(this piece discusses the long term sexual abuse and multiple instances of sexual trauma throughout involving different people. if you are in a bad place right now, please practice caution with yourself, and maybe read some other time ♡)
I used to watch videos of boys dancing on YouTube. I think that’s when my desire to start dancing first developed. I watched the videos as much for the music, which is why I would click on them, as I did the boys, the bodies that so transfixed me, a desire not to emulate but to know. The songs varied, as did the faces, but one dancer who I watched dutifully throughout 2011 specialized in electronic music of all sorts; EDM, IDM, dubstep, glitch music, chiptune, electro swing, a bit of pop and rock if the mood suited him too, but generally still with keyboards, inorganic productions. I didn’t so much find tracks or musicians through his channel as I did find him through the music. I was big on dance music, despite not having any talent or muscle memory for it.
I know the channel by name. I can send you the channel, but I don’t feel the need to disclose the moniker for sake of narrative or argument, and more bluntly do not want to share. Mostly because of what I have to say — it was kind of corny and I am embarrassed of it and don’t want to inadvertently shame. No disrespect to the account, he was by no means bad at what he did, but I was 14 and extremely corny myself. I was into the fits, but looking back, they’ve aged less than gracefully: graphic tee shirt underneath blazer, slim cut jeans; full suit, trim, but also fitted with trilby and chain; lycra body suits(!); sometimes just a monotone sweatpants and tank top combo, the classiest of the fits. He dressed something like a scene gay gone straight. I watched him shirtless and low res. I spectated.
Oh, but the music. A mix, for sure. Daft Punk. Caravan Palace. AlunaGeorge. Breakbot. Zeds Dead. of Montreal. The Knife (!). Skrillex (fondly remembering the dance to his remix of “Reptile Theme” from Mortal Kombat, another adolescent guilty pleasure). Parov Stelar. Even Pac-Man soundtracks. This wasn’t the only kind of thing I listened to, nor was he the only boy I watched dance, but I had a thing for this kind of music back then. I still have a soft spot for some of it. The Knife remains extremely formative to my tastes and musical interests. I loved Cex and Aphex Twin and Burial and AlunaGeorge and Justice and Sleigh Bells. We are not talking about any of these groups named here, but we are talking about someone else I was listening to then, maybe more intently than any other. Someone that boy, those boys, danced to a few times. Someone we all danced to a few times.
In 2009, I didn’t know how to pirate music. Not consistently. Not off of websites not attached to video game soundtracks (hey KHInsider). My taste was (and is) underdeveloped, but I loved Daft Punk’s Discovery, and especially the anime film attached to it. All colors, vague gestures of rebellion and fame, devoid of context but great for a child. The advent of Pandora Radio was extremely vital at that time for me to develop taste independent from the tyranny of parent’s CDs, MP3 players, and worst of all our pre-modern YouTube recommendations. You picked radios based on artists, and while the resulting similarity was inconsistent, you were bound to eventually hear something new, something good. Yes, Daft Punk radio may have put on Miike Snow’s burgeoning discography one too many times for me to actually like any of it, but I was able to build, limited perhaps, a vocabulary of music for myself.
I shared this enthusiasm with family, friends, online acquaintances. I was a big forum user. Eventually that paid off, as I met people who could provide more bespoke, more idiosyncratic guidance in music taste beyond the misguided groping in the dark of algorithmic rhythms. Jai Paul. Aesop Rock. CocoRosie, I guess, but I resent that recommendation in retrospect. While lonely in my day to day life all through middle school, by the time I was nearly in high school, I was already starting to have a sense of what music for me sounded like. More than sounded like, looked like. Maybe I knew what bands and artists and singers I wanted to emulate aesthetically then. What girls to aspire towards, what boys to emulate in the interim.
I guess that is all to say, art can’t save us, but art does build us. Music, for me, was a thing I never understood alchemically, compositionally, but understood emotively, hysterically.
In 2015, I started going out. To parties. I think I was coping. I was lonely. When I wasn’t lonely, I was with a singular friend whom I drank with and played therapist for. When I made other friends, it wasn’t better. They drank more than us and still I was used as a canvas for processing, relitigating, dissociating from trauma. So of course I went out more when the opportunity came.
I have a memory of going to a drag party. Baby’s first mistake. I didn’t do a good job, my closest dress donning friends didn’t have anything in my size, but I was dolled up. Maybe the first time I felt pretty. We drank. We listened to music. They were playing. We talked about them. I was surprised to learn the person I had attended the party loved them. Our host was as big a fan as either of us. We ranked albums. My favorite was always (II); in my mind, in that time, it was the best synthesis of the strengths of both artists in the group. Our host either liked (II) or (III) best, and my friend like (III) best, the one most centered on the vocalist and her artistic voice. Other friends we shared had other opinions. (II) and (III) were the most popular, but every once in awhile you had defenders of their debut. What sad queer into abrasive dance music hadn’t at least heard “Crimewave,” “Courtship Dating,” or “Alice Practice” at least once?
I am talking about the group Crystal Castles, who were for a long time my favorite band.
Crystal Castles arrived on the scene in full LP form in 2008 with their self-title debut. All of their albums until lead vocalist Alice Glass’s split from producer Ethan Kath are technically self-titled and are referred to numerically. (I), (II), and (III). (I) came on the backs of 2007 singles “Alice Practice” and “Air War,” and while I was unaware of the group until around 2009, I remember hotly anticipating the release of (II). That was a rare deal for young me, and (II) absolutely did not disappoint. That album was on repeat for more than half a decade for me. My favorite song was “Pap Smear,” but I loved the Robert Smith feature on “Not in Love,” and I listened to “Intimate” constantly. The whole album meant something to me though.
The twist is that I have not listened to Crystal Castles wittingly or willingly in years. I have not chosen to listen to them since 2017. That may only be two-ish years, but to go from monthly revisits to intentional separation from them was a severe turn for me. The reasoning is simple enough to articulate: Alice Glass, in the October of 2017, wrote a letter in which she stated that her former band mate Ethan Kath had sexually, emotionally, and physically abused her from age fifteen until her departure from the band and escape from him in 2015.
I am not a journalist, and while I am interested in truth, I am not interested in debating the veracity of Glass’s experience. I am specifically rejecting the language of allegation. I do not think she is lying. I also do not think anyone who has listened to Crystal Castles with any intent could.
She had first alluded to her experiences with abuse in 2015, after her split, and her announcement of a forthcoming solo career. The song “Stillbirth” was released in July, with a personal message. The first paragraph reads as such:
Years ago I began the process of trying to remove myself from an abusive relationship that started when I was a teenager. Over the course of that relationship I was systematically cut off from anyone and everyone that I could truly be close to. I was talked down to, yelled at, locked into rooms and criticized daily about my abilities, my weight, my looks, my intelligence and almost every move I made. When I couldn’t take it anymore and I wanted to end the relationship I was threatened, then I was told I was loved, and the cycle would begin again.
Glass intentionally did not name anyone in this message and additionally made clear that the proceeds from “Stillbirth” would be distributed to organizations like RAINN. Glass, who had long been enigmatic publicly, was finding a public voice. Shortly before this, Crystal Castles, now Kath and the unknown artist known by the mononym “Edith,” released the song “Frail.” Kath released the song out into the wild with a very different tenor of statement:
i wish my former vocalist the best of luck in her future endeavors. i think it can be empowering for her to be in charge of her own project. it should be rewarding for her considering she didn’t appear on Crystal Castles’ best known songs. (she’s not on Untrust Us. Not In Love, Vanished, Crimewave, Vietnam, Magic Spells, Knights, Air War, Leni, Lovers Who Uncover, Violent Youth, Reckless, Year of Silence, Intimate, 1991, Good Time, Violent Dreams etc.). people often gave her credit for my lyrics and that was fine, i didn’t care.
Kath deleted this statement shortly after. Without greater context, the capacity to read this as tactics of abuse are legible, but they are just as likely the rumblings of an unamicable band break-up. While the statement regarding Glass’s appearance on their “best known songs” is technically untrue only in one instance (Glass was involved in the original recording of “Not In Love,” before Robert Smith of The Cure featured on it), this statement similarly minimizes the importance of Glass as part of the band’s notoriety, their aesthetic; her stage presence in live performances was legendary, be it her moshing and thrashing with audiences, her performing on crutches with similar energy immediately after a hospitalization in Tokyo. Her face was the face of the band, quite literally, as Ethan Kath, stage name of Claudio Palmieri, often hid behind a hood and his synthesizers publicly. After this slight from her former band mate, Glass would respond on Twitter with a few comments that disputed both Palmieri’s narrative of the band and the wider cultural understanding of Crystal Castles at large:
for the record, i wrote almost all of the lyrics in my former band and the vast majority of the vocal melodies
i was a founding member of crystal castles and shaped the sound and aesthetic from the very beginning
manipulative statements about my contributions to the band only reinforce the decision I made to move on to other things
Glass’s narrative, in a broader sense, is an overt rejection of the solitary genius of the artist so widely proliferated in Western art: take Zelda Fitzgerald’s diaries, the ways in which F. Scott mined them for his fiction; take the ways in which Tao Lin stole directly from the correspondences between he and the trans masc minor he had groomed and abused and then loosely fictionalized for his own novel. Palmieri had for some time made himself visibly the sole creative force behind the project, and the clearly tempestuous break-up of the band made that unstable.
Here, in 2015, it was clear that neither person had much positive to say to one another. In 2017, that became much more evident, and severe. Glass named names. This happened around the time of #MeToo, with Glass expressing admiration for the women who had come forward with their stories. I don’t intend to recite what she has written there but I want to draw specific attention to this point:
While recording our first EP, the recording engineer sexually harassed me while we were in the studio. Claudio laughed at me and pressured me to go along with it. He called our first single “Alice Practice” and said my vocals were a mic test. He concocted that story and told press it was an “accidental” recording, intentionally diminishing my role in its creation. It was another way of putting me down and preying on my insecurities.
“Alice Practice,” as the single that launched the duo into any kind of scene notoriety, had existed solely in this narrative of being accidental, ecstatic in circumstance and spontaneity rather than skill. This was part of the band’s marketing, the aesthetic of what was being sold, produced, and disseminated. Here begins narrative of woman as hysteric; maybe vibrant in the enactment of aural mania, but hysteric nonetheless. Control was wrested from Glass from the beginning.
As I said earlier, I saw an arc to the music; first, (I) is released with an emphasis on their instrumentals; later, the second album exists in something closer to a Hegelian synthesis of the artists, interested more in Glass’s delivery, her lyrics, but still, instrumentally forward and with tracks that are purely instrumental; the third, finally, is where Glass is given most creative control, her lyrics are most present. I think this is true, but I think it takes on graver meaning in the how we look at the art given the history of the artists.
The lyrics of Crystal Castles have an opacity to them that is paradoxically clearly intentional, a disciplined rejection of access, but one that, for a long time, felt to me unclear in its intention. What was it guarding? I must have thought when I was younger. Technically, both artists share formal writing credits on most tracks; it’s not uncommon for producers to share writing credits with vocalists, and their contributions in such capacity range wildly, from reorganization, to providing hooks or choruses, to vocal manipulation, to a full hand in the crafting of lyrics. I believe Glass’s claim that she wrote the lyrics largely by herself, but I bring this up because obviously she did not write them in isolation. I do not intend to presume that every song is a code, or hidden cry for help, but I think the work itself speaks to violence inflicted on bodies, bruises sustained, survival in dire circumstances met largely with ideations of self-harm, retribution. (III) in particular makes its mission one of tackling oppressions of all kinds, broadly and without tiering. Take the chorus to Kerosene: “I’ll protect you from/All the things I’ve seen/And I’ll clean your wounds/Rinse them with saline/Kerosene.” Tenderness is means to more violence, salting wounds, immolation of self and other. A desire to protect is as corrosive as whatever could be pursuant. Or the song Insulin: “We dissolve everything/Scratch follicles so they don’t grow/Expose your shame for all to see/Sell your bones as ivory.” There is, again, something violent here, insidious and quiet though, the scratching of follicles being a kind of self-harm I am more than familiar with. The selling of something deep in you, physical like bone, spiritual like “shame,” not unlike the art I try to create that litigates my own experiences, my own traumas, and the expectation that some day this can be a thing I put into a book and use to pay my bills. Every song is layers upon layers of vocal manipulations, and often comments on YouTube or on lyrics pages will joke about how little they understood of what was being said. The guardedness is baked into the aesthetic. Maybe that in some ways gave room for these expressions that, if not overt, feel lived in, clawing at something that already hurts so deeply.
For me, the band is dead, yes, because I refuse to listen to what is put out under that name now, but more to the fact that I find the prospect of revisiting, haunting, the old record emotionally fraught. Any exhumation is invalid; potential catharsis is denied on subsequent, posthumous listens because of the context in which it exists. Space for reevaluation feels similarly unproductive; I know how I felt about the art, I do not need to reexamine that either, because it was a truth for me then and it is no longer a truth now. The only purgative music that Glass possesses is that by her own name, her EP and singles, her reclaimed performances of “Alice Practice,” her singles, her work with long-term collaborator Jupiter Keyes. Her integration of “Alice Practice” into live performances was uploaded, as a snippet, to YouTube, with the description from which I took the name for this essay: “the past still haunts me, so i’ll haunt it back.”
I find arguments of separating art and artist distasteful, especially where the artists are so present within the art object itself, where their place in the work is reflected and magnified in its presentation. It feels wrong to ignore much of the text of a work to say you like a different part of its composition. Like in the film Last Tango in Paris, director Bernardo Bertolucci’s and actor Marlon Brando’s violation of actress Maria Schneider is impossible to separate from the art itself, because the rape of the scene is the violation of the actress. It may have been “simulated sex,” but the ways in which her consent as an actress were made irrelevant for the sake of the scene are palpable. Alejandro Jodorowsky, in his film El Topo, claimed to have raped his co-star Mara Lorenzio in the 1970s; while he changed his tune in 2007, claiming this was a publicity stunt, there now exists the possibility that his on-screen assault is real. There is nuance in other situations, of course, and I don’t make this a moral judgment so much as a dry observation; sometimes, art reflects directly what it took to make, and sometimes, the real blood on the walls is impossible to ignore, and to do so is to look at the art incompletely.
To be more plaintive than that, though, I can’t listen to Crystal Castles. A few months ago, I watched a video on my timeline that had “Crimewave” playing. I sat letting the half minute clip repeat unable to stop it. In abstract terms, it hurt to listen to. Something I let define me for years was here in a way that hurt me. This is, of course, purely personal baggage. I do not anticipate every once-fan (or current-fan) of Crystal Castles feels similarly. I can, and do, listen to Glass. I have always been attracted to her art, enthralled by her aesthetic, and in some, small way felt reflected in her art.
In the interim between her leaving the band and her outing of Palmieri as an abuser, I found myself in relationships that were volatile, traumatizing in their own ways. I listened to her new work, then, and I listened to old Crystal Castles. The new work by Palmieri under that name felt like an especially distasteful facsimile. I listened to Crystal Castles with friends, with friends who hurt me, with friends who mended me, and sometimes they were the same people. I struggle still to articulate any of what I went through. Maybe I feel solace in Glass’s words, but even her own work is not so much cathartic as it is just the necessary next step for her, for myself.
I love what Alice Glass had done for herself with her solo work. I maybe was cool on it for a bit, but songs like “Stillbirth,” “Without Love,” “Cease and Desist” hit the right notes for me. I think what she is doing, how she articulates what she has gone through and what she is living through, is stark and vital. “Stillbirth,” first song of her new career, includes the refrain of “I want to start again.” Her voice is typically bursting at the seams over an equally catastrophic instrumentation. It’s on the nose in the best way, in a way that’s more punchy, a declaration. “Cease and Desist” was written in protest of Palmieri seeking legal action against Glass. She posted her court summons with spit over the print. His court case was dismissed outright. In 2018, more allegations against him came from four anonymous people. In 2018, Alice Glass released a remixes album and several exciting videos of drag performances accompanying her music.
There’s a song on (III) called “Transgender.” I didn’t relisten to any of the Crystal Castles’s discography in writing this, but I remember most of them. Not so much this song, just the name. In typical fashion, it does not want to be perceived or be made legible. But it is clearly expressing something to do with its title, it’s not a non-sequitur. The chorus interests me most in that context: “Nothing can live up to promise/Nothing can stop its narrative/Nothing in place of catalysts/And you’ll never be pure again.” In any other context, I might brush against this, but there’s context to track; purity, for Alice Glass’s lyrics during her time in Crystal Castles, is a wholly antagonistic thing. In an interview with Pitchfork, she spoke to how she views the idea of purity, in all its baggage: “Purity is an illusion. The idea of purity has been used as an excuse for calamities like honor killings, bride burnings, child molestation. Purification is genocide.” I rather like what this does to the song, how it informs that chorus, and I see this sentiment reflected elsewhere, in other troubled, vital conversations about what we live through. Maybe there’s something too that. Maybe we aren’t pure. Maybe I am not pure. But to be pure would to be poison. I am glad I have lived through this. I’m even more glad that Alice has lived, too.
Articles I pulled from: