We Rebuild What You Destroy
Welcome to Reasonable Things, an occasional newsletter about music, language, and meaning from Joel Heng Hartse.
OK, first: here's a 40% off discount code for my new book!
Go to the publisher's website here (https://wipfandstock.com/9781498293822/dancing-about-architecture-is-a-reasonable-thing-to-do/) and use the code Image40 at checkout.
There has been so much written about the Linda Lindas, and probably what we don't need is another middle-aged white guy writing about a band of Asian American and Latina teenagers.
I just want you to know:
This band and their new record are perfect.
Like so many others, I was immediately captivated by the viral video performance of "Racist, Sexist Boy" that made its rounds last year, but it's a real delight to find that they can write fantastic, tight pop-punk songs beyond this one (which, don't get me wrong, is an absolute masterpiece).
Some years ago, I found myself in front of a classroom full of some of the brightest young people in China. Inexplicably I had gotten myself into a situation in which I was going to attempt to explain the origins of punk rock to them. I had been tasked with teaching "British Culture" to a group of Mainland students bound for the University of Hong Kong, and I decided to teach them about the Sex Pistols. Before class started, I wrote one phrase in large letters on the chalkboard:
"Get pissed; destroy"
I tried to explain why this simple couplet from the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy in the U.K." said so much about the time, place, and culture of England in 1977 -- not that I really knew what I was talking about -- but also somehow explain the inchoate power of this slogan and the song it came from, the directionless rage that does, in fact, feel like a righteous response to the inhumanity of modernity, but also seems to fuel nothing more than the desire to create chaos for its own sake. I still feel strongly that every young person needs to hear this song, take seriously what it is saying, and decide what to do next.
The next time I heard a punk rock line I felt was a worthy successor to this was Be Your Own Pet's "Black Hole" in 2008:
“Eating pizza is really great
so is destroying everything you hate”
I liked this even more, and not just because the music is, in addition to being angry, so joyful. Jemina Pearl somehow seems to give a target and purpose to Johnny Rotten's impotent rage, a righteous cause on which the teenager can focus his or her energy and anger -- eat pizza, trample injustice. I was on board with that.
But man, I was just floored, absolutely stunned, when I heard Eloise Wong growl, in the middle of "Racist, Sexist Boy" :
"We rebuild what you destroy"
And man, I just thought of course. Of course.
I am loath to disturb the holiness of that moment in the song by attempting to explain why I felt that way, but let me just say that although the song was inspired by an actual event (in which the band's nine-year old drummer was told by a classmate that his dad had told him to "stay away from Chinese people" at the beginning of COVID), it's a shame that when Epitaph records originally released the song as a single, they kept the stage-banter explanation of this event tacked on to the intro; not because it's bad, but because ultimately the song is about so much more than a single racist event experienced by a young girl. This song is not just about "a" racist, sexist boy, in the same way that racism is not about deciding who is "a racist." This is a song about, to paraphrase the apocryphal Dorothy Day quote, a "filthy, rotten system."
And please notice -- this is important -- who is doing the destroying here. It's not the girls tearing down society, like the Sex Pistols, or even destroying the titular bully (let's call him the RSB), like BYOP might have been singing about. It's about rebuilding what has already been destroyed by the RSB. It's the sound of a group of young people -- no, it must be said, not simply young people, but young women of colour -- looking around and saying "well, somebody has really screwed this place up. Guess we better start fixing it." And the rest of the record does that. It's a tight half-hour of songs about growing up, friends, self-doubt, cats, and above all, hope. It's glorious. Long may this band run.
Thanks for reading, and as always feel free to get in touch!
If you'd like to hear me talk about my new book and other music-y things, check out the following recent podcast episodes I've appeared on:
On Good Christian Fun I talked about the 90's Christian rock band PFR and my various attempts to meet them as a teenager
On BadChristian (sensing a theme?) I talked with members of the screamo band Emery about music criticism, its purpose, and how it hurts peoples' feelings sometimes
On Good Patron I talked about music writing as community-building and also about writing commentaries for mixtapes/CDs/playlists
Oh, and not a podcast, but if you want to check out the recording of the Zoom book launch we did a couple of weeks ago, which turned out great, you can see it here: https://vimeo.com/694286462
from Honolulu, HI