Does Veiling Artistic Statements in Obscurity Shield the Artist from Criticism?
by Brett Fairhaven
I saw At the Drive-In play for around 30 people at a bowling alley in Costa Mesa, California, in 19981. The local pin monkeys continued bowling throughout the set and outnumbered the kids there to see the band. During that same year, Refused released The Shape of Punk to Come. They broke up a few months later after playing a show to a handful of people in Harrisburg, Virginia. Fourteen years later, these two bands with remarkably similar band narratives2 reunited to play Coachella. Despite all of their similarities, Refused received a veritable shit-storm of punk rock indignation in response to their reunion, while At the Drive-In received nothing but a pat on the back.
One of the most public of the many tirades against Refused was the post-Coachella, on-stage3 hissy fit from Scott Vogel of hardcore band Terror:
“A lot of bands that come around, they do their thing, they tell you how much they care, they write their songs, they write their lyrics, [and a] couple of years later, they disappear. They disappear, they don’t go to shows, they don’t support new bands, they don’t buy demos, they don’t give a fuck about me or you. But for some reason, we give them the mighty dollar to come back and play for us, a fake shell of what they once were. And yes, I’m talking about Refused. If you wanna support Refused, that’s up to you, but I don’t support that shit.”
Clearly, this man is omniscient, but how is it possible that these Swedes were able to escape his all-seeing eye, especially when members of Refused have continued to make music with no less than four post-Refused bands4? Maybe a better question for this genius is: why did a large portion of the punk subculture stomp its collective feet over the audacity of Refused’s decision to reunite to play a giant festival while At the Drive-In escaped without any disparaging remarks regarding their intentions or any perceived impacts to the legacy of that band?
Perhaps it is because of Refused’s nasty habit of actually saying what they meant. The lyrics penned by Dennis Lyxzen of Refused were direct, incendiary, and often overtly political5 while Cedric Bixler-Zavala of At the Drive-In was oblique, symbolic, and almost Dadaist in his approach. Dennis made declarations about the world as he saw it; Cedric strung together interesting-sounding phrases. The perception of the naysayers is that Refused, and in particular Dennis, may have evolved in a manner that makes the performance of their decade-old songs a lie: a knowing and hypocritical fleecing of the audience to trick them into feeling emotions that aren’t genuine in exchange for some hard-earned cash. No one knows if Cedric had to stifle his formerly held convictions in the quest for a dollar because no one knows what the fuck most of his songs are about6.
It begs the question: are we less critical of artists who veil their feelings and opinions in obscurity? Does the smoke screen of obliqueness free an artist from the burden of criticism?
These questions aren’t limited to the realm of punk music. It seems that when any art reaches a certain threshold of obscurity in presentation or meaning beyond face value that it becomes bulletproof. We all agree to grant it reverence and awe for fear that we will be perceived as one of the unwashed masses who “just doesn’t get art.” You probably won’t get laid if you let your film school girlfriend know that you thought Drive was a vapid piece of shit with an overhyped soundtrack, or that Shame was little more than Fassbender’s cock and a generous helping of self-loathing. The flipside of this coin is the ease with which one can dismiss art that explicitly does not fit within our tidily compartmentalized worldview. Artists who have the courage (or simple-mindedness) to say what they believe will readily get the hipster glare while indirect, “deep” art will be revered for years to come.
It’s easy for some to dismiss the self-described “PC, fag-loving, communists” in Refused for things they said in their twenties because they made little attempt to veil their ideas in symbol and metaphor. Only the members of Refused really know if they feel the same way about these songs as they did when they wrote them. I couldn’t care less. I was delighted to finally get to scream along with the songs I fell in love with fourteen years ago whether or not the lyrics comport with my adult worldview. Not to mention that this narrow-minded focus on lyrical content belittles the other instrumental components and composers of a rock song, which generally have more visceral impact than words attached to them.
As long as Coachella allows the sending of transmissions with one-armed scissors and lavender brides smothered in black turpentine, we are content to assume that Cedric “stayed true” to the ideals of his youth. Thom Yorke probably didn’t wake up sucking a “ley-mohn” yesterday, but that doesn’t mean everything isn’t in its right place. And any questions pertaining to the veracity of the new noise of decades past were laid to rest when five foreigners in their early forties took the stage with the fury and volume of youth. Dennis doesn’t need to ask our permission to scream.
1 Footage of this show can be seen here.
2 See the chart below.
3 Not only on-stage, but during the Groezrock festival, which Refused also played.
4 TEXT, The (International) Noise Conspiracy, The Lost Patrol Band/Invasionen, and AC4.
5 Take another look at the lyrics and liner notes to The Shape of Punk to Come. It’s more a statement about artistic revolution than the “holding your burning flag in my hand as I watch your empire fall” of Songs to Fan the Flames of Discontent.
6 Don’t get me wrong. I love ATDI too, but not because I’ve gleaned any personal meaning out of the lyrical content.
|Refused||At the Drive-In|
|Hometown||Umea, Sweden||El Paso, Texas|
|Years Active||1991-1998 (8 years)||1993-2001 (9 years)|
|Number of Full-Length Albums||3||3|
|Breakthrough Album||The Shape of Punk to Come (1998)||Relationship of Command (2000)|
|Age of Vocalist at the Time of Breakthrough||26||26|
|Hairstyle of Vocalist||Purposefully-coiffed LEGO-hair||Picked-out afro|
|Vocalist Sings About||Coup d’etats, veganism, artistic revolution||Hell if I know|
About the Author
Brett Fairhaven makes an honest living by day and veiled artistic statements by night.