The 1975, Matty Healy, Malaysia, and the Problem With Saviour Complexes
Top image: The 1975 / Facebook

When I was 17, I was big on The 1975. Today, at 22, not so much. 

Back then, I felt that music needed to be political. Anyone with an audience should be using their platform to advocate for those without one—and The 1975 did just that. 

But then I stopped being 17. Their music got worse and their frontman, Matty Healy, got increasingly obnoxious. 

And now, I have more of a reason to dislike them: Healy’s performative outburst at Good Vibes Festival (GVF) in Kuala Lumpur. 

His passionate rant on Malaysia’s anti-LGBTQ+ laws was followed by an equally passionate make-out session shared between him and the band’s bassist, Ross MacDonald. The band ended their set shortly after and announced that it was because they had been banned from Kuala Lumpur by officials. 

The decision made by the Ministry of Communications and Digital to pull the plug mid-set comes as no surprise given that (A) homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia and (B) the Ministry has an “unwavering stance against any parties that challenge, ridicule, or contravene Malaysian laws”.

However, the Ministry went one step further by cancelling the remaining two days of the festival. Arguably a step too far, but unsurprising when you factor in Malaysia’s political context, conservative population, and the conundrum that would follow if Communications Minister Fahmi Fadzil didn’t make the call. It would have been a massive bullet for conservative opposition parties to fire against an already shaky alliance under Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

The band’s controversial actions have left those who had nothing to do with them to bear the brunt of their actions. What was supposed to be a big milestone for smaller local acts such as The Filters and Daaliah, amongst many others, are now left with nothing. Not to mention other major headliners like The Strokes, who are left to deal with the aftermath.

Malaysian singer-songwriter Talitha Tan, who was set to perform on the last day of GVF, didn’t mince her words when she referred to Healy’s “white saviour complex” and “white privilege”. The disappointment is understandable—Talitha wanted to dedicate the set to her late mother.

GVF’s food and retail vendors who had put in the time, money, and effort to cater the event will now suffer losses. At least Minister Fahmi is leading efforts to assist the affected vendors, or so he says.

But now, the act of queer expression in Malaysia is being shunned online. Already, there are fears of further restrictions on the community. 

This is the price people must pay for the greater good, right Matty? Wrong. 

Privileged Pseudo-Activism

The queer community that Healy was so fervent about fighting for never asked for his help. 

The supposed activist had no context or information on the country, its cultural nuances, and knew nothing about the queer community in Malaysia. The country’s queer community now has a bigger target on their back than before. The person who stuck it on there has flown off to continue performing without bearing the consequences.

Because of his stunt, politicians will use this incident as a vehicle to push their anti-LGBTQ+ agenda (elections are approaching), and the queer community of Malaysia will be fighting a bigger battle they never started. 

The 1975 is not at fault for being a politically-charged band that does not wish to respect the laws of the foreign country in which they are performing. You can’t expect them to respect the very thing they’re protesting against. 

You can, however, fault them for being completely uninterested in managing the consequences of their actions that they were too short-sighted to see coming. 

Image: The 1975 / Facebook

Being an activist is easy when it’s about letting other people know how progressive you are and less about considering how your actions are helping (or hurting) the people you want to stand up for. 

Most fans of the band are already liberal and left-leaning individuals who support the LGBTQ+ community. So what does Healy’s performative actions really achieve except setting back a community, which they are not a part of, in a country that The 1975 are not based in?

“He gets to fly out of the country and not face the consequences, while our people have to face the brunt of what just happened,” Malaysian drag performer Carmen Rose tells The Guardian.

Why Not Blame the Government?

Let’s be clear, the government’s actions were extreme and disruptive. The cancellation of the festival, which caused vendors to lose profits, organisers’ efforts to go to waste, and artists to lose their time in the spotlight, was ultimately the decision of the Malaysian government. 

But it is a decision they would not have made if not for The 1975’s pointless protest. Although this can be described as a chicken or egg situation, the point stands that The 1975 do not get to decide how aggressive local protesting and activism must be—the Malaysian LGBTQ+ community does. 

Are we meant to be angry at a government that did exactly what everyone knew it would do? Or do we blame the man who admittedly “made a mistake when booking […] shows” and “wasn’t looking into it” but carried on anyway? 

If the government imposes harsher media regulations and hinders the local music industry because of this incident, who can Malaysians blame—the government for being strict or the foreign band that can shake things up and leave, immune to whatever happens in a country that isn’t even theirs? 

Yes, Malaysians can admit that their country isn’t perfect, and discriminative laws deserve to be condemned. But they’re fighting persecution the way they know how. They didn’t need an obnoxious stunt from an already problematic public figure to make things worse for the community and its allies. 

The Absence of Sincerity

There seems to be a lack of discourse on Healy’s use of “r*tard”, a slur that is harmful and insulting to the mentally impaired, to describe the Malaysian government

Healy’s yapping on and on about how progressive he and his band is, only to use a disgusting and ableist slur on stage in front of a huge audience is hypocritical, to say the least. It’s well-known how harmful that word is, but that seems to be irrelevant to him. How sincere and progressive can you really be if you are putting down a community whilst trying to affirm another?

The lack of cultural knowledge, the heedless attempt to protest the government, the inconsideration over the impact of their actions—all it does is show how it reeks of white saviourism. The kind of radical activism that works in the West doesn’t work in Asia. But The 1975 (and its legions of fans abroad) don’t see it that way.

Healy did what he did to make him feel better about himself. If he really did care about change in Malaysia, he would have used his platform to educate instead of irritate.

There is no news from the band on how they want to help clean up their mess. Instead, we get tongue-in-cheek Instagram stories from Healy on how little he cares (so very cool, by the way) and how unapologetic he is for his actions. 

Separating the Art From the Artist

Unfortunately, there is a little bit of Matty Healy in all of us. Maybe not everyone has an insufferable white saviour complex, but we may have certainly done something for ourselves when it was meant for others. 

Oftentimes, social media activism is guilt-driven or for self-gratification; you want to feel like a good person, so you repost an infographic on Instagram. Sure, the awareness is raised all the same, but how much of what you do for others is genuinely for others? 

Being cognizant of your privilege and how you can best support those in need are vital steps in the process of helping oppressed communities. Making out with your bassist and getting banned from a country makes headlines. Giving a platform to charity groups and movements makes a difference.

Image: The 1975 / Facebook

Fans can be part of the problem when we excuse problematic behaviour. Why normalise stupidity when we stand up for artists’ decisions simply because we like their art?

You’re a fan of the art, not a cult member. Defending performative activism just because you think Matty Healy is cute and The 1975’s music helped you through a breakup is not the hill you want to die on.

I don’t listen to their music much anymore. Their pro-LGBTQ+ tune ‘Loving Someone’ still gives me goosebumps. Their electric protest anthems ‘People’ and ‘Love It If We Made It’ still make me want to go out on the streets and fight for change. 

I do indulge in their stuff from time to time when I randomly remember they exist (usually when Healy says or does something stupid). But I think I’ve grown out of them. Hopefully, the band does some growing up too. 

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