Pixies: Just the Latest Rockers to Make Violence Against Women Look Cool

The "Bagboy" video puts a "lighthearted" spin on a few ugly cultural tropes—but gets a pass from controversy because of the song's genre.
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"I had a bad reaction to your public hobby writings," some snide, cracked alterna-nerd first whines and then roars as the music lurches into scruffy, scratchy surf funk. The alterna-nerd is Black Francis himself, and the song is "Bagboy," the long-awaited first new Pixies song since 2004. Though Kim Deal has sadly left the band, fans are still elated at the comeback--and the video by Lamar + Nik gleefully channels that fuck-yes-finally energy.

It shows a young, grungy kid (flannels!) frolicking in and trashing a comfortable, middle-class, suburban home: bashing lamps with a baseball bat, shooting silly string, and even (in the most vivid visual moment) filling the tub with milk and fruit loops and taking a bath. In the final scene, we see him through the window cycling away, and then the camera pans over to a black woman tied up in her bedroom. The kid wasn't just trashing his own digs; he was engaged in a brutal kidnapping and home invasion. How awesomely punk rock is that?

If you have a problem with cheering for a white kid terrorizing and humiliating a black woman, then your answer might well be, "not that awesome." My friend Bert Stabler, an art critic, made this point at my website the Hooded Utilitarian over the weekend. As Bert says, "in Chicago, where I live, there's a long history of police torturing black people- we live in a country with lots of black people in jail. There's also a long history of housing discrimination against blacks." And, of course, that's not just Chicago; the United States has a long, extremely unpleasant, countrywide history of terrorism aimed at black people who attempt to move into middle-class housing.

You could argue that the "Bagboy" video is a critique of that--that it deliberately links white alterna-rebellion to sexualized white racial violence in a screw-you-fanbase move analogous to taunting Pixie's classics like "U Mass." Lending support to this view, perhaps, is the fact that Lamar, one of the creators of the video, is black, and the woman in the video is his sister, as he explains in a note he generously left on Bert's post.

There are a couple of reasons to think that Bert is right, though, and that this video celebrates white-kid violence rather than condemns it. First, in his response, Lamar rejects the notion of racial critique altogether, instead insisting that race and gender are no longer relevant or useful categories.

We knew we were taking some risks when we made the video. When most people see a white kid (Nik's little brother) and a black woman (my older sister) they can't help but think "racist" and "misogynist". This is pretty sad.

From the beginning, when we originally thought of the concept, it was never our intention to make it about a white kid terrorizing a helpless black family. I, myself, being black have gotten to the point where I don't automatically see color in people. It's the same for Nik. If the character's races were switched you'd probably have the same amount of stuff to say about the video.

It's 2013, at what point do we stop seeing everything as racist. At what point do we stop making things a bigger deal than they are.

Lamar also describes the kid's action as "light-hearted"--a characterization that seems like a cop-out. If you shoot someone in the head while wearing a clown mask, that doesn't make what you did less serious. Black people's homes really have been destroyed by white people. Draping that violence in fruit loops and silly string doesn't make it unreal. It just makes it okay to cheer for it.

I'm sure that the video creators didn't intend to make a video endorsing white terror, and I'm just as sure that the Pixies weren't thinking about violence against women when they signed off on the thing. Sometimes, though, folks can end up saying things they didn't quite mean. In this case, both creators and band, I think, were tripped up by the legacy of rock music, with its packaged, mainstreamed aggression. And, in part, they were wrong-footed by the legacy of racism, which makes us tend to see violence by white boys as awesome, or fun, or exciting, rather than as terror.

At least there is an active discussion about how male hip hop artists use violence against women to solidify their edginess and cool. Rock performers have been doing the same thing for decades, and folks just shrug.

That history of rock and that history of racism have a good bit of crossover. Specifically, rock has a long, albeit often ignored, tradition of reveling in aggression directed against the disempowered. It's true that the disempowered in question are usually women in general, rather than black women in particular--but the dynamic is still familiar. Mick Jagger gloating about how the change has come and she's under his thumb; Jimi Hendrix gloating about how he's going to shoot his old lady; John Lennon telling his girlfriend to run for her life; Axl Rose joking about how he used to love her but he had to kill her; Urge Overkill celebrating stalkers--the list could go on and on again. Spin's Brandon Soderberg astutely pointed out recently that misogyny in rap too often gets a pass from critics. But at least there is an active, ongoing discussion about how male hip hop artists use violence against women to solidify their edginess and cool. Rock performers, and even alternative rock performers, have been doing the same thing for decades, and folks just tend to shrug.

The "Bagboy" video opens with a close-up on the kids face; on his forehead are scrawled the words "The Pixies." It's hard not to see that as a deliberate statement that he is meant to be the point of identification for the band and for its fans. If Kanye West had a video in which a clear stand-in destroyed a woman's house, and the last shot was of said woman tied up, few would seriously question that there was a link between the violence, the misogyny, and the hyperbolic masculine performance of toughness and badass aggression. Alternative rock bands are supposed to be too sensitive and smart for that sort of swagger, though. In theory.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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