Evelyn Morris recently put together an excellent feature for LISTEN, writing about how a sexual trauma impacted her interest in the music of her tourmates Shellac in order to bring it to Steve Albini’s attention and have a discussion about the peculiar disparities in Albini’s self-proclaimed ally status and the crowd his music often attracts. As a long time admirer of Steve Albini’s art in all its forms I of course immediately read the piece, because to love Steve Albini The Artist is to also love Steve Albini The Essayist; despite perhaps being best known for his behind the scenes status as the engineer of some of the greatest accomplishments in indie music, Albini is never content to stay behind the scenes as a personality. But in recent years I’ve had a really hard time squaring that love for Albini with his rhetoric in pieces like this, and the way he frequently appropriates hate speech and stereotypes of and from cultures he’s not a part of (the double whammy of his band Rapeman and its “Hated Chinee” single, for instance), as well as the ritualistic violence perpetrated against women in a lot of his music and music he either produces or covers. Albini has long proclaimed his goal is to force people who actually believe in hate to be confronted by it– “discomfort is maybe the reason to do it,” as he explicitly says here. But as Albini also admits to Morris, there is a significant “bro contingent” that is drawn to his music and acts on it, and this issue isn’t unique to Albini as a “satirist,” it’s a common problem among straight white men who believe their shocking art is a weapon against these bro contingents. In other words, the shocking lyrics they present are merely the status quo in our culture, and their embrace of them, however ironic they might appear to be, is doing real harm to the groups they claim to be allies to. Nothing Albini is saying is actually subversive or shocking except to fellow white liberals, who can giggle at one of their own adopting the pose of a racist, homophobic, misogynist.
The song Morris singled out in her piece, “You Came In Me,” is a particularly interesting example of the way this pose negatively impacts someone who has lived through its “irony.” As Morris says “The somewhat comical delivery of the song seemed to trivialise my experience, to make light of a situation I had taken so long to get over.” The song is a back and forth between a woman who is sexually assaulted by a man, an anonymous party hearing her talk about it and the man himself, whose response to the title phrase is “What’d you think I was gonna do?/That’s why I’m fucking you!” Morris is not only a former Shellac tourmate but also a long time fan of the band and while she had previously used the band’s music to channel what she calls her feminist rage, the more she heard this specific song, the more troubled she was by a significant number of elements of the band’s identity. “You Came in Me” isn’t the only reason why Morris and Albini have a dialogue, but it is a key part of it, and Albini’s response to Morris’ criticism strikes me as especially symbolic of his larger issues. After mansplaining that the joke of the song is that men are just biologically constructed to ejaculate in women and then confessing that one day he will probably have to answer for how MRA culture might use his lyric narratives, he brings out that immortal shield of white men saying offensive shit, “this is just fiction.” Albini’s retort that his “standard dismissal would be to remind people that Agatha Christie wasn’t herself a murderess and get on with my day” shows how disconnected he is– the people he is supposedly being an ally for actually can’t get on with their day, they have to question their safety around every man they interact with, 24/7. It’s not something women can just move forward from. It’s not that people can’t grasp that the lyrics he writes are fiction, it’s that they are troubled by how he gets to adopt and drop this guise whenever he wants, however he wants.
Albini extends that thinking further, claiming that part of what makes him a great ally is that he “thought it was worthwhile to bring to light this kind of thinking, normally kept between dudes or as an internal monologue, in an unvarnished presentation.” The natural follow-up question is do any women not operate on at least some level of assumption that most men are like this? And what is the value in continuing the assumption that this is how men are and this is how things will be? It’s this thinking that begets “boys will be boys” dismissals– we are told this is how men are and rather than work towards making men not like this, we just continue to bring awareness to it, enabling men to claim biology as a defense, an insurmountable obstacle. And as we go deeper into Albini’s ouevre, that kind of explanation for what he’s doing becomes harder to take seriously. Take the aforementioned “Hated Chinee,” for instance, which unleashes a number of outdated Chinese stereotypes before collapsing in a flurry of lines delivered in a mock Chinese accent: “Hated chinee/Smoke opium/He smoke it all night long/And his boy he masturbate.” What is Albini bringing to light here? That racists exist? That racists have existed?
When you think on Albini’s explanations for why he does this with his lyrics, it’s hard not to view him as an immensely condescending figure rather than an ally. Albini’s assumption that what women and people of color need is for ignorant, hateful thinking about them to be “brought to light” would be laughable if this wasn’t the thinking of so many other men like him. The modern day equivalent would be those people who constantly compile racist tweets they encounter and show them to people of color, as though this is somehow illuminating when really all they want to accomplish is to show how they’re not like those people. Morris even brings up how these incidents being “brought to light” in song only harmed her and Albini’s response to is to reiterate that the most important thing is for an artist to be honest, while also contradicting himself by later reasserting that his songs are usually fictional narratives, they don’t reflect him or what he believes. He is selective in the honesty he presents– it’s not his honesty, just society’s honesty, and what he believes is most important is that he remind people that this is the honesty that exists while distancing himself from it.
What makes it worse is that when Morris brings up an incident where a known harasser was being inappropriate in the crowd at a Shellac show, Albini waves this off and commends his fans for self-policing, before somewhat glibly asserting that he trusts Morris isn’t lying about this “phenomenon.” It’s baffling that a self-proclaimed ally would skirt responsibility in a situation where they actually have the power to do something (and quickly also make it clear they “trust” this isn’t a lie) while constantly reminding a fan of the other, more metaphorical instances of help they provide but it makes sense the more Albini talks about this facet of his personal philosophy. Specifically, Albini speaks of two examples of harassers in the messageboards connected to his studio, and how one fits his ideal notion of how a harasser should be dealt with while the other he considers to be the opposite. In the first, a longtime member of the community who had been perceived as a positive force was outed as a harasser and eventually ostracized by the community. In the second, a woman came forth and claimed to be speaking on behalf of other women and targeted another poster who was eventually not found by the community to be guilty of harassment. The woman who accused this harasser was then ostracized from the community, but not before Albini claims he was dragged into the mess, though it is necessary to point out that Albini says he and his forum administrators did not get involved from a discipline standpoint. Albini is adamant that self-policing is more effective than the intrusion of any authority, even though he also admits that self-policing failed in the second example. Essentially, Albini wants to take a Libertarian view of social politics, merely presenting problems to the populace and then letting them determine how to act, even as his lyrics reflect his view that society is basically vile and irresponsible. What Albini doesn’t want to do is intervene as an ally and lend power to the disenfranchised party, which is the sort of thing an ally would typically be expected to do.
This lazy, uninvolved tactic ends up being symbolic of Albini’s lyrical style on the whole. Rather than create truly offensive, subversive works that act against the status quo rather than reflect it, Albini is satisfied with merely shining a light on things most of us are well aware of at all times. I don’t hate Steve Albini, he has been an important and beloved figure in my cultural development, but I want him to be better. I want Albini to have more conversations with the Evelyn Morrises of the world and not fall back on a laissez faire approach to subversive art. I want Albini to confront the issues within his material and evolve rather than continue to fall prey to the privileged stances that enable him as much as the figures he claims to be working against. Or to be more direct, rather than give the disenfranchised a flashlight, I want him to give them a flamethrower.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover