“Lift him up so I can kick him in the fucking face.”
That’s what Josh Homme spat into the microphone nine years ago at Norwegian Wood, a festival in Norway. It was part of a now-infamous meltdown on stage in which the towering Queens of the Stone Age frontman screamed at, threatened, and assaulted a young audience member. It’s an event that’s rarely referenced anymore, despite its self-evident severity. If present at all, chastisement was lighthearted, even after Homme released an at-best semi-conciliatory ‘apology’ addressed to “Member[s] of the Peanut Gallery,” which was predictably laced with sarcasm and impatience. This was, of course, almost a decade ago. One might hope Homme had grown up.
Unfortunately, it’s worth recalling this incident in light of Homme’s behaviour this weekend. In a well-circulated video captured this at Queens’ show in Los Angeles, the singer struts around the stage before stopping to swing his leg back and kick Chelsea Lauren, a photographer, in the head. She later spent the night in hospital.
Let’s clear some semantics up first: this is assault, plain and simple.
Let’s clear some semantics up first: this is assault, plain and simple. Homme assaulted a woman at his show. In an inexplicable scramble to defend the musician, many have interjected with a “Well actually, he kicked the camera, not her.” Let’s go ahead and stop saying that. The only function of that sidebar is to minimize his actions and conceal what happened. It almost transfers some of the blame to his victim (as if by holding the camera so close to her face, she somehow played a role in it). If you’re holding a hunk of metal and plastic to your eye, and someone boots it into your skull, you probably wouldn’t want to parse over details, either.
This time, Homme’s written apology was a little shorter. He claimed he was “in a state of being lost in performance,” indicating that he didn’t realize he had kicked Lauren (a quick run through footage of the incident debunks that bullshit deflection). It was a typical reflex: deny, minimize, shrug off. Just as his brutish outburst mirrored the one from Norwegian Wood, his apology was eerily similar (though less condescending), but this time, it seems people are finally calling bullshit on Josh Homme. The tweet containing the apology has three times as many replies as retweets, which typically indicates broad castigation of a tweet, and indeed, the vast majority of folks seem to be clear on Homme’s conduct this time around. Media coverage is condemning the attack.
Late last night, the band’s social media pages shared a video of Homme apologizing, this time with an air of contrition and quiet. “I was a total dick,” he confesses. But he more closely resembles a tail-tucked puppy than an empathetic human recognizing a pattern of shitty, abusive behaviour. He could have indicted a culture that permits violence against women. He could have discussed how traditional rock imagery encourages aggressive behaviour from men. He could have pledged to work to rectify those cultural standards. But he didn’t.
He looks every bit the part of the fetishized rock star that’s been constructed and sold for decades, but he also acts like it.
And why would he? Homme’s whole shtick is rooted in rock and roll iconography: slicked hair, leather jackets, tight jeans, sunglasses, knuckle tattoos, being tall and imposing, making sure everyone sees him smoking cigarettes. He looks every bit the part of the fetishized rock star that’s been constructed and sold for decades, but he also acts like it. Alex Turner tried on that hat for Arctic Monkey’s 2013 release AM, but whereas his was a tongue-in-cheek facsimile of rock fetishism, Homme seems to actually subscribe to that culture of dominance.
What’s equally if not more disturbing is a collective willingness to permit, and perhaps even a secretive longing for, this kind of abusive behaviour. Masquerading behind the edgelord “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” shtick has, historically and presently, permitted some absolutely heinous shit. At Norwegian Wood, while Homme bellowed, “I’ll still buttfuck you in front of all your friends,” a festival audience of thousands cheered. The same folks who decry snowflake culture and argue that politics should stay out of music got off on Homme ratcheting up the grotesque traits of cock-rock hegemony to 11. The same issue with Homme’s half-assed apology applies to those who support him without critical thought: neither are willing to actually stop to consider that what’s going on is, in fact, pretty fucked up.
That process of reflection and accountability has finally become a central feature of popular music discourse, and it’s about time it was applied to Homme and his toxic rock and roll wetdream. There’s a reason that traditional rock iconography is in decline. The hypersexual swagger of the monolithic guitar slinger in many ways was, and continues to be, a celebration of masculine dominance and hetero hegemony, a framework that’s being called on its bullshit. Homme’s catalogue of work is indeed remarkable, but it’s important to interrogate and critique the role he plays in modern music, and that distinction is important to maintain. It’s unfortunate and fitting that he most certainly embodies the ugly hallmarks of rock and roll mythos: like most venerated guitar gods, he’s talented, violent, and rarely questioned.
Nine years after having a crowd force someone to the stage so Homme could hurl a bottle at his head, it’s clear he hasn’t grown at all. Apology or not, it’s time to cancel Josh Homme.