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Why Are Crystal Castles Booked For A SXSW Showcase Celebrating Feminism?

Gabriela Tully Claymore | March 3, 2016 - 5:01 pm

SXSW lineup announcements have been rolling in over the course of the past few weeks, and yesterday Tumblr revealed the details of its themed showcase, which has been labeled the “79 Cents” event. The Verge points out that the name refers back to the Institute For Women’s Policy Research’s 2014 report, which claims most women in the U.S. still only make 79 cents for every dollar a man makes. The show will boast a variety of what the microblogging platform is calling “feminist art installations” as well as a guest appearance from Wendy Davis, the former Texas senator who is a renowned abortion rights activist. It all sounds like a nice — albeit heavily branded — affair that would put Tumblr and its esteemed partners on the right side of history during an increasingly volatile time for women fighting for reproductive rights in this country. There is, however, one glaring problem with the showcase: Crystal Castles.

Why is booking Crystal Castles for a feminist event — an event with a poster that proclaims, “A woman’s place is on the stage, to the front, and wherever she wants” — such an issue? The rest of the lineup is, after all, made up entirely of women. Empress Of, Jhene Aiko, Little Simz, and Tacocat are all featured in prominent spots on the flyer, and let’s not forget that Crystal Castles has a singer who is a woman! Her name is Edith. She replaced Alice Glass in the band last year. She is pictured above in a green wig. She is Crystal Castles’ main attraction; her producer, Ethan Kath, just lingers in the background. Right?

Wrong. There are a few things that make Crystal Castles’ inclusion on this lineup dubious, and Ethan Kath being male is but a small one. After Alice Glass announced that she would be leaving back in 2014, we figured the band was over. It was near-impossible to imagine Kath carrying on without an enigmatic, ferocious frontwoman; Glass is an icon for so many people who grew up with the electro-punk band, she’s a presence to be reckoned with. A lot of us didn’t even really know (or care) what Kath looked like. But a little under a year later, Kath released “Frail,” a song that he made with a new singer — an enigmatic presence called “Edith.” In a statement accompanying the track, he referred to Glass as his “former vocalist,” effectively asserting that Crystal Castles had always been his band. He also stated that Glass “didn’t appear on Crystal Castles’ best known songs” and “people often gave her credit for my lyrics and that was fine, I didn’t care.”

Glass didn’t sit idly by while Kath took all the credit for 10 years of her life’s work. She responded to him on Twitter, stating that she was a founding member of Crystal Castles, and called Kath’s statements “manipulative.” Kath later removed his comments from the “Frail” SoundCloud page, and in an interview asserted that he did not want to insult Glass and meant no harm to her. Since then, Kath’s Crystal Castles released a new song (“Deicide“), and Glass put out her first track as a solo artist, “Stillbirth,” which was accompanied by a lengthy statement explaining that it was inspired by an abusive relationship. Here is an excerpt:

The clarity I’ve gained since getting out of that situation has opened up my life in a way that I didn’t imagine was possible. Although some of the pain and anger still lingers, my life finally feels as though it has value and meaning. I speak out now hoping that I can encourage other young women and young men to affirm their value within their relationships or get out. Abuse isn’t always obvious and it doesn’t have to involve black eyes, blood and broken bones. Emotional and psychological abuse can be just as damaging, and it is extremely difficult to remove yourself from.

Those that have known me throughout my career might be surprised that someone who publicly gave the impression of being fearless and seemed as though they didn’t take shit from anyone could find themselves being severely mistreated and manipulated by someone they were close to. This person nearly stripped me of myself. And for years I felt as though they were waiting for my life to end.

Cystal Castles announced their first shows with Edith a few months later. All of the proceeds from Glass’ “Stillbirth” went to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network).

There’s no direct evidence to suggest that Glass’ statement was an indictment of Kath; nowhere in there does she mention either his name or Crystal Castles. But it is worth noting that she chose to make her debut release as a solo artist with a song inspired by the silencing effect someone had on her life, and it’s almost too easy to align her statement with the since-deleted comments Kath made discrediting Glass’ work when she announced her departure from the band. Glass recently posted a follow-up on Facebook, asserting that she wants absolutely nothing to do with this new iteration of Crystal Castles:

since I have noticed some confusion on social media, I want to again make clear I have absolutely NOTHING to do with crystal castles future albums or performances. and I do not want my imagery used in association with them. I left that band not because I wanted to but because I needed to. I ask that fans of Crystal Castles past help share this message. and know that I am more excited about returning to the stage and bringing new music than I’ve been about anything in my life ღවꇳවღ

Tumblr’s head of music Nate Auerbach explained why this year’s SXSW show would be branded as a feminist affair to The Verge: “I think the thing that’s important here is that we’re celebrating the female voice on Tumblr.” It’s Women’s History Month, and it’s nice that Auerbach is an ally, but there are already dozens of thinkpieces out there about the gross overuse of #feminism as a branding tool. Auerbach also sees nothing wrong with a showcase for female voices including a male musician who blatantly stated that his female collaborator of 10 years didn’t actually do anything besides look good and sing … except not on the band’s “best known songs.” Auerbach explained that Crystal Castles are an appropriate fit because “[the showcase is] not about having only women on the stage, it’s about being in the same place that men are, and that’s in front.” He later stated that he did not see a problem booking the duo because, “I’ve heard Edith’s voice, and I’ve seen photos, and I know enough that she’s incredible. I don’t get involved in the politics of the things.”

The politics of the things. There is a blurring line that we, as a music industry, have become all too aware of over the course of the past few months, the line between the personal and the political and where we, as fans and members of the industry, should stand when “difficult conversations” arise. (These sorts of difficult conversations have already come up for SXSW 2016 in its handling of Interactive Week panels on Gamergate and women working in tech.) When The Verge asked Glass what she thought of Kath performing at the event, she made the following comment:

As someone who knew Ethan Kath on a personal and professional level, it is my opinion that he is not an appropriate artist to be performing at a feminism-centric event.

Kesha. Larkin Grimm. Amber Coffman. These are all women who shared stories of abuse at the hands of a man in the music industry, and they’re all women who reminded everyone that we need to believe women. More than just believe them, we need to remember that abuse of power comes as no surprise.

I am not saying that Crystal Castles should not be allowed to play shows, that we should snub them entirely. Glass did not report abuse at the hands of Kath in any explicit manner. What I am saying is that based on Kath’s earlier statements, and based on the language Glass has used to describe her personal and artistic relationship with Kath, there is no universe where Crystal Castles belong on a bill that’s designed to celebrate feminism. Here’s the thing: There is an extensive, impressive list of women who are playing at SXSW this year, ones who actually deserve to be on this bill.

Regardless of the personal issues between Glass and Kath, replacing one woman with another woman as the supposed facade for what you claim as your project does not make Crystal Castles a “woman-led band.” Just because Kath will be busily noodling around in the background onstage at Tumblr’s SXSW show does not mean that he isn’t in control. If we’re to consider the heightened mystery that surrounded the unveiling of Edith’s persona in contrast with Kath’s “outing” of Glass’ supposed lack of talent, then he’s setting up Edith to look like a decoy for his project. A flesh-and-blood hologram, but a hologram all the same.

UPDATE: Crystal Castles will no longer be performing at the showcase. “We’ve removed Crystal Castles from the lineup of the 79 cents party,” Tumblr says in a statement. “We don’t know the facts around comments made about a member of the band, and we’re not going to engage in an investigation into it. We’re hosting this event to highlight gender disparity issues, something that Tumblr and our community cares deeply about, and we don’t want the band’s presence to distract from this important mission.” Here’s an updated poster for the event:

79Cents