When I arrive at the fiery gates of hell, after what I hope is a long life full of responsible eating and better-than-terrible Final Fantasy sequels, I imagine Viet Cong, British India, Black Pussy, Slaves, Dirty Dike, and an infinite host of white, male, fuckawfully-named bands will be there, sans instruments, slouched in groups of chairs and in front of each group is a devastatingly sharp reporter and the reporter is asking them about their name, what about this controversy that has erupted around your name? and the bands are miffed because the reporter has outdressed and outclassed them and will continue to do so forever and their groans and sighs mingle together in my ears, the sweet cacophony a soundtrack of my descent into eternal damnation.
That is, until Joe Strummer gleefully whisks me through a side door into purgatory where The Clash are playing and they have pizza.
We have before us now a throng of bands who have succumbed to a strange temptation. Something that possesses them to take a name that is, for lack of a better word, shitty. Inconsiderate. Not just offensive but genuinely harmful. This is nothing new. I can promise you that there were jackholes in Britannia and in Athens and Egypt and so on, ad infinitum. Jackhole turtles all the way down. It was and it is and it will always be, which is why critics and fans have an obligation to object, damn it, and not just drift in semantic circles until the fury dies down and meanwhile none of us learns a goddamn thing. (You’re telling me that you’d pay $150 to sit and listen to The National play a song for six fucking hours and ruminate on what that means to your life but you don’t think it’s a problem that a couple of assholes are calling themselves Slaves?)
By far the most inept response to all of this — from major outlets, no less — is that we shouldn’t be so quick to censor these bands for exercising their right to free speech and artistic expression. We should be willing to consider how a pile of white dudes going under the moniker “Black Pussy” might be a perfectly fine choice in a world filled with infinite band names. The mighty voices of music journalism have risen to the challenge with a blusterfucking Kanye shrug.
To these captains of rhetorical apathy: get a grip. Censorship is well-defined and this ain’t it. Nobody’s in jail. No one is being forced — under threat of death or serious bodily injury or I’ll even accept involuntary community service here — no one is being forced to change their name, their raison d’être, their brand.
As far as free speech and artistic expression are concerned, I’m all for it. In fact, I’d be delighted to listen to the deep, meaningful reasons behind these names and how they’re being used to subvert traditional political and social norms and how they are each and every one inexorably linked to the music these bands produce in such a way that to change the name would mean they would have to throw every song out, burn all the instruments, and retire in silence to Manitoba. So do tell, guys.
A group of white guys that decided to call themselves Viet Cong: “It’s just a band name. It’s just what we called ourselves.”
A group of white guys that decided to call themselves Slaves: “We just liked the word. We weren’t trying to provoke.”
A group of white guys that decided to call themselves Black Pussy: “Our band name has nothing to do with race or genitalia. It’s an ambiguous band name…so that people could read into it whatever they wanted to.”
Even Andy Gill, the brilliant Gang of Four guitarist who should totally know better, has jumped in to offer some seriously misguided words, cursing those offended as aspiring “guardian[s] of public morality” and warning the music-loving public against foolishly using the incredible powers of censorship I didn’t know we had.
Look. Nothing is fucked here. Not from a censorship standpoint, anyway. These bands can do whatever the hell they want. That’s their end of the deal. And my end of the deal is I don’t have to like it, and I get to tell them that. I get to say it on Twitter, I get to yell it at their shows, if I interview them I get to ask about it, and I get to write about it here. Every single one of you has the same power, and you should use it any way you see fit.
What I choose to use my power on are the critics who are happy to analyze every second of music, every lyric, and every ambient sound and yet are unable to even acknowledge something as straightforward as a problematic band name.1 Viet Cong, as they stated in their non-apology for naming themselves Viet Cong, have been a band for over three years, and began getting significant press last year with the release of their first EP. None of the many reviews they’ve gotten since then, save one, thought it worthwhile to mention anything about the band name. Did it just not register? How disconnected are the people from the world around them that they refuse to address something that is so crucial to the art this band is supposedly making?
Criticism is about knowing where the boundaries are and being able to delineate those boundaries eloquently, and to push against them, and fuck reviews because what has a review ever taught you? Do you really think it’s about praise or faint praise or Steely Dan Albums Ranked from Worst to Best?
When was the last time a music critic discussed something explicitly political about someone’s music that they disagreed with? Is that because critics aren’t willing to, or because artists aren’t producing any content worth criticizing?
Fans are not off the hook, either. We have the obligation to be passionate about our loves, to learn from them and to challenge ourselves to evolve as listeners. Just as we want our heroes to continue to entertain us in new ways, to walk the line between progress and familiarity, to fully embrace our criteria and our criticisms, we should also aspire to do the same for them. What has music taught you lately? What has it ever taught you?
Art for the sake of art is, as the recently deceased Günter Grass proclaimed, absolutely useless. Art should be accusatory, expressive, passionate. Art is not blind antagonism, nor the exploration of technique divorced from content. Those diversions are for privileged fuckalls with nothing to say, and by ignoring such blasphemous sanguinity now you will be ahead of the history that will erase them completely sooner or later.
Honestly, I’m not that disappointed in the bands. Most of them just don’t get it. They don’t understand how their choices are magnified and how something as seemingly innocuous as a band name affects the entire culture. Ultimately, bad names come and go, and bands will learn or they won’t, and they’ll get big or die. But a critic or a fan who is so blind, or ignorant, or apathetic that they fail to acknowledge (and, you know, criticize) these note hustlers when they fall out of line is an utter failure.
Never mind this slick redemption piece for the guy who copped a plea deal on a domestic violence charge. A guilty plea followed by a dismissal doesn’t mean “no charges were brought”, and it sure as hell doesn’t mean the dude is innocent. ↩