I'm an avid listener of rap and hiphop in both my personal life and in a "professional" (ha-ha, right?) capacity, not only as a contributor to this fine newspaper's music section, but as a regular programming assistant and sometimes full-blown DJ/host for KEXP's Street Sounds. And, just like any fan of the genre, I place a special value on finding a great, forward-thinking, explicitly non-rap album to enjoy every once in a while. I thought I had found my very first of 2013 when a friend forwarded me You're Nothing, Copenhagen quartet Iceage's second record.
Hard and sharp but still youthfully chaotic, the experimental punk sound grabbed me from the start. The quartet's new album shows clear progress from their 2011 debut, New Brigade—taking more risks by venturing into no-wavy major-key progressions (see the driving opener, "Ecstasy"), hints of pop melodies (the Thin Lizzy–esque "Rodfæstet"), and even a light power ballad ("Morals"), while remaining firmly grounded in their fast and loud musical roots. I thought I had found a new favorite rock band, and planned on attending their March 21 show at Barboza. That is, until I was alerted to some serious allegations leveled against them, when all the band's alleged racist, fascist, and white-supremacist glory was brought up on music criticism website/think tank Collapse Board.
A Collapse Board contributor displayed a collection of the band's questionable imagery, pointing to the "New Brigade" music video (which shows the band members in pointed, hooded masks, carrying torches), singer Elias Ronnenfelt's zine illustrations (of an apparent white versus Muslim "race riot" and hooded figures—one even sporting a huge Iron Cross symbol—brandishing knives around an intimidated victim), guitarist Johan Wieth's Death in June logo tattoo (known Nazi sympathizer Douglas Pearce's band), and the list goes on. Even Iceage's own logo—used on flags, shirts, and the signature knives the band sold as merchandise on their last tour—takes elements from a life rune, a well-known hate symbol (one the Nazis used for the Lebensborn Project, a bizarre breeding program aimed at creating a future generation of perfect Aryan children). This certainly isn't the first time a European rock band has used a shock aesthetic, and after a more intensive listen to their lyrics (typical angst-ridden ramblings), these eyebrow-raising decisions seem to be just that—an aesthetic. When put forth as a vague "artistic choice" with no context or known intent, it becomes just an allegation that can be denied in interviews a thousand times over.
Not exactly the kind of stuff a multiracial Seattle resident wants to align his views with.
But then what had my views been in the past? One of the most notable recent media discussions about shock value involved Los Angeles skate-rap collective Odd Future, who took it further than Iceage with their (at that time) ultraviolent, homophobic, and misogynistic lyrical content (group "leader" Tyler, the Creator even frequently equated them with "black Nazis"). Though the genres (and races) of the accused are different, the discourse is almost identical from both sides, even defenders' go-to cop-outs. "Iceage can't be racists, their drummer is Jewish" is the new "Odd Future can't be woman-hating homophobes, they have a gay female DJ!"
I personally have listened to, "supported" (through buying music or attending shows), and even publicly defended Odd Future in comments on Line Out, The Stranger's music blog. So why does white-supremacist imagery used by young Danish kids scare me, when I "gave a pass" to artists with actual lyrics about raping women and degrading homosexuals?
The answer has everything to do with privilege. Being a straight male and long-desensitized rap fan, I was only lightly disturbed by, and had no real problem with, Earl Sweatshirt saying, "Truck-smack a faggot in his Shirley Temple" or Tyler, the Creator chanting, "Swag, swag, punch a bitch." While my inner moral compass still pointed to "wrong," there was no emotional connection firing off synapses in my brain, telling me I was truly offended.
But something about the evidence mounting against Iceage disturbed my left-wing, racial-minority frame of thought. The idea of potentially white-supremacist European youths gaining a dedicated following of like-minded fans actually alarmed me—probably in the same way that most decent people were alarmed by the potential of homophobic, misogynist rappers basically doing the same thing (though I'm sure neither of these even comes close to how alarming the potential reality of getting raped or randomly bullied/victimized while walking home late at night might be to a woman or gay man).
Maybe, as Iceage has suggested in multiple interviews, "it's only about music and, you know, feelings." This might all be bullshit, the product of bored people typing on the internet. They could just be a group of young dudes making hard-ass, modern punk rock, complete with an edgy aesthetic reflecting both the good and bad influences of their surrounding environment (this is the excuse I used for Odd Future, after all). But regardless of specific intent, violent or hateful ideas—especially ones directed against minority populations—can seep into other elements of culture, reabsorbing into the collective consciousness. Odd Future's popularity spawned plenty of copycats and wannabes using their same shock content, but without a trace of "artistic irony" that somehow "artistically" justifies it.
So while Iceage may not intend to be directly racist, fascist, supremacist, or any other kind of -ist, proliferating these negative ideas in the world, with little to no reason for it other than it just looks cool, potentially hinders much-needed understanding and progress on one of the realest issues in this corner of this country, if not the entire world.