The sounds of anger

August 30, 2011

Racism, sexism and gay-bashing certainly aren't rebellious, argues Alexander Billet.

IT LOOKS like those times are back. Those times when the raw outrage weaving through the world causes disturbing trends to pop up in our music. When a few misguided voices are picked apart, denounced and justified so much that it becomes difficult to figure out just what side they're on.

In the 1970s, it was around punk. A decade later, it was around hip-hop. Now, with the controversy surrounding acts like Iceage or Odd Future, it's reached into both--almost as if proving how high the stakes really are.

By now, most indie fans are probably sick of the furor surrounding Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All (OFWGKTA, or simply Odd Future), the teenage horror-rap "super-group" whose talents with rhyme and production are undeniable. On the other hand, their graphic depictions of murder, rape, gay-bashing and all around misanthropy make the Geto Boys seem like choir boys (and no, I won't be quoting them here).

Over the past year, the Southern California lyricists have gone from virtual unknowns--even most underground hip-hop scenes had never heard of them--to the "next big thing" in indie music. Last summer, when the taste-making hipster site Pitchfork began to laud Odd Future's undeniable talents, the whole fiasco was set in motion.

Odd Future's Tyler the Creator at the Pitchfork Music Festival
Odd Future's Tyler the Creator at the Pitchfork Music Festival (Joshua Mellin)

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, one of the first hip-hop journalists to write about OFWGKTA, described the ensuing debacle as a "binary":

[A]fter approximately 900,000 think pieces were written on the topic of Odd Future's "vile" lyricism--a large chunk of them by rap dilettantes who have apparently never listened to much hip-hop beyond radio and club staples--what became more enraging to me than the detailed artistic output of a group of youths were the scores of critics, largely middle-aged white males, who not only tripped over themselves justifying the lyrics, but who also seemed to ridicule or mock those who might have a problem with them.

And so has begun the controversy that Shepherd deftly titles "How Teen Rap Group Odd Future Turned a Posse of Nerdy White Male Critics Into Rape Apologists."

For the most part, the young members of OFWGKTA have remained glibly dismissive. Hodgy Beats--at 20 the oldest member of the group along with Tyler the Creator--thinks "it's funny that people flip out over shit like that." Hodgy told the Chicago Sun-Times, "Nothing is really serious...It's just like all the things in our music. It's in the atmosphere, it's in the world, and it's in our lyrics."

Syd tha Kid, the group's one female member and also a lesbian, is normally pointed to as proof that Odd Future is neither sexist nor homophobic. That Syd's actual position in the group is a producer and doesn't actually say anything in any of their songs (essentially reducing her to tokenism) seems irrelevant to OFWGKTA, including Syd herself.

"People just choose to be offended by stuff," she told Billboard. "If they are, then that sucks and I'm sorry, but they don't have to keep listening. Words are words. They don't act out what they say, they just say it."

IT BEARS repeating here that casual and virulent misogyny is indeed, as Hodgy says, "in the atmosphere." Economic crisis persists, and it's put everything from clinics to women's shelters on the chopping block. In state after state, right-wing legislators are proposing laws that narrow the "definition" of rape and even provide protection for those who would kill abortion providers--an insanity only surpassed when these laws are actually voted through,

Meanwhile, police officers accused of sexual assault from New York to Chicago have had all but the red carpet rolled out for them. Seventh grade girls are raped and then forced by the school to write an apology to her attacker only to be raped again. "Raunch culture" is seemingly inescapable. It's fair to say that it amounts to persistent second-class citizenship for women. Lyrics like OFWGKTA's certainly don't help.

This is not to say popular music is automatically above all of this. On the contrary, in any age divided between haves and have-nots, popular music is bound to reflect all sorts of contradictory ideas--good, bad and everything in between. Placing the blame for sexual violence on the shoulders of any one artist or group of artists has always been more of a smoke-and-mirrors act than anything else.

Few of the public figures in or around the Parental Music Resource Center in the 1980s and '90s had ever lifted more than a finger against racism or sexism--and even fewer showed any real knowledge of hip-hop's significance. And raising hue and cry over social decay has never stopped any of these people from howling for social cuts.

In his column where he justified his own defense of Odd Future, Chicago Reader music journalist Miles Raymer insists:

I have an easy explanation for why they're striking those chords: things are bad. I mean, things have been bad for a while...But now that the information economy is tanking too--and now that America has turned out to be an even uglier place under Obama than it was under Bush--nobody's immune anymore. Artists and fans alike are coming of age in an atmosphere of deep paranoia and impending doom.

Raymer is partially correct here, and it's precisely why any censorship mongers are bound to be wrong. Where he comes up short is his cynicism--specifically no mention about how these kinds of lyrics can be constructively challenged.

During the glory days of MTV, when the big labels could still clutch firmly to their dominance, it seemed a bit easier for progressives to find the culprit. As the "traditional" music industry has continued to implode and artists have been forced to rely more and more on the potential boon provided by live performance, taste-makers like Pitchfork have unexpectedly found themselves becoming the "new boss."

While the unsavory content of Odd Future can't be apologized for in the least, forgiving the disconnected justifications trotted out by increasingly powerful "indie" outlets seems an even graver mistake.

JUST AS disturbing as Odd Future's violent misogyny are the flirtations of Iceage. Like Odd Future, the bleak nihilism of this young Danish group fits with the world as we know it now--likewise their stripped-down post-industrial punk. Their apparent timeliness has lead to some notable praise in the American music press. Vice, SF Gate and the A.V. Club even went so far as to compare Iceage to their fellow Scandinavian punk trailblazers Refused.

But while the aesthetic radicalism of Refused was always driven by an unavoidable revolutionary socialist vision, Iceage seem to embrace the polar opposite. Sure, it may be employed sheerly for shock, but it's nonetheless troubling--such as their use of Nordic runes in their artwork, runes that have been historically adopted by white power groups.

Then there's the menacing, chaotic and austere pen-and-ink drawings of singer Elias Bender Ronnenfelt--featuring people dressed in the unmistakable garb of the Ku Klux Klan. Others include white mobs carrying swords and a crucifix counterposed to AK-wielding Islamists standing in front of Arabic text. Giant knives are pointed at the Islamists.

One might say, "They're only drawings," but that can hardly be a valid excuse given the vicious Islamophobia that's sweeping Europe along with the growth of the far right. In the UK, mosques are routinely vandalized and Muslims intimidated by organized roving street gangs like the English Defense League (EDL). France's Front National, now helmed by the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, seems poised to post high gains in the coming French elections on an open platform of repatriation.

Currently, the ultra-conservative Danish People's Party, which campaigns most prominently against multiculturalism and the "Islamization" of Denmark, is the third largest in Iceage's homeland. And the recent terrorist attack just to the north in Oslo, Norway, show how dangerous this kind of scapegoating can get.

The members of Iceage have all denied being racist, and have pointed out that drummer Dan Kjaer Nielsen is Jewish. It's not exactly reassuring. Their video for title track "New Brigade" sees the band sporting hoods and carrying torches.

Their shows in Europe have reportedly featured audience members--who the band refer to as "victims"--throwing up the Nazi straight-armed salute and screaming, "Seig heil!" Guitarist Johan Surrballe's right arm sports a tattoo of the band Death in June (DIJ), a 30-year mainstay in the fringe neo-folk scene who similarly promote fascist imagery.

The parallel between the two groups is striking. Though DIJ's singer has pointed to his gay identity as proof to the contrary, he has also called Hitler "the most influential person of the 20th century" and repeatedly speaks in favor of the odd Russian fascist sect of National Bolshevism.

Iceage's exact political ideology is difficult to confirm, at least through their lyrics. Ronnenfelt's vocals are indecipherable through the dense metallic chaos. Muddying the waters even further is the fact that during their first-ever U.S. tour this summer, they played alongside such indie post-punkers as Cult of Youth and Fucked Up.

No reports have surfaced of Nazi salutes at Iceage's U.S. dates. Whether the young members ultimately identify as fascists in their heart of hearts doesn't take much away from the fact that their aesthetic choices provide fertile ground for the far right.

There is a long and sordid past of non-racist punk bands utilizing Nazi images as some sort of send-up, but most of them have ended up dropping it. Meanwhile, avowed hatecore bands have been pushed to the far margins, but this hasn't stopped them from constantly looking for an "in" to a bigger platform.

If Iceage do indeed represent punk's future, then that future is even bleaker than one might imagine. Guardian music critic Paul Lester, in his comparatively sober review of Iceage, points out:

some have called them "teenage punks," while others have gone with "teenage bullies." It's an important distinction: punk...was fuelled by righteous anger, its aim to stand up for the downtrodden. There was nothing bullying about it: it picked on the powerful. If these Danish kids...have their sights set on the weak and dispossessed, they've massively missed the point.

Angry times, angry music. There's no doubt that the kids in Iceage and Odd Future have plenty of anger--it's what happens when you strip people of any power over their own lives. The real danger starts, however, when the powerless begin to target each other.

WALKING THROUGH the booths at the Pitchfork Music and Arts Festival has always had an air of vague egalitarianism. Chalk it up to the indie spirit--small local businesses and community groups have long played a role, with deference given to those deemed socially conscious. And of course, the acts selected have always reflected a broad diversity of tastes within the now-dominant indie culture.

Which is why when the fest's coordinators announced that Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All would be one of 2011's headlining acts, it didn't sit well with more than a few loyal patrons. One could practically hear the gangs of music critics, activists and ordinary fans collectively ask, "What the hell?"

True, Pitchfork's attempts at parsing the high artistic merit from the deplorable content of their lyrics had always been clumsy. Lazy comparisons to NWA and even Public Enemy had sprung up in their defenses--never mind that Odd Future have yet to employ the kind of truth-to-power lyricism that defined both of those groups. At best, the defenses have resorted to the idea that the young rappers were parodying white hipster expectations of rap music--a shoddy excuse that not only lets Pitchfork off the hook, but bastardizes rap itself.

Still, the inclusion of OFWGKTA, to many onlookers, seemed to fly in the face of independent music's inclusive spirit. Jim DeRogatis, music commentator for the Chicago Sun-Times and WBEZ's "Sound Opinions," rightfully asked a whole host of questions that Odd Future necessarily raise:

How does Odd Future playing the Pitchfork Music Festival reflect on this grassroots Chicago music community, and the broader community of music fans and Pitchfork readers? How will it affect festival goers and other artists playing on the same stages? And what does it mean to inject a heaping dose of hatred against women into the fun in the sun at Union Park?

It was for this reason that in the weeks after Odd Future were announced, several domestic violence groups stepped forward to request booth space at the festival. One of the groups demanding space was Between Friends, an agency with 25 years of history in Chicago.

"We certainly believe in free speech, and with that in mind, Odd Future has the right to sing and use the lyrics they do," said executive director Kathy Doherty, "but the rest of us in Chicago have the right to balance that point of view with powerful messages of our own about violence against women."

Pitchfork at first denied Between Friends and other groups like Rape Victims Advocates space. Time and again, the buck was passed--from the website editors to the festival organizers to the booking agents. Spokespeople also claimed that Pitchfork was being "singled out," and that the group had also performed at Coachella in April. It was rather bewildering, but also a lesson in what a big business music fests--including Pitchfork--have become.

After some persistent pressure--including rumors of pickets and boycotts--Pitchfork relented. Between Friends and Rape Victims Advocates were both granted table space in the festival. Tyler the Creator, who weeks before had Tweeted that he wanted to "Throw Shit At Them," clumsily attempted to make peace by personally delivering cupcakes to the groups' tables.

Now, most folks are just glad it's over. Certainly, it could have gotten ugly, harking back to the bad old days when rappers and feminists seemed inexorably pitted against one another. Maybe it was these memories on all sides that prevented it them from going further down that path.

For as unsatisfactory Odd Future and Pitchfork's responses may have looked, the whole debacle also provides a glimpse into what it may look like when a more strong and confident activism is able to hold society accountable--when such a movement might be able to fight the roots of bigotry, engage with artists of all stripes, and point the anger in the right direction.

Plenty of artists already do this: Rebel Diaz, who can rap circles around any of the kids in Odd Future without once calling a woman a bitch, or Prayers for Atheists, whose righteous punk passion likely leaves Iceage stumped. It's no news that record companies, festivals and journalists looking to keep an air of cool withdrawal are likewise flummoxed by these kinds of acts. The question becomes, then, how we overcome it.

Perhaps it's time that fans and artists stopped thinking of independent music in all its forms--rap, rock, folk, techno, whatever--as merely a sub-culture and began applying it as a counterculture. A counterculture that pulls on the latent values of community and DIY and knows who the real enemy is. That knows that racism, sexism and gay-bashing aren't edgy, and certainly aren't rebellious. That calls out the hypocrites and tells artists like Iceage and Odd Future that the time has come to grow up and put up.

Such a development, a "musical movement," might seem impossible in the age of corporate, multimillion-dollar charity concerts. But it's happened before and can happen again. The examples of Rock Against Racism (RAR) in the '70s, as well as its offshoot campaign Rock Against Sexism (RAS), are both proof that such an upheaval can take place.

Here were cultural activist groups that used the power of music to challenge the vilest ideas running through society--sexism, homophobia and anti-immigrant racism. They made it a point that their gigs be diverse, bringing together rock, punk, reggae and ska.

One of their earliest supporters was Tom Robinson--a gay rock musician whose commitments to anti-racism and sexual liberation were only equaled by his ability to connect great hooks with a punk sensibility (Tom Robinson Band's "2-4-6-8 Motorway" was one of the first punk singles to reach the Top Ten on the British music charts).

Their lineups almost always included bands where women played a major role--such as X-Ray Spex and Carol Grimes--and their publication Temporary Hoarding made the case that any fight against oppression is incomplete without fighting all its guises.

As the folks in RAR and RAS knew, confronting all of this in a vacuum was a recipe for impotence. They weren't just allied with one other, but with any attempt to chase organized bigots off the streets and to present an alternative to layoffs, budget cuts and union-busting. It's this connection with the real grassroots of music--the streets, schools and workplaces--that made the campaigns a force to be reckoned with.

Artists noticed. Jimmy Pursey of Sham 69 shunned the racists in his former crew, and fascists who tried to make inroads through music were pushed out. In the pages of Temporary Hoarding, Johnny Rotten (now post-Pistols Lydon) said that he "despised" groups like the National Front and that the inclusion of swastikas in his former band's regalia was "stupid."

Today, Love Music Hate Racism and Love Music Hate Homophobia--have similarly proven a major presence in the UK's independent music scene, putting on massive festivals that have been a constant thorn in the side of the EDL and other like-minded creeps.

There's a lesson in all of these stories--one we would do well to learn from today. The fields for bringing together these kinds of groups today are arguably more fertile than they've ever been here in the U.S. Grassroots activism like SlutWalk have raised the possibility of challenging both casual misogyny (like that of Odd Future) and its sexist roots.

Islamophobic bigots are being faced down, mosques are being defended, and Iceage may want to take note. Minds can be changed, victories can be won, and we can still sound stylish while doing it.

As our very livelihoods are torn apart by the powers that be, it's hard to argue with anyone's anger, but that doesn't mean we merely throw up our hands and watch the world burn. The question is whether that anger is turned to action, whether an alternative can be build from the bottom up that reaches from the streets to our schools and festivals, workplaces and playlists. The time has come to revitalize the meaning of rebel music.

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