Chris Conley and the Paper Gods

I don’t know what exactly bands owe their fans or what exactly those fans owe the bands they love. The same things we all owe one another, I suppose: compassion, respect, generosity. The songs that engender fandom are not the same as the people who make them, even though the nature of fandom is such that the lines between creator and created are often blurred by earnest devotion. But that blurring is dangerous. It conflates what someone has created with who they are. It turns an actual human person into an idea.

Paper Towns, John Green’s 2008 young adult novel, considers how destructive it can be to imagine who someone is and then fall in love with that imagined person. As Green shows us, the person doing the imagining comes to live in a fantasy world that doesn’t really exist, and the person being imagined comes to lose their humanity and become something of a god or myth (at least to the person doing the imagining). Each party ends up living not in reality, but in a paper world that is thin and fragile, with little substance and easily torn.

In 2008, I hadn’t yet read any of Green’s books but I had spent long hours burying myself the music of Saves the Day. Albums like Stay What You Are, Sound the Alarm, and In Reverie were huge parts of my personal life and the shared social fabric of my community. Last week, Chris Conley—the driving force of Saves the Day—was accused of sexual misconduct. A few days later, he admitted his guilt. Conley had used the power that he had been given by his fans’ imagining of him, the power of an imagined god, to manipulate and abuse some of those fans.

In Paper Towns, Green’s characters are all high schoolers, their imaginings of one another equally destructive to all parties. That is not the case here. Conley was an adult for all of his accused misconduct; his victim, at the outset of their relationship, was a child. What harm was done was not the result of equal misunderstanding but of willful action on the part of an aggressor. I believe that both parties were imaging the other to be what they were not, but in wildly disparate ways: If his accuser imagined Conley as a god, Conley’s purported actions suggest that he saw his accuser as less than human. As less than deserving of those same things that, I think, we all owe one another: compassion, respect, generosity.

I am disappointed to hear of Conley’s actions but I am not surprised. The last few years have revealed that the indie/emo scene that was so important to me and countless others as we were doing the difficult work of growing up was rife with predators. The compassionate, respectful, and generous community that I have long called my own was, in fact, a paper scene, led by paper gods.

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