When Optimism Becomes Offensive
The South African music scene is best understood through the image of the rodeo clown, that figure of frivolity whose purpose is distraction. The rider may be down and the bull may have gorged him, but all attention is focused on the crowd-pleasing shenanigans of a colourful fool. Although all cultures have their musical equivalents of the rodeo clown, the majority of ours are also blind. And they are blind because they have gouged their own eyes out.
Most of the artists occupying the admittedly nebulous category of ‘independent’ music do not appear to be aware of its revolutionary potential. Others simply do not care. As a result, ‘independent’ music has collapsed into conservatism. Geared so aggressively towards positive audience reaction, it has become virtually indistinguishable from feel-good propaganda. Musicians are now remembered if they can inspire a type of forgetting.
This ‘forgetting’ manifests itself in various ways. One niche market reveals an obsession with beach-culture. Ignoring the realities of sunstroke, cancer, dolphin rape, shark attacks and the generally unspeakable terror of the ocean, these bands have something to say that is about as conceptually advanced as Cliff Richard’s ‘Summer Holiday’. A garage-rock front appropriated from the Nuggets compilations of the 60s does little to change this. Atrocities occurring inland and slightly further away from the promenade strewn with KFC bones and ice-cream wrappers remain taboo topics of conversation.
Our national competitions, such as the recent Rolling Stone Rockstarter, require musicians to debase themselves, as well as the audience, by essentially begging for votes when they are not loudly endorsing whatever alcohol is sponsoring the event. In short, it has become anathema to trade in anything except temporary amnesia and that most unsociable of all activities: dancing. But this is hardly surprising in a country where the perversity of Heritage Day being aligned with gathering around a grill to toss dead flesh goes unquestioned.
In a country with a predominantly guilt-ridden conception of whiteness, a disenfranchised sense of blackness, and an increasingly more confused sense of national identity, the independent music scene has steadily adjusted itself to a type of denialism. At what point does the rampant optimism of most South African music become irresponsible? The Greek philosopher Diogenes the Cynic was reported to have said: “Dogs bite only their enemies, whereas I bite also my friends in order to save them”. But what we have is an epidemic of face-licking. There is a lot to be frustrated about, but very little frustration. Our music either directly perpetuates post-independence myths of national unity or amounts to shake-your-hips banality. And is there even a difference between the two?
One only has to recall the ‘SHOUT’ initiative of recent years, where a selection of South African musicians gathered together in order to tell us that they were against crime. After the nation recovered from this most controversial position, we were left to wonder whether those who were not involved in the campaign were, presumably, ‘for’ crime. As an overestimation of the ability of local musicians to engender social change it was startling, particularly when the lyrical concerns of the performers involved were the poetic equivalent of a 6-piece puzzle.
Our musical culture has become dangerously consolatory instead of transgressive. So unthreatening to the status quo, in fact, that two more images are required to explain it. The first is of a smiling, toothless baby. Endearing to look at for some, but still essentially toothless. The second is of an individual afflicted by paraphilic infantilism, a disorder where adults pretend they are babies. Humorous to look at for some, but still essentially an adult pretending to be a baby. Our musical constellation is the entwined bodies of the rodeo clown, the toothless baby and the adult in diapers. Anyone who has felt affronted by the lack of satirical clout and almost total non-engagement with the intellect in our current musical climate will understand these images. Everyone else will be offended, possibly due to their complicity.
Is this how South Africans make music in good faith in an era of outrage and disappointment? When one of the most popular bands in the country, The Kiffness, write something called ‘The Broccoli Song’, is it not disingenuous to label it harmless fun instead of collective brain death? Who decided music was no longer the place for dissatisfaction, whether politically or personally motivated? What will posterity find when they look back to see what music was being created during the era of ‘Rainbow Nation’ fraudulence? Imagine a new era where musicians who urge you to have a good time are bottled off stage, or where bands are judged based solely on what they have to say? This, at the very least, would minimise, amongst other things, the use of Wes Anderson style typeface and goofy band biographies.
Amidst this state of affairs are many ‘superfluous’ bands. In Russian literature, the ‘Superfluous Man’ was the individual whose interests and concerns did not quite match up with the interests and concerns of the state at large. As such, they were superfluous, extraneous, unnecessary, unwanted. The superfluous men and women of South African music are likewise out-of-step with prevailing musical expectations. Their thoughts are actively discouraged in the current climate, but would be readily accepted if they were more clownish, toothless or infantile. Most of these bands we will never even hear about, as most of them will simply give up.
Johannesburg based Atom Band, one of the more perplexing features in local music, is one of these superfluous bands, and to take them as a case study is illuminating. In many respects, they represent bewilderment between two equally valid courses of action: engagement with the failure of the body politic and depressive disengagement as a form of protest. Guitarist John Shepherd, in a recent interview with the incomprehensible website ‘onesmallseed’, mentions that the group’s interest in the post-punk genre lies in its awkward location ‘post-revolution’. The band is aware that our own revolution, in a sense, either failed or is always arriving, and that it may also require personal examination instead of political sloganeering to make sense of this. Thankfully, they do not take this to mean that they must write songs about saggy bottom speedo swimmers ala Desmond and the Tutus.
Atom Band, like all the other ‘superfluous’ groups, make little sense in the current musical culture of this country. What place does this music have in South African society? What chance does it have of finding an audience? To problematise this further, the band appears embarrassed at the prospect of marketing themselves in any serious way. Aggressive campaigning to win over the hearts and minds of the population is probably about as appealing to them as a music video where they jump off low walls, stroll on the beach or laugh.
New bands are faced with the pressure of either putting on the clown suit or trying to make an artistic statement that is not blind to what is certainly not the endless happy-dance of the society around them. Consider this offensively optimistic lyric from the latest Shortstraw song, Couch Potato: “Cheer up / Something’s got you down”. Let’s talk about the things getting us down, instead of immediately trying to cheer up. In this time of dangerous optimism, upcoming artists who may wish to express painful realities instead of escapist fantasies can adopt such lyrics as a reminder that they have work to do. Their mantra can be the following: I cannot die, or else this goes unchallenged.
- written by Prince Myshkin
Atom Band - Loosely defined no wave & post punk