Talkhouse Contributing Writer Elizabeth Sankey is a writer and actress from London. She is also 50% of the band Summer Camp. The Summer Camp that wasn’t featured on Buffy. You can follow her on Twitter here.
Hookworms are a band who aren’t afraid to get angry. Self-professed admirers of the punk/DIY spirit, a recent NME interview saw lead singer MJ (aka Matt Johnson) discussing how upset he was that more people in the UK aren’t politically engaged: “It’s so disillusioning that even in 2013, 175 MPs would vote against gay marriage, but our generation’s non-reaction to it is embarrassing.” In fact, he can’t believe his peers aren’t writing socially aware songs, a mantle he and his four bandmates have shrugged on themselves. (While they’re at it, they’re not interested in so-called posh bands either — “I can’t connect with bands who own a fucking rideable lawnmower while people play cricket in the background,” MJ railed in the same interview. Personally, I’d love to hear music inspired by the Jeeves-and-Wooster garden party picture that description paints, but Hookworms aren’t as keen.)
So why are there so few political bands these days? Maybe it’s that injecting social commentary into lyrics can be very tricky: Be too specific and you forever connect your songs to a specific time. For example, mentioning Obamacare or the anger over Margaret Thatcher’s funeral may seem relevant and sharp now, but in five years’ time you could have the political equivalent of the 4 the Cause jam “Email,” released in 2000. (Sample lyric: “Can I download some of your pics to my Minidisc?”) But if you get it right, you’re looking at Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” or Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.”
Hookworms are a great band. Incredibly proficient musicians, they write discordant hooks that repeat and lace over each other beautifully before exploding and crashing around the room. They insist on being known only by their initials as they have “no interest in being celebrities.” Their lyrics inspire uncomfortable squirming with their heartbreaking honesty — well, when it’s possible to hear them. The fact that the vocals are so heavily distorted, enough to make them indecipherable, suggests their lyrical approach to politics seems to be more subtle, ideas delicately handled from a first-person perspective. For example, on “What We Talk About,” MJ seems to be singing about his own depression, rather than taking on more global issues: “Death did not matter at all.”
Maybe that implied reluctance is because audiences find outspoken bands harder to digest these days. Thanks to social media, there is an openness and accessibility with many artists that has never existed before: on Twitter we can get involved in the conversation between Lily Cooper and Azealia Banks about whether or not Mr. Cooper looks like a thumb. The days of poring over Rolling Stone, idolizing the artists featured in iconic black-and-white shots, are long gone — we’ve peeked behind the curtain and realized it’s really not that glamorous. They’re just people like us, so why should their opinions matter more than anyone else’s? When Amanda Palmer posted her poem to the Boston bomber, it sparked a huge internet backlash. Gawker called it “the worst poem of all time” while the A.V. Club said, “Amanda Palmer has somehow found a way to make the city’s marathon bombing about her.” While it’s not a new thing for musicians to make comments that offend, it is a new thing for them to be able to respond directly, instantly, and globally.
Maybe we can only take posturing and big statements from artists when their music is critically acclaimed, something associate music editor Michael Hann noted in his piece in the Guardian of April last year. “It’s a commonplace in consideration of art: separate the work from the person. Larkin’s poetry is not diminished by the racist, sexist content of his personal letters; Jerry Lee Lewis might have married a 13-year-old, but he’s still one of the founding fathers of rock’n’roll; Lou Reed’s entire public persona might be an insult to those who believe in politeness and common decency, but he still made those Velvet Underground records. What, though, if consensus holds your work is rubbish? Should that reflect back on you as a person?”
But then, it comes back to Kanye West, who recently sampled Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit” for “Blood on the Leaves.” His recent New York Times interview was ridiculed by many bloggers and journalists, with several pieces listing the six (or sometimes seven, depending on the article) most obnoxious things he said: “Like, I want the world to be better! All I want is positive! All I want is dopeness! Why would you want to control that?” Yeah. What a douchebag, right? How dare he! Thank God that David Bowie never said anything insensitive about the Nazis. I am so relieved Morrissey has never said something as stupid as blaming Beyoncé’s handbags for the near-extinction of the rhinoceros. Praise the Lord that John Lennon never said the Beatles were bigger than Jesus.
So I am glad that on their debut Pearl Mystic, Hookworms have striven to be politically and socially aware with their lyrics. It seems a shame that few bands are willing to make strong statements with their songs, particularly at the moment when there are so many issues to be addressed. But then what rhymes with Prism?