Why Death From Above's alt-right controversy shouldn't come as a surprise
Writer Julia Tausch argues the band built their brand on misogyny
On October 25th, someone using the pseudonym Kurt Schwitterz wrote a Medium post documenting the relationship between Jesse Keeler, bassist of the Canadian band Death From Above, and Gavin McInnes, formerly of Vice Magazine and founder of the Proud Boys, an alt-right frat. The post initially alleged that Keeler was a Proud Boy himself. Heartbroken fans took to social media to express shock and disappointment. I'm relieved we still live in a culture where an artist's association with the alt-right provokes disgust and disavowal, but I am also genuinely confused by the surprise. Death From Above's brand has been hipster men's rights activists (MRA) from the start.
I've been trying to say this publicly for literal years. As soon as I heard "Dead Womb" ("We're looking for wives / So tired of sluts coming up to us in the clubs with their cocaine") I was irked. This was in 2002. The feeling stuck like sharp sand in a scrape. I wrote a bunch about it, but never published a word, for a couple of reasons.
First, I didn't have the vocab in the early aughts to say what repulsed me about the song. Second, I went to high school with the other member of DFA, singer and drummer Sebastien Grainger. I was part of the gaggle that sat around him on the lawn of the school while he strummed his guitar and sang U2.
We were still friends when "Dead Womb" came out — not close, but part of the same large, loose group. I asked if we could talk about the song for a piece I hoped to write. I interviewed him in his green living room, recorded it on cassette. We were both nervous. I didn't know what I wanted to ask ("Do you hate women? Do you think they are your toys?"). He didn't know how to answer.
I wish I still had the tape. If memory serves, he was mostly on about the wives part. Like, he was into old school relationships, you know? But I remember discussing, too, his aversion to women who "poison their wombs"; I can feel, still, the anger that trembled in my chest as we spoke, the frustration of not knowing how to put it into words.
I'm relieved we still live in a culture where an artist's association with the alt-right provokes disgust and disavowal, but I am also genuinely confused by the surprise. Death From Above's brand has been hipster men's rights activists (MRAs) from the start.- Julia Tausch, writer
I messed with my essay for months; it kept sucking, my words lumpy knots. I showed it to my dad ("a bit strident, no?"). I tied in Nickelback (their repellent "Figured You Out" came out around the time I interviewed Grainger). I planned to send it to both Toronto weeklies; I planned to blow it sky-high. Some women confronted the band at a show in Montreal. I wasn't alone. But it never quite worked.
Would that I'd had the terms I have now. DFA unabashedly slut shame in "Dead Womb" and, like MRAs, yearn for women willing to play the roles they were supposedly born for: wife, mother, man-pleaser. And for better or worse, had a group like the Proud Boys been so visible then — with "venerate the housewife" among its core tenets — I might have been able to articulate the worldview I was urging Sebastien to resist. Back then, though, it was still a murky haze. Was I just being a bitch?
Whenever my essay circled close to the truth, I backed off. I still wanted to be friends. Plus as DFA's star rose, I got to do cool stuff — I met other Canadian demi-celebs at a festival backstage; I touched a heated toilet seat in the band's trailer!
More than that, though, Sebastien was really nice a lot of the time: warm, funny, enveloping you in his metre-long arms. I worked on kid's theatre with his lovely sister, drank too much champagne at his wedding, am still sorry I barfed on the rented bus that ferried us home. DFA performed at the launch of my first novel. Did I want to smear this man's name? Did I want to equate my own with a feminism of the most strident type?
I did not. I drawered the essay and lost the file, long ago. Slowly, too, I lost Sebastien. His fame increased, he moved to LA. Long before that, though, our friendship was strained; there was too much I hadn't known how to say, that he wouldn't, I'm sure, have wanted to hear. I still followed news of DFA's career, but stopped actually listening to their songs.
I'd argue that the music Jesse and Sebastien make blew up precisely because of their politics. In both form and content, DFA are unabashedly tough — asserting brute masculinity as desirable and cool, primal and natural.- Julia Tausch
That's why I still think about this band, and why Keeler's recent trouble came as no surprise. On October 27th, Keeler refuted Schwitterz' claims and played down his relationship with McInnes in a post on DFA's Facebook page. He explains that he met McInnes when Vice Records released DFA's early work. With regard to being a Proud Boy, Keeler asserts, "This is completely false. I would never join that group." Keeler concedes that he and McInnes "remained friendly, and as our lives diverged, we spoke...mostly about Dad stuff as we both have kids." Keeler says he's not alt-right — he's just a curious "father of two."
Obviously Keeler intends to humanize himself by doubling down on his dad status, but the move hurtled me back to those early days when I tried to pin down the patriarchal family values cloaked in the squelchy muck of DFA's power. "I never wanted to talk about politics," Keeler goes on to plead. "I just wanted to make music and leave that stuff alone."
I'd argue that the music Jesse and Sebastien make blew up precisely because of their politics. In both form and content, DFA are unabashedly tough — asserting brute masculinity as desirable and cool, primal and natural.
Though none of the songs on their 2004 debut album You're a Woman, I'm a Machine are as egregious as "Dead Womb," plenty of lines are easy to read as arguments for male dominance. "Romantic Rights" opens with "Your romantic rights are all that you got / Push them down, son, it's more than just lip," introducing a dude who believes in a woman's conjugal duty. Then comes the Robin Thicke-esque, "Come on girls, I know you know what you want." Reproduction is exalted: "We could do it and start a family." The woman in the song is "living alone unhappily"; the man screams, "I don't need you, I want you." According to "Romantic Rights," men are independent; women are fulfilled only by pleasing said men and bearing their kids.
I remember loving this song at first. The brazen re-inscription of musty gender roles felt villainous, diabolical — like how we love Ursula the Sea Witch, but not. The sexy beats, the prowling insistence of the vocal ceding to plaintive yowls — it's the musical equivalent of Roosh V's Game, which, if it was pure fantasy, might be fun. If the humour that makes it into DFA's videos and social media made it into their songs more often, I might have kept listening. Eva Michon's video for "Virgins" (the third single from 2014's The Physical World) is funny enough, but does nothing to undercut the lyrics ("Where have all the virgins gone?"), which easily square with DFA's retrograde worldview.
The band still play Dead Womb live, straight-faced. Earlier this year, Grainger described the song as "a manifesto for the rest of our careers" — though he talked like the song was just about avoiding cocaine and said nothing of sluts, wives or wombs. In 2014, on the other hand, he told The Guardian, "It wasn't meant to be a hateful song...I just liked saying outrageous things." If the song is the band's manifesto, that's pretty damning. If it's just meant to be outrageous, you'd think they could handle some outrage.
But they can't. In the press for their latest album, Outrage! Is Now, they pivot to a critique of call-out culture. The guys are worried that the mainstream is "in a moral panic. It's the same as...witch burning." They're worried, too, that "no one gets jokes anymore either." Of course call-out culture is complex. But I don't think DFA are interested in creating safer communities within which to further justice. Instead, just as Keeler claims that he wants to stay away from politics, it sounds to me like Outrage! is an attempt to eschew the type of discussion I'm trying to keep going here. Their "outside of the system" stance seems almost to anticipate the Proud Boy allegations, and looks like an attempt to avoid accountability.
But DFA have been small-p proud boys all along. The band's conception of gender is in keeping with McInnes's — tellingly, Keeler doesn't distance himself from the Proud Boys' sexism in his statement, instead mobilizing his Indian heritage to suggest he couldn't possibly be a white nationalist. But whether or not Jesse's a Western chauvinist, DFA has built their brand on male chauvinism from day one. And the industry's eaten it up.
In response to Jesse's statement, fanboys yelped, "We love you, man, we knew you weren't like that." But he's been like that in plain sight for years. Schwitterz retracted the Proud Boy charge, but highlights the "sketchy shit" Keeler espoused on McInnes' podcasts. Fans can evaluate the evidence for themselves. While Schwitterz goes on to call Keeler just a "giant dummy," I'm not inclined to be so generous; I know that misogyny and white nationalism intersect and inform one another. Having been irked by DFA's MRA-like lyrics for so long, Keeler's musings on Muslims in Britain strike me as depressingly on brand.
I am glad to finally have the words to express why I've long been disappointed in Sebastien and Jesse. A dorky-ass part of me hopes that the band will see the fallout of the Proud Boy controversy as a reason to expand their own vocabularies, to grow beyond their panic that their white-passing male entitlement might be under threat. But if they don't, there's plenty of reason — and always has been — to disavow Death From Above.