My sphere of awareness is mostly scrubbed of indie rock drama and music awards galas (thank fuck), but I'd clocked the discussion surrounding pop band Viet Cong through articles and posts popping up in friends' Facebook feeds. They're popular and were up for the Polaris Music Prize on Monday night so it's been an active topic.
There was a revealing juxtaposition in the media last week between CBC Radio host and Polaris Jurist's Grant Lawrence's defence of the band via frumpy false equivalence in a leaked email -- stating that if you've ever listened to Dead Kennedys you should basically shut up -- and Desmond Cole's new column in the Toronto Star. Cole argued that the real challenge for opponents of social inequity in Canada is to identify and extinguish the "subtle, mundane expressions" of bigotry, which he argues are ubiquitous and damaging.
Viet Cong's decision to name their self-described "non-political" band after a particularly brutal military faction due to the racialized Hollywood stereotypes through which they came to understand it, is a good example of the casual and latent ignorance Cole points out. The band saw Viet Cong soldiers as "dark" and "explosive" like their music. In a pretty cringey interview with the Guardian, their drummer recalls the genesis of the name in reference to the bass player holding his instrument like a gun "All you need is a rice paddy hat and it would be so Viet Cong."
According to a recent statement, they have decided to eventually rename the band, under pressure from fans, journalists and other musicians and people in the music community.
It's cool that people decided to speak up against a clear case of tastelessness. Criticism from other artists and journalists has been mostly good, but braided with a problematic notion about what should or shouldn't be considered off-limits to artists. April Aliermo's piece in Exclaim entitled "Not Yours to Play With" suggests the essence of their error is due a lack of cultural license and proximity to the trauma of the Vietnam War. She calls out "white men who have named themselves after something to which they have no tangible emotional or socio-political connection." A public letter published by Impose Magazine echoes that sentiment by explaining their unacceptable use of the Viet Cong imagery, "ripped by a rock group who does not -- and cannot -- identify with it, and emptied of its meaning, is unacceptable no matter what the reasoning behind it is."
I understand the intention but, as an artist, find their argument absolutist and subtly regressive. It favours enforcing taboos premised on cultural membership over simply criticizing failed, invalid art -- essentially an ancestral 'permission culture'. The problem with this particular group of guys isn't that they invoked the Vietnam War at all, it's that they did it for a really shitty reason.
To suggest that any subject matter be restricted to any artist is a low-key expression of censorship and should be resisted. Politically sensitive, controversial imagery needs to be available; to declare it off-limits infantilizes the role of music and art, and our expectations from it. Offensive imagery has fueled lots of important music and art over the years so it's important to delineate legitimate versus frivolous use. Actually, this topic is a bit of a personal fixation for me -- as a (more or less) positive person who has spent most of my life involved with extreme music.
There are lots of examples of controversial imagery being used by cultural outsiders as a device in artistically valid ways. With Swans, Michael Gira often channels different victim experiences to address issues of control and power, with songs like "Raping a Slave," "Hanging," etc.
Groups from the 1980s' power electronics movement like Whitehouse, Genocide Organ and Ramleh used neo-Fascist and oppressive imagery in satirical and ironic ways both as outright statements of protest and examinations of human tendencies towards transgression (especially in positions of power).
During the germination of punk in London, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm Mclaren slapped swastikas and fascist imagery all over their designs as both statements of anti-fascist provocation and unsubtle reminders of historical ties between the English aristocracy and Nazi Germany.
It's important to criticize failed, invalid art -- especially when it lapses into something truly offensive -- but the idea of selectively banning certain subject matter for certain people is not the answer. The broader issue of cultural appropriation is a hot topic in music and art circles these days and identifying the point at which sampling/borrowing/inspiration becomes stealing can be delicate. It's something we should all be thinking about. A lot of the projects I've worked on are informed by sounds, communities and aesthetics to which I have no connection. I try my best to be informed and genuine, and have a detached, humble sense of how my work relates to the thing it is referencing.
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