On this blog I’ve shied away from addressing much about industrial music, because despite my history as an industrial/goth club kid in the 90’s, Null Device hasn’t really been making that sort of music for about 15 years, despite getting associated with it through our friendships with Caustic, Sensuous Enemy, Electronic Saviors, etc.
I have very fond memories of my days bouncing around the industrial clubs, dancing with abandon to Front242 and Haujobb and Mentallo and the Fixer. I spent literally thousands of dollars over the years accumulating rare import versions of Laibach CDs and Coil 12” singles. I was pretty into it for a while. After a while I kind of grew apart from it. I didn’t want to make that kind of music myself, and the new club sounds stopped grabbing me by the brainstem. Sure, I liked the odd futurepop song and found This Morn Omina and iVardensphere interesting, but my tastes changed. It happens. I still kept up with what’s going on with the scene, to an extent.
Consequently I was intrigued when Ad-Ver-Sary displayed their “Public Service Announcement” about the racism/sexism implied in the videos, lyrics and cover art of Combichrist and Nachtmahr at Kinetik this weekend. Given that the headliners were, in fact, Combichrist and Nachtmahr, that was a pretty bold move. Their video was well-produced, and made some interesting points, and I give them props for having some cojones to do that to a likely hostile crowd. Plus, I think it’s high time someone talked openly about the sort of casual misogyny and violent imagery that crops up in industrial music. Maybe it was a calculated publicity stunt, and some people are getting bent out of shape about it – but seriously, complaining about controversy and drama at an industrial show is like complaining that a punk show is too loud.
Anyway, it’s caused quite a stir in the industrial scene.
I think, unfortunately, that the discussion that resulted has kind of focused on the wrong things. There’s a lot of gainsaying about what CC and NM mean with their videos, and lyrics, and imagery. Is Andy LaPlegua a sexist? A racist? Is Thomas Ranier a nazi? Communist? Yes? No? I don’t think that’s the right set of questions, and focuses too much on a few individuals and not the larger themes. They’re valid questions, I’m sure, but not really at the heart of the issue. The question is “why do we have to ask those questions in the first place? Why isn’t it clear what they’re trying to say (or even if they’re trying to be deliberately ambiguous)?” It’s become impossible to contextualize the depicted misogyny, the violence, that fascist look-n-feel – and without that context, you can’t tell if they’re trying to be shock-value ironic, make some pro-or-anti statement, or if maybe they’re just a bunch of jerks.
It’s certainly possible it’s all attempts at shock-value. Industrial music grew out of performance shock-art, and Throbbing Gristle took that to the limits of the day, toying with ideas of sexuality, consumerism, etc. Even the name “industrial” music was coined as sort of an artistic statement about art-as-a-commodity. This sort of thing attracted other “outsider” artists – your Neubautens, your Laibachs, your SPK’s and DAFs and so forth. Most of these bands also had very clear artistic statements to make, and usually did it through some sort of shock value – Neubauten’s found-sound-as-music, Laibach’s co-opting of fascist imagery to make antifascist statements, Skinny Puppy making animal rights protests by dousing themselves in fake blood while singing about vivisection, etc. When this stuff first hit, it was pretty damned risky. Shocking in the extreme.
The problem is, once you shock, you can’t unshock and do it again. So all these tropes that defined what industrial music and culture was and is over time became cliches. Laibach’s antifascism becomes “guys wearing wehrmacht-ish uniforms”, Neubauten’s spanner-in-the-watertower percussion becomes “lots of bands with power tools onstage”, Coil’s ambiguous sexuality somehow becomes “half-naked goth kids in bondage gear.” Once it’s diluted like that, it stops being shocking, and if it stops being shocking, then it’s not making a statement. And if it’s not making a statement, it’s just random apparently-sexist-or-racist imagery.
Sure, this just happens. It happens to any scene, really. It’s just more noticeable in a scene that’s always been predicated on being “outside the norms of society.” Let’s face it, though, it’s hard to be shocking anymore, in a world where most of us at least vaguely know what “goatse” is. Guys in nazi uniforms just look kind of sad (albeit well-tailored), not ironically edgy. Industrial and goth have been victims of their own longevity – in order to stay afloat, it’s had to define itself as being non-mainstream; being isolated from a rapidly-changing “mainstream” has also left the genre ironically artistically conservative.
So that brings us back to the Combichrists and the Nachtmahrs of the world. What does this mean for them? Well, that’s not clear, and that’s the problem. It’s doubtful any of the artists of this ilk are actual raging misogynists, racists fascists, or even violent – instead they’re just nerdy musician guys playing dressup and acting out horror movie scenes. And that’s valid, I suppose, but really only if it’s very clear that that’s the intent – after all, satire has to be distinguishable from what its satirizing. If it’s not clear, all you’ve got is this framework defined by certain thematic cliches, which if not *actual* sexism and racism, appears to be casual sexism and racism – which in many ways is worse, since everyone in the scene just ignores this. Frankly, too, it’s just not acceptable to be using racist or sexist imagery just for the sake of using racist or sexist imagery, unless there’s a very strong, very clear message to go with it. “blah blah EMPOWERMENT blah blah” isn’t good enough. If you’re going to make a statement, say something relevant. If you’re not, do something more original than just pushing the same old buttons. All this crap with sexism and fascism and violence is just yelling for attention, not some outsider commentary on society, and that’s just lazy art, and claiming it’s done “ironically” just feels like backpedalling to cover the fact that you don’t have anything interesting to say.
Should people stop using these tropes entirely? Should we censor these points of view? Of course not. There shouldn’t be a call for censorship. But there should be, and rightly is, a call for examination, and a call for originality.
The upshot of AdVerSary’s message was “we deserve better.” In some ways I don’t know if that goes far enough. We deserve new. We deserve different. We deserve to ditch some of these hoary old industrial and goth cliches. We deserve what the genre set out to do, to provide an insightful commentary on popular culture, not just claim to be “outside” it. We deserve progress. We deserve progressivism. We deserve delicious cakes and pastries.
And we deserve artists that are aware of the messages they send and stand behind them.