Triumph of the Shrill
Oct 27 2011
Scans from Iceage’s Dogmeat zine
In May, VICE bestowed Album of the Month status on New Brigade, Iceage’s debut LP. Every other magazine and website that covered music followed suit, acting as if the Danish teenage four-piece were the sweetest little princes in the make-believe Land of Music, and that everyone with any taste should bow before their infallible tunes.
In the beginning, critics like Danish music journalist Martin Finnedal attributed Iceage’s success to the band’s inexperience. “The original fascination came from the fact that they’re from nowhere, with no real idea of what they’re doing,” he told me. “Iceage is famous because of their innocence and youth.”
On June 25, Magic Muscle Media, an irrelevant and anonymous blogger, posted an essay titled “Chic Racism Elevates Hardcore Band Iceage to Hipster Fame”. Despite admitting that the piece was written “without analysis of their lyrics” or “direct confrontation of the band members”, the blogger published images from Dogmeat, a zine produced by Iceage frontman Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, accusing the band of fetishising fascist imagery and employing fascist aesthetics to promote an agenda of hate.
Instead of disappearing into the pile of meaningless pap published online, mainstream media outlets began to pick up the nonstory. By late summer, the Chicago Reader, NME, and others were hinting that the music press had been duped into promoting the next Skrewdriver. The assertion was loosely based on the zine, Iceage’s runic logo, and their Fred Perry shirts.
In Denmark, Dr. Fabian Holt, a respected Danish ethnomusicologist, accused Iceage of stoking fascist tendencies, despite frequent denials from the band, including appeals from the band’s Jewish drummer, Dan Kjaer Nielsen. “Nazism has come closer to the counterculture,” Holt told Politiken, a respected Danish daily. “The methods have become more subtle.” The claims had travelled from a low-level blog to a widely read national newspaper, and the discussion of Iceage’s political and ideological leanings was going to be a long one, whether they liked it or not.
In his 2007 book, Genre in Popular Music, Holt writes, “I have lived most of my life in Denmark, where whites are rarely confronted with their whiteness because they constitute the vast majority of the population. In that part of the world many people have only a dim awareness of racial discourse.” In Denmark, a country of 5.4 million, more than 90% of the population is made up by ethnic Danes. These demographics play a not-so-subtle role in a growing hostility toward multiculturalism that’s found a mouthpiece in the right-wing Danish People’s Party (DPP).
Sixteen years ago, a strident hobgoblin named Pia Kjærsgaard founded the DPP, and since then the party has increased its influence drastically, pushing a policy of welfare for Danes and closed borders for everyone else. The government, pressured by Kjærsgaard, has tightened immigration policy every year since 2001. Even more troubling, in the 2011 parliamentary elections the DPP won 12.3 percent of the vote.
Staunchly nationalist and anti-Muslim, Kjærsgaard implicitly seeks a racially pure Denmark. In 2000, she said that “the Koran teaches Muslims that it is acceptable for them to lie and deceive, cheat and swindle, as much as they like.”
When I talked to Politiken’s Martin Finnedal for this article, he had no opinion about the connection between his country’s fringe politics and its punk rock. He’d never heard of Dogmeat, nor had he heard of the bands Iceage regularly performs with. “If they were fascist,” he assured me with the paternal cadence of a government bureaucrat, “there would be enough writers here who would flag it right away and expose it to the rest of the country.”
Thirty-six hours after our interview, Politiken published a series of alarmist articles by Finnedal about Iceage’s supposedly disturbing imagery. I couldn’t believe that he had grabbed the story straight out of my hands, in the process sensationalising it beyond recognition. Before filing his first piece about Iceage, he sent me an email giving me a 12-hour “head start” to publish a piece that was still far from complete, admitting to me, “Without you I would have no article. So please I hope you don’t think I’m stealing from you.”
If Finnedal had wanted to put things in context, he would have talked about bands like Joy Division and New Order, who were attacked by the press more than 30 years ago for their use of fascist imagery. Joy Division’s name referred to Jewish women forced into concentration-camp sex slavery; critics accused their successor band, New Order, of borrowing its name from Mein Kampf. I spoke with former New Order and Joy Division bassist Peter Hook and asked him about the accusations. “It was very easy for the press, we walked straight into it,” Hook said. “We were young, naive, stupid, insensitive, arrogant and we thought it was ‘cool’ to use Nazi imagery – we thought ‘This is punk rebellion! Fuck the world!’ It backfired on us, though. It was stupid, and it’s hard to live down even now. We still get accused of it 30 years on when we’ve proved we’ve got nothing to do with Nazis time and time again.”
Byron Crawford is a blogger from St. Louis. He speaks slowly, with a pleasant Missouri drawl, like an extra in an early Robert Altman film. He was a blogger for XXL magazine until March 2011, when he was unceremoniously fired. Now he works random odd jobs and gets by on ad revenue from his personal blog, “ByronCrawford.com: The Mindset of a Champion.”
In August, Crawford published a piece titled “Dey Racis: Pitchfork Grants Best New Music Status to Neo-Nazi Group.” On the phone with me, he was casually, cheerfully ignorant of his subject matter. He has never spoken with the band, seen them live, read their lyrics or listened to their music. But he’s convinced they’re Nazis. “If you walk around talking like a fireman,” he told me, “people are going to think you’re a fireman.” I suggested that it might be more nuanced than that. Crawford disagreed: “Here in St. Louis, if you walk around talking like a Nazi, you’re a Nazi.”
Most of those denouncing Iceage, like Crawford, believe that only fascists use fascist imagery. If that’s the case, we can all unilaterally denounce Joy Division, Serge Gainsbourg, Led Zeppelin, Throbbing Gristle, the White Stripes, the Sex Pistols and David Bowie. All have flirted with the basic aesthetics of fascism.
Why? Because fascist imagery is, in itself, stylish and effective. “Let’s face it,” Hook said, “the Nazis had great designers and propaganda experts, and they were really good at manipulating strong images. I suppose they needed them as they were trying to conquer the world.”
Iceage never dreamed of having an audience overseas. They originally pressed only 500 copies of New Brigade. The Copenhagen punk scene, which includes bands like Sexdrome, Pagan Youth and Girlseeker, is a small and insulated community. Groups there generally have a short shelf life and stay offline. So if you know about Iceage and you’re not Danish, it’s probably because of Ric Leichtung.
Leichtung is a senior editor at Altered Zones, a web-based music aggregator dedicated to “the explosion of small-scale DIY music”. In the winter of 2009, he was working with the New York-based promoter Todd P on MtyMx, a three-day festival in Monterrey, Mexico, that took place in March 2010. (The event was a financial failure – many of the headliners cancelled, spooked by bus hijackings on Mexican Federal Highway 85.)
While planning the festival, Leichtung and Todd received an email from an unknown Danish address containing what they would soon discover to be Iceage songs. “They didn’t have a MySpace, they didn’t have anything,” Leichtung said. “But I was totally floored by the demos they sent. Onward from that, they started getting little bits of press, mostly focused on their age. That was always the main hit – they’re so young.”
Last January, New Brigade was released simultaneously by Escho Records and Tambourhinoceros, two respected Danish labels. In the weeks leading up to the album’s mid-March US release, Leichtung pushed the record on Altered Zones. Stereogum did the same. The buzz mounted until What’s Your Rupture? records caught wind, and the band suddenly had a press machine that caused a domino effect of positive reviews. In May, Leichtung went to Copenhagen to cover “Danish Punk Fuck You,” an Iceage-curated showcase at the Distortion Festival.
On June 25, I met Leichtung at 285 Kent, a semilegal warehouse venue in Brooklyn. That night, Iceage were set to play one of the first shows on their inaugural US tour. The crowd, cramped and soaked with sweat, was almost shitting themselves with excitement.
I asked Leichtung about his trip to Copenhagen, how the festival had gone, and how he felt about Iceage’s current success, for which he’d been largely responsible. “I dunno, man,” he said. “It’s sorta dark.”
According to Leichtung, the show in Copenhagen had a decidedly white-supremacist bent, which he documented in a scene report for Altered Zones. Iceage curated a selection of particularly aggressive bands, including frequent collaborators White Nigger, a group that performs in blackface and strangles members of the crowd. He told me that members of the all-white audience were Sieg Heiling in appreciation between songs.
Kevin Boyer, the head of What’s Your Rupture?, denies these claims. “First of all, the Sieg Heiling kid was there for Sexdrome, not Iceage,” Kevin told me. “And secondly, he was a troublemaker who was just being a jackass. But it was Leichtung’s piece that lumped him in with Iceage and started this whole thing off. The next thing you know there’s an article on chic Nazism, chic fascism. People are trying to ruin this wonderful thing that was made by 18-year-olds. It’s a very romantic record that uses startling imagery. I guess it struck a chord with a lot of people, and a lot of people are still trying to figure it out.”
Just before press time of this issue I finally got hold of the notoriously interview-shy Iceage front man, Elias Bender Rønnenfelt. It was a few days after the publication of Finnedal’s articles, and now he was even more hesitant to talk to journalists. “I don’t like most parts of the music media,” Elias told me. “It’s lazy, empty and sensationalist. If they expect something of us that we’re not, it’s not our problem.
“When the first accusations of Nazi sympathies came, we didn’t take them very seriously,” Elias continued. “The argument was very vague. Now one of the biggest Danish newspapers has been running several stories about it. I don’t know whether to feel insulted or whether it’s just too absurd… Point is, we haven’t actually used any Nazi imagery, ever.” I asked Elias what was going on in Dogmeat: the iron crosses, the hooded figures, the switchblades pointing to the necks of Muslims. “That’s a collage drawing of different things I was seeing in the news, not a pro-race-riot drawing.”
I, for one, believe him, and appreciate what he’s doing. If the images from Dogmeat shock you, then you’re shocked by reality. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reality can be depressing. But if you’re genuinely offended, then you’re living in some fantasyland where racism, violence and hate shouldn’t be analysed or commented on. And that’s just fucking sad.