Concerning Viet Cong and the Politicization of Band Names

The cancellation of Viet Cong’s show at my alma mater Oberlin College is now receiving national attention.  They were scheduled to perform at the ‘Sco (which is the small club located within the Student Union) on March 14, but the promoter, Ivan Krasnov, cancelled it after receiving backlash over the offensive band name.

In the past I have argued that band/musical project names should hold nothing back from the artist’s work.  Specifically I have fought for people not to blindly hate Tom Krell’s band because of the silly name How to Dress Well.  In making that point in my top 10 albums of 2014 post my girlfriend and occasionally brutally honest editor (I am immensely grateful for this) told me that band names are important and that one should judge music based on its titles and artists to a certain degree.  She told me that it was especially important for Tom Krell, an independent artist who’s band name plays an enormous part in its image and promotion.  I grudgingly concede, especially after I asked a good friend the other day if he would listen to a band with the name How to Dress Well and his response was to laugh and say hell no.

While How to Dress Well may be a somewhat absurd name that decreases Tom Krell’s pool of potential new fans, the negative effect is nothing compared to Viet Cong.  If you chalk it up as “just a band name,” you discredit those who were or had family veterans tortured for years in prison camps.  No, discredit is not strong enough a word to describe the impact this name has on those directly affected by the Vietnam War.

In an interview, front man Matt Flegel laughs the controversy off.  Not only is he aware of the problematic connotations, but he dismisses a letter directly from someone who had family that were tortured.  It is repulsive to see his reaction, and based on the half-assed apology that he released today, he’s keeping the name.

Our band, Viet Cong, has existed for a little over three years now. When we named ourselves, we were naive about the history of a war in a country we knew very little about. We now better understand the weight behind the words Viet Cong. While we don’t take any concerns about the name lightly, we feel it is important to let you know that we never meant to trivialize the atrocities or violence that occurred on both sides of the Vietnam War. We never intended for our name to be provocative or hurtful.
We truly appreciate the seriousness of the feedback we’ve received, and we will continue to be open to listening to issues and concerns from all perspectives.
With love from the band Viet Cong.

There are several problems with this “apology.”  They acknowledge the band name is problematic and that they are in the wrong for choosing it.  They claim to “better understand” the appropriation they are benefiting from and “truly appreciate the seriousness of the feedback,” and yet have made no efforts to change their name.  They do not care, and to prove it, they end the damn thing with the damn name.

For those who believe that censoring artists for politically charged names is ridiculous should at the very least recognize that there will always be social backlash.  This band, bathing in its power and privilege, doesn’t want to aid a marginalized community and are actively promoting the racist notion that their feelings are invalid.  If you don’t see it that way, then consider starting a band called the Auschwitz (insert word here) and see how that goes.

So yeah, Oberlin added to its progressive reputation and cancelled Viet Cong’s show.  To his credit, promoter Ivan Krasnov made the tough decision to abort the event after he made the effort to bring them to perform.  In his issued apology, Krasnov explains the motives behind the decision and gives some really good points.  The one that I appreciated the most from a history major perspective was the citation of Oberlin’s commencement cap and gown tradition.  In the summer of 1970, Oberlin seniors refused to wear the cap and gown to their commencement ceremony and used the refund money to give to Vietnam War protest efforts or local community projects.  To this day, graduating Obies wear whatever they want.

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