The Right To Offend
London-based label Berceuse Heroique was recently subject to criticism following a tweet from the label’s founder that led to a wide rebuke of the label’s use of extreme imagery. In this column, author and Wire magazine contributor David Keenan compares the use of extreme aesthetics across techno, industrial and punk movements.
Popular music – call it rock ‘n’ roll, mis-label it ambient, term it post-industrial, connect it to techno, whatever you got – is essentially an adolescent art form, regardless of whether it’s made by kids or by old guys. In other words it draws on the kind of inchoate, violent, spectacular, iconoclastic genius and stupidity that characterises a particular age or mindset for much of its energy and power. When I first got wind of the storm that had somehow escalated from an idiotic tweet that Gizmo who runs the label Berceuse Heroique made about stalking a girl with “the best ass EVER” around London to a questioning of his use of fascist imagery I noted some of the terms that were being used, words like “controversial”, “problematic”, “disturbing”, “irresponsible”, “offensive”. It sounded like rock ‘n’ roll to me.
Boasting about following a woman around because of her ass makes him a dick, no more, and with that the internet should just have walked away. But that’s not what the internet does. The implication that he is just so deep down bad that he is probably a Nazi, well, it feeds the kind of Manichaeism that has overtaken certain quarters of the internet and of left-field culture in general, where a great evil, an irredeemable, programmatic ideology of hate, lurks in the shadows and must be rooted out, a sort of intellectually respectable Satanic abuse fantasy.
"Empty ambiguity has become the ultimate middlebrow art practice and one of post-modernism’s most nauseating hangovers"
Now, the supposed evidence for the linking of straightforward asshole behaviour to being a fully-fledged fascist nutcase would seem to hang on the dubious inserts that regularly accompany Berceuse Heroique releases and that have featured pictures of the Nazis at the Acropolis in Greece, of the French fascist Jacques Doriot and of eugenic profiling complete with ‘ambiguous’ quotes from Philip K. Dick and Arthur C. Clarke and various news sources discussing immigration and racism. Empty ambiguity has become the ultimate middlebrow art practice and one of post-modernism’s most nauseating hangovers; dredge up a couple of shocking or controversial pictures and throw some random text at it and you have the kind of art statement that is impossible to critique because there is no thought behind it, nothing so much as a stance, yet it still passes for a statement of sorts.
I recall a conversation I had with Dominik Fernow after a show by Vatican Shadow where I asked him about his use of violent images of the American military and Middle East news reportage as a backdrop. It’s deliberately ambiguous, he explained, somewhat inevitably. That’s cheap talk, especially when married to the kind of standard issue dance music that has no connection to the imagery whatsoever and that makes it seem like, you know, fun.
Still, I understand where these guys are coming from. When groups like Throbbing Gristle and Whitehouse first opened the flood gates and loosed the adolescent id by exposing rock ‘n’ roll as essentially a system of control there was a concomitant upsurge in what I have come to term ‘night side’ imagery, pop music’s obverse, it’s dark. First wave industrial iconography took in Zyklon B gas and Nazi concentration camps alongside fantasies of the desecration of history, of serial murder and sexual violence, often without any fixed context in which to interpret their use. Almost simultaneously punk rock was engaging with these kinds of ideas but in a more straightforwardly adolescent way. Holidays In The Sun by The Sex Pistols is an incredible track, its matching of the goose-stepping, sieg-heiling rhythms, the very march of reason that had brought the world to the brink in the first place. But what about the profound stupidity of Belsen Was A Gas? What about Sid Vicious prancing around the Jewish Quarter in Paris with a swastika armband? What about Siouxsie Sioux on stage doing the same?
Yet no one has ever really questioned the Sex Pistol’s motives the way they have with Throbbing Gristle or, especially, Whitehouse. It seems to me that one of the reasons for that, outside of punk being another version of rock ‘n’ roll as a system of controlled release for these kinds of adolescent energies, is to do with lack of content. An album like Buchenwald by Whitehouse has no chords, no lyrics, no rhythms, no graphics. There is nothing to hold onto, nothing to align yourself with. It’s not ambiguous; it is very deliberately and precisely put together, but it does force you back on your own response without signposting exactly how you are supposed to react. Crucially, though, it does not attempt to aestheticise horror or mass murder or the holocaust. It’s not fun. The music is irreducibly tied up with the subject matter. It sounds as horrifying, as distressing, as barbaric as the scenario it attempts to evoke. No poetry after Buchenwald? Well, there’s no poetry here. In this, Whitehouse dare to take a stand. Yet the boneheaded Belsen Was A Gashas attracted nowhere near the level of controversy that Buchenwald has. Is it simply less horrifying?
Contemporary music does have a duty to engage with problematic, difficult, upsetting and offensive ideas and images and the use and interrogation of these images should no more imply an ideological identification with them than an actor playing a role or a novelist writing a book. But as an adolescent art form rock and pop will always have this unsettling shadow self, this disruptive demon that demands release. Look in the corner of the insert that comes with Breaker 1 2 vs Ekman’s Ratz In The Back 12” on Berceuse Heroique, the one that features a picture of Jacques Doriot. There’s a typewritten phrase that reads “Boris Is A Fuckboy”. It’s proof of Gizmo’s scattershot attempt to get a reaction, to cause some kind of cheap offence, no matter what.
But there is a right to offend just as there is a right to be offended. Rights exist to protect what ordinarily could never survive, what is most offensive, what is most off-message, most non-mainstream. There is also, crucially, a right to be irresponsible, a right to say no, to refuse pieties about the sanctity of life and the beauty of love and the achievements of democracy and the reputation of Boris Johnson, to scribble all over them with crayons, if you feel like it. Take that away and we lose some of the greatest art of the 20th Century, from Life Stinks by Pere Ubu through Suicide and Blaise Cendrars. What are we left with? Billy Bragg, Sting and The Lightning Seeds.
There is no end to revolt. Industrial music understood this. They channelled these energies rather than try to resolve them in some kind of special plan for the world. Fundamentalisms like Christianity and Islam and Nazism and Communism inherently believe that there is a future where revolt will be sated, where ‘good’ will triumph against ‘evil’, where suffering will end or where death will finally be legislated out of existence. But the urge to revolt has no goal and will never end; every teenager manifests it. Contradictorily, revolt is what animates culture and what keeps it alive. In his diaries Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Propaganda Minister, constantly bemoaned the weak, anaemic, unchallenging state of the arts under Nazi rule. What did he expect? He had attempted to crush all revolt, to silence all dissenting or ‘offensive’ voices. The arts, under that kind of control, inevitably atrophy and die. Dissonance was another thing that the Nazis despised. No noise or – cough – ‘ambient music’ under Fascism.
Gizmo from Berceuse Heroique may be a dick and his art may be weak and adolescent but so was Sid Vicious. And being a dick, too, is a right that we should protect. But we have a duty to take it further still, to actively champion truly revolting art and music, art that does not sensationalise and aestheticise horror but that is brave enough to fix its gaze on it long enough to come to some kind of terms with it.
David Keenan’s history of the post-industrial underground, England’s Hidden Reverse, is reissued this month by Strange Attractor Press