Black Pussy and Viet Cong: When Is A Band Name So Offensive It Should Be Changed?

Freedom of expression and censorship aren't immune to dumb ideas.

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Mar 23 2015, 2:42pm

It's normally assumed that to find controversial band names like You've Got Foetus On Your Breath or Vaginal Defecation you have to dip into genres like pornogrind, death metal or witch house. But actually, there’s loads hiding in plain sight.

Joy Division were named after the Nazi concentration camp brothels where prostitutes and female prisoners were sexually exploited and often died whilst imprisoned. Spandau Ballet were named after the slang once used by prison officers to describe the contortions a body makes whilst being executed.

Country music can be just as questionable. Lady Antebellum, the all white Nashville-based country music band, took home five Grammys in 2011, but have been slated by bloggers for the way their name glorifies America’s Pre-Civil War South and all the contextual baggage that comes with that. But trust me, there’s thousands across all genres, from Steve Albini’s Rapeman to Fullblown AIDS.

One of the reasons a lot of artists get away with it is because even in their questionable depravity or insensitivity, the very absurdity of the name often seems like it has a point, to manifest something about their art and what they are all about - like a tone. Yes, in some cases the choice can be steeped in a very deep level of satire, but nearly always with an evident level of knowing if you look hard enough.

And because of all this, we can enjoy or maybe just tolerate their art, by investing a large element of trust into the idea that they understand their preposterousness; if you get that Joy Division didn’t call themselves that purely to ridicule or fetishise the horror of concentration camp brothels, then you get Joy Division. It is trust, though, because you don’t actually know that for sure.

Around two or three weeks ago, the highly rated Canadian post-punk band Viet Cong had their show cancelled by the promoter at an onsite venue in Oberlin College, Ohio. The promoter said that after booking the band, he quickly became aware that their name “deeply offends and hurts Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American communities, both in Oberlin and beyond.” The fact a promoter had resorted to cancelling the band, who had gone almost completely unquestioned thus far on an inter-continental tour, gave the story a much more newsworthy value and it spread rapidly. Within just a few days, another band, now from Oregon, and this time called Black Pussy, also found themselves the subject of name controversy via a petition for their gigs to be cancelled and venues to be boycotted, along with numerous articles of condemnation. So what makes these two way more offensive than everyone else who's gone before?

Well, it turned out that the Viet Cong case was actually just the tip of a pretty distasteful iceberg. Unknown to most of us, plenty of people had been putting their point to the band for quite some time, and looking at past interviews with Viet Cong members, there were numerous examples of them admitting this to journalists. Shrugging in a video interview with Le Guess Who? band member Matt Flegel admitted: “Vietnamese immigrants - the Vietnamese Canadians and Vietnamese Americans - will write us an email saying that their family was tortured by the Viet Cong for five years in a prison camp... It's just a band name. It's just what we called ourselves.”

Now, in theory, I’m fully behind the idea of a band maintaining their provocative name against protests - in the name of freedom of expression, their right to piss people off, and the role of art to push boundaries - and accepting the consequences of that decision, come hate campaigns or flying pint glasses. It all draws parallels to Judith Shulevitz's recent piece for the NY Times about how damaging it can be that debates and speakers are being cancelled at certain colleges when the topics are deemed too sensitive and triggering for certain individuals. We all have a responsibility to determine what is genuinely offensive and what is about something offensive. Because, for all I know, Viet Cong’s entire artistic raison d’être could be covertly and intellectually couched in the very conscious decision of calling themselves that.

Maybe by their second album, it would all suddenly click into place that their whole discography had been one long conceptual post-rock thesis, subtly influenced by the bloodstained footprints of American foreign policy, or Hollywood’s military-entertainment complex, or just the horrific reality of war. Who am I to question their motives, education and capabilities? As Andy Gill of Gang of Four protested to the Brooklyn Vegan when the stories first broke: “We should not be deciding for people what we think they are capable of understanding or not. Artists; film-makers, writers, musicians need to be un-censored so they can make their point, political or otherwise.”

But the thing that makes both the Viet Cong and Black Pussy hard to defend, is that both bands have revealed the reasons for their names in interviews, and those reasons are, well, reprehensibly ignorant. In an interview with The Guardian, the band’s drummer Matt Wallace explained that the name came from the way fellow member Flegel held his bass guitar like a machine gun, flagrantly adding: “All you need is a rice paddy hat and it would be so Viet Cong.” Coming round a little later in the interview, Flegel tries to vaguely add some context: “There’s a lot of darkness and a lot of terrible things which aren’t glorified in all the Vietnam movies.” No shit, mate.

It was seven days after this interview that the gig at Oberlin College was cancelled. And soon after that, Impose Magazine had published a nakedly honest open letter from a Vietnamese American writer named Sang Nguyen, which made no concessions in explaining exactly why the flippant use of "Viet Cong" offended her so deeply; relaying the harsh reality of her family history and the army’s terrifying legacy in Vietnam. Reading that, it became crystal clear how a band name that had slipped under the morality radar of pretty much every major online music press could actually be perceived as terribly marginalising.

So, quickly, the case for Viet Cong stopped being one about freedom of expression and became one about artistic responsibility. Four days ago, the band issued an official apology, admitting they were “naive about the history of a war in a country we knew very little about” and “now better understand the weight behind the words Viet Cong.” Whether they now change their name or not is kind of up to them - the words have been disarmed by an effective debate. Viet Cong saw the negative repercussions of a dumb and naive artistic choice and decided it was something they didn’t want to let go unaddressed.

On the contrary, Oregon’s Black Pussy have made no moves towards issuing an apology for their name. And this has one has played out in a much more rampant and wild way, at its worse resulting in death threats towards the band and racist or misogynistic tirades of support from supposed 'fans' in the comment sections.

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It all really started a few weeks ago, with a petition set up by someone called Margot Goldstein on Change.org. It reads: “All white, male band Black Pussy should change their name - or venues who booked them, should be boycotted.” Considering the coverage the story has got, it’s surprising that the petition itself has gathered less than 2,000 signatures, but it has already resulted in at least 1 cancelled gig (rumoured to be 2), and inspired numerous pieces on Huffington Post, Flavorwire, Daily Dot, Daily Life and many more, that castigate the band for the way their name triggers racism and misogyny.

So where exactly did the name come from and do the band have a respectful leg to stand on? When you piece together scraps from various interviews, it seems not. It was based on a love for Quentin Tarantino - “If he was going to have a band or make a movie about a band, it’d be called Black Pussy" said lead singer Dustin Hill - citing a director who’s had his fair share of being called out for carelessly appropriating blaxploitation themes by fellow director Spike Lee. According to Black Pussy's biography, the band thought the name sounded "sex-charged, ’70s-influenced, hide-your-daughters-because-they’re-coming-to-town rock ‘n’ roll band". Clearly, this doesn't push boundaries, it has no deeper meaning, there is no deep satire. In essence, it's just a careless reinforcement of stereotypes that art should be looking to break down.

And when the band discovered it was also the original working title for the Rolling Stones’ “Brown Sugar”, a song that marries slavery era interracial rape with heroin addiction and loads of other fairly taboo subjects, they were confident it was a winner. Funnily enough, Mick Jagger originally changed that song title because he felt it was a little too direct, which suggests that even in the late 60s, before women in the UK even had The Equal Pay Act, the term “black pussy” was generally regarded as unnecessarily offensive.

Despite all this, the band are determined to keep it, and have responded in interviews with Noam Chomsky quotes about freedom of expression, phrases like: "We’re not trying to see colors, we’re trying to see people" and "the band name is sort of a mirror of the individual that looks at it", plus links to a pretty reductive Doug Stanhope sketch about how we shouldn’t be offended by words. And that’s all well and good, but it’s probably quite easy to inhabit the space of “words don’t offend me” when the words you’re promoting are disparaging towards a race you aren’t and a vagina you simply don’t have.

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One big problem with this stand off between the band and their opposition is how its all played out and how the issue has been heavily conflated, so that it’s quickly taken on the symptoms of our times: a typically brutal encapsulation of internet call out culture and its toxic consequences. I approached Black Pussy over email to ask: did the organisers of the petition ever actually contact the band directly prior to taking this issue public, to state their case and request a solution? “No, not at all” was the response from their press officer.

In this postinternet era, where we're all so inextricably damn connected, it's so easy to make issues like this catch fire, so that the calling out, the angry blogpost or the social media finger-wagging, actually seems to become the crux of it all, a performance of sorts, and the real issue, and any sort of realistic solution, ends up playing second fiddle. And because it all takes place so publicly, sides are quickly formed and radicalised as people jump on board to get their hit of self-satisfying armchair activism without really having helped change anything at all.

It becomes far too easy for everyone to forget that the people you’re calling out are actually sentient, clumsy, breathing, farting, learning human beings. Hence Black Pussy and their associated venues receiving threats of violence and vandalism, and the band being described as the “nexus of sexism and racism”. In short, the controversy of Black Pussy’s band name has become a reason to pass judgement on their entire existence from birth to now.

From every interview I’ve read, my impression is that the Portland five piece are not a volatile gang of racist misogynists. They are just a really average band, who have picked a really dumb name, which is now failing hard under the close scrutiny of increased attention. But let’s not let these guys become the distracting mules of blame for a much larger and much more important conversation, because when we finally stop always prioritising little victories like specific band names or particular lyrics over wide scale progressive change, maybe we’ll create a music culture environment where five white guys from Portland are so empathetic and understanding of both women’s issues and racial appropriation, that they wouldn’t dream of calling themselves something like Black Pussy without having a huge and relevant reason to do so.

As each year goes by, enormous issues are being unravelled about the music industry’s patriarchy, and how women and people of colour are treated within it. Most of us are slowly waking up to the disturbing reality that the entire music business is almost definitely built upon a model of reflex inequality, and relentless and exploitative cultural appropriation, and that’s why we keep repeatedly finding ourselves in these total messes on a cyclical basis. These messes that result in only 13% of composers and songwriters registered with PRS for Music being women. These messes that result in the Leeds and Reading Festival line up. These messes that mean, according to the awareness project by Pornographic Performances, women of colour in music videos are “commonly portrayed as hypersexual and with a focus and fascinated gaze on their bottoms, invoking ideas of black women as wild and animalistic.” And these wider conversations are what we really need to be probing and pushing, conversations that transcend stoner pop six pieces, and instigate some real and meaningful change.

A behind the scenes still from the Calvin Harris video for "Drinking From The Bottle".

Maybe Black Pussy’s idea all along was just to have an offensive and controversial name that grabs attention, and if so then let me say this: why the hell are we even giving them the time of day? For every damning thinkpiece and death threat, for every gig that gets cancelled, they become increasingly more enigmatic and attractive to a certain type of person. Probably the type of person Black Pussy wouldn’t even want as a fan. Without all this coverage, they would probably never have registered with most of us, just like they haven’t for the last eight years of their existence.

The truth is, we can encourage and debate with artists, but we can’t just go around forcing bands to change their names - that’s just censorship, and it sets a dangerous precedent going forward. The moment you censor something, you make it easier for the next person to censor something else, contributing negatively to a guarded and paranoid future. But should artists be taking more responsibility before attaching themselves to provocative and loaded topics? Absolutely. Make ten minute songs called “Fuck Pie”, name your band after a biscuit, put an HD hologram of a dog’s anus on your album cover, but if you’re involving your art with anything to do with politics, history, sociology, ecology, the environment or whatever then you have a responsibility to know your shit.

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