Over at Houston Press, where I am also a contributor, David Garrick started something of a controversy over the new Turbonegro album, ROCKANDROLL MACHINE. Summed up, the situation is this: There’s a line on the song “Part III: RockNRoll Machine” that goes, “I’m cheaper than a Mexican.” Garrick’s article questioned whether that lyric was racist or just clueless. The band and Burger Records failed to respond to an inquiry at press time, though they did so after the story blew up among fans. The statement reads…
“We are all somewhat taken aback by the malignity of your recent article to be honest, you are taking one line from a song totally out of context. Would appreciate if you could print this full answer from the band:
Our first thought when we saw this: Is this clickbait? A full piece based on a line from a song sung in the first person by a character; a creepily love-sick cyborg bragging about how he is going to take over the world and destroy the job market. He’s also a reactionary and a bigot. Pretty satirical stuff, but obviously Lenny Bruce, Paul Krassner and Dick Gregory have checked out a while ago.”
“Clickbait” is a term I detest. All headlines are clickbait. That is their purpose, and whether you agree with Garrick or not, there’s no arguing that his article was exactly what the headline promised. That aside, the whole kerfuffle raises some very interesting questions about the responsibility of offense. Mainly, should Turbonegro have anticipated an article like Garrick’s? I say yes.
When we were in The Black Math Experiment together, Bill Curtner told me the worst thing about writing a song was that someone had to hear it. I always took that to mean that once you create a work it’s out there in the world being interpreted however the consumer pleases. That makes something like context a little dicey, and when it comes to music in an age where liner notes are so rarely a thing, it puts the onus of understandability on the artist. Anyone claiming that understanding lyrics should be obvious hasn’t heard Meat Loaf complain for decades about being asked what he won’t do for love despite the answer literally being part of the pre-chorus.
Back when Jason Rohrer’s video game The Castle Doctrine came out, there was some similar backlash against the way the game handled having a wife. Basically, robbers could murder the player’s wife and claim half of the player’s money. When critics mentioned that this was an example of toxic masculinity, Rohrer explained he meant it as a critique of that concept. People pointed out that the critique was indistinguishable from an example, much as Turbonegro’s lyric is supposedly an obvious joke. Without the artist present to explain it, the content doesn’t come across as it is allegedly intended.
My favorite rock and roll novel of all time is Michael Shilling’s Rock Bottom, which follows a band called Blood Orphans that was seconds away from super-stardom before an article in Spin similar to Garrick’s brings them down and leaves them broke at the end of a lackluster tour. The band’s lyrics for a song called “I Also Have a Dream” are called racist (“I want a cock as big as MLK/So I can walk down the street and yell, ‘Ladies, this way.’”). Matters aren’t helped when their drummer and lyricist explains it’s a joke and, “I’m one-eighth full-blooded Cherokee. I know how racism feels. Lighten up.”
In all these cases, they’re sort of stuck with one of the lamest defenses in artistic history. You can call something a joke or satire all you want, but if it doesn’t land then it’s not a very good one.
By Garrick’s own admission, most of the fans of Turbonegro he’d met were fine with the joke and felt completely comfortable with it. The fact that a large part of Turbonegro’s fan base, at least here in Houston, is Hispanic lends credit to the idea they’re a niche act with a close-knit following and are not meant for wider mainstream consumption.
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! I promise that ICP doesn’t lay awake in bed at night worried about what’s going to happen if someone takes a single lyric and calls them racist. The Juggalos couldn’t care less.
If that’s the sort of band that you want to be, be it to the hilt with my blessing. However, don’t write the author of a critical article complaining about the “malignity” of a piece dissecting a lyric that you neither bothered to explain or answer journalistic inquiries about. You can’t cultivate that sort of closed, in-joke environment and then get mad because someone outside your comfort zone didn’t understand it and found it offensive.
Trigger warnings get a bad rep, but one probably would have been helpful here. Had Turbonegro bothered to put out some sort of press release or public statement anticipating a possible reaction to the lyric then Garrick never would have written his piece. He’d have the answer to his question, and Turbonegro wouldn’t sound like quite so whiny and pretentious. Lenny Bruce, indeed.
If you don’t care who you offend, ACTUALLY DON’T CARE. Let the work stand on its own, and any critic who fails to smell what you’re cooking is just a casualty of that approach. On the other hand, if you’re like most people and you do care that most people not think you’re racist, maybe take a look over your work one last time and ask yourself how easily something might be misconstrued. Just because you think something is hilarious doesn’t mean most other people will. If context is important to a created work, then the artist better make double plus sure that the audience knows that context. If they don’t, then they can’t really come crying about being misunderstood.