Saturday night, Washington D.C., a stone’s throw from one of D.C. hardcore’s central nodes and the playground of Nation of Ulysses (NOU) front man Ian Svenonius: the Embassy in Mt. Pleasant. In the late 1980s and 1990s, Svenonius, NOU, and other D.C. punks used to gather at the Embassy to discuss music, politics, and agit prop, even serving as an ally to the Riot Grrrl movement when Kathleen Hanna and others left Washington for a sojourn to the capital in what for many, became a transformative experience. Tonight, though, sitting in independent book store Politics and Prose and waiting for Svenonius to appear from on high to assault us with his latest philosophical tract, the shop hums with the quite energy of 1990s Dischord record aficionados, floppy haired indie rock fellows and vaguely hipster/hippie women.
Around these parts, Svenonius remains a favorite son. D.C.’s City Paper published excerpts of Svenonius’s new book Supernatural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘N’ Roll Group in January. Johnathan Fischer called Svenonius “the most natural showman to emerge from D.C. punk’s second coming” and noted that along with his previous collection of essays, The Psychic Soviet, and the body of his musical work – NOU, The Make-up, Felt Letters, and Chain and the Gang – Svenonius continued to question just what rock ‘n’ roll meant. To be clear, City Paper, and more specifically Fischer, loves Svenonius. When the paper sent Fischer to cover the 2011 Bruise Cruise – an indie rock inspired nautical sojourn featuring bands like the Vivian Girls and East Atlanta’s the Black Lips – Svenonius served as its “director” and MC, but constantly threw out great quotes like ““Maybe this is the first step of indie rock going Vegas.” Even Fischer had to concede that, at least in moments – like Svenonius’ lecture on the Beatles – “He is, of course, fucking with us. Or at least I think he is.”
This is not an unusual take on Svenonius. When pitchfork reviewed NOU’s 2000 release The Embassy Tapes, writer Camilo Arturo Leslie noted that less generous or more cynical listeners could argue that NOU’s “entire body of work is a merciless satire on those million voices of dissent,” notably the radical left. Undoubtedly, Svenonius approached the image and ideology of NOU carefully, crafting a visual taxonomy derived from Stalinist Socialist Realism and a rhetoric that vibrated with anti’s – anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism. “In NOU’s world the individual is posited as a capitalist metaphor,” reflected Leslie, “the Nation of Ulysses requires that everyone be Nationalized, wear dapper Fashionista uniforms, and undergo a procedure for fingerprint effacement.” They said they hated sleep and looked up to Menudo especially for its “’potential for infinitude through member replacement.’” Have fun unpacking the contradictions.
NOU’s presence on Dischord Records always seemed a bit anomalous: very earnest bands like Fugazi and emo pioneers Rites of Spring or even to a lesser extent Q and not U defined the label’s ethos. NOU’s political performance art – whatever the ultimate goal or meaning – stood apart from their counterparts as notably inauthentic authenticity. To be fair, media types often labeled Fugazi and other Dischord bands as humorless. The documentary Instrumental disputed these kind of assertions in numerous moments of levity, yet, well before the film, Ian MacKaye produced NOU’s first two albums –Thirteen Point Plan to Destroy America and Play Pretty for Me Baby – including a brief cameo on “A Kid Who Tells on Another Kid Is a Dead Kid,” from the former, in which he advises adolescent snitches to “not rat out” friends. NOU brought more public levity to proceedings, even if the liner notes in the label’s 20th anniversary retrospective noted plenty of people just didn’t “get” the band.
Of course, it would be wrong to limit Svenonius’ legacy to NOU; after all, the Make Up put out two strong albums (though Survive This, the follow up to Untouchable Sound, remains the better of the two) that celebrated 1960s American soul, adding dashes of classic rock to the band’s sound. Though a song like “I Am Pentagon” sounds like a weird geometric based come-on, it also invokes the kind of blues based rock ‘n’ roll NOU ripped to shreds in songs like “N-Sub Ulysses”:
I’m not talking about a Beatle’s song,
written 100 years before I was born.
100 flowers bloom,
100 schools of thought contend,
c’mon baby, let’s hang around,
they’re talking about the round and round,
but who’s got the real anti-parent culture sound?
His most recent incarnation has received generally approving plaudits from pitchfork and others. Granted, in interviews Svenonius deploys a standard spiel about some historical uprising or form of ideology – citing the Spanish Civil War or the French Revolution as connective tissue to whatever band he happens to be leading and typically decrying fascism – but the music since NOU seems more about, well, music. Nothing ironic about the soul boogie of the Make Up or Chain and the Gang, as one reviewer noted just listening to these bands would give one very little clue to the politics of the man behind them.
This brings us back to the bookstore: Svenonius’s turn as essayist and author of Super Natural Strategies for Making a Rock ‘N’ Roll Group. Supernatural is his second book following 2006’s The Psychic Soviet, in which he devoted a chapter lamenting the rise of the DJ but then went on a DJing promotional tour. New York Times music critic Kelefa Sannah gave the book a positive nod in a 2006 article, calling it a love letter to DIY punk dressed in the guise of Marxism. In another chapter, Psychic Soviet compared Rock ‘N’ Roll to religion, tossed in doses of Weber’s theories on charismatic leadership, and noted the use of “outsider” status as a means to authenticity by even those most on the inside. “Appropriated by rockers, this voice of rebellion, alienation and entitlement has become the national paradigm,” Svenonius reflected. “It is the narrative of the culture. Everyone is an outsider (even the President), and everyone is proud of it.” (72) Svenonius builds on this in Supernatural, arguing that rock once drew its inspiration from political figures – “the Beatles’ Mao jackets at Shea Stadium, Mike Watt’s Fidelista garb, and Johnny Rotten as hunchbacked medieval despot” – and like others he points to the infotainment industry’s influence, concluding that today, “the roles have reversed.” (58) Paul Ryan provides a somewhat facetious but useful example.
In one of Soviet’s more (in)famous chapters, he blamed Seinfeld for driving white gentrification in New York and other urban environs. Undoubtedly Svenonius’ history remains tenuous, even inaccurate. Blaming Seinfeld, Friends, and Sex and the City for driving urban change probably puts the cart in front of the horse, but it did point to very real developments in how people envisioned the city and their place in it. “Unbeknownst to Seinfeld’s faithful, they were exalting a show with a mission,” argues Svenonius. “Seinfeld was designed expressly to rehabilitate the blighted American city, not only as a place desirable for white people to live …. But as an amoral upper class playground, where no one need act responsibly or nicely – an anti community.” (128-129). In this way, these shows connect to predecessors from a decade earlier. For example, the premise of Different Strokes rested on the idea that the only family or safety two young African Americans boys could find in New York rest with the benevolence of a patrician upper Manhattanite. “What you talkin’ about Willis,” indeed.
In the case of what Svenonius labeled “The Seinfeld Syndrome,” one should probably blame neoliberal municipal governance models that arose in the 1980s, declining federal monies to the nation’s cities, and the means by which suburbanization bled metropolises dry only to have white collar professionals return in droves decades later by scooping up valuable properties – savaged by deindustrialization and reduced municipal revenue – on the cheap. A media fascinated with “pioneers” – usually white creative or professional types – establishing new middle class enclaves in minority communities, probably did not endear itself to residents of color who had been in these spaces for years, but it did reflect the very racialized popular culture manifestation that Svenonius misdiagnoses. The ridiculousness of Svenonius’s assertions draws attention and for more perceptive readers, he provokes larger discussions like the one parsed out above.
At this point, Svenonius has taken to the podium, promising to read – a lot – from his new book, but quickly it becomes clear that a traditional book reading is the last thing on his mind. A group of “protesters” emerge representing rock stars who resent Svenonius selling their secrets to the broader world; a lawyerly type dressed from head to toe in soothing purple made a prepared public statement promising to oppose the new publication. This was not going to be Frank McCourt reading from Angela’s Ashes on C-SPAN.
Svenonius gathered himself quickly, called several members of the audience up to conduct a séance – as in the book – using the construct to present various passages of his work to listeners. For a man who once ripped classic rock to pieces, Svenonius seems obsessed with it. The entire book reads like a tongue and cheek nod to rock dinosaurs. Clearly, Svenonius LOVES the Beatles, the Who, and all those he superficially disparages. The séance serves as the medium through which the first part of the book operates, enabling Svenonius to explore the broader historical connections of rock ‘n’ roll to urban America. Dead rock stars like Buddy Holly, Paul McCartney (okay, as Svenonius notes not technically dead but close enough), and Mary Wells (though as one audience member pointed out in the Q and A following the reading, very few women emerge in Svenonius’s rendering).
Again, the reader will profit immensely if he/she ignores Svenonius’s literal interpretation of history. For example, when he details the rise of Fascism in the 1930s – grouping FDR with the Nazis – he suggests the New Deal emerged as much as a corporatist “emergency measure in the face of socialism.” For those high school history teachers out there, the historical connection is terrible but he follows it up with one of the most concise and clear explanations of Fascism this former teacher has ever read. Svenonius fills the book with these kind of false observations but complements them with some truly valuable insights.
Paul McCartney shows up, telling Svenonius that the British legitimized rock ‘n’ roll for an Anglophile America. For Americans trapped in a prejudicial race/class system and imposed gendered social roles, the nation remained moored to ideas about authenticity. For British musicians, free of “the stain of slavery and oblivious to US race and class tensions,” emulating American artists, mostly of color, proved no problem. Americans in turn adopted the music in the wake of bands like the Beatles, nodding to their “British betters.” (35) Middle class Americans soon felt comfortable adopting the new form and rock ‘n’ roll became a cultural expression, “not degenerate garbage or a colonized black music, but an American folk art with which to colonize the Earth.” (35) Of course, this interpretation completely ignores British imperialism, its own racial problems with West Indian (see the Clash) and South Asian citizens, and portrays the English as head-scratchingly more open to diversity than Americans: a hard line to sell when one looks at current demographics.
Still, the idea, as numerous reviewers love to point out, is that Svenonius remains a “provocateur,” poking for conversation. I won’t even go into his opinions regarding the geopolitical ramifications of rock ‘n’ roll: more or less a capitalist ruse to capture communist hearts and minds and spread U.S. imperialism. One line sums it up neatly: “The rock ‘n’ roll group would be the coup de grace in seducing the globe to a US led capitalist hegemony.” (38) Even this statement Svenonius later expands upon to note the paradoxical nature of this arrangement. “[F]or all its silliness, bathos, and misguided clothing choices –[the rock ‘n’ roll group] is paradoxically one of the last noble gestures left for a human kind imprisoned by consumer culture,” he tells us. “Noble because money is rarely featured in the life of the group. Paradoxical because, while the group could be seen as an exponent of consumerism, its members are typically unpaid.” (60) Unlike the Teamsters, he points out in part II, groups don’t get union benefits or align together against the “boss class” but rather remained tied to a primitive labor model – “a fractured cross between the minstrels of the Dark Ages and an Avon Lady.” (87)
Fair enough, but the random excursions of part I take away from a really great part II that functions more or less as Svenonius’s filtered take the music industry today. Anytime an individual with Svenonius’s experience, talent and intellect can reflect on today’s musical landscape – especially from the “underground” or “independent” role which increasingly in the era of mp3s seems an important model– it should be noted. Knowing how he sees the state of music today, even when viewed from his translucent narrative, gives us another way to talk about congruity and rupture in music history. In this regard, Svenonius delivers.
Admittedly, Part II rambles a bit, but Svenonius’s sense of humor makes up for it. Bands should not form for fame – mediocre Defense Secretaries like Donald Rumsfield will achieve far greater notoriety than even the biggest of groups. Sexual gratification too lacks any real merit. Better to focus on occupations highlighted in shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Law and Order, and Mad Men: “these professions are celebrated by televised propaganda … and will provide you with the financial incentives – in the form of real estate, luxury cotton sheets, and perceived stability – required to seduce your prey in the capitalist society.” (51) Male bands should have “scary things” in their names like the Stones or Beatles. People consider themselves more intelligent and attractive than common bugs much like a rock “is an overlooked and ugly thing without much of a brain.” (62) To paraphrase Kanye West’s “What’s a black beatle anyway? A roach!” Bands should lower expectations and not challenge gender rolls. “Kiss, the Eagles, Black Eyed Peas, Bread, and the Fleet Foxes have fond furry associations but are disliked – even despised – by discriminating people, regardless of whatever arbitrary commercial success they may have managed.” (62)
So what is the best reason for striking out into the cold wasteland of 2013 rock ‘n’ roll? Ideology. “Just announce some ‘provocative’ (creationist, bigoted, or otherwise reactionary) vitriol into a microphone,” Svenonius advises, “and you will attract financial backers who will arrange television appearances. fundraising events, and bespoke finery.” (51) Granted, you will lose control of this ideology. “Whatever your intention, your conjuring will invoke something deformed and accidental,” Svenonius warns. “It will unleash uncontrollable forces or it will snowball slowly, insidiously, into something monstrous that will torment you for eternity.” (51) He turns to the Vietcong for inspiration, citing their own rules for discipline as a key to rock success.
Supernatural might be a handbook for band making in the modern age, but it is one grounded in a clear, rational irrationality. As Svenonius tells us he is busy constructing a scientific means of building a group, but he also frequently references magic, the supernatural, and the occult. Sometimes he combines both, such as when he notes that a 3% margin of error accompanies any information culled from séances.
Forces beyond the band will determine its course. The “totalitarianism of the photograph” traps groups. Few bands have any idea of aesthetics (considering the explosion of social media and reality TV this one must admit is a dubious assertion). Their “politics” or “meaning” become embedded in photos that will be duplicated endlessly broadcasting whatever messages the image inspires. Predictably, certain genres demand specific images. Heavy metal and hardcore acts tend to stand “shoulder to shoulder like troops on review, so as to reassure their acolytes their will be no dynamics, sexuality, or flexibility in the groups’ presentation,” asserts former hardcore/punk leader Svenonius. “The band will commit to bludgeoning force, aggression and repetition.” (58) Still, even if the photo threatens to calcify a band it remains a vital accoutrement: “A group without a photo is like a land without a map or a country with no flag.” (57)
Critics and music ethusiasists will detest them. Svenonius, himself critic and musician, asks, “After all, who are these critics and who asked them anyway?” (153) Even the hoi polloi represent a threat, as party chit chat, he argues, really serves as cover for complex power plays. Svenonius’s advice? Avoid it and if unavoidable use subterfuge. “Just to be safe, use a fake accent to confuse people. Or mix two or three accents, such as Persian with Chinese mixed with tidewater region Virginia,” he tells readers. “If you confuse people they can’t pull their shit on you.” (172)
Technology, notably the rise of tiny mp3s and the elimination of cover art and pageantry have undermined the rock group. The elimination of elaborate packaging reduced music to “a few squeals leaking from an iPod,” hence leaving bands bereft of costumes and imagery. “This is self-evidently a conspiracy by the Fascist elite to demolish one of the last tolerated forms of expression in the country, ” Svenonius once again asserts. (173)
How much of this is sincere, a put on, or some form of agit prop, this writer refuses to guess. Playing the “is he serious or not serious” game with Svenonius gets tiring. Satire has always been a tough gig; you have to be knowledgeable enough to make it realistic and recognizable, but also absurd enough to make it identifiable as satire but not cheap parody. Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to this day remains one of the best literary examples and The Onion, perhaps, the finest modern day exemplar. One might suggest, as L.A. Times critic Randall Roberts did in his review, that most of Supernatural is a treatise but determining just what’s a joke and what’s not probably isn’t worth the effort. Dozens of other lines and observations abound and the humor of the book – especially in its second half – outweighs the negatives of the first 40 pages or so. Noted underground icon, member of Sleater Kinney, and current member of Wild Flag, Carrie Brownstein also works in satire, but seems to have balanced comedy and critique more fluidly in recent years – as represented by her work on the former NPR blog “Monitor Mix” and the recent sketch comedy of Portlandia. Considering the very male oriented narrative put forth by Svenonius a touch of Brownstein’s influence might perfect the mix. Remember, one can be earnest – okay, not too much sincerity, please – and funny.
In the end, rock ‘n’ roll will bring heartache, disrespect, and poverty to those who follow its winding path. Monsanto employees will get more respect at cocktail parties while the musician – as he or she ages – becomes a “clown, nitwit, and loser.” Better to identify as lead counsel for General Pinochet or as a manufacturer of germ warfare. But this is precisely the point he concludes: “Because a rock ‘n’ roll group should not be respectable, nor should it be bourgeois or prestigious. If it’s to retain any power or any threat, its status must hover somewhere between that of the vagrant, the doomsday prophet, the street urchin, and the prostitute.” (183)
In the mid-1990s, Guns ‘N’ Roses put out its famous double albums – Use Your Illusion I and II. Most critics and fans agreed that what amounted to a passable double album could have –with careful editing – instead been a masterpiece of a single record. In some ways, Supernatural feels the same. With that said, I bought both albums in my adolescence and even with the filler they were pretty good. Svenonius delivers a flawed, but solid work that connects more with his 1980s NOU hardcore past than his current musical inspiration. Still, a little more of the latter and a little less of the former might be a good thing.