Local Current Blog

On Viet Cong and culture clashes: Should punk rock be politically correct?

Calgary quartet Viet Cong (Publicity photo)

Around the same time that Calgary-based punk quartet Viet Cong are pulling up to the 7th St. Entry and starting to load in their gear for their show tonight, nearly 200 members and allies of the Vietnamese-Minnesotan community (enough to fill the Entry, if this were a different show), will begin a peaceful protest march through downtown in response to the band’s racially insensitive name.

Today’s protest is the culmination of several weeks of meetings and petitions protesting the band’s appearance in Minneapolis, an effort that has been spearheaded by the Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota, the Vietnamese Organizers of Minnesota, and Pan-Asian Voices for Equity, and has received support from the larger Asian-American community. Back in their home country of Canada, Viet Cong promised that they would change their name at some point in the future, and were meanwhile honored at the prestigious Polaris Music Prize Gala for their album Viet Cong.

It’s a story we’ve been following in-depth here on the blog, and one that has spurred some thoughtful reactions from Asian-American activists here in the Twin Cities. These minority voices from our community should absolutely remain at the center of this discussion, and I highly recommend you read this entire statement from the movement’s organizers to understand why they would like to see Viet Cong’s name changed immediately and why they plan to protest tonight.

But I couldn’t help but notice a chorus of even louder voices chiming in on the Current’s Facebook page. As tempting as it is to follow the time-tested blogger adage of Never read the comments, the disconnect between the minority voices quoted in the stories and the overwhelmingly white readership was too large and too glaring to ignore.

In response to an article where Jillian Tran, president of the Vietnamese Student Association of Minnesota, is quoted as saying that, “the name ‘Viet Cong’ is offensive because my grandpa and uncles were in the Vietnam War, fighting their own people. Viet Cong is a name that you would call the Vietnamese communists. When I was growing up my uncle would tell me stories about how terrible the war was and I know how much he suffered over there. He would never be able to go back to the same home he grew up in,” Facebook comments included:

“This political correctness is getting out of hand.”

“Some people will take offense to anything…”

“You millenials and your micro aggression mind set are pretty embarrassing.”

And, “you crazy uptight ultra pc liberals jackasses are giving people like Donald Trump legitimacy, because people are so tried of your s***.”

When the second article was published, in which Denise Hanh Huynh, a founding member of the Vietnamese American Organizers of Minnesota, was quoted as speaking up at a community meeting and saying, “If I had a music venue, as a Vietnamese person, would I do this? The answer is obviously no. But they don’t see us as part of their community. And that’s a problem, because I see First Ave as part of my community,” responses on Facebook included:

“It’s a band name, toughen up.”

“Dear Vienamese Minnesotans, if you were offended by this band name you’re gonna really love this. [link to Dead Milkmen video]”

“Lol, this is stupid. Keep the name.”

“Welcome to the age of everyone being offended by everything.”

And ever still, the chasm of cognitive dissonance widens.

Because my specialty is music criticism, I found myself drawn to the comments that questioned whether a punk band’s name was supposed to be politically correct. Isn’t this genre supposed to be edgy? Isn’t counterculture supposed to make us uncomfortable? And what about Joy Division? The Dead Kennedys? The Sex Pistols? What ever happened to rock ‘n’ roll, man? Is nothing sacred anymore?

Setting aside for the moment that the band Viet Cong has repeatedly stated that they had no real motivation behind choosing their offensive name, and setting aside for the moment that artists have every right to exercise free speech if they so choose, we find ourselves at the center of a larger and more universal issue that is perplexing our country at the moment. As we find ourselves more and more connected, and as social media makes it easier than ever for underrepresented voices to speak out, create confluence, and get their messages heard, we are no longer in an era where white, privileged, middle-class creatives with alt aesthetics can get away with speaking on behalf of the entire countercultural movement. There are more voices than the ones we’ve historically paid attention to in this way.

There’s a reason why people respond to a protestor pleading for us to acknowledge that “Black Lives Matter” with the phrase, “but all lives matter.” There’s a reason why people respond to women sharing their stories of harassment and sexual assault with responses like, “but not all men do that.” And there’s a reason why the audience at the first GOP debate went apes*** when Megyn Kelly called Donald Trump out on his rampant misogyny and he responded by saying, “I think the big problem this country has is being politically correct.”

We are in the midst of an enormous shift—in understanding, in overcoming our cultural dissonance, in learning how to reckon with our past and find ways to atone, forgive, and heal. The racial and economic divides in our society have never felt so deep in my lifetime, but the air has also never felt quite this electric, either. More perspectives are being heard. More people from varying backgrounds are gaining access to platforms and sharing their own stories. Of course it feels like people are approaching things from completely different planes of existence. It’s because we’ve been living on these different planes for far too long.

Maybe to be truly countercultural right now, punk rock needs to return to its roots—of embracing outsiders, giving outcasts a space to feel comfortable, making sure silenced voices are able to be heard. Maybe instead of offending for no reason, it needs to shut up and listen. To quote Chris Cornell, of all people, “Maybe sincerity is the new punk.”

The peaceful protest begins at 5 p.m. tonight at the Minneapolis Central Library, and a march will begin at 6:30. The punk rock show begins at 7.

 

Previously:

Vietnamese-Minnesotans to the band Viet Cong: ‘Change your name now’

Vietnamese-Minnesotan organizations ask First Avenue to cancel upcoming Viet Cong show

  • Pat

    Well the thing about the origins of punk rock was that it had a message, it was fueled by the injustice in whatever was happening politically or culturally at that time to bring awareness through the intensity of their music and lyrics. And in this situation it seems the more punk attitude is coming from the protesters. I’m actually surprised locally, nobody has taken offense to the Blind Shake yet, because that’s clearly a reference to the failed plot to bomb the world trade center by the Blind Sheikh from Egypt. But, everything when it gets to a certain point will offend someone, it’s just the nature of the world we live in.

  • Paul Comeau

    Well they should finally either keep it or change it… this waffling (several articles saying they’ve promised to change it, but then they don’t) comes off more and more as if they are riding the controversy as a marketing attempt. Keeps their name in the press as it were, but riding the “all publicity is good” train is kinda slimy in its own way…

    • funoka

      I agree. I get the rock ethos — I won’t call it punk because it’s deeper than that. Rock bands in many genres have been using communist/socialist/fascist/Nazi — let alone sexist — symbols for decades. From what I read, the band seems to have had no clue about the origins of the name before the controversy. Either they just thought it was a cool name or are lying. Times change too — you think it would be cool to make Hogan’s Hero’s in 2015? What about the Washington NFL team — think that name is cool?

  • David Via

    If the band was good I would go see the ISIS All Stars.

  • Michelle Campbell

    Brilliant article, Andrea. Thank you for putting this whole conversation into perspective.

  • Helm Matthews

    “racially insensitive name” The Viet Cong were a resistance group, not a racial group. They were fighting people of their own race. Or am missing something? I am completely capable of doing that.

    • Helm Matthews

      Well, also fighting Americans, but the people protesting were of the same genus as the Viet Cong.

  • NK

    I like your overall message, but what about this group’s music is even remotely punk? I just listened to some of it. It isn’t punk. It isn’t even trying to be punk. The label they are on, Jagjaguwar, is not a punk label, it’s very definitely an indie rock label. So if it isn’t punk and it isn’t trying to be punk, why smear “punk rock” as insensitive when this is clearly an example of some kind of indie rock or alternative rock or whatever that is at fault? Modern punk music (the underground kind) tends to be politically aware, intelligent, and, depending on the sub-genre to an extent, as politically correct as it possibly can be. It is unlikely to produce a band as dim-witted as this one proved to be by naming itself Viet-Cong.

  • Dan

    About as punk rock as the actual Viet Cong.