On Monday, PAPER was contacted by a publicist to premiere a music video by the band YACHT -- who have appeared in the pages of this magazine and on our website several times -- that was a collaboration with Pornhub and the YouTube channel JASH. We were told that the band was planning a stunt in which they would pretend to leak their own "sex tape," which was actually the music video for "I Wanna Fuck You Till I'm Dead," a single from their recent album Future Would Be Cooler. We were told the band would pretend to sell it on a site designed to crash before any credit card data or personal information could be collected.
We watched the music video, which is embedded below, and expressed interest in the premiere. It was a bait and switch parody of "sex tape" tropes featuring the band as aliens in flagrante (the same bits that were uploaded to Pornhub yesterday). We were told that the band would first be releasing a statement on social media about the alleged "leak." An hour later, a lengthy and unexpectedly earnest statement was posted on their official Facebook, in which they describe what happened to them as a "series of technological missteps and one morally abject person" and an "exploitation" and they had "commenced legal proceedings against the aforementioned person." The project suddenly felt very different to us, and as we deliberated internally on how to proceed, the band released a second statement thanking fans for their sympathy. The two statements made it clear that the narrative leading up to the premiere was going to be much more serious and, upon reveal, offensive than we had anticipated. We shared our concerns with the publicist handling the video launch, who told us the band was willing to talk about any potential backlash in our interview.
At this point, others were starting to catch on that this was, in fact, a hoax. Numerous outlets including Thump (the first site to dig into obvious discrepancies in the band's statements), Jezebel and Death & Taxes had raised eyebrows at the validity of this all, especially given that YACHT is known for media manipulation and PR stunts.
As this was all unfolding, we started to speculate that PAPER had been pursued as the premiere partner because of our Kim Kardashian Break the Internet issue -- and we were right. To quote band member Jona Bechtolt, they wanted to take this moment to "Fix the Internet" and hold the media accountable for clickbait, a culture that some see as being exemplified by our Kardashian cover. But we saw our 'Break the Internet' shoot as a moment of empowerment -- Kardashian choosing to control how her body is viewed on the Internet.
Since the band was giving us the first interview around the premiere, we decided to take the opportunity to ask them about the logic that led to this project, and their subsequent and upsetting appropriation of victimhood. The interview with Jona Bechtolt and Claire L. Evans, done by Associate Editor Sandra Song, took place Tuesday afternoon. Early this morning, the band contacted Song to say they had re-assessed the entire project, but still wanted to share the video. "We want people to be able to see the whole context for the project so they can assess our intent for themselves," wrote Bechtolt and Evans. They've released a formal apology on their Facebook page, which we've embedded at the bottom of this post.
The easiest place to start is why choose a hoax release route?
Jona Bechtolt: First of all, we don't like the word "hoax." We've been a band -- and more than just a band -- for over a decade and have dedicated ourselves to making all sorts of crazy, multimedia, multilayered projects that are sometimes commentary, sometimes just fun. And that's how we've approached literally everything we've done for the past ten years. This was another project in that vein that explored territory we hadn't messed with before.
Claire L. Evans: A lot of our projects in the past have been high-concept or gimmicky about media or the contemporary information landscape or the attention economy. We've never done anything personal and we've never done anything that took any real risk regarding our personal lives and our personal relationship, which is a big part of the actual art of our band.
JB: Yeah, like, up until yesterday, we hadn't even really publicly acknowledged that the two of us are a couple.
CE: It emerges from a confluence of these things. One, a desire to do something really big that speaks to the way the press handles celebrity versus the ways it talks about bands like us, historically. Even since we were much younger, we realized much of the music press would just reprint press releases that we've written without context.
CE: Early in our band we would write our press releases, and realize music blogs would just repost them without editing or without any fact-checking and we realized there was an opportunity there for us to make subversive...to alter our own history, to alter our own biography, to build a mythology around our band that didn't exist. So if you look at our Wikipedia page to this day, there are things that aren't true that have come with that sort of experimenting with the media.
You do have a past of spreading misinformation in your press releases, which was something sites like Thump pointed out on Monday. Do you think this will make people wary to cover your work again? Because they won't know what's a gimmick and what's real?
CE: Yeah, I mean that's something we're always worried about. We don't want to be a gimmicky band. I mean, for people who like our music, those two pieces of it, the media commentary and the media stunts and the projects, are just to inform and make a more comprehensive musical vision that we completely stand behind and work really hard on.
JB: Yeah, I feel that the things can be very separated -- the press and the projects we do, don't necessarily speak to the music, and the music can be standalone. And like yeah, back to the issue of us being a "gimmick band," some of our favorite things are like Nathan For You, and if [Nathan Fielder] stops it'll be very sad. First and foremost we're doing projects we felt would entertain our fans and media...We didn't anticipate its popularity either. Honestly what you're saying about us being known for doing these sort of projects and stuff -- we figured that people would be able to sniff this out. And they did, but we also didn't think so many people would take it in earnest. We didn't think it would go as wide as it has. It's shocking.
CE: Frankly, we're sort of in a daze. There are inconsistencies baked into the project, like even in the timeline, that we assumed anyone who looked at it for more than a minute would realize.
JB: And our fans did. Reporters didn't.
CE: We were actually shocked at how immediately and widely the story was reported within 10 hours of us making that Facebook post. Nobody had even seen any footage, because it didn't exist. No one had heard any comment from us -- they were just going with a couple of Facebook posts and what we thought was obviously a fake-looking website.
Yes, but one reason why the press probably moved quickly was because you positioned yourselves as victims of a violation or, as you said in your statement on your official Facebook, an "exploitation." And one of the biggest problems of sexual victimization is that people are often not believed when they speak up -- something many of your musical peers have spoken about. Did you stop to consider how hurtful this would be to people who've actually experienced this?
CE: Honestly, we had always framed it in our minds in the context of the celebrity sex tape as a cultural trope. We were trying to create a tape in the vein of [Paris Hilton's sex tape with ex-boyfriend Rick Salomon] One Night in Paris or the Kim Kardashian sex tape [with ex-boyfriend Ray J] or the 45 other celebrity sex tapes that have leaked since the early '90s.
JB: And since there was no leak, the only direct source of the tape came from us, there was no third party. There was no other person victimizing or exploiting us, it was just us perpetuating it.
CE: Yeah, and I mean in order to make it believable, we had to say we were hacked.
JB: But there was no evidence. If any journalist looked, nothing existed.
CE: Frankly, it's been the most surprising twist of this. In a way, it goes to show how much the conversation around these issues has changed in the last handful of years. I think in our minds we were doing a satire of the Tommy Lee-Pamela Anderson tape. I mean the thing is shot in night vision, it's supposed to look old.
JB: It's not [shot on] a phone. Yes, it is HD, but [it was filmed] on a '90s camcorder.
CE: The conversation around this has really changed and we should've anticipated that, and frankly I'm quite embarrassed that we didn't anticipate that. But we're also very shocked that the leap from celebrity sex tape to revenge porn was made by the press. And frankly, we think it's an irresponsible leap to have made. We totally understand the fact that people see that kind of language, the kind of earnestness with which we posted the original Facebook post, we understand that reaction. Completely legitimate.
JB: But, no one made that reaction until Jezebel made that claim and now people are just going with that because Jezebel posted that. And we didn't make any money from this, we aren't making any money from this. Jezebel is making money on this, websites are making money on this.
CE: The only people profiting off of this story are the people who are getting the clicks for it. It's not like we're monetizing it, and we're not selling the sex tape. Our ["sex tape"] website was designed to crash the moment anyone tried to enter in their credit card information.
But revenge porn is something that is considered a sexual violation. Everyone has the right to do as they wish in their private lives and not be punished for it. I don't know if you read Jes Skolnik's piece. I'm going to read you what she wrote about this issue, since her work deals a lot of with these sorts of ideas:
"Revenge porn is a form of sexual violence. It is a boundary violation, an abuse of trust, a sexual act used as a weapon. People have committed suicide over revenge porn. It is legal in many states and almost never enforced in states where it is illegal. Upon seeing the band YACHT's statement yesterday about their stolen sex tape, I felt an immediate flood of empathy...You can call it a hoax, you can call it an art project, you can call it commentary on the state of media today, but it is an abuse of people's trust and faith, it is an abuse of hard-won public empathy, it sets the work that I and others have been doing for decades back. It is irresponsible and cruel. It is a false claim."
What's your response to that?
CE: I mean it's absolutely fair to have that response. We can't tell anyone to feel differently about it than how they feel. Of course, in retrospect, we realize that it's triggering, that it's an exploitation of the inherent empathy people have for these sorts of things. But at the same time I would hope that it's viewed in the larger context of our art practice. And the ultimate punchline of this thing, that the sex tape is a highly insane alien porn video. It's just different from what people expected it to be. It's tricky. We get it. But we just wanted it to be believable enough that it would be a satisfying payoff when people found out that it was this alien thing. So in order to do that we had to write something earnest. In fact, the person who wrote that post is a close friend of mine who is a survivor of sexual violence and for whom it was somewhat cathartic to write that. The whole thing has been a collaboration between us and a lot of friends who have been in on the joke. It just never crossed any of our minds that it would be interpreted in this way, and perhaps that's naive. Also I think we just didn't anticipate how wide it would go and how emotionally invested people would get in this. We just assumed people would realize [the story was] riddled with holes from the beginning.
Okay. But in regards to the participation of JASH and Pornhub
, were no red flags raised by anyone? Ever?
JB: No, honestly.
CE: I think everyone thought it was funny. Everyone thought the payoff was so funny that it would sort of justify the entire sort of emotional arc of this thing. But yeah, I guess we didn't anticipate the Internet reacting in the way it has. And honestly, it's been a highly educational thing. We consider ourselves to be pretty savvy on these issues. It's not like we're not feminists or whatever. I mean, I'm literally writing a book right now about the feminist history of the Internet. I have friends who are survivors of sexual violence and I am absolutely no stranger to sexual harassment in music. When the Heathcliff Berru allegations started coming out, it's something we talked about a lot with our peers and our friends. It's not something we are ignorant of. In our minds we really positioned this as us satirizing the celebrity sex tape. As like something two consensual celebrities do to boost their celebrity and/or start reality television empires, or whatever they do.
Is that why you pursued PAPER about doing the premiere? Because of our association with Kim Kardashian?
JB: We wanted to fix the Internet, not break it.
Yeah, but commenting on celebrity sex tapes as media "content" is one thing but choosing to conflate the violation of sexual privacy with modern clickbait practices seems like something totally different. Is there a connection I'm not seeing?
CE: For one, just the way this story has exploded, like the fact that so many people rushed to publish this story about us making our own sex tape and framing it as a story of empowerment against an anonymous hacker. No one asked us for comment. No one did any real reporting about it, except for Thump. [Ed note: Several sites, including Jezebel, Pitchfork, and Fader, noted in their stories that they requested comment and not been answered.] Not to be too cynical about it, but that's really how we feel. As a band at our level -- we're not famous, we're not really public figures, a lot of it is tongue-in-cheek. We know nobody gives a shit about a YACHT sex tape, nobody would want to watch that. Nobody would want to leak that. Like, who are we? We work so hard to make things that are bizarre and interesting and engaging and complicated and deep and personal and at the end of the day the sort of press we get is middling.
But I think that's the part that really gets to people, especially because it was done in such an earnest way. It feels really manipulative as far as PR stunts go.
CE: Yeah, I mean that's fair.
JB: It was by design.
CE: And, again, we just wanted it to be just believable enough. The statement is extremely earnest, but if you read it, there are enough red flags. There are inconsistencies in the timeline. Facebook is the most realistic and immediate way a band would communicate something like this, and that's why we chose that medium, because it seemed just believable enough.
I know your intention was to deride clickbait culture, but revenge porn is sexual violence and sexual violence affects people of every level -- celebrity or not -- which is probably why the post resonated with so many people and kept getting shared, and why there was an outpouring of genuine support. Did it occur to you that there could be another way of reframing this PR stunt as something that wasn't a violation?
CE: I mean, if we were going to fake a celebrity sex tape leak, which was the objective of the project, how else could we have done it? Nobody would've believed it for a second if we had tried any other angle. It's playing with fire. And we really did not anticipate the fact that people would use the term 'revenge porn.' It's tough. This didn't go the way we planned, obviously. I think the scary thing for us is that people will see this and be like "oh, this is some indie band doing a PR stunt to promote their music and what a distasteful PR stunt" and that's fair.