Sticks and Stones
Why is a band’s name enough to offend us?
Femme Wave, a Calgary feminist music and arts festival, issued a statement on Aug. 17, announcing they would be withdrawing all shows booked at The Palomino Smokehouse and Social Club, due to the establishment’s booking of a band named Black Pussy.
The Palomino submitted to Femme Wave’s demands, and in a Facebook post that has since been deleted, announced that the show would be cancelled, after offering apologies to “disappointed or offended” patrons.
Offended. That’s a word we’re seeing a lot of these days.
It’s very easy to be offended over something. And, how offensive something is, is entirely dependent on how offended one chooses to be.
As someone who identifies as a feminist, could I see this as a potentially problematic band name? Absolutely. Am I offended by it? Not personally, no, but that’s not to say others don’t have the right to be.
Dustin Hill, guitarist and singer-songwriter for Black Pussy, said when he first came up with the name, he assumed people might find it “tacky or crass, but I didn’t think it would offend on this level.”
Hill said contrary to previous attributions in the media, The Rolling Stones’ original title for “Brown Sugar” was never the inspiration for the band name.
“It’s multi-entendre, ambiguous. I just loved the words,” said Hill.
Upon first hearing it, I too, could appreciate that the name can be interpreted any number of ways.
Interpreted. That’s another big word in this debate. Because how you choose to interpret something determines your reaction to it. Or in this case, how offended you are.
Despite refuting the claim that The Rolling Stones influenced Black Pussy’s name, Hill said the band now embraces the link to the controversial Stones’ song, which details the rape of a black slave woman in New Orleans.
Hill said that upon researching the song, he found that it was often touted as a positive, anti-racism song. Though Jagger himself said in a 1995 Rolling Stone interview that he would probably censor himself from writing a song like “Brown Sugar” ever again.
Nonetheless, you don’t see people boycotting Mick, Keef, and the boys over it. Because for all of their dirty lyrics, and their appropriation of black blues and roots music, the message of The Rolling Stones isn’t to promote racism, hate or misogyny. That’s not Black Pussy’s message either.
After hearing their music, it’s pretty obvious that the Portland stoner rock group aren’t overtly political, and their message isn’t one of hate. The most offensive song I could find was probably “Let’s Start a War” – and I’m pretty sure they don’t mean that in a literal sense.
Despite their demand being met that The Palomino cancel the Black Pussy show, Kaely Cormack, one of the Femme Wave founders, said that although they hadn’t yet spoken to The Palomino management, they had decided to cancel the festival’s shows at the venue anyway.
The Palomino had nothing to do with the band’s name, the staff and management there were in no way endorsing racism or sexism, they were just trying to keep music fans happy, and keep their doors open.
Cormack said that Femme Wave’s relationship with The Palomino is still on good terms, but that the festival’s organizers didn’t want to “be putting performers and fans in jeopardy” because of the controversy this has caused.
However, I have a few criticisms of the ultimatum given to the Palomino.
Offence can be found in anything. It’s purely subjective and dependent on interpretation. Several bands have come through Calgary with names that could be seen as offensive and they weren’t banned from venues because of it.
The Brian Jonestown Massacre played Calgary this past spring. Brian Jones was a notorious abuser of women. The Rolling Stones founder’s drug binges fuelled violent outbursts and several assaults to such a degree that Keith Richards felt he had to rescue Jones’ then-girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, from further attacks.
Jim Jones was a cult leader who was responsible for the deaths of 918 people at a commune in Guyana. He convinced dozens of women to poison their babies, and their children, before poisoning themselves.
Why were they, a band whose name combines these two abusers of women, not boycotted yet Black Pussy was?
Nashville Pussy regularly tour through Calgary, so is the word pussy only offensive when paired with the word black?
Calgary itself is home to many bands with questionable names. The Tontos, The Pygmies, The Fags, SIDS and most notably, Viet Cong, who, after gaining mainstream success and receiving criticism for choosing a name they admitted just sounded cool, recently changed their name to Preoccupations.
Depending on your own personal interpretation, any one of these band names could be seen as offensive. Where does it end? And why does one small faction get to decide for the rest of us?
I applaud Femme Wave for having the guts to take a stand over something they were uncomfortable with, and for challenging us all to think about what we believe is and isn’t acceptable in a decent society. However, I feel that they’ve singled just one group out when many others commit the same offence.
Ultimately, though, while it may make me a bad feminist, until Hill and his band mates start campaigning for David Duke, burning crosses on stage, or advocating for racial re-segregation, then I have about as much right to be offended by Black Pussy as I would by Pearl Jam, Steely Dan or any band you might see at The Gateway. Yes, it’s in bad taste, but that’s not the message the medium is conveying.