Friday, August 12, 2011

From Anger to Hate or Action?

Of all the local commentary on the meaning of controversial acts like Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, music journalist Miles Raymer comes the closest to hitting the nail on the head. Obviously, he doesn't see anything wrong with the anger itself; he sees it as part of the simple reality of the times in which we live.

His piece in this week's Chicago Reader makes the assertion "if you're offended, you're not getting the point." It's a point that's only partially true. Nonetheless, it's overlooked way too often when talking about "offensive" music.

Raymer starts at a pretty dismal place--the times we're living in:

"The past half century of American history has proved itself extremely cyclical. In many ways we're now approximately where we were in the mid-70s and early 90s: we've got a troubled economy and a resurgent political right that's ramping up the culture wars to dismantle any recent achievements by the political left, and the left is busy watching its optimism curdle into cynicism and generally feeling beaten down. That might be part of the reason why three of the acts I've recommended in the Reader over the past month--Odd Future, Iceage, and Cult of Youth--use such terrible imagery that they've compelled me to qualify my praise."

Best known of these are Odd Future's graphic depictions of rape, torture, gay-bashing and murder. The group could pretty credibly be called little more than a creation of Pitchfork; they were virtual unknowns until the hipster site discovered them and began fervently promoting their work. Talented though the members of the horror-rap supergroup are, they carry very little cred in the underground hip-hop scene. One wonders if Pitchfork glommed onto more because of their views of rap itself--which have always skated dangerously close to a thinly-veiled white middle-class double standard.

Well known by now is the controversy that emerged from Odd Future's inclusion as a headliner at the Pitchfork festival's stage. Domestic violence groups successfully pressured the fest's organizers to let them set up informational tables. The whole fiasco eventually provoked a response from the group during their performance--Tyler, the Creator claimed from the front that he had "much love" for the domestic violence groups.

Raymer is right to defend the group and others like it against censorship. He points out that during times of crisis, politicians and establishment "parent groups" normally connected in some way to the religious right get increasingly up in arms over music such as this. It's always little more than an attempt to shift the blame onto the most convenient scapegoat; divide and conquer. The recession of the early '90s brought the heat onto N.W.A's "Fuck the Police." In the mid '70s it was punk in the cross-hairs.

Likewise, he's right to point out that times like this produce music that's undeniably angry in the first place for the simply reason that things suck! It's for this reason that the censorship of the PMRC and their ilk has to be opposed every step of the way--even while criticizing and holding accountable groups like Odd Future.

A bit more troubling, however, is Raymer's qualifications for acts like Iceage. The teenaged Danish four-piece is openly influenced by Death In June--a post-industrial pagan/neo-folk group who for the past thirty years have openly embraced Nazi imagery and talked about how Adolf Hitler was "the most influential person" of the 20th century even as they claim that they're not fascists. Death In June do, however, speak favorably of National Bolshevism, a strange attempt at synthesizing fascism with a left-wing sheen. (They criticize Hitler for relying too much on big capital.)

If Death In June have remained a stubbornly influential presence on the fringes of the underground, then Iceage are their bastard progeny. Like their ancestors, they display a kind of dark nihilism in their highly monochrome sound--albeit more in the vein of crude, hardcore post-punk. Like so many other groups that run the gamut today, this bleakness has the potential to reach out to kids. They've been praised not just by Raymer, but by various other authoritative indie outlets.

Here's where it gets scary: Lead-singer Elias Bender Ronnenfelt has put out 'zines that feature his drawings of Klansmen beating up Muslims. Their video for "New Brigade" is almost as disturbing--the band's members wear hoods strongly reminiscent of the KKK while carrying torches. It's a bit close for comfort when one takes into account the fact that anti-Muslim racism is on the rise across Europe right now--including Scandinavia.

What seems confusing is that Raymer is well-aware of the dangers. He's fair-minded in his assessment of Iceage, making the case that the group could well find themselves responsible for an upsurge in racist violence to which they never intended to contribute. Ultimately, he's way too forgiving. In pointing out the Jewish ancestry of the group's drummer, he seems to forget that there have indeed been strains of fascism (including National Bolshevism) that have relied less on anti-Semitism.

This isn't to say that Iceage are themselves fascists, or to discount the real anger and need to shock to which they seem to grip in a near-primal way. It's just to say that they're playing with fire. Furthermore, they are clearly influenced by a world where the far-right is on the rise. If kids are showing up at the band's shows seig-heiling then it can only serve to create more space for this scum to grow.

That's precisely why there has to be a political and cultural alternative to counter the growth of the far-right. It's one thing to understand and even identify with the anger. It's another to recognize when the dynamic points straight down into the abyss and to draw the line somewhere. Art reflects the world around it whether we want it to or not. The growth in popularity of groups like Odd Future and (especially) Iceage have to serve as a warning--and as a sign that today's youth are crying out for that same alternative. Breaking the cyclical half-century Raymer pessimistically laments means fighting back.


There will be a future article here at RF exploring just how widespread acts like Iceage have become--as well as the implications of Odd Future's popularity--and the need for a modern-day movement against the far-right. Stay tuned. Or better yet, subscribe.


Rob said...

I normally tend to agree with your analysis, but I think you may be jumping to conclusions a bit with Iceage. I studied the pics and did not see Klansmen beating Muslims. In the image of the hooded figures engaged in a beating, the victim is of indeterminate ethnicity. Also, in the image with the skinheads rallying and the switchblade pointed toward the "Islamist" figure, the head wrap of the "Muslim" with the A.K. is adorned with the same geometric symbol as is on the shirt of the masked figure in the foreground and tattooed on the chest of one of the hooded figures in the aforementioned pic. Why would they be sporting the same symbol? I suppose only Elias knows.
I'm also not convinced that the hooded figures are supposed to be Klansmen and not just some occult aesthetic.
That said, the Death in June influence is still disturbing and disappointing. And I do find the whole shock for shock's sake a bit sophmoric, but these are teenagers and I recall when I was in high school, my friends thought G.G. Allin and Anal Cunt were so subversive.
I don't mean to ramble, but I have one more point. I kind of dig Iceage's music, but I don't understand the hype. What are they doing that hasn't been done already by the likes of Joy Division and the No Wave scene. Not that every new band has to reinvent music as we know it, but Iceage hardly seem to be breaking new ground.

Alexander Billet said...

I have no idea why he used which symbol on which pic, but it's still pretty fucking disturbing. And yeah, their music may resonate with folks but that doesn't mean it's groundbreaking by any stretch.

Once again, I don't think the kids in Iceage are actual fascists, but the fact that they're toying with the imagery nonetheless opens the space for people who actually are. Apparently there are reports that some of their hometown fans seig-heil the stage at their shows. That's horrifying!

Rob said...

Yeah, the seig-heiling definitely crosses the line. Any band that I would take seriously would shut that shit down immediately.

Rob said...

Just read the Raymer article and can see where you are coming from. I agree with him on the whole legitimate anger of today's youth, but to shock for shock's sake is just played out. He mentions the use of swastikas by the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux. This may have stemmed from a legitimate anger but it took a band with anger as well as vision, the Dead Kennedys, to say enough was enough and just because we're angry at the world we've been given doesn't mean we have to nihilistically or ironically adopt fascist symbols of hate. The bands that have always influenced me the most in my world-outlook, such as Dead Kennedys, Propagandhi, Anti-Flag, Public Enemy just to name a few, have always been about transforming anger into a drive to better the world. And it is because such bands have set a precedent like this, I really can't get behind the whole "fuck the world" vibe these days. People should just know better.

Alexander Billet said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly, Rob. The anger is there whether we reckon with it or not, it's just a matter of reality. But I think Raymer just uses his own cynicism as a rubber stamp and that's what makes it so damned frustrating.

I do think, however, that we can play a role in transforming the anger into action, however. And there's no real shortcut for that--we have to build a movement. Several movements actually. I truly believe that it's possible to build a force that's capable of combating the more avowedly and ideologically hateful acts of the world (Death In June for example) on the streets that can also win over the less hardened elements--like maybe even Iceage.

A little-acknowledged part of history is how Rock Against Racism played the crucial role of convincing Jimmy Pursey to take a harder stand on kicking the National Front skinheads out of Sham 69 shows. They even engaged in discussions with Johnny Rotten and convinced him to publicly admit that the swastikas were stupid and dangerous to play with. It was after the Pistols had split, so it carried less oomph, but I think that kind of engagement can be at least partially credited for the hard stance that Public Image Ltd. ended up taking against South African apartheid.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: that's the kind of force we need to build here today.