Monday, April 07, 2008

What Ian Svenonius Stands For (an ode to radical music)



Listening to the Make-Up the last few days got me thinking about radical politics and music. When I was a university student, I was involved in some bands and I helped set up shows for traveling bands in Santa Cruz. On more than a few occasions, my basement family room was a full fledged rock club, and I look back on it fondly. I hear that the house show is getting harder to do in a lot of college towns (thanks to police departments cracking down on noise violations in neighborhoods), and it will be a sad day when small touring bands will no longer have the national network of houses to play at.

As is to be expected from the DIY community, you come across a lot of radicals both in the scene and playing in bands. I would wager that half the groups that played my home would have described themselves as anarchists or socialists of some stripe, and it wasn’t uncommon to attend a show that sold more books on politics than it did records.

Now that I am an old grumpy man, I generally roll my eyes at bands that have an overtly preachy political message. However, I will always love the “get out there and just do it” mentality behind the punk movement, and as long as there are kids willing to see the country and play music, it will thankfully exist. It undeniably changed me life, but I have outgrown the need to get political discourse from a bunch of 19 year old kids whose only qualification is their ability to strum some chords.

But I do love over the top radicalism, and Ian Svenonius (the head of The Nation of Ullysses and the Make-Up) is the king of sonic anti-authoritarianism with a tongue-in-cheek political agenda. Steve Huey wrote about Ian’s first band “(Their extreme politics) filled not only their lyrics but their loquacious liner notes, which the group itself often referred to as "propaganda." Much debate ensued over how firmly the group's collective tongue was planted in its cheek; they seemed far too over the top to be completely serious about their pose, but threw so much effort into it that their hearts seemingly had to be in it to some degree.” Here are just a few outlandish statements Ian has made concerning his bands and musical projects.

The Conservative Nation of Ulysses (conservative refers to a reserved manner of dressing and acting) is a violent and rejectionist group operating out of the Washington, D.C. area who seek to 'wreak their vision on the world' through the medium of music. Despite fiery condemnation by both liberals and the right, and a virulent campaign waged by the media and by parents' groups, their aggressive campaign seems undaunted, and schoolyards now more than ever chime with the chant: 'Ulysses, Ulysses, little flower, beloved by all the youth.'"

And…
Basically, we propose something like a rhythm high - a Gospel congregational setting. We've assimilated the trappings of gospel music to revitalise rock'n'roll. What could be mistaken as conservative is just us presenting ourselves as a united body, not as a bunch of individualistic freaks. We're not so much interested in freedom as discipline.

Some of Ian’s “political party" propaganda.





While my politics have changed over the last several years, I still enjoy Socialist Realism and anarchist punk polemics, and having them presented as Ian does through his musical acts presents the late 60’s leftism in a way that most of those advocating such ideas rarely do: as a ridiculous joke. It’s not that these ideas don’t have merit and should not be debated, just that the idea that some young artists and musicians are going to spearhead a proletarian revolution to destroy all authority, is beyond outlandish. Every smug punk leftist would surely see the distorted reflection Svenonius casts back at them, and it shouldn’t make them feel content. These political positions are wonderful in the realm of entertainment, but lack real substance, and Ian’s bands and writings show just how silly it is to take your ideological direction from a rock band.


Oh, and the music isn’t half bad either.

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