P-Orridge and the TOPY leadership have been pursuing three specific tactics to distract, dodge, and deflect the allegations of coercion and abuse that have hounded them for decades. But their uncommon success thus far is due, in no small part, to how they leveraged the structural problems already permeating industry, media, criticism, and fandom circles. They closed all the right loops, in just the right ways, to preclude the conditions required for any explicit call-out of their exploitative behavior, while simultaneously enabling their current exaltation.
An ironic sadness permeates this story. TOPY began with so much promise, yet the almost poetic betrayal of its founding principles is worth an essay all its own. Similarly, time and time again, P-Orridge professed a lifelong mission to, in the parlance of Burroughs, “smash the control machines”. But by Thee Temple’s formal conclusion, s/he evidently never so much detested control as was utterly captivated by it; h/er public statements plainly belied what lurked behind the veil in h/er personal life.
The tragedy of TOPY no doubt mirrored the larger failings of the 1980s occult counterculture revival, including its lofty promises to participants. As a disenchanted David Tibet later declared, “chaos magick [is] a lot of shit … if all these magicians are so great and powerful, why are they all so broke and don’t have girlfriends?” (Keenan 2016: 305). David Keenan himself mused, in a more somber tone, about how “I’ve yet to meet a self-described practicing magician who was able to secure even [their] own most basic happiness” (Keenan 2016: 429). There is a truly lamentable aspect of Thee Temple’s arc that warrants our pity as well.
I think there is a final dimension of this predicament to consider—one with far more to say about us, than about anything P-Orridge and h/er coterie did or did not do. Namely: TOPY is protected from any kind of serious call-out because we’re already in too deep as a music community, and we stand to lose too much if we cut P-Orridge and Thee Temple’s narrative legacy adrift. I say this because the seismic impact of a call-out campaign disrupts not just abuser privileges, and not just apologist indignation.
It also unsettles an amorphous and insidious power dynamic: a scene’s unspoken groupthink, invested in protecting the sacred cows and hallowed stories that echo back the shared beliefs, identifiers, and bonds of the subculture itself. Among dark or extreme music aficionados, this is the fictive glue explaining why we are all in this dark, dank venue together, drinking overpriced beer with a rotating cast of patches and pins on our battle jackets. Invariably, these origin myths coalesce around (or are drummed up by) one or several artistic figureheads, whose compelling biography, astounding feats of stagecraft, or creative gifts from realms beyond our ken, jumpstart the scene and inscribe how it unfurls.
When our figureheads are sometimes toppled by allegations of abuse, the legends about the scene itself—wound up in the brand of the now-smashed idol(s)—fragments as well. Indeed, these accusations set in motion an additional set of dire questions: how did we submissively buy into the mythic posturing, the cult of personality, or the glamorous shock and awe? And how does a scene take that sobering look in the mirror, begin to put the pieces back together, and trudge forward?
The threat of painful reflections like these forestall any honest re-appraisal of TOPY and P-Orridge’s four-decade legacy. Too many of our counterculture through-lines, we imagine, are wrapped around the axle of P-Orridge and h/er ilk. To defer any candid soul searching, our only option, we think, is to keep gunning forward, breaking point be damned. This, more than any other reason named thus far, is ultimately why we’re paralyzed with respect to TOPY and P-Orridge. It’s not that we fear what may happen to them; rather, we fear what we stand to sacrifice, we fear squandering the sunk costs in our own scene’s narratives, to which we’re helplessly wedded. Doing so would dredge up a slew of other embarrassments to ponder.
Why have so many scene impresarios and artist-activists—while demanding exploitation’s removal, root and branch—abetted the consecration of a cult and its guru? Why did said cult, despite its documented abuses, enjoy complete deference in the public square when it winked at its audience and professed to be playacting? And finally, what should an honest reckoning look like in 2019? How can our present values be applied to redress this unsettled legacy, since for TOPY and P-Orridge, a final verdict on their legacies is really all that still hangs in the balance?
These must all be contended with, but only through the public conversations that hopefully come soon. And here, I argue, is the point of departure for any deliberate reform of subculture politics that accounts for concerns of collective memory, accountability, and alternative space preservation.
Long defanged, TOPY and P-Orridge can’t harm anyone else right now. But there are still significant stakes for how we, as music lovers valuing restorative justice, choose to tell their story 28 years later; our choices here either reaffirm or break faith with those ethics. If transgressive yet conscientious artists, critics, and fans are serious about redressing the abuses that were previously tolerated in counterculture spaces, then we must be willing to re-examine the aspects of our scene which have calcified and taken on mythic status.
The tastemakers who fawn over P-Orridge and TOPY by regurgitating uncritical discourse should carefully reflect on the implications of doing so, given the sheer volume of sources documenting career-long coercion and exploitation. Their careless praise exemplifies just how much effort is still required to think through oppressive behavior in scenes beyond the single, sensational call-outs that have become weekly occurrences, and to apply the insights of anti-abuse activism to both our informal fan-feelings and historical assessments of past legacies. If we avert our eyes from staring down evidence and rendering a judgment because of how deeply it cuts, then the entire project of musical subculture may be more harmful than empowering. I am still convinced that the work of reform can be done.
* * *
Note: Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s preferred pronouns are we, s/he, and h/er to reflect their pandrogyne gender identity, but many quotes herein use masculine pronouns to refer to P-Orridge if the speaker’s statement and/or historical events occurred before the Pandrogyne Project’s start in 1993.
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