Heavy music tries to express darker truths than the mainstream will admit. Artists can find themselves exposed, vulnerable, and in extreme cases ambushed by critics and individuals reviewing videos and lyrics for perceived evidence of misogyny, sexism, racism or oppression. Artists have taken the brunt for going with their gut. In 2017, Glassjaw released their third album Material Control, and the attendant publicity resulted in critical questions around apparent sexism in lines from their 2000 debut, Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Silence.
Vocalist Daryl Palumbo was criticised for lyrics like ‘You can lead a whore to water / And you can bet she’ll drink and follow orders’ (Pretty Lush). But far from the defensiveness, arrogance and defiance of the old kind of star, Daryl’s response took ownership of his errors. “Those are some absurd things to say,” he explained. “The sentiment was frustration. I was a young guy, and I was supposed to be a man but I was not. I apologise for saying any of that.”
Daryl Palumbo’s attitude illustrated an acceptable way to move forward at a point when accusation and scrutiny are at an all-time high. Very few lyricists are writing songs like Mötley Crüe’s She Goes Down anymore. The revision of single lines could fuel an entirely subjective but never-ending carnival that misses the bigger, more positive change. Perhaps a corollary comes from Cosmopolitan Blood Loss, from Glassjaw’s second album Worship And Tribute: ‘We are the most impassioned ugly people’.
The questions of conscience, community and respect for others are arguably now being asked and answered by no band as effectively as recent Kerrang! cover stars, Bristol five-piece IDLES. Their songs show the figuring and the working out, with lyrics celebrating empathy in a way that few songs from the ’80s ever did. Their shows explode without pyro. Instead you might see tote bags printed with the words ‘Be the I in unity’, or regional Amnesty campaigns collecting money on behalf of refugees. In London, vocalist Joe Talbot introduces the song Samaritans as a song for “men, women, non-binary – whatever – for anyone who has feelings to share”. Sharing is caring, he says; sharing is baring.
Eventually the music collapses into noise as fans arrive onstage, climbing on each other’s shoulders in joy. Over the clamour the frontman’s hoarse voice roars ‘We’re halfway there’ from Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer, still considered one of the best songs of the fractured, venal ‘80s. The crowd roar in response, more fans join and the din grows. Under the spotlight now, there is no distinction between band or fan. IDLES don’t profess to have the answers, just a will to ask questions. It may be the end of this particular show, but for the wider conversations, this is just the start.