Revisiting Violent Femmes’ Self-Titled Album as a Window Into Impotent Teen Male Rage

By
Share:

If there’s been a defining theme of the last year or so on the Internet, it’s been what you might call nerd rage. The emergence of Gamergate and the feelings that fueled it might feel like a very 21st-century phenomenon, but it’s not — the Internet is merely a new (and, for many reasons, perfect) means for the expression of age-old vitriol. The question of where it comes from is important – it’s all very well to just wish these people would go away, or that some convenient bully might come by to flush their collective head down the toilet, but you can’t solve a problem without understanding its root cause. And curiously, you can find a pretty perfect framework for doing so in a single 30-year-old album.

It’s rough being a boy who can’t live up to what society seems to want you to do to be a man. It breeds frustration and resentment. The Internet over the last year has been full of that frustration and resentment, and while I certainly don’t endorse the actions of those behind it, like many men, at some fundamental level, I understand where they’re coming from. In my teens, I had similar feelings — a knot of anger and resentment and self-doubt, a feeling that the world was tormenting me with images of what I should be like and then denying me any chance to live up to them. How do you prove yourself a man if girls won’t even look at you? What’s wrong with them, anyway? Why are people talking about stuff like male privilege when being a male seems so shitty?

If you’ve never been a teenage boy, or you’ve forgotten what it was like, or made yourself forget, or never had to deal with the sort of feelings we’re discussing because you were the captain of the football team, it’s worth understanding where the toxic sense of resentment and entitlement that permeates so much of this culture comes from. And it’s surprisingly easy to do so, because you really only need to do one thing: listen to the first Violent Femmes record.

There have been plenty of artistic depictions of priapic, frustrated teen-boy angst over the years, of course, but nothing quite as perfectly self-contained and concise as Violent Femmes. The Catcher in the Rye is too genteel, Less Than Zero too casually nihilistic, Stand By Me too cute, Rebel Without a Cause too romantic. Violent Femmes, though — it’s all here, and that’s all that’s here. Every song is a portrait of poisonous youth, of self-loathing both internalized and externalized, of resentment and longing and rage. And, of course, of sexual frustration, a sense of desperate need that permeates every one of Gordon Gano’s keening, nasal syllables.

The album’s lyrics are certainly misogynistic, but that misogyny is just part of a general misanthropy. As is often the case in the real world, women are the focus of the narrator’s angst and anger, and it’s because society dictates that he measure his self-worth by his success (or lack thereof) in winning their affections. That verb’s not a rhetorical device, either: there’s a real sense here that life is a game at which you win or lose, a sort of competition in which the jocks get all the girls and all the glory, and beta males skirmish over whatever scraps of self-respect they can find.

This worldview, clearly, is a manifestation of patriarchy: it’s the system that privileges a certain model of masculinity that’s responsible for oppressing those who don’t live up to that view. Given that the model in question presents women as trophies to be won, you can see how resentment at being unable to “get” them has been so often directed at women themselves: but, as with so much to do with patriarchy, there’s a bitter irony implicit in this resentment, being that with their misogyny, the boys in question only serve to reinforce the very system that is oppressing them and women both.

As Laurie Penny wrote in her excellent piece for the New Statesman on nerd entitlement last month, “Feminism…. is not to blame for making life hell for ‘shy, nerdy men.’ Patriarchy is to blame for that.” This is 100 percent correct, and so is the point she goes on to make about the way that women fit into this vision of the world, existing purely to assuage male suffering. Referring to MIT professor Scott Aaronson’s description of male nerd suffering in high school, which inspired her piece, she notes that “there was not one mention of women in any respect other than how they might relieve him from his pain by taking pity, or educating him differently.”

Many writers (including me) have addressed these ideas in the abstract. But there’s a real power to hearing them expressed in song, and listening to this record is like stepping straight into the collective consciousness of r/redpill. It’s not a pleasant place to visit, but it’s a perfect exploration how the MRA worldview develops, how self-loathing metastasizes into violence, how patriarchal oppression makes misogynists out of those it deems beta males, and how PUAs see the world. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that writing in the first person doesn’t necessarily endorse or glorify the things being depicted. Press play.

“Blister in the Sun” The one that everyone knows, but actually also the least relevant track here. It’s about jerking off, apparently (or perhaps not), so conceptually it’s a perfect introduction about being a teenage boy. But beyond that? It’s a cursory introduction, really, albeit one furnished with one of the most memorable guitar riffs of all time.

“Kiss Off” If this record were a coherent narrative, this would be its dramatic finale — the protagonist sitting in his bedroom, ready to say one last goodbye to the world, counting out the pills he’s going to take and assigning a reason for each of them (“One ‘cos you left me/ Two for my family/ Three for my heartache/ Four for my headaches”). It’s a song that speaks of a generalized resentment against the world, directed both inwards and outwards — the suicide here is both an act of self-punishment and of revenge, one that inflicts vengeance both upon the self and upon the world that the self inhabits. There’s dramatic self-pity (“They’ll hurt me bad, but I won’t mind/ They’ll hurt me bad/ They do it all the time”) and a sort of bitter bravado (the famous “permanent record” couplet).

“Please Do Not Go” The song lyric as LiveJournal entry, in which Gordon Gano’s narrator introduces us to his dilemma: he’s in love with “a lovely girl” who doesn’t love him. It’s a story as old as the world, of course, and the subject of innumerable works of art. But it’s a story that’s been addressed ad infinitum for a reason: because it’s one that plays itself out anew for every generation. This is more romantic than what’s to come — there’s still an air of hope, rather than despair, in the narrator’s idea that confessing his love at least might convince her to return it.

There’s also a sense that he somehow deserves love, which is one of the great lies that society dangles in front of you as a kid: the idea that life is any sort of meritocracy, that good things come to good people. The truth, of course, is that women aren’t a reward for good behavior; they like you if they like you, and they don’t if they don’t. Not being an asshole isn’t something you do for a reward; it’s something you do out of respect for your fellow beings. That’s a realization that never comes to Gano’s narrator, and there’s also an ominous foreshadowing of violence in the fantasy of making the girl in question’s boyfriend “go bye, bye, bye…”

“Add It Up” “Add It Up” has always been seen as the centerpiece of this record, and rightly so — if there was ever a perfect expression of MRA angst and rage, this is it. The intro sets the scene: the narrator feels useless and victimized by the world, and he’s fantasizing about a day of reckoning wherein he will inflict his anger onto the world: “I get angry, and I will say/ That the day is in my sight/ When I’ll take a bow and say goodnight.”

The verses spell out a catalog of resentment, and the language is instructive: the narrator speaks of “get[ting] just one kiss, just one screw, just one fuck.” These are things to which he feels he should be entitled, and which have been denied him. He’s not angry because he feels like he’s missing out on some sort of pleasure or fulfillment; he’s angry because the world in which he lives demands that he determine his self-worth by reference to his success, or lack thereof, in living up to these expectations.

Whether what follows is fantasy or reality is unclear, but it’s also unimportant; if it’s the former, it could just as easily be the latter. The gun-as-penis metaphor is clear and unnerving; our narrator is banked up, tumescent, ready to shoot. He’s out in the city, wielding his piece, ready to fire at the world. The woman he visits seems to be a prostitute, a “leg of hope” to grasp at. And then, the ultimate humiliation: he sits and waits, his hand on his weapon, while she counts his money. It’s come to this: a situation that’s as far as possible from the perceived ease with which alpha males “get” girls.

“Confessions” If “Add It Up” is a fantasy of action, then this is a depiction of reality: the protagonist alone, in his room, raging at the world. The duality of the lines, “I’m so lonely/ Feel like I’m gonna crawl away and die/ I’m so lonely/ Feel like I’m gonna hack it apart” again speaks to the way that male self-loathing can be externalized into action against the world, and the vehemence with which Gordon Gano sings “hack it apart” is genuinely disturbing.

There’s also another target of resentment here: conceptions of manhood, which we know are the ultimate source of the protagonist’s oppression — and, you suspect, somewhere deep down he does too. Anyone who’s had to stand miserably in the rain while a drill sergeant or a sports coach barks at you for your lack of masculinity can relate to the “Have we got an army? We’ll teach you to act like a man” lyric. The song is hugely over-dramatic, shot through with the sense you have when you’re a teenager that what you’re feeling is something that only you can understand, a special hell reserved only for you. Time and experience, of course, gives you perspective on this, and lets you understand that this is both egocentric and untrue. But “Confessions” is the experience of how you feel when you’re in the midst of it, unable to see beyond your own pain.

“Prove My Love” But, of course, all Gano’s narrator really wants is to be liked. He’d no doubt argue that what he wants is to be loved, but it’s not — he wants to be be taken seriously, for his sexual potency to be given the respect he feels it deserves, for people to realize he’s a man, not a boy. And here’s his big chance! It’s both sad and discomfiting how much he’s pinning on the nascent relationship, especially since it’s not at all clear it exists anywhere beyond his head: “You’d be so good, so very good for me/ What do you think? Tell me honestly!” The desperation is palpable when Gano sings, “I’d do anything! I’d do it all!” You know this isn’t going to end well.

“Promise” And it seems that really, deep down, our narrator knows this as well as anyone. “Promise” is a plea for something, anything, to grab onto: “Some sign to pursue/ A promise.” The first verse reads like an acknowledgement of defeat before he’s even attempted to prove his love, or anything else: “Y’know that I want your loving/ But my logic tells me that it ain’t never gonna happen/ And then my defenses say I didn’t want it anyway/ But you know sometimes I’m a liar.” Again, the language is instructive: love is spoken of as an object, something to be possessed, our protagonist never understanding that this is exactly why he can’t attain it. The second verse is pure vitriol: “Do you know what it’s like to hate/ When it’s way down deep inside?” And again, there are dark hints of acting out this hatred: “I could rule the pain/ Rule the night/ But would it ruin my salvation?” (Gano, it should be noted, was and remains a devout Christian, which only adds a whole new layer of sex-related weirdness to this record.)

“To the Kill” More fantasies of violence, this time shot through with fantasies of escape — the band is from Milwaukee, and the big city of Chicago features in this song as a place where things might be different. But instead, it’s the object of the protagonist’s “affections” who’s gone there, leaving him behind: “That bitch, she took my money and went to Chicago/ If I ain’t already enough sick and alone.”

“Gone Daddy Gone” The sense of geographical separation leads directly into this song, which Gano once described as being about the feeling of finally getting out of high school — this, perhaps, explains its innocuous musical sense of jollity, which is very much at odds with the rest of the album and, to some extent, with the lyrics. There’s a feeling of liberation, of unburdening oneself of obsession, which no doubt was infinitely more of a relief to whichever lucky girl the protagonist was obsessing over than to the protagonist himself.

“Good Feeling” A moment of levity, being both the prettiest song on the record and its least lyrically unpleasant. On its own, it’d bring the album to a rather optimistic close, an alternative ending to the bleakness of “Kiss Off” — the idea of sleeping as an escape from the world, and the possibility that things might look better tomorrow. In this sense, the album works as a sort of coming-of-age story, albeit one where the coming-of-age in question is one that involves some pretty awful personal growth, both for the narrator and others.

But pretty much everyone these days has the version with the bonus tracks, which bring the album to a very different conclusion.

“Ugly” (bonus track) There’s an actual song called “Kiss Off” on this album, of course, but this is as perfect and vicious a lyrical kiss-off as anyone’s ever written. If “Good Feeling” suggests an abatement of the protagonist’s hatred, and some hint of understanding how to relate to the opposite sex as actual people rather than walking scoreboards, “Ugly” suggests that his capacity for objectification of women is undiminished.

Indeed, it presages the idea of beta male misogyny, wherein resentment against women is stored up and then unleashed from a position of power attained later in life (cf. the entire tech industry). Here, Gano’s narrator revels in being able to inflict what he sees as the ultimate insult: “You’re ugly/ All the time/ So ugly/ Ain’t no friend of mine.” It’s childish, and bitter, and exuberantly so.

“Gimme the Car” (bonus track) And then, finally, the song that pretty much unites the entire album in a single narrative: the narrator wants to borrow his father’s car and use it to prove that he’s a man. The comical guitar twang after “I got this girl/ I wanna…” rather distracts from how bleak this lyric is — the sex he’s planning sounds at best awful and at worst suspiciously non-consensual (“I’m gonna pick her up/ I’m gonna get her drunk/ I’m gonna make her cry/ I’m gonna get her high”).

But, as ever, the female character is tangential to the main thrust of the narrative, which concerns the narrator’s relationship with his father: he wants to do this to prove to his dad that he “ain’t no runt.” Again, though, you get the sense that this is undermined by preemptive knowledge of imminent failure. “So much he don’t understand,” wails Gano, adding darkly that he “just might never make it to a man.” The song trails off into Gano’s repeated declaration that “I ain’t had much to live for,” which in its final iteration becomes, “I ain’t that much to live for.” It’s a perfect summation of the duality at play throughout the record: if you define yourself by what you do or don’t have, and you view female attention as such a thing, then its absence defines you as a failure.

This is a scary record, an insight into a decidedly frightening and destructive mindset. But it’s also an insight into how that mindset comes develops: it’s a manifestation of the fundamentally patriarchal nature of our society. It’s a manifestation of the “traditional” views of manhood that are thrust on many boys when they’re at their most vulnerable and impressionable: their teens, a time when almost by definition you’re lost and looking for answers.

“We’ll teach you to act like a man,” claims the nameless oppressor in “Confessions.” If we really want to bring an end to misogyny and its manifestations — from Gamergate to MRA-ism to domestic violence — then the entire meaning of that phrase needs to change. It’s easy to blame parenting and the immediate family environment, but patriarchy manifests throughout society — and, indeed, a look at the sad parents of Gamergate shows that plenty of these kids come from families that have tried to teach them that being a man involves not acting like an asshole to women on the Internet.

Clearly, personal agency is important here: there are plenty of people who have grown up in a very Gano-ish environment and who haven’t chosen to harass women on the Internet or proclaim themselves an MRA or whatever else. This is not an attempt to justify or explain that choice; it’s an attempt to explain why that choice is available in the first place, and how to change things so that isn’t the case.

The answer lies in a more fundamental societal shift: the dismantling of patriarchy in all its manifold forms. And the greatest irony of all: this is exactly what feminists have been saying for decades.