Why Titus Andronicus are the Most Important Band of 2012

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By Jake Cleland

The past month has seen the gradual rise of a certain Twitter account called I Hate Indie Rock (@hateindierock) [now, apparently, shut down – Ed] who, depending on your perspective and how bothered you are by the looming infection of corporate interest in so-called indie-rock (have a guess where I stand), is either speaking truth to power or naively espousing the same anarchic rhetoric that college kids get such a bad rap for, the little Kants.

To give you an idea of what we’re dealing with here, a sampling of Tweets:

“Open question to music press: aren’t you tired of pretending to care about most of this shit?” (Yes.)

“The kinds of values and emotions proffered by most bands have more in common with telenovellas than any recognizable counter culture.”

“Just as a basic building block, moving music shows out of bars and into community spaces would be a seismic shift.”

And so on. Among the anonymous twit’s recurring complaints is that most bands essentially lack a moral compass. Most bands stand for nothing, and that’s a problem, although that most listeners don’t think it’s a problem is an even bigger one.

I suspect I Hate Indie Rock and I might have differing views when it comes to New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus. It takes a certain kind of conscientious anti-socialite to not find mantras like “THE ENEMY IS EVERYWHERE!” and “IT’S US AGAINST THEM!” cloyingly adolescent (though reclamation of adolescence seems a big part of why exactly Titus Andronicus speak so strongly to the group of people in question) and as far as rock anthems go I suspect contemporaries like the polish of The Hold Steady or the distilled ebullience of Japandroids are, sonically, much more palatable. Even more so because the aforementioned two bands, much as I love both, are if not apolitical (like such a thing exists for participating members of society) then covertly political, and that is a lot easier to stomach – not a criticism; a truism – than Titus Andronicus, who wear their hearts on their flags and fly them boldly above the trenches they used them to dig.

One of my favourite I Hate Indie Rock tweets is:

“The reason punk can’t be killed as a concept is because its best ideas have never been fully utilized or explored.”

When the 70s rolled around, punk offered a whole lot of promise, documented first-hand in any number of anthologies better than any twenty-something writing in hindsight on the website of a community radio station ever could, but to reiterate/summarise: a rejection of hippiedom’s gilded sexism (what do you think that “free love” stuff was about but a chance for guys to turn getting off into a political act?); a new shot at grassroots, working class idealism via DIY spirit; the idea that pop music could be written by folks not all that good at playing their instruments but who still had a lot to say and wanted it accompanied by guitars as violent as their dissatisfaction. The promise was essentially egalitarian, an acceptance that all people were equal and we’re all united by our shared discontent at the inarguable meaninglessness of life, and the pursuit of something to fill that void and affirm that just because life’s meaningless doesn’t mean it’s not worth living. Unfortunately by the time punk was chewed up and dribbled back into the mouths of people who, as Lester Bangs put it, “just last week graduated from The Rocky Horror Picture Show lines to skag-dabblings and now stumble around Max’s busting their nuts trying to be decadent”, punk had fallen into the same sexism and racism that plagued the society the whole scene was ostensibly trying to fix in the first place. Punk as an experiment failed by being an easy draw for people more interested in a catalyst for destruction than one for change, and pretty quickly it was upholding the same systems of power (white male privilege, for starters) it was supposed to challenge.

Wary of the risk of this getting too thinkpiece-y, in the past couple years I’ve seen people increasingly using punk in much closer alignment to its original promise than what’s stereotypically thought of as punk today. For every ‘Kill People Burn Shit Fuck School’ that gets stamped with being punk for its mindless, destructive value, civil-minded folks like Ted Leo and John Darnielle and Titus Andronicus are using it to reclaim the idea that punk means subverting inequality like patriarchal dominance and working to change the attitudes of people upholding a broken class system because they’ve been conditioned to do so. If the root of I Hate Indie Rock’s dissatisfaction is, at least partially, in the indifference of most bands, then Titus Andronicus are part of the solution.

For any conscientious young Tumblr-grown radical (what a laugh that basic human compassion is still considered a challenging concept), there’s a perpetual feeling of frustration and disappointment that accompanies the battle for understanding. When you’re vocal about the hurt your friends bring into the world with casual bigotry, inevitably you end up losing some of those friends. The Black Keys played here on the 31st and in the days leading up to it, my various feeds were clogged with friends not only excited to hand over an absurd amount of money to see them but went as far as proclaiming them one of the best bands in the world, when in fact their music portrays an almost pathological hatred of women and glorifies the kind of 80s hard rock machismo that Kurt Cobain died trying to dismantle, and I was not surprised to find that the reaction to telling those people that they were endorsing a band on the same ethical level as Nickelback was generally the accusation that what I was saying constituted a hipster pose and really I just didn’t like ‘em because they’re popular.

Don’t know why it’s so hard giving a shit/When everybody’s telling him he’s full of it.

It’s simply true that most people are affronted by the idea that passively engaging with the world also contributes negatively to it. Everyone wants to feel like the good guys but the path of most convenience is often marked by people so self-interested that in any fictional context they’d look like a Disney villain, and avoiding these people is incredibly difficult. I don’t mean to preach or throw stones because I’m just as burdened by sin. I spent the past month watching Sons Of Anarchy, part of the pantheon of male wish-fulfilment entertainment along with Entourage, Californication, and almost every other television show ever made. There’s only one way to reconcile it: I think the least we can expect from ourselves is not to ignore art/entertainment that contributes to the marginalization and subjugation of other human beings but to be unrelentingly vocal about what’s so fucked up about it. Anything less is wilful ignorance and I’d rather cop to being a hypocrite. The alternative is a life of asceticism and I can say with certainty I don’t have the constitution to divorce myself from popular culture, though I’m frequently overwhelmed with the temptation.

And Titus Andronicus are essentially advocates of that idea, that even though your capacity to change the world as an individual is infinitesimal you have to try because anything less is at best selfish and worthless, and at worst destructive. I suppose what really gets me about Local Business is the recognition of the burden of responsibility placed on anyone aware of the injustice in the world, not in a you’re-fucked-I’m-fucked-we’re-all-fucked-together way but the reality that some folks are way more fucked than others so what’re you gonna do about it? Especially in Australia where, come US federal election time, one can’t help feel even more privileged than usual. Not that we don’t have our own insidious conservative values to deal with but at least for the moment you can feel relatively assured that no matter how fucked you are, there’s a pretty good chance that if you’re sick you’ll get treated and if you wanna go to school you won’t have to pay it off until you’re in a stable job.

All of this adds up to a summation of ‘punk’ that I not only find encouraging but immensely rejuvenating – a band who a) believe in something affirmative and b) are vocal about it because c) anything less is giving up, and all the pain and frustration endured because of it is still more noble than indifference and as Titus put it themselves, “If I got more comfortable/Surely I’m more complicit”. Not to mention anyone in a position to feel so-called liberal guilt is still a lot better off than the ones with whom they’re sympathising and that’s the factor of comfort, if only a slight one, that makes it all bearable. Punk is fascist, punk is dead, punk is a bunch of dumb kids reflexively feeding a pernicious cult of leather-fetishizing thugs. Fuck that. Punk’s alive and the gates to Bangs’s Promised Land are open once again. Titus Andronicus are headlining and everybody’s welcome, as long as they stand for something righteous.

Related posts: Titus Andronicus – Local Business (XL)

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