Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Rebellion of the Angry and Dumb

Stanislav Chlebowski
My dad always said dangerous things to me as I was growing up. One of those was: "If you're going to rebel, do it over something big and important and make a real statement."

He knew what he was doing, of course. He trusted me to reason it out.

I used a similar tactic in the school in which I teach and serve as vice principal. The kids wear uniforms. Every year, there is conflict over untucked shirts. To my former Principal's shock, when we had class meetings about this, I did a bit of a stand-up comedy routine, satirizing a fictitious student who "was going to stick it to the man" by leaving his shirt tails untucked. He was a rebel. He was a hell raiser...etc. (Things improved after that.)

My dad was right, of course. But besides picking good things to rebel against, we should be careful about the conformity of non-conformity.

Last night, I was driving with  the radio on and the song "Fat Lip" by SUM 41 came on, and I caught this puerile, impotent little jab at conformist society:

I don't want to waste my time
Become another casualty of society.
I'll never fall in line
Become another victim of your conformity
And back down.


The joke of it all is -- besides the fact that this is an obvious, juvenile quip -- is that is all falls over the most conforming (lame, harmonically empty) chord progression imaginable -- the same old rock song that has been written time and again for the past thirty years. A whole three minutes of sound and fury. But, in the end, it is a rebellion of conformity. They fit in with the rest of the angry children out there, throwing spitballs when the teacher's back is turned. 

Before one rebels, one had better make sure the rebellion against one crowd is not the mere following of another. When Roger Waters wrote "Another Brick in the Wall," he was saying something. Not only was he saying something, but he was layering his lyrics over an innovative sound made by an exceptional and adventurous group of musicians. And it wasn't just a "screw you because you are older and wear a suit" statement -- it was an indictment of the insidious tactics of the Thomas Gradgrind educational system of England. You know it:

We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! teachers! leave the kids alone!
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

I mean, it's not Seamus Heaney, but something was being said, there. (And if you are going to join up with someone else for an artistic rebellion, it might as well be Charles Dickens.)

That SUM 41 lyric sums it up for me: for most, modern rebellion has become empty ranting. It's not about an idealistic cause, anymore. It is a tantrum. If the path before us is the way of conformist society, these guys are not urging us to take out the machetes and blaze a new path; they are pushing us to walk down the same old road, but to pee on it every few feet so that others have to tread through it. 

That's what happens when you are angry and dumb and get a record contract. 


  1. The easiest reply is to say, "Of course," as it regards to SUM 41 and their representation of modern rebellion, insofar as the song can (should?) be interpreted as such. In all truth, I don't think SUM 41 represents anything but a band taking advantage of those aforementioned rock hooks and a sound-flavor popular on the radio at the time (2001). The lyrics about conformity are vapid - a good representation of the band, perhaps - but not necessarily a representation of music's relationship to rebellion.

    I'm not saying you're wrong - just more that this band is an inadequate example. Comparing a seminal, thought-provoking, creative rock act to a band that represented the twee-skater-boy culture and the desire for a quick buck is like comparing a Goliath bird-eater to a tick - related, but on a different scale. A more appropriate comparison might be Radiohead, at least sonically, thematically, and culturally.

    That said, I agree that there are some curious undertones to the younger (still mine at 27?) generation's relationship to conformity, though I suspect it is no different than the previous generation's (or the one before). There is this...quality (or lack thereof)...that seems to contribute to a belief that the uniqueness of youth carries extraordinary, nonconformist principles (read: different from old people) that can change the world. Of course, the greatest irony is that most attempts at nonconformity require conforming to something different (such as Apple's explosion of popularity in the early 2000s, which continues today). I was talking about this irony with a friend on Saturday, and after thinking on it, I think that most of us will pay lip service to nonconformist ideals, but will not follow them unless someone leads us.

    ~ Matt

  2. Also, I enjoy the way you take a small event - hearing a song on the radio - and make it something deeper.

    ~ Matt

    1. Hey, Matt -- as always, good to hear from you. And, please, call me Chris.

      I think everything you said is right. Buit I thin SUM 41 is a reoresentation of the lowest level of rebellion, not a classification of the rebellion in music, overall, today. They do represent a certain type, for sure.