The arrival in America of this Portuguese punk rock band affords an opportunity to speculate on ramifications of cultural product that manages to emerge from countries without a strangling hegemony over the global entertainment industry. One is tempted to root for bands like Les Baton Rouge, regardless of their quality, out of the sheer unlikelihood of their existence, the way one might support any underdog. One might assume that since it comes from outside America, it doesn’t carry with it the values American pop culture usually embodies: that individuality and fame are the supreme forms of good, and that most significant thing one can do is “express oneself” through style and shopping choices while finding someone who loves you for who you really are. Of course, much of the art created in America assaults these values, but very little of that art achieves any sort of mass recognition, and the media, whose cooperation is necessary to secure such recognition, has in place many filters to strain out anything more than superficially critical.
And certainly, Les Baton Rouge intend to be highly critical, touting that they “work and play hard to support feminism and human rights”. For a moment, such a statement in a press release (which is usually reserved for hyperbolic blather about how a band’s music sounds like some other more famous and successful band’s, and therefore warrants a journalist’s attention) encourages one to fantasize about a foreign culture where such sentiments and such commitment to political action and social responsibility were not antithetical to making a professional living as a musician, were not mere marketing angles. But that the band seeks to break into the American market at all negates such a view — that utopian fantasy unfortunately won’t be able to sustain one’s interest.
Still, the idea of punk rock from Portugal remains intriguing. Is it that one hopes there is a cultural lag in Portugal which will mean bands now surfacing there will embody everything that once was good in American and English punk, but which has now been co-opted and commercialized? Is it that the cultural distance will allow them to appropriate only what is good about the moribund genre, or to recast generic elements in some surprising new Portuguese way? Maybe. But more probably the interest lies in our patronizing amusement in watching kids from a culturally subordinate nation try to mimic our dominant products, which neatly confirms our own suspicions of our innate and inevitable superiority and wisdom in such matters, an attitude that Americans accept unconsciously, as their birthright. Americans believe implicitly that what occurs in their popular culture is automatically important internationally. Hence, an American’s impressions of a band like Les Baton Rouge will always be muffled by his smug sense that their struggle for international relevance is a quaint, futile struggle to achieve what he has inherently and effortlessly.
Three different producers worked on Chloe Yurtz, which consequently sounds less like an album than three singles yoked together. The first two songs are the most polished; they have a bright sound and tight arrangements that make the most out of the slight hooks these straightforward punk songs offer, aligning drum breaks with bass fills and varying guitar sounds enough to give them texture. Suspiria Franklyn comes from the Kathleen Hanna school of vocalists, using the full range of riot grrl singing strategies with versatile aplomb: shrieking, whining, girlish cooing, militaristic barking, and blank moaning until no doubt remains regarding her outrage and frustration despite the impossibility of understanding much of what she said. She seems to be singing in English, but that ultimately makes little difference.
The third and fourth songs show a slightly more experimental bent, the guitars saturated with an airplane hangar echo and the drums working against the otherwise established rhythms. “Velvet Barbed Wire” has a change so abrupt it sounds as though a new song has begun; “To Dead Ahead” ends with Franklyn chanting a single anomalous line: “What if she earned money to save us?” But these hardly prepare a listener for the abrupt shift on the last two songs into more extreme audience antagonization. These were produced by guitarist James Jacket, but they may as well have been produced by Jandek, judging by their murky impenetrable sound and the apparent lack of logic guiding the production choices. “My Body-the Pistol” is so inexplicably staticky that it couldn’t have been an accident — lousy equipment or engineering incompetence could under no circumstances explain sound this lo-fi. “Parish Priest,” consisting of only a voice and guitar, is more cleanly recorded (though barely audible in many places) but is twice as perplexing, as the song drones on purposelessly, stripped of everything that typically signifies musicality: melody, rhythm, patterned words, harmony.
Here, finally, is music that transcends any cultural considerations and condescensions; here is music that is alien not only to Americans but to most Earthlings in general — suggesting perhaps that the only way to escape the consequences of a cultural hegemony is to make something that would be universally refused by all. But then how would one explain the paradox of my wanting to recommend Les Baton Rouge so strongly?