For as long as I can remember, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been my favorite band. My life effectively changed in 2006 when I first saw the video for “Dani California.” At ten (and maybe at 22), I didn’t always know what Anthony Kiedis was singing about, but Stadium Arcadium quickly became my most-listened-to album and RHCP my most-loved band.
That, however, does not make me blind or oblivious to the band’s problematic behavior. I try not to ignore the downsides of my favorites the way Beatles fans tend to ignore John Lennon’s bad behavior. Whether they’re musicians, actors, professional wrestlers, or authors, I try my best to be informed, but some things do slip through the cracks for me. Perhaps my eternal soft spot for RHCP is the reason I was so taken aback by the recent calls to have the band banned from Spotify.
This past semester, in a Sociology of Gender course, we were asked to identify our favorite music and if there was gender equality within it. I thought of all the bands I listened to and shamefully realized most were male-dominated. Alternative rock is almost a boys’ club, and, in RHCP’s case, that often comes across in their music, particularly their early work. Songs like “Special Secret Song Inside” (or, as most fans know it to be, “Party on Your Pussy”), “Sexy Mexican Maid,” and “Sir Psycho Sexy” are obviously and overtly sexual and objectifying. I regularly laugh hearing “Sir Psycho Sexy” because the song is ridiculous and seeing and hearing the guys perform it in Cleveland in 2012 is a favorite memory of mine, but overall, those songs won’t win over feminists. In fact, they’re quite degrading, which is probably why I don’t regard their albums prior to Californication in very high esteem. I enjoy the music and lyrics of other albums much more, and I think Anthony Kiedis has done a better job of making his sexuality seem more…artsy and less crass.
Unfortunately, those crass lyrics are perhaps the least problematic of RHCP’s behavior. When I read Kiedis’s autobiography Scar Tissue, I was young but not too young to realize he had a lot of issues. A troubled childhood mixed with a drug-dealing dad and life in California didn’t do any favors for Kiedis, and he ended up becoming a drug addict, struggling with a heroin addiction for several decades. I felt awful for Kiedis, but learning about his journey and that of the band made me appreciate the Red Hot Chili Peppers that much more. They had a story. They survived.
But that story cannot ignore Anthony’s other issues. I was upset a few days ago when I saw the band’s name lumped with other singers and musicians people were calling to get removed from Spotify. I was familiar with Jimmy Page’s story, with Ted Nugent’s, with Chris Brown’s, and others’, but RHCP threw me for a loop. I know some of the band members have been involved in some…questionable behavior, but I had never heard allegations of sexual misconduct, assault, or rape. I felt caught off guard.
I’ve always had issues with the age differences between Kiedis and his girlfriends. In the past, I’ve joked that, despite being in my early 20s, I am too old for the 55-year-old singer. But it was always that: a joke. I believed the relationships were weird, but if an 18-year old girl wanted to date a middle-aged man? Both parties are of age, and there isn’t anything illegal about it. It doesn’t make it any less creepy or questionable though.
The more I thought about it, however, the more I remembered other aspects of Kiedis’s book that I perhaps overlooked because I was so young and I idolized the band so much. For example, in 1986, Kiedis began a relationship with actress Ione Skye, who was just 16 at the time. She was a minor and he would have been 23 or 24, which is clearly not okay. With the age of consent in California, where both Kiedis and Skye lived, being 18, it was also illegal. Unfortunately, 16 doesn’t seem so bad when you compare it to another sexual encounter Kiedis himself claims to have had.
Another tale from Scar Tissue indicates Kiedis knowing committed statutory rape when he had sex with a girl who was just 14 years old. At the time, Kiedis was 23. This encounter inspired the band’s song “Catholic School Girls Rule,” a song that has always rubbed me the wrong way. In his book, Kiedis writes that the girl came with them from one show to another, and, after the gig, she told him, “My father’s the chief of police and the entire state of Louisiana is looking for me because I’ve gone missing. Oh, and besides that, I’m only fourteen.” While Louisiana has a lower age of consent than California, that age is 17, still not even close to the age of this “Catholic school girl.” The singer claims he wasn’t “incredibly scared” by her words because he in his “somewhat deluded mind,” if the girl told her father she was in love with Kiedis, nothing would happen. The two proceeded to have sex one more time before he ensured she made it back home. While the encounter appears to be consensual, the girl was still a minor, supposedly blinded by the love she had for the singer. Her age means she was unable to consent, and the nine-year age difference really emphasizes that. A power imbalance exists in this situation, and while perhaps it is not as bad as, say, R.Kelly having a sex cult, RHCP fans cannot pretend what Kiedis did wasn’t wrong and illegal. Comparing one act of misconduct to another does not instantly make the one any less a problem, any less wrong. The only way to excuse the man’s behavior is to say he was likely high at the time, deep in his drug addiction. But really, even that excuse isn’t good enough.
It is hard for fans to admit when their favorites are wrong or do bad things, but that does not mean we shouldn’t admit it. We cannot continue to ignore problems because we don’t want it to be true or we don’t think it is a big deal. We can’t willfully ignore the problem. If we still want to support him and the band, we must do so without closed eyes. We must be willing to admit that behavior is wrong.
I hope Anthony Kiedis has grown up since then, I hope his horrible actions were the result of his drug addiction, I hope he has changed in 30+ years since then. But I don’t know. I don’t know Anthony or any other musician or entertainer I thought I admired. No fan really does.
I’ll never not love the Red Hot Chili Peppers – they are too much a part of me – but I am willing to admit when they’ve done wrong, and I think all fans should do the same.