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Listen Cloze: A Portrait of Against Me!

"Sell out or set out against."
- Shit Stroll, 1997

""I wanna be a shot heard round the world, fucking unstoppable..."
- Armageddon, 2000

""Tell me, how could you compromise yourself like this?..
Have I forgotten where I've come from?"
- Jordan's First Choice, 2001

""Just give me a scene where the music is free...
And there's no need to shit-talk or impress..."
- Reinventing Axl Rose, 2002

"So can your pop sensibilities sing me the end of the world?
Well there's a lot of things that should be said,
So we're hammering six-strings machine-gun, inaudible voices
This is the party we came for, a new way on..."
- Cliché Guevara, 2003

""Foul play! There's a target on the audience -
Vampires! We're only in it for the money -
Diluted! We took the movement to the market -
So fuck us! We totally sold out the scene."
- The Shaker, 2005

"Protest songs in response to military aggression.
Protest songs trying to stop the soldiers' guns."
- White People for Peace, 2007

"The revolution was a lie."
- I Was A Teenage Anarchist, 2010

Against Me! are a great example of many phenomena that haunt counterculture bands - and tell-me-where-you-live-I-will-gig-in-your-toilet punk-folk most of all. I mean things like: a morbid fear of co-option and "selling out" (i.e. of success); the need to sermonize, to confirm one's membership in the unsold-out orthodoxy; inverse snobbery ("fucking radio rock!"); a love of levelling-down; and utterly restricted aesthetics.

AM! lived long in a place where "major label debut" means not "the beginning of your pro musical career", but its spiritual end. They got out, though only via the most impressive fanbase alienation of recent years. Come, follow them from Crass to blink-182, Plan-it X to Sire (and back?):


Lookee; feinting acoustic thrash from their first EP.
"I'm not dead yet.
Hope's not dead yet."
Just how hard can you hit an acoustic guitar? Even as young and hardcore as they are, there's "experiment" (compare the structure of this with Crass' "G Song" - each beguiling, lonely piano intros followed by thrash). Gabel's vox don't merit the word 'lyrics'; we are excess teen passion. Note that even as early as this EP there's "whoooooah"s and nice unison melody bits. Hey, what if we went quiet and then went loud!
  • I don't want to attack political idealism; why on earth would you? These are the people who are trying to care about the world, people who react to all the horrible shit - which no one totally avoids seeing - with proper rage and proper purity.
Oh yeah; because it's infested with posture, self-importance, intolerance and wilful technical ignorance. As such, large bits of it are an impersonation of a political movement. Lightly-donned, ill-conceived political idealism is a force preserving the status quo: firstly since, in rejecting due process and reform, it ends up achieving nothing; and secondly because, if-and-when it takes up direct action, it alienates and polarizes out people who could change things on grander scales.
"The personal is political; so, everything is political; and, if you're not making political épater le bourgeois! music then you're a fucking shill. With us or against us. All or nothing."
Which is beautiful but not true.
  • I don't want to attack DIY; why on earth would you? These are folk who care about their music's financial and artistic autonomy to the point of only needing to break-even from it (if that). These are folk who have freed themselves (and you) of the self-aggrandizing, fifty-foot-high-stage mythology that chokes rock music from its beginnings on.
Oh yeah; because in hermiting itself off, it necessarily disparages most people and the things most people like; demonizes things which actually do good, like trade; has no argument against capitalism beyond disliking some stuff; and cos it leads to tall-poppy syndrome. It's not clear that punk was ever about freedom.
Aside on Quality and "Artist Decay"
Note a pattern: On releases following an obscure, well-regarded début, band becomes shit. Purists and other corpses talk about this as artist decay, and there's no point denying it; people think it happens, in all media, in maybe most cases. And if people think there is decay, for them there is: we're consistently bad at judging quality, possibly because it doesn't exist.
Despite its frontin' and screamed historical content, this is really a love song across political doctrines. The bassline is pure doo-wop, a simple addition to the long list of punk songs that ignore the talk of "Year Zero" and the rejection of melody.
Around this time, Gabel reveals himself to be a blues hollerer in a long good tradition: Little Richard, Seeger, Springsteen, Keith Morris. It's a one-trick style, but perfect for both hardcore and the anthemic powerpop they've settled into.
Actually, from the start, a surprising amount of their songs have been romantic, Beat self-obsession. (see the political Science, below)
There's hints of anxious self-consciousness all the way through the discography; the last single is just the most gurningly blatant one. And then there's their getting tired of the pretence; sleep (passivity, peace) is a main motif all through. ("8 Hours", "Turn those Clapping Hands"). This is as it ought be; about many things, many brilliant shades of grey.
""And it's so much less confusing when lines are drawn like that
When people are either consumers or revolutionaries."
 - Those Anarcho Punks
Upon signing to Fat Wreck Chords, though - a successful, famously socially progressive, non-corporate, non-RIAA entity that apparently doesn't bother with contracts - there was ideological blood on the streets. "Disgruntled fans slashed the tires of their tour van in one town and graffitied it in another (scrawling “remember when you mattered” but misspelling “Against”). At a concert in Texas a protest band called Against Us! played in the parking lot outside the club. A writer for Maximum RocknRoll, the grand­daddy of DIY zines, went so far as to issue a fatwa against the band, listing tips readers might find handy for disrupting Against Me! shows (like pouring bleach on their T–shirt table). “He came to a show and let off a stink bomb,” Seward says. “We were like, ‘Well, this smells,’ and kept on playing.” Even in a notoriously balkanized subculture, this kind of abuse was over the top..."
By the time the pitchfork-toting anarcho-folk scene had proven what the band had presumably concluded - that their scene was elitist, self-obsessed and a deadend - they were on their way to Warner. Gabel recently got into some ugliness with a drunk kid angry at his pop music.
Was this a betrayal of the self? Are they a diluted shadow of their previously pure and righteous look at the world? No. Science time!
Proportion of songs with specifically political - not just shapelessly angry - lyrics in each Against Me! release:  
  • Vivada Vis: 33% ("In the Name of What?" "National Myth" and "This Is Control")
  • 12" EP: 40% ("I am Citizen" & "All or Nothing")
  • Acoustic EP: 33% ("Those Anarcho Punks", maybe "Reinventing")
  • Reinventing Axl Rose: 54% ("Starving", "Jordan's", "Those Anarchos", "Reinventing", "Baby I'm An Anarchist", "8 Hours" sort-of)
  • Eternal Cowboy: 28% ("Cliche", "Rice and Bread", "Turn those Clapping Hands" - their best)
  • Former Clarity: 29% (sort-of "Justin", "From Her Lips", "Holy Shit!", "Clarity")
  • New Wave: 40% ("New Wave", sort-of "Up the Cuts", "White People", "Americans Abroad")
  • White Crosses: 40% (1, 2, 6, 10)
So it's not lyrical dilution. The last album even calls out old Robert McNamara's war crimes, in a massive poppunk chorus. This is an excellent speech-act.
"Aha!" cries our strawman purist. "But they are politically diluted! Deed over word! Look what they did to Plan-it X! In their profiteering, they have abandoned DIY!"
No. This view is an analogue of admitting that you do not listen to music at all; you listen instead to artists, scenes and Propositions. Which you're free to do, but release me.
So we have reason to conclude the backlash against Against Me! is an aesthetic one; inverse snobbery about the amount of . Now, people who reject them for their pop-punk sound and sharp new wardrobe are right in one way - there is no easy separating content and style - but dead wrong about the politics of accessible sound.
One of their few convincing political treatments comes very late on, this strange, Minutemen-derived globalization drawl. Punk: no restriction on the "taste" of your lyrical content (nuclear terror, foetal meals, Hakenkreuz) but authoritarian restriction on style. Burn all flags but the black one.
"The past two years have been the best of my life, starting with the making of this record."
- Tom Gabel, 2009
It's difficult to pinpoint where the measures shifted and they stopped being punk, mostly because I don't care. New Wave and White Crosses are populist, post-emo rock'n'roll bullshit - but if you can't see past the rhetoric of "selling out", then, I dunno, maybe you just don't like people.
"Not punk if not only punk."
New Wave is unpleasantly self-conscious; more than half the album is about the music industry, as if they signed up to Sire just to make a musical report for the underground. Unrepentent too, mind; featuring the tall one out of Tegan and Sara. (And why not.)
What is interesting is that they didn't have to mature into pop-punk, the Green-Day-with-a-vocabulary that they did. As the Eternal Cowboy, the first Fat Wreck release, is a bunch of short vignettes that flirt with all kinds of sounds, deciding what to become. There's something that could become recognisably great folk. They might yet develop this more oblique stuff, pull more "Pints of Guinness". 
Even the name, "New Wave" is a stuck-out tongue - read it as "replacement of punk" the parvenu pop that "co-opted" punk in the 80s... And, with hindsight, the 2005 album title is another sly one.
This is profound cheese. Specific Springsteen. Wordy Weezer. Marxist My Chemical Romance. Weary of delusion. It is fine to let yourself be preposterous and generic, if you want to, and if you're good at it. If you disagree, I dunno, go fail to buy Vivada Vis! on eBay. Again.
(For once the music video genuinely adds to things - the first 1:30, where the crowd simply watches Gabel getting fucked up is far more potent than the polished stadium-punk behind would suggest. And then his massive grin at 3:11...)

Unlikely choruses in White Crosses:

- White Crosses
"Would anyone forgive Robert McNamara? In retrospect he had to admit There was a mistake in going to war without first asking all the questions."
- High Pressure Low
"I've got no judgment for you,"
- Ache With Me


"I do think that, unfortunately, a majority of kids out there aren’t necessarily interested. Instituting a draft might be the only thing that will really make them political. But it’s not just kids, most people in general are happy just to be ignorant to what’s going on."

Where does someone's right to prefer ignorance end? Doesn't the hateful state of the world justify focussed, active education / harrassment?

There's no easy answer - but slashing someone's tyres for wanting to do something else says more about your shallowness than theirs.

We keep moving up, because we can’t go back.”
- 2011,
and so on