Deconstructing: Titus Andronicus And The Possibility Of Punk Patriotism
On one wall in my apartment, I have two things hanging: On the left is a large American flag that covers most of the wall, so big it took two people to hang up when we moved in. To the right of the flag is a notably less patriotic, more anti-establishment emblem: a poster I picked up at the Boston Anarchist Book Fair last year, reading “Capitalism Is A Pyramid Scheme,” picking apart the social and political injustices of the economic system that runs the US. It was made by the radical publisher CrimethInc. One night before a show at my house, a skeptical punk friend of mine commented on the juxtaposition, confused about how these two items could exist harmoniously on my wall. “Oh, that’s … funny,” he said. I knew what he was really wondering, though: How could I be hanging both so proudly? Because to most radicals, the ideals of flag-waving patriotism and anti-capitalist punk are polar opposites.
The next week, I was in my bedroom listening to the 2010 Titus Andronicus record, The Monitor — hearing the snippets of Abraham Lincoln speeches, the mentions of specific Civil War battles, the ultra-American Bruce Springsteen references — when I realized the identical tensions existed both on my complicated wall and in the complex punk patriotism of that album.
Over the past two years, The Monitor has grown into one of my favorite records. From start to finish, the album speeds up and slows down, bursting at the seams with unbridled angst and energy. It’s literate and poetic and full of smart reflections on the perils of modern life in suburbia, about saying “fuck the rules” and burning your own trail, metaphors searching for meaning in America and punk. “Punk” is a tricky, weighty word, but it is certainly one I feel confident using when discussing Titus Andronicus. Despite having a label, booking agent, publicist, and other un-punk connections, Titus keep their heads in a defiantly punk place; they’re hard-working, skeptical, self-aware, self-reliant, continuously connected with underground music, and generally resistant to typical “music industry” practices like corporate branding.
By most definitions, The Monitor is a blatantly patriotic record. The title of The Monitor references a Civil War battleship by the same name, and the record as a whole uses a running Civil War metaphor to tell singer-songwriter Patrick Stickles’ reflective narrative of internal struggles, inflicting bits of American history into an unlikely cultural space. The same year the record was released, the band was known to hang an American flag on their keyboard stand during live shows. In many ways, The Monitor turned Titus Andronicus into the most distinctly American band of their time. “Rally around the flag, rally around the flag, rally around the flag boys, rally around the flag,” chants Stickles on the opening track.
“I’ve read a couple of things that refer to some elements of ironic patriotism in our lyrics, which is completely off the mark,” Stickles told AOL Music in 2010. “I really think America is the greatest country that’s ever existed. Even though we have a lot of problems, we also have the best ideas. We still have the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and all [these] beautiful documents.”
I agree with Stickles. That’s why, earlier this summer, while out vintage-shopping with my mother, I purchased a sterling silver necklace with a large pendant, elaborately depicting the Founding Fathers crossing the Delaware with flags, and the numbers “1776” engraved. My punk friends, though? Not so into it. “Hmm, I guess that would be cool if you, like, cut the pendant off and soldered it upside down,” someone said to me the first time I wore the necklace in public.
For the current generation of American teens and 20-somethings, a pure concept of patriotism has always been difficult to embrace; for us (as a 23 year old, I identify with this group), patriotism has been strongly associated with blind allegiance to conservatism, blindness to the costs of hyper-consumerist culture, the South and the Bush administration and cowboy hats. When we think of patriotism in popular music, we often just think of horrible country songs and “Proud To Be An American” and “God Bless The USA.” And on the flip side, historically, at its core, from its beginnings, punk has always been anti-nationalist — American or not. The roots of UK punk, after all, were in riling against the government — there’s not much patriotism in the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK” or “God Save The Queen.” Many of America’s seminal punk bands were rooted in a similar fuck-the-flag ethos, from the Dead Kennedys anti-government sentiments to Anti-Flag’s songs about class war and imperialism. Even this year, punk bands like Defiance Ohio continue to release songs with titles like “I’m Against The Government.” (“They’ll lock you up if you don’t play by the rules / Twist it out and beat it out of you in a padded room,” sings the Bloomington punk band. “I’m against the government, anti-establishment.”)
But from Titus’s perspective, everything isn’t so black and white — in their songs, connecting punk with patriotism doesn’t seem counterintuitive. On The Monitor‘s opening track, the song begins and ends with quotes from Abraham Lincoln — the most punk rock of presidents. “I will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice … I will not retreat a single inch and I will be heard.” They’re quotes from Lincoln on America, but they could just as easily be Ian MacKaye talking about anti-mainstream punk ethos.
“What we’re trying to do as a band is reclaim a sense of patriotism and have that be OK for other punks and young people to feel good about their country,” said Amy Klein — who was then the Titus Andronicus’s guitarist, but has since left the band — to DCist in 2010. “If not what their country is doing and has done, then the ideals that our country stands for. I think our generation grew up with the Right Wing having a monopoly on patriotism and that feeling of Americanism … We’re trying to take certain ideas about what it means to be American, the good ideas about equality and freedom that in theory we stand for, and we’re trying to give young people access to those and let them live their lives by those principles.”
Titus aren’t the only ones to stand up for the potential of America in recent memory. Dan Deacon — who, considering his years of self-releases, sleeping on floors, eating out of dumpsters, and speaking out against the system at large, can certainly be deemed “punk” — has also released a record this year, America, that’s a tribute to the US. The music itself is an inspired celebration of American geography, while the lyrics narrate frustrations with “where [American] culture is going in regard to corporatism and complete corruption and lack of faith in the government,” Deacon told NPR. “No one’s pumped on the American government or the direction of America right now,” he said. “You could talk to someone in Occupy or a Tea Party rally or someone who’s not even involved in politics and be like, ‘So, do you think things are going well in the government?’ I don’t think anyone would be like, ‘Yeah, man! It’s going great. I love what they’re doing. Love the Congress. Love the president.'” But while maintaining that skepticism, the record still recognizes the potential of American ideals, and embraces what is beautiful about America.
The connections between subversion and patriotism are often misunderstood. But any art made with the goal of directing one’s country toward justice and liberation believes in the potential of said country to better itself, to an extent. Was Pussy Riot’s “punk prayer” patriotic? Some might say no — but in interviews, members of the Russian punk band have confirmed their love for their country. “I love Russia, but I hate Putin,” said Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the youngest of the three Pussy Riot members jailed earlier this year, in an interview with the German magazine Spiegel. “It is very strange that in their reaction to our actions, the authorities completely disregard the historical experience of dissent,” said Maria Alyokhina, in her closing statements delivered on August 8 at the Moscow Khamovniki District Court. Dissent is an essential component of patriotism — of scrutinizing one’s country and feeling a fiery desire to raise consciousness of its shortcoming, sometimes using music to push cultural conversations in directions towards liberation. Some of America’s defining cultural movements have been born out of periods of subversion: the Women’s Rights movement, the Civil Rights movement. “I think that dissent and broadly defined subversion is a crucial historical strain in America,” said Tom Morello to The Progressive in December 2011, when they asked if about the possibilities. “All progressive change has come from that.”
The week before the presidential election presents an interesting moment to revisit all of these tensions between subversion and patriotism. Election season is a time when punks and anti-authoritarians everywhere proudly proclaim that they’re not voting. Because voting suggests that one believes in the democratic system, which gives responsibility and authority over to rulers, which is totally not punk. Actually, Ted Leo was just tweeting about this the other day.
Cool ppl telling me there’s no point in voting/it’s “not punk,” do yr thing, but in my opinion, someone’s got you right where they want you.
— Theodore F. Leo (@tedleo) October 26, 2012
In this context, Titus Andronicus’s complex breed of punk patriotism is compelling. Last fall, when Titus Andronicus played an Occupy Wall Street benefit with Ted Leo and the So So Glos at Brooklyn’s Shea Stadium, Stickles wrote a bit of a manifesto on the band’s blog outlining the reasons their punk band was playing an Occupy benefit: “BECAUSE our beautiful Declaration of Independence and our sacred Constitution have been dragged through the dirt by those sworn to protect them / BECAUSE in the America promised to us by our founding fathers, everyone gets a fair shake / BECAUSE in the America we were promised, there is no limit to how high you can rise with hard work, discipline, and ingenuity / BECAUSE with that freedom comes great responsibility ….”
Last week, Titus Andronicus released their third album, Local Business, via XL recordings. (On the band’s blog, Stickles has written that he “respects capitalism in the context of local business.”) On this album, the straight-up Americana of The Monitor is missing; Local Business is more internally focused. There’s a song about Stickles’s eating disorder (“My Eating Disorder”), a song about life in Brooklyn (“In A Big City”), even a love song of sorts (“Tried To Quit Smoking”).
Still, even when Stickles veers away from American history to sing about more personal topics, like death and boredom and depression and drugs, they feel like commentaries on American culture. “He forgets if he felt oppressed or depressed or which one came first in this crazy mess / if he had taken too much, or not enough,” sings Stickles on the album’s opening track, “Ecce Homo”; he could be singing about himself, or any American getting drugged up for ADD or depression. There are honest images of “adoring every inch of this country through the same dirty windshield” and of “writing manifestos on Bank Of America receipts,” and highways full of self-centered Americans with “schedules to keep.”
Even when Stickles sings lines like “Don’t tell me I was born free … I never wanted to grow up to be some kind of social construct” on “In A Small Body,” Titus Andronicus still sound like a proudly American band. And especially so on the cyclical rhythm of “In A Big City” –- it feels like a foot-stomping all-American country song. Something about the Local Business concept of promoting “Main Street” seems idealistically American as well, right down to the red-white-and-blue scheme of the website the band has set up for fans to share info on local businesses to support in their town.
Local Business begins: “OK, I think by now we’ve established / everything is inherently worthless / and there’s nothing in the universe with any kind of objective purpose.” In interviews, Stickles has defended this as an optimistic opening: Yes, the world is meaningless, but in that void, each and every one of us has the responsibility to blaze our own path toward happiness and fulfillment. At their cores, each Titus Andronicus album has ultimately been about self-reliance, individualism, and holding oneself accountable for one’s destiny; about taking control, going with yourself, doing it yourself on your path towards liberation. Contextualize them however you’d like, but those are invariably values found in both punk’s fundamentals and America’s foundation.
Titus Andronicus know better than to end the conversation there though. They don’t ignore the ways in which over-indulgence, self-obsession, and greed seem to plague modern American life. In many ways, their take on defending America is a testament to how complicated and confused our country’s idea of liberty has become. With this sort of skepticism, punk patriotism in general doesn’t seem contradictory. It feels radical.