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.
Bear with me and I’ll explain. The pop-cultural tactic of deliberately offending people hasn’t left the artist’s toolbox since it first crept in there—which would’ve been right around the time pop culture began to exist—but it tends to be confined to the margins during good times. There’s always an audience, however small, for provocation qua provocation, which explains the ongoing existence of third-generation Big Black rip-offs screaming ugly songs about tabloid murders to rooms half full of neckbearded dudes. Similarly the pop charts have always included acts that get “concerned” parents’ drawers in knots. But during not-so-good times, objectionable content seems to get drawn further into the mainstream—for instance, the Black Monday crash of 1987, the late-80s savings and loan crisis, and the early-90s recession can all be seen as causing, not merely coinciding with, the explosive rise in the popularity of gangsta rap. Artists who appeal to countercultures almost by definition appeal to young people, and countercultural young people tend to skew leftward—or if not leftward, at least antiestablishment and anticonservative. When the establishment looks broken and conservatives go on the warpath against basically everybody else, it’s practically a given that artists like these will flourish.
Odd Future, Iceage, and Cult of Youth have all earned a lot of praise lately, not just in the blogosphere but in respectable print publications. They’ve also earned a lot of negative reviews, based not only on their music but on their toying with controversial material. On his solo cut “Tron Cat,” Odd Future ringleader Tyler, the Creator raps about torture, dismemberment, murder, and cannibalism, turning even the ugliest scenarios into glib jokes like “Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome.” Iceage’s lead singer, Elias Bender Ronnenfelt, has put out zines of feverish pen-and-ink illustrations in which race rioters and hooded figures resembling Klansmen run amok—they’re indebted to the drawings of American artist Raymond Pettibon (who did lots of artwork for his brother’s band Black Flag), not only in their controversial subject matter but in their almost complete lack of comfortably distancing irony. Cult of Youth front man Sean Ragon has said that fascism is to industrial music—and to its descendants, like the strain of postindustrial neofolk he plays—what sex is to rock ‘n’ roll. “Industrial music is music of the mind,” he told Stereogum in January, “whereas rock and roll is music of the body. It’s all pornography. Fascism is a forbidden philosophy, and forbidden philosophies titillate the mind in the same way that dirty pictures titillate the body.” (He’s also gone on record saying he’s not a proponent of fascism as a political movement.)
None of this is new—Eminem, Black Flag, and Throbbing Gristle, respectively (among many other acts that now enjoy critical acclaim), have done almost exactly what these three young artists are doing. What needs explaining isn’t the existence of musicians playing around with taboo subjects but rather the sudden flood of attention paid to some of them. Is it true that more of this sort of thing sticks to the wall, so to speak, during rough political or economic periods? Are such subjects more attractive to more sophisticated artists at such times, and thus more likely to end up in widely discussed music?
In the Reader‘s guide to the Pitchfork Music Festival, I wrote about Odd Future, saying that “no one would care what they were saying if they weren’t very good at what they’re doing, which they are.” Which I still feel is true. But maybe it would be closer to the truth to say that no one would care if the group weren’t obviously striking all sorts of chords with listeners, including many who know better.
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 the countercultural creative class—who make up a lot of the audience for Iceage and Cult of Youth as well as Odd Future—has been slow to feel the impact of the war, poverty, famine, and other terrible things happening around it. Because its values and tastes have been co-opted—indie rock turns up in international ad campaigns, for instance, and the handmade DIY aesthetic has become fashionable at the highest levels—it’s easy for its members to slip into a “we won” frame of mind, abandoning the adversarial position that artists traditionally maintain toward the mainstream. It’s similar to what kept hippies’ spirits up well into the mid-70s. 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.
No wonder Odd Future—just barely past adolescence—chant “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school.” No wonder so many teenagers tried to bum-rush the gates during their set at Pitchfork. No wonder those words click with so many people. It’s the same thing as “Fuck tha Police,” which was the same thing as “Anarchy in the U.K.”—free-floating anxiety distilled into the brutal, abrasive pop music that it deserves.
Iceage’s vaguely skinhead-thug stage outfits and frequent use of runes in promotional materials—a subtle reference to the white-supremacist movement—have provoked plenty of accusations of racism. But to my eyes these gestures are in the tradition of the Sex Pistols and Siouxsie Sioux prancing around London wearing swastikas—young people playing around with loaded imagery to piss off everyone who’s not already as angry as they are. In Denmark these images are maybe more loaded than elsewhere, making Iceage’s adoption of them more pointed. Muslims, most of them Arabs, now make up an estimated 4 percent of Denmark’s population, a figure that many white natives consider tantamount to an invasion. Anti-Muslim xenophobia has been a part of the Danish political conversation since the 90s, and the staunchly anti-Muslim Danish People’s Party is the third largest in the country—since 2001 it’s enjoyed outsize influence in return for throwing its numbers behind the ruling Liberal-Conservative coalition. (Members of Iceage claim to be staunchly antiracist themselves, and the band’s drummer is Jewish.)
Of course using this imagery is in bad taste—that’s most of the point. And it’s not without its dangers—some of the group’s hometown fans in Copenhagen sieg-heil the stage, and it’s hard not to imagine that at least a few aren’t doing so entirely ironically. I wonder if the members of Iceage might one day feel what John Lydon must have felt when Skrewdriver’s “White Power” came out in 1983.
I can’t condone drawing swastikas on shit—I have some pessimistic ideas about people, including the belief that it’s easy for them to be indoctrinated, even by accident—but I understand why it might make sense to a young fan of Iceage or Odd Future (who are well-known for drawing swastikas on shit). It’s an almost instinctive response to being handed a planet in the sort of condition ours is in right now. Given the cultish fan bases growing up around both acts and the number of others already following their lead, I’d say that the artists defining the face of young music are going to be screaming “fuck the world” for the foreseeable future.
I don’t blame them. And if history has proved anything, they’re going to be the artists most worth writing about.
E-mail Miles Raymer at email@example.com.