2022 Win Butler

Photo by Inês Leal

2022 sorely tested our ability to separate the art from the artist

With sexual misconduct allegations against Arcade Fire’s Win Butler, the overdue cancellation of Kanye West and the antivaxx BS spewed by former social justice heroine M.I.A. (to name a few), it’s been an incredibly disappointing year for music fans.

[Trigger Warning: SA, DV, racism, anti-Semitism, child grooming, child pornography, suicide, murder.]


I never thought 2022 would make me have to destroy my rose-coloured glasses about certain people I once admired. I’m talking, of course, about Win Butler of Arcade Fire being accused of sexual misconduct by four people in August (one of whom even attempted suicide after their encounter), and then a fifth accuser in November. 

Win’s own statement largely missed the mark. He tries to make himself look like less of a bad person by stating his desire to be “someone my son can be proud of,” and names his wife Régine Chassagne’s miscarriage as the root of his depression and heavy drinking that led to his alleged misbehaviour. The band’s reaction — mainly Régine’s ‘stand by your man’ response, and the disappointing silence from the rest of the group up to now — has also left plenty to be desired.

Win took the Jamie Foxx approach to defending himself by “blaming it on the alcohol,” as it were. Régine was also quick to defend him when she would’ve been better off not saying anything at all. No matter what, it’s a terrible look. 

I’ve struggled for months since the Pitchfork exposé broke to find the right words to convey my disappointment about this whole situation. Arcade Fire were my favourite band for what feels like a lifetime. I flew halfway across the country twice to see them perform — once here for Osheaga, then again in my hometown of Calgary. I met Win and Régine at the POP vs. Jock charity basketball game in 2014 when I volunteered at POP Montreal that year. I saw Win DJ a couple times, too, and spotted him hanging out at other shows before and after.

The selfie I took with him on the McGill gym’s basketball court after the game was my favourite photo of myself for a very long time. Meeting him, Régine and his brother/ex-bandmate Will Butler that afternoon in September 2014 was the best day of my life for just as long. I even got to interview AF member Richard Reed Parry on Zoom when he was promoting a new album from his other project, Bell Orchestre. Interviewing Win one day was also high on my bucket list.

Years earlier, I had fallen in love with their debut album Funeral — an album that shifted my adolescent self’s outlook on music almost overnight — as a teenager. I also remember seeing the “Rebellion (Lies)” video frequently on MuchMusic, and watching a video on YouTube of them performing it on Top of the Pops. I still remember them gracing the cover of TIME’s Canadian edition. I’d also watch videos of them performing with David Bowie, and playing “Wake Up” at Glastonbury to an ocean of sweaty, screaming, flag-waving festivalgoers. When I first got into them, they were touring with U2. Witnessing from afar the impact they had on Montreal’s music scene (and Canadian music in general) in a very short time helped fuel my desire to eventually move here.

In 2010, at the age of 19, I was even lucky enough to hear and review The Suburbs for a publication in my hometown, about a month before its release. I also screamed and jumped up and down in my Concordia dorm room when they won Album of the Year at the 2011 Grammys. When they played a free outdoor show at Place des Arts later that year to a crowd of 100,000 to celebrate the Grammy victory, I went with a group of my friends and got fairly close to the front. I also wanted “Wake Up” to be the last song I hear before I die. On that topic, I came very close to being in a car accident when I was 15, as my family’s car came within inches of hitting a moose late at night in the Alberta Rockies. The song I was listening to on my iPod right before it happened? “Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels).”

TL,DR: I have a FUCKTONNE of other memories and entire years of my life associated with this band, including that near-death experience. The last time I was this gutted about a band’s (justified) fall from grace was in 2017 with Jesse Lacey of Brand New, and that was a relative cakewalk for me by comparison.

This was supposed to be a big year for Arcade Fire, too: a new album, a massive world tour with Feist and Beck opening (before both pulled out), and a rousing headlining set at Osheaga followed by a top-billing Bell Centre show in December. All signs should’ve pointed to them going down as one of the greatest bands of our generation (and perhaps of all-time), and arguably the best band to ever come out of this city from either of the two solitudes. As T’Cha Dunlevy puts it in The Gazette, they were “the pride of Montreal, the ultimate poster-band for the coolest city in Canada.”

For many people in Montreal, Arcade Fire felt like our collective favourite band, one that could consistently fill us with pure emotional exhilaration — especially in concert. Not unlike Leonard Cohen’s impact on Montrealers, this band united so many of us despite living in a city and province where language and ethnic divisions have long been a frustrating part of our history (and very much remain our reality under François Legault).

Obviously, the waters are extremely muddied now with all of that.

Equally infuriating is that the band continued on with their world tour, and many fans who requested refunds did not get one. (Vitriol about the latter should primarily be aimed at Ticketmaster, but that company’s unsavoury practices merit a whole other piece.)

When the band played the Bell Centre earlier this month, the arena was half-empty (reportedly 10,500 out of 17,000, though it’s unclear if this was the actual turnout or just ticket sales), and people were re-selling their tickets on StubHub for as little as $10 a pop. This was mere months after they headlined Osheaga to tens of thousands, replacing the Foo Fighters after Taylor Hawkins’ tragic death earlier this year. The 6,500 (minimum) empty seats were presumably taken up by the elephant in the room.

Depressingly, Arcade Fire were but one of multiple artists I once respected — or in some cases, hugely admired — to be exposed for abusing women and/or their power, or being racist/anti-Semitic, or for promoting anti-vax propaganda, or a combo of any of the above, in 2022.

M.I.A.’s fourth album, Matangi, is out now.

Kanye West (or excuse me, “Ye”) is the first artist that comes to mind, even though his “cancellation” has been long overdue. His repugnant anti-Semitic remarks led to him being dropped by his biggest sponsors this year, including Adidas (whom he played chicken with beforehand). He’d double down during his interview with renowned fuckwad Alex Jones by praising Hitler, someone he’s apparently admired for ages. Suddenly, his abuse on Instagram toward ex-wife Kim Kardashian and her then-boyfriend Pete Davidson this year feels almost insignificant by comparison.

There’s also Rex Orange County, the British singer-songwriter (born Alex O’Connor) known for his boy-next-door charm and sunny, breezy tunes like “Loving Is Easy,” “Sunflower” and his memorable feature on Tyler, the Creator’s “Boredom.” In October, he shellshocked fans after being charged with six counts of sexual assault. Though those charges have recently been dropped, we all know how badly the justice system can treat these cases, and I still haven’t revisited his music.

We can also point fingers at Dizzee Rascal, the brash, charismatic British rapper who put U.K. grime on the map and injected a whole lot of spunk into 2003’s musical landscape with his debut album Boy in Da Corner. In March, he was found guilty of physically assaulting his ex-fiancée. Another prominent figure in British hip hop, former BBC Radio 1 personality Tim Westwood, faced sexual misconduct allegations in July, including with a 14-year-old.

Then there’s Queens of the Stone Age’s emotionally volatile frontman Josh Homme, whose ex-wife, Distillers frontwoman Brody Dalle, testified against him in court back in January about the horrific physical abuse she suffered from him. Dalle also filed a restraining order against Homme in August 2021 that accused him of beating their children.

British band Kasabian released a new album this year, their first without longtime frontman Tom Meighan, who pled guilty in July 2020 to drunkenly assaulting his fiancée (who stayed with him and later married him) while his young daughter was watching. Of course, there’s also R. Kelly being convicted in September for his litany of abhorrent sex crimes, though those patterns already went back decades to start with.

Crushingly, there’s also M.I.A., once one of music’s most progressive, politically charged voices. She spent 2022 pushing “vaccine skeptic” bullshit and posing for a picture on Halloween with Candace Owens — the same abominable person who stood next to Kanye in October sporting White Lives Matter t-shirts at Paris Fashion Week. Unfortunately, Maya hasn’t faced enough consequences for this; in fact, Boiler Room uploaded her recent DJ set in London two weeks after she tweeted that picture.

It’s all incredibly dismaying when you remember that Kanye’s breakthrough hit single was a critique of consumerism before he became a living embodiment of that very concept, and how M.I.A.’s entire persona circa Arular and Kala was focused on rebelling against social injustice and corporate assholes, only for her to become one herself. Oh, how the turn tables!

Big Thief sparked controversy in June for announcing shows in Tel Aviv, Israel, the hometown of bassist Max Oleartchik. After immediate backlash and mounting pressure from fans who support Palestine in those nations’ longstanding conflict, the shows were cancelled. This decision was praised by fans who opposed it from the start, but also elicited hurt feelings and accusations of cowardice from some Jewish fans, as well as from the venue they were booked to play. (I also saw quite a bit of anti-Semitic abuse, including slurs, on Twitter when the shows were announced — not cool at all.)

Then, we have Will Smith and his slap heard ‘round the world at this year’s Oscars, which has surely inflicted lasting damage onto his relatively wholesome public image. I could also write a whole other piece about actors (Brad Pitt, Ezra Miller, Johnny Depp) and athletes (Jamie Salé, Mason Greenwood, Kyrie Irving, several NHL players and their wives, and especially the entire Hockey Canada organization) who’ve been outed as massively disappointing people this year.

As far as Canadian artists beyond Arcade Fire, Death From Above 1979 were screen-shotted following accounts on Instagram supporting the staggeringly dumb trucker convoy last winter. Attention was also drawn this year to White Lung leader Mish Way spewing alt-right propaganda and proclaiming her admiration for Proud Boys founder Gavin MacInnes. Most recently, Toronto R&B singer Tory Lanez was found guilty on all charges for shooting Megan Thee Stallion in 2020.

Long story short, it’s been a rough year as far as having to separate the art from the artist. This begs the question: can we actually do that?

A quick Google search shows you this debate is a rather divisive one. On the one hand, there are plenty of artists we’ve (arguably) been able to set aside past transgressions for: Michael Jackson, David Bowie, John Lennon, Morrissey, Phil Anselmo of Pantera and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, for example — all artists with varying degrees of accusations against them whose songs remain pop culture staples. Even the October passing of Jerry Lee Lewis was widely mourned, despite him notoriously marrying his 13-year-old cousin. Phil Spector’s productions also haven’t been erased from the musical canon even after his conviction for murder, and Gary Glitter’s “Rock & Roll Pt 2” remains an anthem at NHL hockey games and soundtracked a famous scene for Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker despite Glitter being jailed for child pornography.

Conversely, it can be too difficult to listen to an artist’s music without thinking of their abuses of power and influence. People usually write best when writing about themselves, and someone’s art is often intrinsically linked with who they are, how they’re feeling and where they’re at in life. Sure, I can still cherish albums like Funeral and The Suburbs deep within my heart, but I’ve been unable to listen to Arcade Fire since the allegations broke. Even if I’d understood Win’s extramarital promiscuity as being an open secret around town for years (though I never knew about any misconduct on his end), it’s still too much to think about right now.

In some ways, you can separate art from the artist, but in others (e.g. if an artist’s lyrics seemingly foreshadows their behaviour), it’s just not possible. What’s clear is that we should absolutely hold artists’ feet to the fire, and make sure they do their utmost to atone for their actions. This is partly because institutions like the Recording Academy appear happy to sit back and let artists’ problematic behaviour go unchecked, since Arcade Fire, Chris Brown (who is somehow still a huge star) and Louis C.K. all got Grammy nominations this year.

Some people might say we can’t just expect public figures to always be angels. But as a successful public figure, you’re immediately a community pillar and role model to many people, a good number of whom are children. It’s therefore on you to be a standup citizen and not do anything you might later regret, even if your position of power might make you think you can get away with it. I’m a firm believer in restorative justice, but anyone looking to make a living off their music mustn’t take those risks consciously to start with. Set the example — don’t fuck around and find out.

As of now, it’s incredibly hard to imagine how Arcade Fire, or any of the artists I’ve mentioned here, can recover from their respective controversies this year. With Win Butler, part of me still hopes this is a horrible nightmare and I’ll eventually awaken with him back to being the beloved frontman of one of the world’s biggest bands. Sadly, there’s nothing to wake up from here (no pun intended).

Sure, we can still listen to these artists whenever we like, but do we really want to seem like we’re choosing our pleasure over keeping vulnerable people safe? For Win and everyone else I mentioned, there has to be accountability for the hurt they’ve caused others, and also room for unlearning their behaviours, doing the necessary work to better themselves, and unreservedly telling the public (especially the fans they’ve let down) about tangible progress they’ve made. Even if it still might not be enough for some, they can at least say they’re doing their part.

We’re all capable of being toxic people. But we can either stubbornly exhibit that same behaviour, or choose to have difficult conversations with ourselves, admit to our faults, vow to do better and promptly start doing the work. Otherwise, we can neither learn nor grow from our situations. Men also have a duty to educate other men, rather than stay silent or be complicit, as well as believe survivors and take their stories to heart.

We are all human, we have all made mistakes in life — sometimes huge ones. We’ll continue to make more of them, me and you included. Hindsight is always 20/20. But the best way to avoid that kind of behaviour is to educate yourself and not do it — something Win Butler et al should’ve done from the start. But there’s no DeLorean he or anyone else can drive to undo past actions, so accountability and restorative justice are the next best things. ■

If you or someone you know is struggling and/or in crisis, call 911 in the event of an emergency, or Info-Social at 811 to speak to a social worker for free. Otherwise, if you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse and/or sexual assault, contact the Montreal Women’s Centre at 514-842-4780; Canada’s Sexual Violence helpline at 1-888-933-9007; or the Montreal Sexual Assault Centre at 514-933-9007.

For more in Montreal life, please visit the Arts & Life section.