The specific betrayal of Brand New

Brand New’s Jesse Lacey is the most famous emo musician to be outed as an abuser. His world is long overdue for a reckoning.

The specific betrayal of Brand New

Brand New’s Jesse Lacey is the most famous emo musician to be outed as an abuser. His world is long overdue for a reckoning.

In the 43 days since The New York Times released its bombshell report on Harvey Weinstein’s sex crimes, pop culture has begun its slow reckoning with men who abuse their power to prey on women, confident they’ll never face the consequences. The music world has seen a slow stream of transgressions come to light. The L.A. producer Gaslamp Killer, Ethan Kath of goth-pop act Crystal Castles, former Real Estate guitarist Matt Mondanile, and the indie singer-songwriter Alex Calder are just a few of the artists whose alleged patterns of abuse have been recently detailed, prompting swift, unequivocal exile. Jesse Lacey, singer and guitarist of the beloved pop-punk band Brand New, is the latest musician to join the circle of shame, and by far the most prominent.

It all started on November 10th, when a woman accused Lacey of sexually exploiting her as a teenager in a Facebook post that went viral on social media. Shortly thereafter, Lacey issued a mea culpa for his behavior. Lacey’s statement didn’t address any specific instances of misconduct, instead offering a blanket apology. “I am sorry for how I have hurt people, mistreated them, lied, and cheated,” he wrote. “I am sorry for ignoring the way in which my position, status, and power as a member of a band affected the way people viewed me or their approach to their interactions with me. And I am sorry for how often I have not afforded women the respect, support, or honesty that they deserved.” A few days later, another woman came forward to Pitchfork with similar allegations, describing years of reported sexual exploitation and emotional manipulation on Lacey’s behalf during the early 2000’s, when she was still a minor. (Correction: A previous version of this story said two new women spoke to Pitchfork; one of them was actually the original accuser.)

The story was immediately met with anger, and disavowal. Brand New had been wrapping up a tour teased as one of their last—a planned storybook ending after a long, fruitful career. Almost immediately, two of Brand New’s tourmates, the British band Martha and the Brooklyn singer-songwriter Kevin Devine, pulled out of the tour in a gesture of solidarity with the victims. Brand New ended up cancelling the remaining dates of the tour. They have not rescheduled the dates, or made a public statement since Lacey’s initial admission of guilt.

A quick trawl of the band’s online forums, such as the Brand New subreddit or Facebook groups like Deja Entinder, reveal a fandom at war with itself. Some disown their hard-won merch and delete their mp3s; others book appointments at tattoo parlors to cover up their Brand New-inspired ink (offered by at least one artist at a discounted rate, in light of the allegations). There are those desperately searching for an argument that will let them reconcile their love of Lacey’s art with the admitted events, or offering limp defenses of his actions by noting that of course a teen girl would want to exchange flirty photos with a rock star, never mind the myriad reasons why a grown man is supposed to know better. (Equally toxic have been the invocations of Lacey’s mental health as excuses for his indiscretion, suggesting that he just couldn’t help himself.)

Regardless, no fan has shrugged off the sense of betrayal. To Brand New’s diehards, Jesse Lacey was less a rock star than he was a bulwark against inner darkness in all its sinister forms: addiction, isolation, heartbreak, mental illness, suicide, death. Emo singers often performed this role for their listeners, and in the beginning, they weren’t necessarily unique amongst their moody milieu. Brand New rose to fame amidst the emo renaissance of the early aughts, when the jeans were tight, the eyeliner was thick, and petty kiss-offs indicated emotional strength. Between its bubblegum riffs and sophomoric disses (“Have another drink and drive yourself home/I hope there’s ice on all the roads;”“I hope the next boy that you kiss has something terribly contagious on his lips”), 2001’s debut Your Favorite Weapon (and to a lesser degree, 2003’s Deja Entendu) was more or less par for the genre: young, horny, sad boys, making relatable anthems for all the other young, horny, sad boys.

And then, Brand New started to mature. Released in 2006 to wider acclaim, their third album The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me marked a creative reset for the band, swapping angsty power-pop for atmospheric alternative rock and intoxicating crush songs for sobering confessionals. Its lyrics, while written predominately in first-person, found Lacey looking outward rather than inward, singing with a “we” instead of “I.” “Do you believe you’re missing out?” he asks on “Jesus,” playing mind-reader and therapist. “Everything good is happening somewhere else/But with nobody in your bed/The night’s hard to get through.” They were increasingly sincere and self-aware in a genre where emotional histrionics were the default setting. Music like this made them, and Lacey, seem definitively different than Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz, Taking Back Sunday’s Adam Lazzarra, or virtually any other sad white guy who once covered Alternative Press.

Lacey’s wistful pontifications on FOMO and loneliness weren’t especially profound, but they struck a powerful nerve, even among those who’d found their older work juvenile. Brand New’s transition from niche emo outfit to critically-adored rock band continued with 2009’s Daisy, which owed more to bands like Modest Mouse than Green Day, and culminated with this year’s Science Fiction, billed as their swan song. Stylistically, the album broods and shudders, sharing little in common with their snottier days; lyrically, Lacey flogs his former self at every turn: “You and I were stuck in the waste/Talking about our salad days/What a damn lie,”“I thought I was a creator/I'm here just hanging around.” It became one of 2017’s best-reviewed albums, astonishing for a rock band that had been around this long. They even debuted on the Billboard charts at No. 1, still the industry's most accepted marker of success.

That was the difference between Brand New and their emo peers: They grew up, both musically and lyrically, in a way that many of them didn’t. Brand New said no to stale pop schmaltz, unlike Fall Out Boy and Sum 41; they avoided repeating themselves over and over, like Taking Back Sunday and Alkaline Trio; they didn’t become burdened by a sole hit, like the Ataris and Yellowcard; they stayed together, unlike My Chemical Romance or Thursday. Lacey stopped complaining about his Morrissey-hating ex and his double-crossing BFF, and started writing songs about fatherhood and the perils of religious fearmongering. He reflected on his shittiness, and called himself out on it. This kind of parallel growth between artist and fan is difficult to find in rock n’ roll, where everyone is eager to insist they’re brand new.

Lacey’s reflection, as we now know, had its limits. You can’t bury the past, especially given the toxic power dynamics of the scene writ large. Emo never treated women very well; it always came back to the boys, and what they were feeling. “Women in emo songs are denied the dignity of humanization through both the language and narratives, we are omnipresent yet chimerical, only of consequence in romantic settings,” the critic Jessica Hopper once wrote, in an excoriation of emo’s one-sided gender politics. The bleeding heart angst of emo’s singers leaked down to its boy fans; just ask any female emo fan about her experience with the men who treated them worse than the jocks they supposedly despised for being uncouth. It’s depressingly unsurprising now when a powerful man is revealed as having acted shittily toward the women around him, and less so when he comes from an environment as male-focused as emo – even when it’s somebody who was supposed to be as thoughtful as Lacey.

It seems almost certain that he will not be the only of his peers to be made accountable. In the days following Lacey’s apology, and the subsequent testimonies of his accusers, Warped Tour — the iconic punk festival that fostered the rise of pop-punk, hardcore, emo, and yes, Brand New — announced it would end its two-decade run next year. A few years ago, festival founder Kevin Lyman had allowed an artist named Front Porch Step to continue performing on the tour following allegations that he’d exchanged nude photos with underage fans. In an interview with Billboard this week, Lyman seemed to realize that a long overdue paradigm shift was coming. “As my wife said this weekend...we watched what happened with Brand New and these kinds of things,” he said, “And she goes, ‘Oh, I see a storm gathering. You'll get sucked into this somehow.’” Not everyone gets to move on so easily.

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Zoe Camp is a writer from Brooklyn whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, SPIN, Village Voice, Revolver, and The Fader.