Frightened Rabbit: On Liking Music That Harms You

by Anne Russell

Is that you in front of me, coming back for even more of exactly the same? You must be a masochist to love a modern leper on his last leg….,” On Frightened Rabbit’s second album The Midnight Organ Fight, it’s hard to tell whether Scott Hutchison is singing to a woman, or to his audience, given that Frightened Rabbit’s subject material has remained fairly constant since 2006.

The indie band specialises in songs about being a miserable bastard in a wry, peculiarly Scottish way. “I’ve heard a lot of people say that it [this album and previous Frightened Rabbit music] has come to them at a very messy point in their lives, some point that they needed to make sense of,” Scott said in an interview. It’s the same thing that appears to drive his writing processes, if not to solve many of his problems.

“Listen to ‘Fuck This Place’ by Frightened Rabbit, it’s my new favourite song,” said my friend in one of our frequent 2am chats. We had an odd friendship, the hardest part of which for me involved navigating the fact that he’d abused some of my female friends in the past. He claimed repentance, so I guardedly gave him another chance, and there was a snap and colour to our interactions that edged around our differences and disagreements to form a strong bond. Besides, he had seemed to improve his misogyny and I was proud of him, as I told him while he struggled to come out of yet another toxic relationship. He leaned on me for support at the time and I embraced my feminine role as emotional guide. Meanwhile he inadvertently helped me learn how to express anger, which women are generally taught to repress especially when it’s against men. He had enabled me to break through barriers I didn’t know existed, and I split wide open to the light, convalescent, raw. We became very close for awhile, blurring between platonic and not, but my political beliefs about intimacy meant that the size of my love for him mattered far more than what kind it was. Platonic love could be as spectacular as romantic love—and, in the end, as catastrophic.

My friend had become more distant in the new year now that I was living in the same city as him, a town where I didn’t yet know many people, so I started listening to Frightened Rabbit as something of an emotional stopgap. I raised my eyebrows at some of Scott’s self-pitying lyrics, but kept listening because there was something compelling about it.

Many great sad musicians from the UK—The Smiths, Pulp, Cleaners from Venus—have an energetic quality to their music that operates as a kind of gallows humour. Although Frightened Rabbit aren’t as witty as the others, the music is exultant in a way that acts as a counterpoint to their lyrical content. These songs aren’t the depression of sitting alone in a dark room, but the kind you awkwardly let slip out in a conversation at a party while trying to make light of it. Like Scott said in an interview, “I don’t think people come to a Frightened Rabbit show to feel sad, and I don’t think they feel sad at the show…Private little moments of excitement for all of us in the band become this outpouring of celebratory, “we’re all fucked, but it’s okay!” sort of thing.”

Hanging out with my friend was growing less frequent and less enjoyable; I was tense from the suspicion that things had gone wrong somehow, and from his continual quarter-joking insults about my intimacy politics, which I had been hoping to write a book on for years. His trauma had partially flipped open his full misogyny, which I mostly put up with because he was unwell and because he distanced himself every time I objected. But at the time I still needed him, needed things to go back to how they were. During that time I clung onto the song “Candlelit” as to a life-raft. Scott said in a live performance that he’d written it while watching Game of Thrones, and thinking that “Men specifically used to really fucking fight for women…some of that chivalry wouldn’t go amiss these days.”

Of course, a lot of men’s ‘fighting for women’ is still here and involves stalking, threats, manipulation and socio-economic control. A decline in that fighting comes from advances in feminism, not a loss of real respect for women. In contrast, most times that women fight for any attention from men we’re called clingy, nagging bitches to great effect. I had always kept quiet when I was hurt by men ghosting me, not wanting to seem ‘dramatic’, but thanks to my friend’s help I no longer had to. “I have no chequered past, I’ve never been a violent man, but maybe you’ve changed all that,” I sang softly in my room. The song was mine, it belonged to me.

We fought briefly and cut off contact, and for months after as I walked the streets of our town, part of me looked for him everywhere, playing “Radio Silence” through my headphones. Where are you, friend? I wondered. We live in the same suburb but you might as well be on the moon. I had to respect his boundaries and was too proud to beg, so I silently waited for him to come back to fix things. Looking back, I wonder how many times Scott Hutchison had opportunities to fix things in his relationships and turned them down, because they involved apologising and making mundane, largely unseen amends. Or some level of thoughtfulness, a consideration of women as people who also need support for their own ambitions and problems. The majority of songs put out by Frightened Rabbit do not show positive bonds with women, or even talk about who the women are; often they just appear to be Scott’s feelings about how sad the breakups are and how much he hates himself.

When my friend finally did meet up to discuss our problems, he was still furiously hurt at my critiquing his misogyny. Wilfully mischaracterising my intimacy politics as promoting amoral sleeping around, he blamed me for having enabled him both to cheat on his ex and to stay in the relationship I’d tried so hard to help him out of. “How can you think this is an okay thing to say to me?!” I gasped through tears. Although we again reached a ceasefire later on, the core of it exploded in early 2016, the nightmare year, once I realised that three years of diplomacy about his misogyny for the sake of the friendship had all been for nothing. As I wrote around the time, these men demand constant softness, but when they fuck up will blame women for not being hard enough on them. I was losing sleep and weight from the stress of now, perversely, running into my ex-friend everywhere. I started to find Frightened Rabbit’s lyrics infuriating; “Holy” was ruined for me as I realised that the lines could’ve come straight out of my ex-friend’s mouth. “While you read to me from the riot act way on high, high/Clutching a crisp New Testament, breathing fire, fire/Will you save me the fake benevolence, I don’t have time/I’m just too far gone for a-telling, lost my pride”.

The situation was fucking me up badly; even though he had not abused me, I couldn’t keep running into this person. I said goodbye to my friends and a city I loved, and got on a five-hour bus-ride to a town I barely knew, where I would catch a flight back to my hometown. It was dark out when I hauled my two suitcases off the bus, grazing my ankle with one as I dragged them down the street. By the time I got to my friends’ door I was sobbing, cold and hungry and tired, only just starting to process the size of the upheaval. I played “Sorry” by Beyoncé over and over that night (her heaven will be a love without betrayal). At the time, my ex-friend was on a paid trip overseas to meet his political heroes.

Away from most of my support networks, I lived on Facebook and went public about how trying to help him out of trauma had temporarily ruined my life. I went on anti-depressants for the first time, I couldn’t write or do anything much; while he was wandering through the same British museums I’d written him a long letter about while he was sad, I was lying on the floor of my mother’s house after being triggered again. The recovery process for people who have been traumatised by celebrities must be incredibly difficult, constantly seeing them in the media and running into their fans. Scott confirmed my perception of his character in 2016 with a meltdown on Twitter that read:

Turns out I’m a complete arsehole. It’s important that everyone knows. I’m not a particularly good person. So don’t buy my records. So I’d urge you to forget about the band, it’s a complete farce. I don’t deserve any of the things that have benefitted my life. Goodbye to Frightened Rabbit. All it has ever been is me boring people with lies and making creative currency out of other people’s hurt.

Although he retracted it when sober, I suspect it was the most honest thing he has ever said publicly about his intimate life. Like many white male indie bands before them, Frightened Rabbit’s upbeat music is less about gallows humour and more of a cutesy cloak for horrific behaviour. Until I looked up the lyrics to the sweet-sounding “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms”, I hadn’t even noticed: “I am armed with the past, and the will, and a brick / I might not want you back, but I want to kill him.” Patriarchy has long had disturbing ideas about what constitutes love, wherein anger, domination and manipulation are seen as compatible with it, even necessary. Or maybe it’s that it lets men maintain a vast gap between how much they care about other people and themselves. “I care about you more than most people I know,” my ex-friend had said to me, even though, as I finally found out, he had lied to me the entire time about no longer abusing other women.

The main male character in Nocturnal Animals, a film I saw after I moved back to the town I’d left, is a very real portrait of a misogynist; not an openly menacing man, but a sensitive writer who reacts badly to criticism, doesn’t move on from a decades-old breakup, and presumes that the women in his life have no agency. As is the case with Frightened Rabbit, it’s a misogyny that the audience can easily miss or excuse, because we’re trained to try understand and look after chronically sad men even while they behave hurtfully, often deliberately.

Helping these men is like trying to solve a puzzle while being punched in the face–sometimes literally–but dodging the punches is part of the high, part of the challenge. Shulamith Firestone wrote that: “More real brilliance goes into one one-hour coed telephone dialogue about men than into that same coed’s four years of college study, or for that matter, than into most male political maneuvers. It is no wonder, then, that even the few women without “family obligations” always arrive exhausted at the starting line of any serious endeavor.” It took a full year after my ex-friend’s comment about ‘enabling’ before I could write about intimacy politics without pain. It makes me wonder what Scott’s girlfriends were too exhausted to do after trying to soothe the misery present in his music.

What I have never understood about men who repeatedly fuck up their relationships, friendships and other bonds with women, is their surprise and outrage each time things go wrong. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they remain sure that a woman will show up to fix all their problems (somehow without ever challenging them or making them uncomfortable) free of charge, and that they can punish those who don’t. As Emma Lindsay wrote, “So many men I know are unable to live a happy life when they don’t have a woman who stops them from feeling the negative feelings that accompany their poor life decisions. It’s notable that they often do not stop making these poor life decisions.” Again and again they hold onto petty resentment even as it costs them everything; their personal stability, their communities, a fully-functioning liver in their fifties.

Recent gender discourses have focused on men’s supposed emotional repression, and many people are thus quick to treat any expression of male vulnerability as emotional intelligence. But being open (or semi-open) about intimate fuckups at the scale of Frightened Rabbit is not a sign of bravery or depth, especially given the current length of their project. Far from emotional honesty, Frightened Rabbit represents the hope that if you vaguely catalogue your own faults loudly enough, you won’t have to hear anything from the person you’ve hurt or actually deal with the situation. Publicly-broadcasted sorrow is often just manipulation disguised as an apology. Who knows how many abusive men, maybe the kind who preach feminism but still yell at their girlfriends a lot, listen to Frightened Rabbit after she leaves and only then remember her good qualities—or rather, the specific ways she looked after them. I had to laugh at their line “the loss of a lonely man never made much of a sound”, because truly I’ve never heard such a racket.

I eventually had to delete Frightened Rabbit from my iTunes (“Holy” being the most-played song in my library); even the songs I hadn’t listened to at the time sounded too familiar. In the long run, I don’t want to lose the poignancy I get from singing “Keep Yourself Warm”. Scott has great musical and creative talent, if not emotional talent. But how much of that talent really belongs to men like that if it’s built on the broken backs of women? One of the first parts of making amends for harmful behaviour is to step back from public space and cede control of the narrative, so the hurt parties can have their say and get space to heal. Women need help to let men like that know what they have done, rather than hiding it so they don’t have to feel sad. Let them feel guilt in a way that pushes them to actually change, rather than selectively droning on about how sorry they are (but really they’re the main victim) or how much they wish they’d done things differently (but will continue to not do so).

you can carry all the guilt & grime ya wanna
just dont give it to me
i cant use another sorry
next time
you should admit
you’re mean/ low-down/ triflin/ & no count straight out
steada bein sorry alla the time
enjoy bein yrself
~Ntozake Shange, sorry”

Society teaches people that admitting to bad behaviour means accepting punishment and giving up support, which is why most people will try deny it. But everyone deserves the right kind of support to develop healthier coping mechanisms within intimacy. I hope against hope that Scott and my ex-friend seek out help to change; perhaps if and when Scott emotionally develops more I will start paying for his records. Stepping back wouldn’t create a vacuum of talent, as there are plenty of people around to write devastatingly sad songs that don’t describe bad behaviour; just ask Robyn or Iris DeMent. I am here for the other women fans of Frightened Rabbit, but I hope they won’t hesitate through politeness to make creative currency out of what mean men have done to them—even after, as Scott put it and as I now feel, “the burn has blistered up and healed, the scent of flesh has disappeared”.

From an early age, women learn how to identify with men’s work even at the expense of ourselves. We manage to find value in it because men are humans like us; “Candlelit” did help me realise that I could fuck things up and live through it. But it was Dar Williams, patron saint of all the women who can do great things once they’re set loose, who really helped me know that in the end I would be alright:

And so I’m leaving, you can find out how much better things can get,
And if it helps, I’d say I feel a little worse than I did when we met,
So when you find someone else you can try again, it might work next time,
You look out of the kitchen window, and you shake your head and say low:
“If I could believe that stuff, I’d say that woman has a halo…”
And I look out and say “Yeah, she’s really blonde,”
And then I go outside to join the others—I am the others.

And that’s not easy—don’t know what you saw, I want somebody who sees me,
I will not be afraid of women
I will not be afraid of women.