In a post-racial world, what does racism look like? The question was taken up in the “Hipster racism” article that got kicked around Twitspace and Facebook for a few weeks this Spring. In it, Lindy West argued that, despite their alleged intent, hipsters are not skewering the antiquated concept of racism by treating it as a joke. Remember the “She’s a Witch” scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail? That’s what ironic racism thinks it’s doing. Instead, West says, when they try to “prove [they]’re not racist by acting as casually racist as possible” they end up “just being regular racist” [emphasis mine].
The article generated resistance and support from the parties one might anticipate. Post-racialists decried her article for not getting the joke, while the radical Left blogosphere sarcastically golf-clapped while pointing out that West’s was hardly a new revelation. Bitch Magazine, for example, points to a 2006 Racialicious post that calls hipster racists to task, mainly for insensitive cultural/ethnic appropriation. As the Bitch article concedes, West did perhaps bring a salient-if-old idea to a new audience. Taking that line of reasoning a step further, Channing Kennedy’s Color Lines article calls exquisite attention to an even older progenitor to West: Lester Bangs’ “White Noise Supremacy” (ca 1979). In it, Bangs addresses the damage done by the ironic racism bubbling around the punk rock scene in 1970s New York.
“What makes you think the racism in punk has anything special about it that separates it from the rest of the society?” asked [Bangs’ bandmate].
“Because the rest of society doesn’t go around acting like racism is real hip and
cool,” I answered heatedly.
“Oh yeah,” he sneered. “Just walk into a factory sometime. Or jail.”
All right. Power is what we’re talking about, or the feeling that you don’t have any, or how much ostensible power you can rip outta some other poor sucker’s hide. It works the same everywhere, of course, but one of the things that makes the punk stance unique is how it seems to assume substance or at least style by the abdication of power: Look at me! I’m a cretinous little wretch! And proud of it!
So, even if punk-racism wasn’t different in function from factory-floor-racism, it was different in style. So, the performance of punk-racism had the same deleterious effects on the POCs who were on the receiving end of the epithets but the punk gained sub-cultural capital within the punk scene for his performance of ostensible powerlessness and marginality.
Kinetik Festival 5.0
My scene has long been industrial/goth/darkwave in which discussion of race politics is quite rare (largely, I presume, because it is so homogeneously white). When it does come up, it is usually in response to the use of fascist imagery in clothing styles or content in lyrics. In the 1990s and 2000s much was made of Laibach’s deployment of fascism to critique the repressive practices in the ostensibly democratizing Slovenian state. More recently, critics have focused their attention on the de-politicized employment of fascist symbols used by Electronic Body Music (EBM) and Techno Body Music (TBM) acts. For those not “in the know” TBM adopts the simplistic, repetitive melodic lines from EBM and add an overt, aggressive sexuality from some flavors of party techno. This is not to assert that EBM was devoid of sexuality. Certainly bands like Deutsch Amerikanischer Freundschaft (putative founders of the EBM sound) played explicitly on sexuality. What is different with TBM is the overt depiction of misogynist aggression and militaristic force.
Which brings us to Jairus Khan’s (Ad.ver.sary) “We Demand Better” video at this year’s kinetik festival which leveled accusations of hipster-fascism, hipster-homophobia, and hipster-misogyny against (in particular) festival-mates Combichrist and Nachtmahr. The video which accompanied Ad.ver.sary’s performance of “Friends of Father” included lyrics, video clips, and still images as prima facie evidence of Combichrist and Nachtmahr’s irresponsible connection to misogyny and fascism. The video opens with the statement:
This is a public service announcement
Regarding the use of racist and sexist imagery
By two of tonight’s performers
The video then shows images from Nachtmahr’s Alles Lust will Ewigkeit in which a woman in military uniform moves to expose her left breast while placing a pistol between her parted lips and Can You Feel the Beat which features a woman with black eyes and a bleeding nose placing a bloody baseball bat between her parted lips. In contrast to “Friend of Father’s atmospheric, IDM feel, the video goes on to display scenes from Combichrist’s “Get Your Body Beat” in which several men menace and beat two mostly nude women in a hotel room. It also quotes lyrics from “Give Head if You Got it”– All you feminist cunts you know that you want it. Give head if you got it.
I Die, You Die interviewed both Andy LaPlegua (Combichrist) and Thomas Rainer (Nachtmahr) at Kinetik, asking for their reactions to the video. In his defense, LePlegua offers irony: “In Combichrist, for my sake, I always did it as a fictional character… It was a storyline, something I was doing as a comic book character kind of thing.” LePlegua’s evasion aside, the video really locates some legitimate grounds for critique but most of them really aren’t too surprising to most of us. Of course, that might be the point: the cynicism activated as we say “Of course the industrial scene is in bed with fascism– hasn’t Laibach been telling us that since 1990?” is part of the problem! As though living out a Susan Sontag premonition, the cynics’ failure to be shocked by the scene’s fascism allows the heedless hipster-fascist to operate without self-reflection. Enter Thomas Rainer, frontman of Nachtmahr.
It’s like we say in the intro of our show: “You have enemies. Good. That means you have stood up for something in your life.” Some people can be critical of your stuff, but I think the industrial scene has been far too tame in the last years. The industrial scene is rooted in the punk scene, to stir up shit, to be controversial. It’s been all about that. And most of all the industrial scene has been too mainstream and trying to adapt to political correctness and all that bullshit for far too long. It’s like the movie “Se7en”, there’s a quote, “It’s not enough to whisper in people’s ears anymore, you have hit them with a sledgehammer.”
Rainer’s invocation of the punk scene has more gas in the tank than he perhaps intended. Lester Bangs’ critique of the racism (particularly anti-black) in the New York punk confronted an identical attitude. In response, Bangs flatly rejected the sensationalist impulse of violating racist taboo for its own sake:
swastikas in punk are basically another way for kids to get a rise out of their parents and maybe the press, both of whom deserve the irritation. To the extent that most of these spikedomes ever had a clue on what that stuff originally meant, it only went so far as their intent to shock. “It’s like a stance,” as Ivan [Julian, guitarist for the Voidoids] says. “A real immature way of being dangerous.”
But, unlike Ivan Julian, Bangs is not so quick to dismiss the use of swastikas as merely “juvenile.” Maybe it starts out that way, he muses, but “after a while this casual, even ironic embrace of the totems of bigotry crosses over into the real poison.” The article is replete with examples of bands and artists (including Bangs himself) employing racist epithets in the name of creative expression, only to have the words shouted back at them without irony. Recalling his own casual use of the word “nigger” in a Lenny-Bruce-inspired attempt to free the word of its racist bonds, Bangs reflects that his plan might have had the opposite effect:
I first noticed it the first time I threw a party. The staff of Punk magazine came, as well as members of several of the hottest CBGB’s bands, and when I did what we always used to do at parties in Detroit—put on soul records so everybody could dance—I began to hear this: “What’re you playing all that nigger disco shit for, Lester?”
“That’s not nigger disco shit,” I snarled, “that’s Otis Redding, you assholes!” But they didn’t want to hear about it, and now I wonder if in any way I hadn’t dug my own grave, or at least helped contribute to their ugliness and the new schism between us.
Laplegua notices a similar response to his own “Combichrist character” as fans miss the irony of his performance. Rather than seeing it as theater or social critique, fans, to his dismay, have taken him seriously:
I don’t have anything bad to say about [Jairus] at all. I think it’s cool what he’s doing, and he can get some awareness to people who I think took these things maybe seriously when it was meant as some kind of a parody, and little bit of irony and as a character. Suddenly you have people walking around in the scene and they’re dressed the part and behave like that because they think maybe we thought it was cool, but that was never the point. You see people dressing up, I don’t wanna say it badly, but like strippers and going like “oh, I’m a slut” and that’s never what we intended to do. It’s all like fan-fiction.
By the end of his interview, Andy Laplegua finds himself in a place similar to Bangs’, and even suggests that he will be taking a new direction with the band to head off inadvertently promoting something he does not believe in. While Laplegua was largely critiqued for being misogynistic, the fascistic overtones of Nactmahr’s performances bring race to the fore. Rainer is far less introspective about the possibility of inadvertent malfeasance, doubling down on his punk-rock edginess argument in a second longer interview with I Die: You Die. He claims that rancorous critique is simply part of being in the music industry. Such critique is not something that needs to trigger reflection:
I’ve been in this business a long time. If you’re taking the risk of having a controversial image and being in a controversial band that’s just what you signed up for… Being a professional musician for more than 12 years, I do it for a living, criticism on any level is something you signed up for, it’s part of your job. You have to stick with it, and find if there’s anything in that criticism that is valid for yourself which can make you improve as a human being or as musician, or not. It’s nothing I took personally, it’s nothing I took great offense to. I’m used to getting flack. It’s something I do on purpose to be different, to make my voice heard louder.
Arguing that criticism is a sign that he is doing something right as a performer, Rainier dismisses the possibility that it might be warranted. Rainer contends that his message is apolitical:
I’m not a political person as an artist. I think politics [should] have nothing to do with music. Politics are something everyone has to do in private. I vote for a party in a booth, it’s your private thing. Music should not be used as a vehicle for political beliefs, in any way, left, right, or whatever.
Anna Theresa DeMeo, a performer in Nachtmahr’s live show goes a step further:
Ad·ver·sary had a very blunt political statement about what they thought about [Combichrist and Nachtmahr]. What they don’t understand is that this isn’t a political festival. Like, where’s Consolidated when you need them? *laughter* I can understand where they’re coming from and I’m sure they wanted to get their point across because they wanted to be like Genesis P’Orridge or Jello Biafra, make that punk rock point and out the elephant in the room. You shouldn’t make a point to a general mass of people who are there to hear music and support music. That kind of political statement makes everyone go “What?”
This, then, seems to mark a crucial difference in between the white supremacy Bangs observed in 1979 and Nachtmahr’s use of fascist iconography as an example of the hipster racism of the 21st century. For the punks of Bangs’ era, there was a clear sense that they were making political statements with their flamboyant racism; Bangs refers to it jokingly as a “Cretin’s Lib” movement. Conversely, Thomas Rainer, in an inversion of the feminist axiom, argues that “the political is personal” and thus any statement he makes should have no political import. Rather than defend his right to extremist expression under the aegis of free political expression (as Lenny Bruce or the young Lester Bangs might have done), he defends his adoption of a seemingly fascist aesthetic in terms of business and his history of military service. This, I feel, is the true irony of Rainer’s troublesome engagement with fascism. Despite his use of punk rock as a warrant for extreme imagery, his organizational logics could hardly be further removed from the punk ethos. Taking critique not as an opportunity for evaluation of the effect he is having on the political landscape, Rainer simply takes on the role of the foil to Bangs’ argument.
Getting Your Kicks
Leplegua, like Bangs, became conflicted by the fact that, on one one hand Combichrist was really fun and, on the other, it was making the world darker rather than brighter. As Bangs’ notes, that is the “primal fact” of chaotic, extreme scenes like TBM or punk:
suddenly you may find yourself imprisoned and suffocated by the very liberation from cant, dogma, and hypocrisy you thought you’d achieved. That sometimes—usually?—you’ll find that you don’t know where to draw the line until you’re miles across it in a field of land mines. Like wanting the celebration of violent disorder that was the Sex Pistols, ending up with Sid and Nancy instead, yet realizing the next day that you still want to hear Sid sing “Somethin’ Else” and see The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, and not just because you want to understand this whole episode better but to get your kicks. These are contradictions that refuse to be resolved, which maybe is what most of life eventually amounts to.
For Bangs, punk rock embodies the fundamental conflict within a free society and adapts it to the specific nihilism of late 20th century youth culture. He does not advocate resolving the conflict by either divesting himself of responsibility or by giving up on the party. Instead, he argues that life is about sitting in that eternal conflict between “getting your kicks” and making sure that the drug-fueled orgy doesn’t lead to good people dying. Andy LePlegua lands somewhere pretty nearby.
Thomas Rainer, on the other hand, does resolve the conflict–specifically by denying responsibility for the shit he stirs up. Through an ironic dispassion and appeals to “punk rock amorality,” Rainer denies the conflict altogether, which is too bad. People like Bangs are certainly not arguing that we need to give up the on big, stupid spectacles that promote “cretinous” values. Instead, Bangs says, we need to be conflicted about the world; talk about it; argue about it; make music about it. This is, in fact, precisely what Jairus set out to do with “We Demand Better”: “I’d rather speak to the audience and start a conversation with them about why we accept and embrace the images that we do.” That is to say, Jairus is the one who takes up the flag of punk rock with his explicitly political invitation to try to imagine and build (and demand!) a better future.
1- hipster: An amorphous category of young adults defined primarily by their inability to be defined due to their infamous (alleged) refusal to commit to anything un-ironically. This, of course, make critics trained to see Hebdigean “subcultures” of ideological political resistance bluster and spasm ineffectually.
2- In an analogy I heard from some smart person, Obama’s inauguration was to racism what Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” sign was to the Iraq war.