their personalities around is fractured. Watching a pillar in your support system crumble before you is scary. It can feel like you’ve lost a therapist, a supportive friend, or the sense that over time you, too, will heal. Looking back, transparent moments that felt relatable—like a 2015 speech where Lacey cries—are tainted by his alleged actions. It’s hard for lyrics in the opening of "You Won't Know" or the entirety of "Sic Transit Gloria...Glory Fades" not to take on new meaning in light of allegations. But just because you sought comfort in those words years ago doesn’t mean the lessons you took away are not valuable now.
"You'll find that a sizable portion of the Brand New fanbase, myself included, feel that the band's trajectory as musicians—and the themes of the music—mirrored their own growth as a person to an almost creepy degree," says Drew Guarini, the founder of Brand New Archive. "I am sympathetic and supportive to any potential survivors, and at the same time Brand New’s music has been an integral part of my life on a deeply personal level for over 16 years. I know these are two things that many would argue impossible to reconcile—supporting potential survivors and the band simultaneously—but I think a lot of it goes back to that connection. This band has saved people from self-harm. It has brought them together. If it meant something to you, no one can take that away."
It's not up to fans to decide if Jesse Lacey deserves forgiveness. It’s the alleged victims and the alleged victims only who can do that, and they should never feel pressured to do so. The only thing fans can forgive is any guilt or frustration that's risen within them as a result of supporting an alleged abuser before he was outed—and many are working on doing that. AbsolutePunk and chorus.fm founder Jason Tate wrote a short essay to work through his thoughts. Noisey’s Emma Garland said that she hadn’t reflected publicly because the news was bad for her health. Hundreds of fans unpacked their feelings on Brand New’s Subreddit; many of them felt that sharing their thoughts would help others feel less alone.
Part of the reason the Brand New allegations disturbed fans was because it wasn’t unfathomable given the scene they spawned from, yet it felt surprising because Lacey appeared to outgrow it. It’s rare to find an outlet that highlighted your anxieties in detail, wrote margin notes that mirrored the ones in your head, and then illustrated firsthand that it’s possible to become a better person over 18 years. Brand New did for a generation of kids in the ‘00s what bands like Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate did for kids in the '90s. Witnessing that in real time made listening to their albums on loop feel good as you aged. Brand New’s music made the idea of steady mental health improvement feel achievable not just in song, but by example, as Lacey appeared to become content with himself through the marriage and family life he started. So the news shook fans. It certainly shook me.
In 2013, I drove seven hours one way, alone, to see Brand New play their entire discography. I remember crying in the back of Starland Ballroom, overcome with memories of my lowest points of the past. On the drive back, I remember feeling limitless, full of gratitude and disbelief that the music that helped me during preteen years continued to do so in adulthood. I remember reading the phrase "fight off your demons" and claiming it as a personal motto, a mantra and encouraging push forward when giving up was horribly appealing.
The allegations hit twice as hard because of the realization that music I turned to as an aid, to climb out of a tough spot or to comfort me while wallowing, wouldn't do that anymore. But when the allegations against Lacey surfaced, the lessons I learned felt invalid, and I questioned if the person I am today even matters if the structure it was built on is faulty. The longer I thought about it, the clearer it became that, though Brand New’s music taught me how to cope with personal struggles for nearly two decades, it wasn’t the one doing the heavy lifting. I did that work. You probably did the same for yourself, too.
Nina Corcoran is the Music Editor at DigBoston. Follow her on Twitter.