This Band Name Has Gone to Heaven (Viet Cong)
Yesterday, an editor at The New Republic named Ryan Kearney wrote a story called "The Internet Outrage Machine is Coming For Your Favorite Indie Rock Band." You can read that story HERE.
His central argument is a combination of the typical screed about how political correctness and social media culture beat bands into submission and empty unpopular protest of its important content.
His example of how this happens was the controversy over the name of the band Viet Cong that resulted in them agreeing to change their name back in October of 2015 (I wrote about the controversy then, you can read my story on it HERE).
The reason this has become important again is, the band formerly known as "Viet Cong" officially changed to the new, and uninspiring, band name "Preoccupations." His argument all breaks down to this statement:
"But punk rock is supposed to piss people off, even insult them, and rarely are its politics nuanced. Thus: Joy Division, Gang of Four, Dead Kennedys, and so many other great bands whose names today are deemed “unacceptable."
And, in fairness to Mr. Kearney, Andy Gill (Gang of Four) agreed with his point back when all of this actually took place (you can read that article HERE). There is only one problem, the band Viet Cong were not forced to change their name because of Political Correctness or because of the "Internet Outrage Machine."
To be 100% candid, they were not "forced" to change the name at all, and they had every right to make a defense of its propriety.
Free Speech Is Hard Work
I wrote about this a bit earlier in the week in the Billy Corgan post.
I know from personal experience how much it hurts when the social media world turns against you or piles on. But, nothing about that onslaught is inevitable. And it certainly was not inevitable in the case of Viet Cong (or Preoccupations). The members of Preoccupations had every opportunity to defend the name and/or give the finger to the people protesting the name.
As I remember it, a few people had written blog posts about being offended by the name (the first blogger posted in reference to VC getting a Juno award maybe?) so a smart reporter asked the band why they chose the name, the band made some pretty silly and poorly thought through answers (our bassist would level the bass like a machine gun and we suggested he should put on a "rice hat" - or something like that).
When someone makes thoughtful arguments about your band name, they are utilizing their right to free speech too. You, or your representatives, have every right to respond with counter-speech. It is possible the critic was not right, or that VC had a good reason to stick with the name. You are presenting what happened as if the internet exploded on Preoccupations so they just folded under the pressure.
If the internet exploded it was because of the response to the critique, not the critique itself.
If you have listened to the band, they make a decent amount of military references and feature a cold post-apocalyptic post-punk sound. I had always assumed it was a commentary or reference to western military hegemony. It never even occurred to me it was not chosen for ironic or meaningful reasons. But hell, this doesn't even have to be a "correct politics" name check at all, there are a million ways they could have leveraged their counter-speech without saying something as poorly thought-through as what they came up with.
The original critical blogger (another area band member as I recall) simply made a better argument against the name than Preoccupations made in defending their name. This is exactly how the marketplace of ideas is supposed to work. Everyone had a chance to speak, one argument was better than the other argument. And even with that, the band still had every right to keep the name and just accept the protests that might accompany continuing to play with that moniker.
The band had every right to respond and they had the right to keep the name, what exactly was the problem here?
Unless what you are saying is asking questions about the name in the first place was inappropriate? Did that offender (or curious) blogger not also have the right to question the name in the first place? Does Free Speech only exist for post-punk bands that you like?
And I say this despite being a huge fan of the band in question, and as someone who cannot believe they took almost six months to come up with "Preoccupations" as a replacement name.
BTW, Japandroids have a less incendiary answer to why they chose the name:
"Japandroids found their name via compromise — King wanted to go with “Pleasure Droids,” Prowse lobbied for “Japanese Scream,” a reference to a Kings of Leon lyric."
I also suspect Jello Biafra would have had a better answer to questions about why they chose to parody Kennedys death. Both Peter Hook and Bernard Sumner have spoken at length about Joy Divisions poor judgment in regards to Nazi references. Notice that neither of them defended that the use of the name was anything other than childish on their parts (and are you saying they would not have been a great band with a different name?).
At the end of the day, being counterfactually deprived of an iconic band name does not mean that you would be deprived of the band or the music. It also doesn't mean that just because Preoccupations is a bad name that Joy Division would have also come up with a bad replacement name.
It seems like the content of your argument is "who cares if those are bad names, they sound cool, and punk is about saying bad stuff."
I suspect your argument is more sophisticated than that, so here are some questions from me to you.
Questions For The New Republic
I guess my first question is why you think the honest criticisms of the name were so invalid that they should not have been raised? I understand people's phobias around social justice warriors surrounding them in swarms and beating them down, but I don't see this happened in this case.
Why was it wrong for people to make the arguments that Kearney detailed? Like:
"Some people found the name offensive because the Viet Cong, the military wing of the National Liberation Front, committed atrocities during the Vietnam War (though that applies to all sides in that conflict). Others felt that it was “appropriative and racist” for a band of four white men to take its name from Asian culture (watch your back, Japandroids)."
And why was it wrong for Oberlin College to choose to make a business decision to cancel the show at a venue on their campus? Do businesses not get to listen to both sides and make decisions based on the information that they receive?
And maybe most important, does that mean that it was wrong for Pearl Jam or Bruce Springsteen to cancel their North Carolina concerts given their opposition to the anti-LGBTQ legislation that was passed recently in that state?
Are those North Carolina boycotts and protests different in some meaningful way?
I am not just trying to be provocative, I understand entirely people's fear of social media backlash. I just think this example does not really give meaningful voice to that fear. And I remain a fan of Preoccupations despite the (awful) new name.
Oddly enough, they have kept the name of the album Viet Cong (used to be s/t), but changed the name of the band.
What do you think of the new name "Preoccupations?" What do you think the New Republic was right and wrong about? What do you think I am right and wrong about? Let me know, leave a comment!