"Mother" : Idles Brings the Punk and Foreshadows a Disturbing Reality
Look to the punks, for they will show us the way.
March of 2017 seems like a distant memory in America. It was a time when the Trump White House had only recently become a reality, one that seemed tenuous and bound to cave in within a couple of months. Things seemed simpler and more binary (right and wrong, good and bad, etc), even if we were aware in an academic way that it only seemed simpler as a result of not really looking at the complexities of each issue. We were still nearly half a year ahead of a wave of widespread allegations of predatory behavior and sexual misconduct that would shake the worlds of politics, professional life, and entertainment, almost completely reframing the conversation in this country, a conversation we are still struggling to truly begin as I write this.
I don't usually skew toward the political here on Re-Critic, but pointing out the New World Order of Trumpism seems a necessary jump off for the fact that more than a few of the victims who have come forward with their stories have claimed that a major catalyst for their decision to do so was the election of a known, and admitted, sexual victimizer to the office of commander in chief.
"Trump's presidency has opened up the topic. Everything that happened during the election - it outraged so many women, so many women paid attention, and so many women that would never be involved in politics became involved…we have Trump to thank for that. I think it's been a huge inspiration for women to speak out against men."
(Trump victim Kari Wells, quoted by Lucia Graves in The Guardian)
As a male I have no way to relate to this, and I won't pretend to, but I like to think I can understand that reasoning: if this is what America has become, it is long past time that we clean out our closets, have a meaningful dialog, and try to build a positive future from the raw material of hurtful and humiliating past events. And so 2017 has become a watershed year for many a disturbing societal conversation, with sexual harassment being arguably the most significant and far-reaching of them.
And this all makes me think of Idles, a band from Bristol who released possibly the most savage and immediate punk album of the year back in March. Startlingly well-made and cohesive, Brutalism is rife with much of what could be considered "typical" punk song fodder - consumerism, intra-family dynamics, the declining middle class, city life, religion, and the ever-difficult dual minefields of love and dating all make appearances on the album, and all are given their proper due, usually consisting of a collective "fuck you" to all of it. Look no further than the searingly sarcastic chorus of "Well Done": "Well done! / I'd rather cut my nose off / to spite my face".
But don't go thinking that Idles have nothing to add to the conversation. Listening now, taking into consideration all that has happened in the interim, "Mother" seems like a moment of uncanny prescience that further makes plain that what is happening now is merely a by-product of something that has always been under the surface. Now, of course, we all know that generally antagonistic male behavior and aggressive sexual predation have been issues for as long as humans have been able to communicate - but there is something about being confronted with it in a catchy punk song that brings it to the fore in a way that is a bit more visceral and makes it harder to avoid.
The song is explosive - axe-murderer guitars, death-row bass, and incendiary drum work. And while it is, on the surface, an obscenity-laced rant about the narrator's mother (obviously), its final third contains a moment of clarity nestled in what has been up to that point an unrelenting fit of rage. Re-purposing a line often attributed to Margaret Atwood (although threat and security specialist and author Gavin de Becker also has a version of it), lead singer Joe Talbot lets loose with the following:
"Sexual violence doesn't start and end with rape / it starts in our books and behind our school gates / men are scared women will laugh in their face / whereas women are scared it's their lives men will take"
No explanation is necessary for how this fits into an overarching narrative in society right now as it keenly jabs at the fundamental elements of a misogynistic institutional violence that happens every day in the western world. Even its source, the author of The Handmaid's Tale, is telling. Published in 1985, the novel paints a dystopian nightmare in which women are subjugated (sexually, and in other ways) to powerful men and their families - forbidden to read or to gather in groups, they are forcibly kept underfoot by a Puritanical theocracy that has risen in what used to be the United States. The book and the ideas behind it have been a large part of the conversation this year due to its being the basis for an extraordinarily well-made television series, and for the show's so-similar-it's-scary dramatization of how the republic begins to fall in the world of the narrative.
The insertion of this phrasing into "Mother" feels like something designed to slap the listener in the face a little bit, confronting them with a difficult truth about modern life. At this point in the song as a listener, you are just catching your breath from repeated lyrical barrages about mothers and Tories and pretty colors. Then the groove settles in and the guitars recede into the background, giving a meditative backdrop for Talbot to deliver the message before picking up steam again for a final chorus of "Mother! / Fucker!" that carries the song to its endpoint.
As explanation for his band's political leanings, Talbot says in Loud and Quiet that "we talk about politics in the pub, so it'd be weird if we didn't sing about it." But even if that weren't the case, punk music taking on politics is a trope that is well-established. Therefore it only makes sense for Idles to take aim at the sociopolitical state of the world and lambast it. What keeps striking me about the pro-feminist message here, though, is that it so perfectly captures the milieu of our current cultural moment. And not only that, but it's packaged in such a perfect and inflammatory way, impossible to ignore. Once heard and understood, a listener has to come to terms with their own thought system on an individual level - in this way, the message isn't as much a wake-up call for the world at large as much as it is a way to get under the skin of each person discretely.
Let's face facts, Brutalism was always going to be on my list of 2017 albums that were (at least somewhat) overlooked en masse. But "Mother"'s vibrant engagement and dissection of a phenomenon that hadn't yet totally reared its head at the time makes the song seem, in retrospect, even more ingenuous than I originally thought it was. As a result, the rest of the album sparkles just that much more, and Idles is a band I will be watching closely in the future for any follow up activity.
It is always reassuring to know that someone is willing to speak truth to power and/or engage audiences in uncomfortable ways as we collectively trudge forward into an uncertain future. I, along with most people, hope that we can quickly embrace a new paradigm for how we talk to and conduct ourselves with anyone, especially those with different backgrounds, circumstances, and needs. But I know that the conversation will be a long one, when it finally begins in earnest, and I know from history that we will move in fits and starts when we move at all. Political messages like "Mother"'s are a necessary part of each person's journey of reflection, so we need to engage with music that challenges the more sociopathic norms that we have taken for granted for too long.
When the road seems long and the mountain seems insurmountable, punks might be the ones who light the way forward by illuminating things in all of us that need to be reexamined.