The role of a rock frontperson is to be captivating and immediate, but to continue to exist and persist in an ever-shifting landscape of rock and roll mask-wearing requires some ideas behind the bombast and screaming. Ian F. Svenonius burst into public consciousness in the late 1980s with his DC-based punk band Nation of Ulysses, and even then he knew that he would need to come up with some ideology to match his fiery presence if he wanted to create a lasting space for himself in rock culture. That ideology, a strident yet somewhat satirical take on uber-left-wing righteousness, has served him not only in his later musical projects (like his ’90s soul-punk project The Make-Up or his current project, Chain & The Gang) but in his second life as an essayist and author.
His first collection of essays, 2006’s The Psychic Soviet, established his signature tone, one of taking the wind out of the sails of rock and popular culture by placing it in a historical context where, for instance, the enthusiasm of touring rock bands, or the du jour hipness of coffee culture, is compared and contrasted with colonial conquests and expansions. He followed Soviet up with 2013’s Supernatural Strategies For Making A Rock N’ Roll Group; his ascension from young punk to noted author and respected moral thinker is finally complete with this month’s release of his third tome, Censorship Now! [Akashic Books].
Svenonius uses fiery rhetoric and grand historical examples to, in many ways, point out not just the absurdity of our modern culture but to place the capitalist norms that we take as quotidian truths in a historical and moral context. Like his music, his writing seems written with some kind of tongue in some sort of general cheek area, but it is often difficult to exactly delineate where the humor ends and the serious righteousness begins; even in conversation, it’s a fine line that Svenonius expertly walks. I got the opportunity to pick his brain in advance of his appearance this Sunday at the basement of Brookline Booksmith, where he will be, in addition to flogging his new book, he will be raining down a fire and brimstone sermon on the power of truth, the absurdity of conviction, the sin of greed, and/or the absolute powerlessness of the average human to rationally react to the contradicting edicts of our modern existence.
Daniel Brockman: Johnny Rotten famously once taunted his audience at a Sex Pistols show with the line “Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?” Do you ever feel that way about rock culture — is it possible to feel like music culture robs one of one’s youth?
Ian F. Svenonius: Definitely I understand thinking, after you’ve dedicated yourself to music for a long time, getting to a certain age and thinking, you know, “maybe I should have learned Latin,” that sort of thing. But it’s important not feel that just because you don’t feel the same way about something anymore that it wasn’t important. Like if something was powerful then, a record or a performance by a group, or whatever — it’s really like a lost love, and just because something like that doesn’t have the power now that it once had doesn’t mean that all the effort you put into it was wasted. Rock and roll incites compulsion, and there can be resentment towards compulsion, but ultimately I don’t think we have that much control over what we do or what we dedicate our lives to.
Music culture, teen culture, especially during the punk era, has long been obsessed with the concept of boredom. But technology has really changed the adolescent notion of boredom. What do you think, what can rock say if it can’t express boredom?
People talk a lot about boredom a lot in early punk; it’s so prevalent that it always makes me wonder if boredom is really such an important factor in modern life. Obviously environment is a factor, if one is constantly being bullied and bothered and harassed by obligations and our insane 24/7 work cycle. I don’t know, I never really understood the whole boredom thing. Boredom was a very fashionable thing to talk about with first wave punk and it must have been, contextually, about how hippies created a world where work was no longer meaningful, they upended everything so that work wasn’t the end-all be-all of life. It shows up in the drugs of the time: LSD and marijuana weren’t work drugs, they weren’t things you took to help you get through labor.
Drugs are so intimately tied to the culture of the time, right? Like right now, people take drugs that enable them to use modern technology. But people used to be drunk all the time — they’d drink to get through their factory job, or whatever. But now, in our modern society, if you’re drunk at all, you’re a sociopath because you can’t be drunk and negotiate the modern landscape. Being drunk is now a huge liability, and it’s a moral power for those who pass judgment of anyone who is ever the slightest bit drunk. But a large part of it is that adapting to the ever-shifting modern technology is a reality of life now; I mean, the programs on your computer or phone are updated every single day, and each one often negates prior knowledge in powerful ways. So you need to be doing the right drugs in order to negotiate modern technology and machinery. Older people who are unable to access these kinds of drugs as easily are just bewildered by this whole thing, of course. But then again they didn’t grow up, as so many people now did, with things like ADD drugs, ritalin, that sort of thing, drugs that force the user to focus.
But hippies, they rebelled against the world they saw, this world of work, wanting to get closer to nature and be more moral, to be better or whatever — and the result was punk rockers whose response was just “Oh, this hippiedom is boring, nature is boring, living a moral life is boring.” But I don’t really get that — I mean, you need to work so hard just to make money to survive, how can you possibly be bored? It really speaks to the affluence of the time, the ’70s were a really rich time where you didn’t really have to work. You can’t be bored now, you have to work all the fucking time. And you know what, with punk bands back in the day, I really wonder if many of them actually were bored, like really bored in real life. You know? I think it was just more like the theme of the day.
You talk a lot in your book about the “gentrification of punk” and the evolution of what used to be called “college rock” to the modern idea of “indie”, and it seems like a lot of it has to do with supposed intelligence of some music, this idea that some music is intelligent and some is not. Do you buy that? Is there such a thing as intelligent music and not intelligent music?
Well, music can definitely be clever or not clever. I think that a lot of times the stupidest music is clever, like the lyrics in a song that’s really intellectual are really smart, but so-called dumb music can be smart or clever too. Like the Troggs, they’re definitely a very clever band! But I know what you’re talking about when you talk about intelligent music, you’re talking about that kind of textured pop where the songs kind of make proclamations of being smart. And I think it’s a legitimate permutation in music, a way for bands to distinguish themselves with a reputation for being smart or intelligent. It sometimes works: Malcolm McLaren tried to do it with Bow Wow Wow, or also with a band like The Smiths.
It seems like, ultimately, people want to see music as something other than a commodity with a useful purpose, and there is always some group of music fans that is going to look down on another group of music fans because the latter group’s music has some practical, useful application, like if it’s music you can dance to.
Oh yeah, and it’s funny, dance people see their music as being vastly superior to rock for the same reason that rock people look down on dance music. For dance people, the thought is that their music is more evolved, it’s like a permutation of religion where it’s more pure. Like Catholics think that they have a superior religion to Lutherans, and Lutherans think that they’re superior to Catholics, for the same reasons. It’s just snobby, you know? And I like dance music, I love dance music, but the whole thing, this whole conflict, is just ridiculous.
You’ve also talked a lot about the way planned obsolescence is a concept so ingrained in rock culture, the obsession with everything needing to be new until something is two seconds old and must be ignored for the next newest thing.
Right, and the funny thing is that that ignored music is deemed lame until it’s 20 years old, and then it’s great and legendary.
Right! And thus the endless parade of anniversary celebrations of classic albums, etc.
You know, in the book I talk a lot about folk music, and the folk revival, and its contrast with rock. I mean, you know, rock began as a black and working class art form which was all about newness and immediacy. Whereas folk music, or at least the folk revival, was all about this archaeology, sifting through the past. So music and music culture in the ’60s became a revival culture, it was all about, you know, Dust Bowl songs or Edwardian fashion. Just digging old things up and pondering the past. And that’s something different than when rock first started; when rock first started it was all about the moment. So folk music, as a ’60s revival culture, was preoccupied with thinking about the past, and rock co-opted that while also retaining the ’50s rock idea of newness and immediacy.
It sometimes seems like the idea of folk music that emerged after the ’60s was kind of a caricature; people see folk music as “music played with some acoustic instruments” when it was really a more principled and involved musical system that kind of, you know, lost the war at some point, and now all anyone remembers is that it was people playing acoustic guitars.
I think that those in the folk world were primarily concerned with a perceived set of values that were being lost, and which now are pretty much completely gone: you know, that you should relate to music for a community and not for a career, and that music isn’t tied to anything, that it can be done anywhere without an entertainment complex surrounding it. And folk music was also about this idea that the songs were forever and eternally relevant, which goes completely against capitalism, where everything is about constant re-invention and innovation.
Right — intellectual property.
Exactly, intellectual property. And the folk thing was really against that, but then it got it’s own star machine, and then it just merged with rock.
You also get into, in a few of your books, the social results of this merger — the way that music becomes focused on superstars, the way that music as a sexual force becomes kind of this perverted thing where a room of screaming people ignore each other to pledge fealty to a person on a stage, etc. It really is a bizarre phenomenon if you think about it, but we’ve all been conditioned to see this as not just normal but an inevitability in the history of music culture.
Oh totally, and I think it’s really — well, I’m not blaming the Beatles per se, I’m a big Beatles fan, but they were kind of the point where rock went corporate. And obviously there was corporate music before the Beatles, and people were on major labels, but they represent the corporate consolidation of rock. Before them, corporations were playing catch-up; you know, RCA, Columbia, Decca, they were scrambling to keep up with this new music hysteria. The Beatles were first on a black-owned label and then got bought up by Capitol back when Capitol was really evil and wanted to really control the message– instead of reacting they could finally lead and consolidate. After that it was only a matter of time until all the independent labels were destroyed and rock and roll became entirely a major label game.
And one of the changes you see is that in the roles men and women occupied in music. For instance, so many of the fans of the Beatles are these hordes of screaming girls, and that sends a very heavy message about roles, female roles in music. I mean, how can you be a self-respecting man next to these screaming girls, so the male reaction was to become a producer or a rock star. And obviously for women the stage was no longer your area. And after the Beatles, that’s when the whole thing became really male-dominated, because before that the girl groups were at least half of the game, girl groups and female singers, without the sort of sexual dominance of the post-Beatles world that reflects corporate culture. England had a similar sort of thing happen, they had a healthy independent label system that was decimated post-Beatles, and a vibrant rock and roll scene that was done in by that star system.
Anyway, I dunno; if I were to guess I’d say that repression is really what’s behind this whole thing, just this repressed focus on who is on the stage, this focus on the unattainable. It really spoke to people, but it also really fit in with the capitalist directive of turning the unattainable into the eternal new, just new product to keep the masses obsessed — obsessed and repressed!