Can You Be a Feminist and Still Love the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

The Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1991
The Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1991
Chris Cuffaro/Visages

Julie Farman never wanted to meet the Red Hot Chili Peppers. She was leery of the band’s frat-boy reputation and had heard plenty of stories about their alleged sexual misconduct with women.

It was 1990 and the band was on the verge of breaking big with Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Every record label in town was vying to sign them, and Farman’s employer at the time, Epic Records, was no exception. Then an associate director of media and artist relations for the label's West Coast division, Farman agreed to lead a marketing meeting with the foursome only after a colleague talked her into it.

“Afterwards, I took two of the Chili Peppers to the storage room where we kept the box sets and CDs,” she wrote on Wednesday in a blog post accusing the band of sexual harassment. “As we looked in the cabinet, they pressed up against me and told me about all of the ways we could make a super sexy sandwich." She remembers running to her office, slamming the door, and crying at her desk, feeling alternating waves of humiliation and shame and then embarrassment for having those feelings. 

Stories like Farman’s are not uncommon in the music industry, and she is far from the first to accuse members of the Red Hot Chili Peppers of sexual harassment. (The Chili Peppers' label, Warner Bros. Records, did not respond to the Weekly's request for comment.) So when a friend sent me Farman’s essay yesterday, I found myself grappling with an uncomfortable contradiction. How could I continue to identify as a diehard Chili Peppers fan after reading the allegations? Farman’s story was upsetting not only because I sympathized with her trauma and admired her courage — but also because it meant that I needed to reconsider the fandom I’d cultivated more than a decade ago as an angsty teen for whom Kiedis embodied the ideal man.

I devoured Kiedis’ 2004 autobiography, and for a high school book report I even performed a re-enactment for my class of the first time Kiedis ever snorted China White heroin (he’d mistakenly thought it was cocaine). I clearly idolized Kiedis, for reasons that didn’t always make a lot of sense. When I moved away from Los Angeles, my affection for the band only grew stronger; their songs reminded me of the city I loved — the city that Kiedis loved. When I moved back to L.A., I spent weeks doing research and consulting gang and drug experts on a mission to locate the exact bridge referenced in “Under the Bridge,” a song I had named in this publication as one of the best ever written about Los Angeles.

I never did find that bridge, but the more research I dug up in search of it, the more examples I found of Kiedis unabashedly making unwanted sexual advances or unsolicited comments toward women — and those were just the instances caught on camera. In one particularly cringe-worthy press interview that’s been uploaded to YouTube and labeled as being from 1991, Kiedis gets up from his chair midway through the conversation and lunges toward his interviewer, getting up in her face.

“Back off, baby!” she growls, pushing him away with an uncomfortable smile. “I’m just giving you a little kiss,” he insists. “No, no, no, no, no,” she says, pushing his shoulders away. But he goes in for the kiss anyway. The exchange is excruciating to watch, but the interviewer plays it off like the pro she is, putting her head in her hands briefly and making a joke before gliding into the next question — perhaps one intended to embarrass Kiedis, a seemingly impossible task. “What is it about you guys and your penises?” she wants to know. “In every interview that I’ve ever done, that pretty much takes up half the interview.”

It is not the only such clip. When asked if he had any closing remarks during an interview in the 1991 documentary Funky Monks — shot when the band was holed up in a Laurel Canyon mansion to record Blood Sugar Sex Magik — the singer drew the film crew’s attention to the boom operator. “It’s so nice to look over and see the boom girl all stretched out. She’s got a beautiful body,” he said. The boom operator was, of course, not asking for Kiedis’ approval nor for the camera’s gaze. She, like Farman, was just trying to do her job.

So was reporter Nina Malkin when she was sent to the Laurel Canyon mansion to interview the band on assignment for Creem magazine. “I set out to profile a hard-smirking funk & roll band. But I get more. Much, much more,” she wrote in a scathing 1991 article that dripped with palpable sarcasm and disgust for the Southern California funk rockers, who she said were afflicted with what she dubbed “Suburban White Boy Syndrome.”

Reading to the end of the interview, it’s easy to see why Malkin characterizes the band as such. She quotes Kiedis as asking her, “Are you a nasty girl? Do you like to be spanked? Can you deep throat?”

It’s not that Kiedis’ behavior has gone unnoticed — in fact, it’s been celebrated. Fans in the comments section of the clip in which he kisses the interviewer are filled with praise for his confidence. Others wonder what kind of a woman would reject a kiss from Kiedis. (Maybe one who showed no indication of wanting to be kissed?) Another press interview between Kiedis and a German reporter dated 2002 was uploaded to a pickup artist message board and titled “The Art of Flirting.”

The charges leveled against the band go far beyond flirting. In 1990, Kiedis was convicted of sexual battery and indecent exposure after being accused of touching a woman’s face with his penis following a concert near Washington, D.C., the year prior, The York Times reported. Also in 1990, Flea and drummer Chad Smith were arrested and later found guilty of battery, disorderly conduct and lascivious behavior during a concert in Daytona Beach, Florida. According to the Orlando Sentinel, the band “jumped into the crowd to manhandle a bikini-clad woman during an MTV taping on the beach.” The woman pressed charges. (In both instances, band members denied any wrongdoing.)

Up until recently, Farman only ever told two close friends about what happened in the storage room that day in 1990. The memory still haunts her — so much so that when “Can’t Stop” played over the loudspeaker at her gym recently, she says she dropped her weights, stormed to the front desk and demanded the music stop.

Farman began writing her story in January, just after Dirty Projectors singer Amber Coffman accused former music publicist Heathcliff Berru of sexual harassment. Coffman's series of tweets about “the ass rubbing, hair biting mother fucker” prompted others to come forward with their own accusations and led to Berru’s resignation from Life or Death PR and Management. The chain of events not only rocked the industry but also had a profound impact on Farman and her network of friends from the record label.

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“After the Heathcliff Berru story broke, I had conversations with women I’d known for decades and heard about experiences they’d never told me about before. I’m talking about fairly close friends,” Farman wrote to me in an email on Wednesday night. “It wasn’t that Amber inspired me to tell my own story — it’s more that she inspired women who’d worked in the music industry in the '80s and '90s to tell each other their stories.”

Some of those stories, Farman told me, ranged from the seemingly inappropriate — one friend said she was gifted 23 sex toys in the record label’s conference room for her 23rd birthday — to the downright horrifying: Another friend said her boss pushed her to the floor and physically assaulted her.

“What really inspired my post was that we never talked about it and we accepted what was going on — that if we had spoken to one another, we would have felt less alone, at the very least,” she wrote to me in a separate email on Thursday morning. The good news is, social media is forcing the music industry to hold itself accountable for sexual assault and harassment and begin to take these accusations seriously.

Farman believes the male-dominated industry culture will start to change radically as more women come forward and speak out against sexual harassment.

“I was thinking about my teenage nieces when I wrote the post, and how empowering it would be if they knew that staying quiet was toxic, and that speaking out wasn’t shameful or difficult,” she wrote to me. “If social media has helped to diminish sexual harassment in the music industry, it’s because would-be perpetrators are petrified of exposure. As they should be.”

Farman says she’s told the Chili Peppers are no longer the same men who talked incessantly about their penises and asked out female reporters on camera in the early '90s. But she blames the industry for allowing, and even encouraging, that kind of predatory behavior to continue. “There was a bidding war, and it wasn’t like people didn’t know about what was going on. If it wasn’t common knowledge, it was close,” Farman wrote to me. “Yet they played prestigious gigs — they were supported by the press — they were on MTV — they won Grammy Awards — they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

The Red Hot Chili Peppers today
The Red Hot Chili Peppers today
Warner Bros. Records

The cult of Kiedis is not just a relic of the '90s or the 2000s — as the Peppers gear up for a summer festival tour, including a stop at Lollapalooza, their fan base is alive and well today. When I came home from the library Wednesday night hugging a tome about the Chili Peppers as research for this story, a neighbor stopped me on my porch to tell me about the sexually explicit dreams she’d had about Kiedis just the other night — and about the time when just seeing him on the street left her speechless and stuttering. I didn’t pretend that I couldn’t relate, that I hadn’t ever thought about Kiedis in the same way, but I also didn’t have the heart to tell her I was working on a story about his history of sexual harassment.

I can’t ignore the many accusations against the 53-year-old frontman, and I hope that Farman’s story inspires others to find the courage to speak their truth. I can’t make excuses for the band, and I certainly can’t begin to explain why a teenage girl from the suburbs so deeply identified with a song about shooting heroin under a bridge in downtown Los Angeles. Maybe somehow it was a reminder that there was life beyond high school, life in the city that I desperately wanted to taste — even if it was dirty and scary and littered with needles and graffiti. “Under the Bridge” will probably always fill me with a deep sense of nostalgia and hometown pride.

But now I know that songs like “Can’t Stop” will always fill Farman with an overwhelming sensation of dread and rage. And I’m sure she’s not the only one.


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