Alice Glass, 2019
Photo: Andreas Lawen, Fotandi (CC BY-SA 4.0 | cropped)

Everything You Know Means Nothing: Problematic Art and Crystal Castles’ Legacy

An abusive past with Crystal Castles haunts former singer Alice Glass. Glass haunts her past back with her multi-artist, confrontational goth synthpunk.


One of the most devastating and famous scenes in Channel 4’s much-loved teen drama Skins sees the character Sid reveal to estranged best friend Tony that his father has died suddenly. The pair embrace, their dialogue drowned out by chaotic electronic sounds and shrieked vocals, unnoticed in the pulsating crowd of a rowdy gig.

The track that excavates the grief repressed by Sid until that moment is “Alice Practice” by Crystal Castles, who made a cameo in the episode. In an early studio session in 2005, the story went, 17-year-old Canadian vocalist Alice Glass was testing her mic over some loops made by producer Ethan Kath when a sound technician accidentally hit “record”, and the band’s first single was born. 

This origin myth was cherished by fans like me as the perfect emblem of Crystal Castles’ raw genius. Beneath the abrasive and discordant surface, this perfect union existed between Kath’s computerised 8-bit synths and the manic, often-indecipherable vocals of Glass. This was the foundational myth of a band that applied a laissez-faire approach to fame. The enigmatic duo largely avoided the media and had no personal online presence, no one knew their real names or backgrounds, and they only posed for photos wearing masks or their hands obscuring their faces.

I spent much of my teenage years trying to decipher Alice’s cryptic lyrics and scouring the internet for traces of new music: the word ‘soon’ became notorious as all the band’s management would toss to fans on message boards. I found a paragon for my coming-of-age in Crystal Castles’ defiant rejection of fame and its intrusive expectations. This apathetic gang of two seemed to embody the jaded teenage dream of finding someone who hates the world as much as I did. “Ethan needs Alice. Alice needs Ethan. We need them, but you kind of get the feeling they don’t need us,” wrote NME.

In October 2014 Alice Glass left the band, writing that her ideals of ‘honesty, sincerity and respect for others’ were ‘no longer possible within CC’. An ambiguous statement on a date that I’ll always remember. In 2017, Glass released a further statement that described, in vivid detail, ‘enduring almost a decade of abuse, manipulation and psychological control’ with Kath alleged as the perpetrator. 

Beneath my admiration of her bravery, a part of me felt, selfishly, that these revelations had crept backward in time to poison some of my best memories, my whole adolescent worldview. Glass wrote that her gloomy and nihilistic lyrics  ‘indirectly spoke to the pain and oppression’ she was enduring. The legendary fuck-you attitude and enigmatic personas were built on lies: Alice alleged that Kath ‘told me it was us against everyone, because everyone else thought I was a loser, a joke.’ 

The whole mythology of Crystal Castles was shattered by these revelations. Beneath every apparent sign of creative genius, there seemed to lie a dark reality. Glass’ vocals were supposedly buried beneath effects by Kath to minimise her contribution to the band, and the lyrics, which seemed to speak of a universal malaise, now looked like a personal cry for help, ignored. Before launching into set highlight “Crimewave” at Lollapalooza 2013, Alice mused to the oblivious crowd, barely audible through layers of vocal modulation: ‘Lies, lies, everything is cruel, everything is false, everything you know means nothing.’

Even the iconic anecdote of the mic-check appears to have been rooted in exploitation. After laughing off her sexual harassment by a recording engineer, Glass’ alleged, her bandmate ‘concocted that story and told press it was an “accidental” recording, intentionally diminishing my role in its creation.’ It was hard to escape the feeling that die-hard fans who had unquestioningly bought this narrative were complicit. It’s a struggle to accept that some of the worst things hide in plain sight like Sid’s grief in Skins, invisible to the riotous crowd around him.


Flash-forward to 2023. It’s nine years since Glass left Crystal Castles and six years since going public with her full statement. As a solo artist, Glass is performing across the world for her Traumabond tour in support of her well-received album Prey // IV released last year. This followed a self-titled EP and a string of singles.

In recent years, Glass found kindred spirits across the frontiers of experimental, industrial, and electronic pop, including collaborations with hyperpop innovators Alice Longyu Gao and Dorian Electra, as well as emo rapper Zubin and noise artist Dreamcrusher. None of these crossovers are surprising. All of these music scenes are influenced by Glass and the music she made with Crystal Castles. From the debut record, where Alice’s vocals pierce through the 8-bit, bleep-bloop sounds of early video games through to the euphoric nu-rave of the sophomore, it is clear that Crystal Castles’ output effectively laid the ground for the fascination of PC music titans like Sophie and A.G. Cook with the ephemeral, ‘trashy’ and synthetic cultural markers of the early digital age.

If Crystal Castles’ sound was largely digital, Glass’ confrontational live presence was viscerally punk; firmly in the tradition of Riot Grrrl acts like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile while echoing the enigmatic aura of early electronic icons like Laurie Anderson and Annie Lennox. While mainstream pop tinkered with autotune to obscure blemishes and varnish edges, Glass’ affecting but detached android-like vocals conveyed a weary vulnerability.

In the first years of our hyper-connected internet culture, Glass ran the energy of DIY feminist punk through the prism of technological alienation to set the template for a new kind of pop star. This influence went beyond music from fashion to film: Glass walked the runway for designer Alexander Wang and inspired Jessica Chastain’s punk character in the 2013 horror flick Mama. Glass smashed the borders between sounds, scenes, and styles, virtual and real.

From the disaffected snark of Billie Eilish and the maximalist cyborgian personas of Charli XCX to the playful defiance of Pussy Riot and genre-bending experiments of artists like Yeule, Eartheater, and Jockstrap, Glass’ unique brand of melancholic goth euphoria is writ large across popular culture today. Indeed, the singular impact of Alice as a lyricist, musician, and performer is undeniable, but the sonic identity she pioneered is troublingly linked to the man behind the decks .The witch-house, chiptune, and electro-punk sounds that have been so influential over the past decade owe much to the alleged author of Glass’ nightmarish experience.

How, then, do we reckon with the difficult legacy of Crystal Castles?


Allegations made by Alice Glass against Ethan Kath first emerged at the height of the #MeToo movement in 2017, which saw predominantly (but not exclusively) female public figures come forward with their experiences of sexual abuse, harassment, and rape culture. Spearheaded by activist Tarana Burke and accelerated by allegations against film mogul Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo movement forced  Hollywood and the wider entertainment industry to grapple with the behaviour of men who abused positions of power with impunity.

Musicians and entertainers from Kesha to Jennifer Lawrence shared experiences of sexual abuse and many prominent male figures across the industry were named as perpetrators, Kevin Spacey, R. Kelly, and Johnny Depp, to name a few. Several musicians at one point on my regular rotation have faced accusations since 2017, including Sun Kil Moon, Marylin Manson, and Die Antwoord. This new climate of accountability has prompted uneasy questions about artistic ownership and the ethics of media consumption. In essence, is it okay to enjoy good things made by bad people?

‘Yes,’ says a commonplace mantra of recent years, if we ‘separate the art from the artist’. This view argues that, once out into the world, art exists independently of its creator. Aesthetic value is not defined by biographical origin, and to dismiss, say, a landscape painting because of the artist’s societal wrongs makes little more sense than denying the grandeur of a volcano that once destroyed a community.

This approach owes much to thinkers who, in the mid 20th century, began to challenge the modernist notion of individual creative genius imbued into every page, note, or brushstroke. French theorist Roland Barthes famously contrasted the traditional creator of a work, who ‘exists before it, thinks, suffers, lives for it, in the same relation of antecedence to his work as a father to his child’, with the role of the ‘reader’ who ultimately decides the value or function of the work. Only the reader can take into account the different influences, contexts, and details which change the meaning of an artwork over time ‘without any of them being lost’. The truth of an artwork ‘lies not in its origin but in its destination,’ argued Barthes, and ‘the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.’

It is easy to see the appeal of these ideas in approaching the work of problematic creators: by affirming my relationship to the artwork, I free it from the circumstances of its creation and take power away from the abusive creator. To many, this approach is also a pragmatic one. Throughout history, works of great beauty have been produced by individuals who fell short of their society’s moral standards, and a great deal more fall short of the moral standards we hold today. The anti-semitism of T.S. Eliot or the misogyny of Pablo Picasso was fairly unremarkable by the wider social norms of their day.

By separating the art from the artist, we deal with the work on its own terms and escape the Sisyphean burden of weighing personal wrongs, condemning works, and airbrushing the artists from history. This is how many view the undeniably canonical pop hits of Michael Jackon. This separation is undoubtedly more straightforward when the artist is dead, and we can sort their deeds from their art with clarity and finality. It’s trickier but doable for living artists too. I generally ignore newer Sun Kil Moon output in the wake of multiple sexual assault allegations against Mark Kozalek, but I’ll still occasionally revisit 2014’s Benji, which remains a disarmingly tender meditation on the universal struggles of grief, growth, life and death.

The ‘separate the art’ approach is imperfect at best. Consuming art from problematic creators often means continuing to support them financially or at least helping to launder their reputation. While the model of funding artists receive from streaming services is deeply flawed, the fact remains that each play of a track on Spotify can put money in the pocket of an abuser. In 2020, Alice Glass addressed a ‘rumor being spread that I receive all the royalties from Crystal Castles music’, arguing that she was actually being ‘gutted’ and imploring listeners: “I DO NOT endorse crystal castles and neither should you. STREAM ALICE GLASS.” For fans of the band who wanted justice for Glass, this seemed like the final word. Given the royalties situation and the material implications of streaming Crystal Castles, it was evident that the band should be disregarded, consigned to history, and – in the disputed parlance of the post-#MeToo world – ‘cancelled’.

To cancel problematic art (and the artist) is to acknowledge that cultural works do not exist in a vacuum; there are ties to their creators – often financial ones – which are not severed easily. Turning our backs on a work empowers a reader, listener, or spectator differently than Barthes imagined; it ‘kills’ the author but with a different weapon. To deliberately delete an album from our playlist or stop wearing a band tee positions the consumption of media as an inherently active, ethical, and communicative act. By supporting artists who align with our values and turning away from those who do not, we speak back to the creator and make clear that personal actions have consequences. It’s a difficult path, but this is the one I’ve tended to tread.

This type of action is important because, in a capitalist society, the individual wields power in their choice of what to consume. Record labels, tour promoters, and film studios have witnessed the impact of this collective clout in boycotts against Arcade Fire’s recent tour following sexual abuse allegations against frontman Win Butler, as well as the box office flop Billionaire Boys Club, which decided to stick with disgraced star Kevin Spacey. The #MeToo movement shone a light on sexual abuse and harassment as institutional issues that are allowed to permeate due to a culture of complicity, power imbalance, and looking the other way.

While declaring that works of art do not exist in a vacuum seems clear-cut, this leads to the conclusion that they are not produced in a vacuum either. Now things get more complicated. An actor accused of abuse might have a starring role in a film, but there will be other stars, a wider cast, and thousands of hard-working crew members who have little to do with the lead. Consider ensemble groups like Arcade Fire or a duo like Crystal Castles. Consigning the work of Ethan Kath to the proverbial dustbin does the same to Glass’ art as Crystal Castles.

To turn away from a work of art in protest at the behaviour of a problematic creator can have the unintended outcome of affirming that individual’s authority over the work, erasing contributions of often blameless collaborators, and giving wrongdoers sole ownership of the art. Instead of a cultural work that is multi-faceted and open-ended, all other horizons of meaning are closed down as the collaborative work is submerged under the identity and wrongs of its purported single creator.

Of course, there are cultural works that can never escape the weight of their author: how can you truly look at Hitler’s paintings or the music of the Manson family as if they stand separated from their creators? In our internet age, where artistic creation has never been more collaborative and referential, the question of ownership and the ideals of boycotting are complicated. Given that so many #MeToo allegations unfolded in the workplaces of the entertainment industry, turning your back on problematic artwork risks giving undue power to abusers and taking ownership, agency, and income from survivors; a box-office flop will often hurt the prospects of supporting cast or crew members more than a controversial star.

This dilemma opens up a third way to approach difficult art with a critical form of engagement that attempts to reconcile ethical consumption and meet the work on its own terms. Rather than distancing the work from the circumstances of its creation, this involves reevaluating the work to find new layers of meaning, buried traces of creation, and sites of contention. This nuanced approach shifts the power away from the abuser by considering the capacity of the work to signify beyond what was originally intended or understood by the audience.

This approach leans on the ideas of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, who viewed language and meaning-making as socially contingent and always contested. For Bakhtin, language is ‘not a neutral medium that passes freely and easily into the private property of the speaker’s intentions’, it is ‘populated – overpopulated – with the intentions of others.’ Bakhtin introduced “heteroglossia” as the presence of multiple, often contradictory viewpoints, meanings, and voices within a single cultural text. It is through this prism that we can produce illuminating feminist, queer, or postcolonial readings of works by, for example, “dead white men”, and gain completely new perspectives on problematic works of art.

Crystal Castles’ music is replete with brutal imagery to match their abrasive sound, and lyrics like ‘christen them with paraffin / sterilise samaritans’ spoke of violence that is universal rather than personal. Glass told journalists that their third album, (III), was about the world as a ‘dystopia where victims don’t get justice and corruption prevails.’ We now know these lyrics have a more confessional dimension, relying on metaphor because Glass ‘wasn’t allowed to use a first-person perspective’. These revelations invite a reconsideration of Crystal Castles’ output, accounting for a play of competing perspectives and voices, currents flowing contrary to the contributions of Kath, which, in Bakhtin’s terms, ‘lose their direct authorial intention, take on the flavour of someone else’s language, become refracted.’

Take the track “Kerosene”, which opens with a garbled and unintelligible vocal sample against pulsating waves of static, sounding like a lost radio transmission. This intro eventually gives way to Glass’ voice, speaking cryptic lines like ‘instruct with dishonesty’ and ‘drown them in charity’ before she is cut off by sharp synth arpeggios and a refrain of the scrambled sample. The track ends with Alice, the clearest she’s ever been in the mix, delivering the acapella line: ‘I’ll protect you from all the things I’ve seen.’

In retrospect, this brief irruption of the first-person narrative seems to speak volumes. Where I used to hear Glass’ vocals and Kath’s instrumentals as harmonious elements, these tracks now sound like an unruly litany of contradictory ideas and intentions, tearing themselves apart at the seams. 

There is a sharp but playful layering of discourses at work in Alice’s cathartic solo output, which toys with the dynamic of predator/prey – ‘watch the hunter be the hunted’ – and frequently adopts the voice of the abuser: ‘I’m so embarrassed for us / You ruined everything for us / Everybody laughs behind your back’. Glass’ record also reflects the subversive tendency of postmodern cultural works to speak to one another. Glass described the violence behind the concept of ‘purity’ as a theme in (III), and this recurs in Prey // IV.

Whereas the speaker on (III) promises to use the toxic chemical to ‘clean impurity’ from another and ‘wash away with kerosene’ the voice on “Baby Teeth” both embraces this impurity and calls out the falsehood of the previous vow,  declaring ‘I’m as pure as gasoline’ (a mix of various hydrocarbons, i.e., not pure at all). As well as punning on ‘pray for’, the title Prey // IV alludes to the Roman numeral naming system of Crystal Castles’ three LPs and positions her debut record as a continuation, in dialogue with those works, rather than a beginning: this is my fourth full release,’ she told NME.

Whereas Alice Glass previously disavowed her work with Crystal Castles, she is now reclaiming ownership. This much was clear during her recent show at London’s Moth Club. After storming through tracks like “Fair Game” and ‘Love is Violence’ from Prey / IV, Glass gleefully muttered ‘I don’t know why this was so controversial; it’s only a fucking song’ before launching into old Crystal Castles tracks like “Celestica”, “Love & Caring”, and a rapturous rendition of “Alice Practice”, which blew the venue’s speakers with the opening notes. ‘The past still haunts me,’ Glass has said, ‘so I’ll haunt it back.’


In 2013, I visited the National Gallery in Oslo. Despite the brilliance of The Scream, it was a lesser-known Edvard Munch painting that left the most lasting impression. Love and Pain depicts a man locked into the embrace of a woman with flowing red hair. She leans into him. Labelled ‘degenerate art’ by the Nazis, Munch insisted it depicted ‘just a woman kissing a man on the neck.’ A friend of Munch dubbed the work as Vampire and the title stuck; Munch used it on all subsequent versions.

Love and Pain, or Vampire can be read in two ways, as a tender, comforting embrace or a bloodthirsty consumption; critics have generally received it as the latter. This ambiguity was characteristic of Munch’s output, noted an art specialist during a recent sale; it ‘doesn’t have to be one or the other — its meaning can change depending on the mood of the viewer.’

Munch’s painting came to mind because of a striking parallel with Crystal Castles’ recently released third album cover. For their cover, the band had repurposed a World Press Award-winning photograph by Spanish journalist Samuel Aranda, depicting a mother holding her son after he was teargassed during anti-government protests in Yemen. Critics labelled Aranda’s image ‘the Arab Spring Pietà‘, noting a resemblance to Michaelangelo’s iconic sculpture of Christianity’s Virgin Mary cradling the body of Jesus after his crucifixion.

In 2012, Aranda’s image on the cover of (III) seemed to capture a moment of protection and care in the face of the global oppression that the band cited as the album’s theme. The echoes of both Pietà and Love and Pain reinforce this idea. In 2023 though, with the hindsight of what is alleged to have taken place in Crystal Castles behind closed doors, I look at the cover and can only see Vampire – not a symbol of love but predator and prey. The image on (III) remains the same, yet its meaning has changed over the years. This mutability and unruliness is the power of art, its thorniest challenge and greatest solace.

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland (trans. S Heath). “The Death of the Author”. Image, music, text. 1977

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Discourse in the Novel”. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. M. Holquist and C. Emerson. University of Texas Press. 1981

“Crystal Castles Back for Round Three: Their Final NME Feature Revisited”. NME. 9 October 2014.

Crystal Castles. (III). III | Crystal Castles (

Crystal Castles – (III)“. AltPress. 7 November 2012/

5 minutes with… Edvard Munch’s ‘Vampire II“. Christie’s. 12 March 2018

Munch, Edvard, Vampire, 1983. Vampire, 1893 by Edvard Munch