From Anal Cunt to Cerebral Ballzy, there have always been bands whose names provoke a reaction, especially in the punk and hardcore scenes. Shock tactics and strong political statements are often at the heart of art—and, more cynically, marketing plans—but lately, several bands have been causing a backlash for the overtones of cultural and political appropriation evoked by their names. Prostitutes, Girl Band, and Viet Cong—who played at FADER FORT last week—all make very different music (techno, noise, and rock respectively) but the one thing they have in common is that they're all made up of white men. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they've been at the centre of the discussion, with Viet Cong even having a recent university show cancelled by a promoter who deemed their name "offensive." (The Calgary band have since issued a statement claiming they were "naive" in choosing their name and "never meant to trivialize the atrocities or violence that occurred on both sides of the Vietnam war.")
Arguably most controversial, though, are the white male English garage-punk duo Slaves, not to be confused with a US pop metal band of the same name (also white men). Last summer Samantha Urbani of Friends tweeted: "Wait there's a band called Slaves made up entirely of white men, the only demographic who have never been systematically enslaved? Gross." As the band's popularity has grown, others have also been vocal online about the racialized implications of the band's name.
While band names like Anal Cunt clearly set out to shock, names like Slaves are problematic without necessarily intending offense; which leads to the question, when it comes to choosing what to call your own personal artistic project, is it ever possible to go too far?
Over the phone, Laurie Vincent, the 21-year-old vocalist and guitarist of Slaves, tells me that criticism of his band name has come as a surprise to him and drummer Isaac Holman. He describes how he and Holman chose the name while trying to think of "an abrasive sounding word, like Clash." The aim was to sound aggressive, but not to offend. "We just liked the word. We weren't trying to provoke."
In Vincent's opinion, criticisms of Slaves amount to attempts at censorship of linguistic and artistic expression. "Someone once wrote on our Facebook wall, 'Nobody but African Americans have a right to use the word slaves,'" he recalls. "Obviously, lots of words have two meanings—if you said 'I feel like a slave at work' or 'I'm a slave to the routine,' that's not being disrespectful to the slave trade. You have to use words, or you're just going to be scared of everything. We live in a society already where people are terrified of the way they act being interpreted, and it's just getting harder." He goes on to say that band names that have a specific political allusion, such as Joy Division or New Order, are more harmful than a general noun like "Slaves."
"We just liked the word. We weren't trying to provoke."—Slaves
Viet Cong fall into this category, as does seminal post-punk group Gang of Four, who are named after a political faction of the Chinese Communist Party that was prominent during Mao Zedong's reign. Speaking on the Viet Cong controversy, Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill expressed similar views on censorship to Brooklyn Vegan, stating that to punish a band for their choice of name is an "illiberal, undemocratic and anti-progressive" move. Vincent goes as far as to call it Orwellian: "I don't think anyone should be able to censor art," he tells me. "I don't think that I would agree with a band calling themselves Hitler, or an actual derogatory term...but as soon as you start censoring what people can and can't do then it's all becoming 1984."
In George Orwell's 1984, legislation on "thoughtcrime" means that citizens can be convicted for having thoughts that go against the status quo of the dystopian ruling party. But the "thoughtcrime" that Vincent is describing is one policed by the people: the band see the backlash online, but they are not censored in the media. The duo have just wrapped a UK tour with NME magazine, and at the time of writing are playlisted on BBC Radio 1. Vincent invokes this fact in defense of his band's name: "I feel like we've proved our point—if we can be played on the radio and we can be on MTV, then we obviously haven't gone far enough to upset the powers that be."
But if a name can be said on the radio, does that make it okay? New York-based hardcore band Perfect Pussy regularly have their name censored on the radio to "Perfect P," but singer Meredith Graves tells me she doesn't see how her band name could be construed as offensive. "We've seen white men in a band called Slaves, we've seen all-male bands called Girl Band," she says. "We see people doing garbage human shit every day, and I feel like they get less shit for it than I do for having the word 'pussy' in my band name."
Controversial band names may actually be more appealing to the "powers that be" that Vincent describes. For British artist Matt Farthing, best known as Stay+, releasing his music under the name Christian AIDS in 2011 came about "to bring attention to the project." He talks self-effacingly over the phone about the night in the pub that the name was conceived: he and his friends talked about the hot bands of the moment—namely Cerebral Palsy, Fuck Buttons, and Holy Fuck—and decided, "all we need to be a successful band is some obnoxious name."
"The thing that [a name like Christian AIDS] tells people is that you're anti-establishment, anti-music industry," says Farthing. "But in actual fact, we were pretty easy-going." He found that the managers and labels he met with were keen to embrace that anti-establishment ideal more than the band were. One potential manager suggested they change everything—including their sound—except the name. "We'd go to these meetings where everyone was just trying so hard to be like, 'Yeah, fuck everything, man!'" he says. "I was completely bemused."
But Farthing soon learnt that while the name made industry insiders rub their hands with glee, the real impact of his provocation was very human. When the band and their entourage were backstage at a French festival in 2011, they were joined by a member of Holy Shit! (Farthing can't remember which). "He was really friendly at first, but I think he was just super pissed off that we were called Christian AIDS," he says. "He was like, 'Do you actually know anyone with AIDS?' And I was like 'Uh...no.' I felt like such an idiot." From there, things escalated quickly. "[The Holy Shit! musician] looked right at my girlfriend, and one of my mates, both of whom are black, and he said 'How would you feel if I started a band called N*gger Holocaust?'" After that, Farthing says the exchange "nearly turned into a fist fight," but in retrospect, it left him with his tail between his legs. "How hypocritical of us to get upset about him saying that, but want to fool around calling ourselves Christian AIDS," he reflects. "That was a turning point." Shortly afterwards, the band were served a cease-and-desist order by British charity Christian Aid. Being forced to drop the moniker left Farthing "kind of relieved."
"These are adult humans we're talking about, who are kicking and screaming because they don't get to say a fun word. Whatever dude, that's so weak."—Perfect Pussy
When I asked Vincent what he say if he was confronted by someone who took offense to his band name, the Slaves' frontman is unsure of how he'd go about it. "I would ask them why," he says. "If I met a slave now, and they were really offended, I'd understand. The slave trade is abolished, [but] it's still going on. The people that are being enslaved today are different—there's a modern type of underground slavery." That said, he still doesn't think "the word can be related to one meaning." Perhaps Slaves haven't given much thought to a defense because they've never been challenged in real life. Vincent says all of the criticism has come to them via Twitter, and is "not worth engaging with" because it's made by people who he says "just want to make people feel bad, and they don't ever write anything positive."
For Farthing, though, being confronted in person gave him a new outlook. This year, he's launched a new project with a deliberately ambiguous name, FAIK, however he still believes in artistic freedom. "I think a world in which you weren't allowed to have an offensive name like Christian AIDS…[would not be] a nice-looking world artistically," he says. "Just the act of going around pissing people off is almost art in itself. But, at the same time, you've got to accept that some guy is going to come up to you and take offence, and you're going to feel like shit. Then you've got to think about how many people you're making feel like shit just from the existence of your little joke, and how important it is to you."
For Graves, it's crucial to not only bear in mind how many people you might be hurting, but who that demographic you're hurting actually are. If your band name carries a reference or slur directed at those more marginalized than yourself, without including their voices, what message are you sending to them? "Music fans come from every walk of life and every part of the world," she says. "It's easy to not be racist. You just unlearn crappy things you were raised with, and you don't do racist things, and you just make an effort to be a palatable, tolerable adult human." Speaking on Slaves, she says: "These are adult humans we're talking about, who are kicking and screaming because they don't get to say a fun word. Whatever dude, that's so weak."
It's not so much about top-down censorship, believes Graves, as it is about "collective responsibility to stand up to crappy behavior and make the world a better place." That responsibility arguably falls none heavier than on privileged people in a position of visibility and influence. "The world at large is racist and sexist and transphobic and homophobic and classist and disgusting," says Graves. "You don't need to be like the rest of the world."
Photo credit: Slaves press photo
March 27th, 2015: This article has been amended to reflect that the band that Matt Farthing was confronted with at a French festival in 2011 was Holy Shit!, not Fuck Buttons. Farthing misremembered the band name. Apologies to Fuck Buttons.