Perfect Pussy and the Corporate Media: Has Punk Been Co-Opted?

Perfect Pussy and the Corporate Media: Has Punk Been Co-Opted?

In most discussions about the Syracuse hardcore outfit Perfect Pussy there is the inevitable remark about how the band was thrust into the media spotlight in a matter of months, their excellent four-song EP, I have lost all desire for feeling, garnering critical attention from both small blogs and giants like Complex and Rolling Stone. Their sudden success may be an overstated fact at this point, yet, at the same time, it makes one wonder what about the band has prompted such a positive response. Perfect Pussy’s debut album, Say Yes to Love, has received critical acclaim in reviews, many of which either imply or explicitly pronounce that the band is groundbreaking, rebellious, and significant.

Says a review from Pitchfork: “Something about Say Yes to Love… speaks to the forces that make women in our society feel like they must exist in a constant state of perceived inadequacy.” From NME: “As a statement of noisy intent and underground attitude it placed them at the squealier end of Parquet Courts’ ‘zine scene…This is the chaos of protest.” And from Impose: “Perfect Pussy feels almost heroic for expressing the darkest, most vulnerable confessionals in an unabashed manner.” In each of these pieces, Perfect Pussy is framed as a fearless underdog faction whose music stands in opposition to some sort of repressive status quo. In Tiny Mix Tapes’ review of the record, Simon Chandler succinctly points out the absurdity of such praise-heavy reviews: “…Being called ‘maybe the most important punk band to come out of’ Syracuse since whoever is one fine way of polluting the appreciation of music with the tiresome compulsion to recognize ‘importance.’”

Part of what Chandler is critiquing in these reviews is their attempt to convey substance with constructions that are fairly empty, or empty enough to apply to any music. For instance, look at a line from the NME review where the the author writes: "This is the sound of giving no fucks at all. It's blink-and-you'll-miss-it-fury." Magnetic words and phrases like "giving no fucks" and "fury" are inserted into the text, but the subject of the fury is left ambiguous. The result is writing which is full of what Ayn Rand once called "floating abstractions," a use of concepts that lacks an understanding  of what the concept means in reality. These abstractions help faciliatate certain narrative shapes in writing. In Perfect Pussy reviews, that narrative shape is a hugely popular one: the story of triumph over convention or limitation.

Notably missing from many reviews of Say Yes to Love is any contextualization of the band within the long lineage of other feminist-identifying punk acts. Allusions to the album’s feminism seem incomplete without an attempt to place singer Meredith Graves’ politics within a trajectory of socially conscious music. It’s true that it is incredibly difficult to write music criticism that extends beyond simple descriptions and that evades the wording of advertisements. But to accept the role as critic in the first place requires a conviction that music is supposed to be deciphered, contextualized and scrutinized. In the Pitchfork review, Lindsay Zoladz writes, “It’s easy to be overtaken by the primal force of this music but there’s also an incentive to dig deeper.” What “digging deeper” entails is never articulated; instead, the author comments on how Graves lyrics are full of "vivid images" and "bold confessions." On the other hand, in the Tiny Mix Tapes review, the author attempts an interpretation when he says that the lyrics to “Advance Upon the Real” are talking about “spaces that haven’t yet been the appropriated by the surrounding community and redefined to suit its own ends.”

In this effort to look at the critical response to Perfect Pussy's album, it feels dishonest to discuss specific observations about the writing without connecting these observations to larger ideas about how underground culture is now represented in mass media. Perfect Pussy may be the latest band to seem to incarnate the trope of the punk band as heroic underdog, but that trope has been around for a while, and can mean very different things depending on the cultural climate in which it is invoked. Saying that Perfect Pussy are punk rock heroes means something very different today from what it meant twenty years ago. 

In 1986, Jello Biafra, the then-lead singer of the California punk rock group the Dead Kennedys, made an unlikely appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show amongst a crowd of far more conservative guests, including Tipper Gore, the leader of the Parents Music Resource Center. The subject of the talk was the censorship of music, and Biafra’s songs were among the many under attack from Gore’s organization, who sought to label albums of questionable content with “explicit” stickers. The discussion had invariably turned to the listening habits of a young person who had committed suicide. “I think it’s damaging both to a parent and to a kid to twist lyrics of a Metallica song out of context,” said Biafra, as Gore shot him an icy look. 

The relationship between music and society-- its potential to inspire suicide, drug use, premarital sex-- was a hot topic in an era that followed the 1960s and early '70s, when for a split-second it seemed like music could be a power in itself, unifying the masses against war or soundtracking political dissent. But that cultural moment had long faded away and become part of a historical narrative, one that revolved around a violent war that was fought and lost despite the anti-war rock songs that spoke of revolution. By the time Biafra and Gore sat down to chat with Oprah, society had entered the era of Reagan’s neoliberalism, which, through economic deregulation and privatization, paved the way for massive wealth inequality. A fair amount of social control was required to maintain such a state of affairs, deflecting the  opposition away from the metaphorical man behind the curtain so that it might channel its anger elsewhere. What ensued were campains like that of the PRMC, ones geared toward discrediting any threatening voices by pitting them against ambiguous ideas of decency and responsibility. 

“We want to create mechanisms for choice in the market place, not censorship,” Tipper Gore insists at one point during the talk show, describing the PMRC's parental advisory stickers as "education for parents.” There may have been some genuine concern, a naive wish for a safe and pleasant society, buried within her sanctimonious outrage. Yet Gore’s campaign against explicit content was exemplary of a tug-of-war slowly being played out between certain culture-makers and those in control. On one side was the fantasy image of American success and happiness, and on the other were the angry objections to the contrary: the mock court scene in the opening of N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police,” for instance, where the fantasy was more about flipping the power structure, a staging of justice in which the cops finally got what they deserved. At the same time, misogynistic rap anthems or frat-boy rock like Def Leppard and Judas Priest manifested a less sophisticated, more brutal kind of anger, inadvertently solidifying the cultural conservatives’ case that explicit music must be controlled and condemned. “To alert parents about the change in content is not censorship, it’s information,” said Gore. “We’re a consumer society and we need it.” 

Today, these discussions about censorship have mostly disappeared, replaced instead with a more subtle system of content control. The battle for a legal means to monitor what’s said in music has been made pointless with the complete accessibility to media that the internet affords. Artists now have their own means to establish identities and communities that aren’t under an authoritative surveillance. The freedom of the internet creates the potential for these artists to then have a much wider audience, including a corporate media that is thirsty for the sort of subversive content that is marketable. Major media outlets now have access to a constant stream of enticing material that they can not only claim as their own, but also point to as proof of their progressive, artist-friendly stance. Thus, the moral policing of previous decades has been replaced with a much more confusing value system in which music is judged by its ability to conform to certain narratives of progress or freedom. The fantasy world of pop songs has adapted to a new age of identity politics, where the language of liberation is used to promote a triumphalist agenda. Too much of today’s music journalism takes signifiers of subversion-- the commentary on inequality and social unrest that once so deeply outraged “concerned” parents in the 1980s-- and guts them of their former meanings, leaving behind only the vague shape of dissent.

This is a tactic that trivializes independent culture while exalting more popular icons. Lady Gaga’s keynote interview at this year’s SXSW demonstrated the celebrity’s impressive ability to evoke the countercultural through unspecific yet confident statements against an oppressive, ill-defined other. "There's a very deeply creative, rebellious spirit in Art Pop...really what it's about is freeing yourself of the expectations of the music industry and the expectations of the status quo...As you become more and more successful, they start to push the rule book closer and closer to you," said Gaga, who appeared wearing a dress made from garbage bags with her hair arranged in quasi-dreadlocks. She was eager to interweave into her answers stories about scraping by in the Lower East Side and her long struggle on the way to the top. It was a move that boosted her "alt"-persona and shielded her later on in the interview from the suggestion that her music might resemble the other frivolous pop on her label. “I don’t know what the fuck-all I have to do with Katy Perry,” she said at one point.

Her references to the seamy world of Manhattan punk clubs, a world which no longer exists yet continues to signify DIY-ethics and creativity, made for a laughable juxtaposition with her Doritos-sponsored show at the Austin music festival. When the interviewer even hinted at the notion of selling out, Gaga became defensive, quickly jumping into the role of the misunderstood artist dedicated to her loving fans. “Watching the fans have an experience with me and then having Doritos support that to its core-- not telling me how to do the show, what it should be like, or putting chains around my neck… all of these things people say [about selling out] are to inspire clicks to their website.” It is this attention-craving person that Gaga identifies as the true opponent to free expression, deflecting criticism away from Doritos and even making that type of corporate power look cool. This is another narrative circulated at this cultural moment-- the story of the jealous, drama-hungry internet user who attacks corporate influence on music out of bitterness, rather than sincere opposition. 

The co-option of the counterculture by big media has complicated ideas of what underground culture even means anymore. Lady Gaga’s support of gay rights or her risqué attire may have made her a target for censorship back in the day, but formerly taboo subjects like sex no longer offend in the same way. Neither does talk of drugs. Speaking about smoking weed or shooting dope may express an alienation from society, a refusal of sobriety and efficiency in a world that values hard work above all else. But drug use also signifies complacency, and as recreational drugs grow in popularity, the shared experience of intoxication doesn't exactly feel like the stuff of protest.

Perhaps the music of a controversial group like Odd Future is an expression of frustration with the way that once-powerful signifiers in hip-hop have been flattened into banality. An obsession with rape and violence-- which, like it or not, exists not just in the imagination of Tyler and his cohorts but within the American psyche as a whole-- is a heightened, theatrical response to a nation which denies its own darkness. A couple of years back, when Odd Future was still a topic of endless debate, Sara Quin (of Tegan and Sara) wrote a letter in which she condemned what she perceived as misogyny and homophobia in Tyler, the Creator’s lyrics. "While an artist who can barely get a sentence fragment out without using homophobic slurs is celebrated on the cover of every magazine, blog and newspaper, I’m disheartened that any self-respecting human being could stand in support with a message so vile." With this statement, Quin attempted to appear virtuous. In actuality, she was assuming an authoritative position that entirely negated the complex world rendered in Tyler’s work, a world in which a disenfranchised youth grapples with its own fears, desires and evil. Like many other cultural commentators, Quin measured the work's quality in accordance to her own interpretation of its ethical stance, rather than its truth. 

In the late 1960s, the political theorist Herbert Marcuse coined the term "affirmative culture," which he described as culture that asserts "a universally obligatory, eternally better and more valuable worth that must be unconditionally affirmed: a world essentially different from the factual world of the daily struggle for existence, yet realizable by every individual for himself 'from within,' without any transformation of the state of fact." It is this affirmative culture that historic avant-garde movements rebelled against, sometimes through explicit engagement and other times through escapism.

Similarly, today's music that resists the ideology of "affirmative culture" can do so in both overt and subtle manners. The "avant-garde" will always live on, ensuring its own existence through not only innovative sounds and styles, but also distinct modes of production and distribution. Blanche Blanche Blanche switches from label to label when releasing their music, dodging the restrictions that come with any sort of "brand loyalty." Dean Blunt, the artist behind last year’s The Redeemer, rarely gives interviews to the press and is thus frequently labeled an “enigma.” For reasons he doesn't articulate, Blunt engages in a variety of purposefully evasive tricks-- switching recording names, speaking about himself with a blend of fact and fiction, releasing his music on Russian language websites-- that make it difficult for the music press to code him in any particular way. New York noise musician Pharmakon doesn’t use social media and has spoken in interviews about how she views an online presence as a “consumeristic view of the human experience… it just doesn’t fit with the content and purpose of the music.” To retreat into a satisfying obscurity is a politicized statement in itself, a refusal to participate in a system that will invariably warp your work into something marketable or detached from its original context. And this retreat might be the only effective path to truth in expression. 

The point is not that Perfect Pussy doesn't employ any "avant-garde" techniques; they release music on an independent label, play at DIY venues, and openly speak about their politics. But through participating with the press, Perfect Pussy also subject themselves to a redefinition that is out of their control. The danger is not in the existence of music criticism itself, but in the emulation of critical insight, a kind of writing that claims a certain open-mindedness while also bolstering dominant ideologies. It is not a conscious process, and it is often well-intentioned. None of the writers who reviewed Say Yes to Love are wrong for enjoying the album and reflecting that in their words. Yet individual opinions partly stem from the experience of walking through a world saturated by prevailing attitudes and beliefs. These opinions are also the pieces of a larger mosaic, whose totality is a cultural force more powerful than we know.

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