The first sentence of Viet Cong's Sept. 19 Facebook update: "Our band lives to play music."
If you've seen a Viet Cong concert, that statement rings true. The Calgary, Alberta, psych/post-punk quartet is a snarling beast of a live band that buzzes with energy and bludgeons with sound. A bundle of sweaty brows and straightened spines, the band clearly throws everything it has into its ferocious and demanding shows.
Which is why it's a bummer — not unfair, but a bummer — that Viet Cong's music has had to compete for attention with controversy. For the past year or so — since releasing its self-titled debut back in January, at least, the band has faced a steady stream of criticism for its name, which carries its share of racial, social and historical implications surrounding the Vietnam War. "To see a phrase... loaded with a history of violence and trauma ripped by a rock group... and emptied of its meaning, is unacceptable no matter (the reasoning)," Sang Nguyen wrote last March in Impose magazine.
To say the criticism has overshadowed Viet Cong's art is probably an overstatement. After all, the album has earned overwhelmingly positive reviews and the band was nominated for Canada's most prestigious music award, the Polaris Prize. If anything, the opposite is true: Legitimate criticisms of the name have struggled to gain traction in the face of an excellent band with a fascinating backstory (half of Viet Cong was in the fabled and ill-fated Calgary band Women) and ever-climbing popularity.
And that, of course, is a problem of race and privilege and cultural appropriation and the lofty status that white-guy indie-rock enjoys on the Internet.
Until last month, Viet Cong did not handle criticisms of its name well, offering only careless explanations of its origin and non-apologies. That changed on Sept. 19 — three days after the publication of a thoughtful and pointed open letter on the topic by Hooded Fang's April Aliermo -— when the band announced it will change its name, citing "lots of valuable conversations" with members of the Vietnamese community.
"Art and music are about creative expression," the band wrote. "However, our band name is not our cause, and we are not going to fight for it. This is not what our band is about." And later: "We are not here to cause pain or remind people of atrocities of the past."
Viet Cong hasn't announced its new name, and it seems unlikely they will by the time they play Spokane next week. But whenever they do, and whatever that new name is, here's hoping we can move forward with the focus where it should be: on the band's music. ♦
Viet Cong • Wed, Oct. 21, at 8 pm • $10/$12 day of • All-ages • The Bartlett • 228 W. Sprague • thebartlettspokane.com • 747-2174