Just a month and a half since the release of their major label debut, Against Me! have received more attention from the mainstream press than they had in the first nine years they’d been together. Rolling Stone recently awarded them the “Breaking Artist” tag, while Blender published a feature-length profile in which it praised the band for their ever-present political awareness. No one, though, swung for the fences quite like the folks over at Spin, who posed the hilariously overwrought Clash-referencing question, “The Only Band That Matters?”
But this is far from Against Me!’s first taste of success. Throughout their early years, they earned a sizable base of freakishly devoted fans who went positively batty for their high-energy, vaguely pro-anarchy folk-punk. They played impossibly sweaty shows in basements and coffee shops all over the country, to disaffected kids who felt like they’d finally found something with which they’d gladly align themselves. After releasing Reinventing Axl Rose (which is possibly the finest punk rock record of the past 15 years) on Florida’s No Idea Records, Against Me! made the then-controversial (and now seemingly quaint) decision to sign with Fat Wreck Chords, a legendary California-based label that has in many ways become synonymous with the Vans Warped Tour. Their relationship with Fat produced two albums (As the Eternal Cowboy and the marginally successful Searching for a Former Clarity) before they announced that, despite all the anti-corporate, anti-government, anti-everything-else doctrine they’d been preaching for so long, they’d signed a deal to release their next album with Sire.
It’s no coincidence, obviously, and not at all surprising, that the glossy magazines have only now started to come calling. But the truly upsetting part of all this isn’t even that they’re piling all this over-the-top praise on a record that essentially sounds a lot like all the other bland heavy rock records the majors are releasing these days (think Queens of the Stone Age with slightly more screaming). It’s that they’re vindicating Against Me! frontman Tom Gabel and his long-held opinion that he doesn’t owe anyone an explanation for his and his band’s blatantly contradictory decisions. It’s an opinion he holds so firmly that, on August 13, he was arrested on charges of battery when he allegedly “smashed a man’s head against the counter of a coffee shop” in Tallahassee, after tearing off the wall a mockingly defaced article about the band.
In Gabel’s defense, his fans have reacted somewhat strongly since news of the signing surfaced. They slashed the tires on the band’s tour van; they screamed “sell-out” as loudly as they could (as loudly as Gabel taught them to?); and, as reported in the Blender piece, the famous punk rock fanzine Maximum Rock ‘n’ Roll published a list of tips for anyone who might be looking for a way to disrupt one of the band’s live shows.
It’s no secret that the idea of “selling out” doesn’t seem quite as dirty as it did back in the early 90s. With the explosion of licensing revenue among indie labels, countless bands are managing to make ends meet in a way that doesn’t even seem all that offensive. But then again, James Mercer of the Shins, or Ben Gibbard of Death Cab For Cutie and the Postal Service never exactly preached about the evils of capitalism, either, so their opinions on such matters never had anything to do with whether you liked them — which is what makes Against Me! such a vastly different case. What Gabel doesn’t understand, and what the mainstream press just plain doesn’t give a flying shit about, is that when you say the same things over and over again, as loudly as he did, into a microphone no less, to countless impressionable teenagers, you’ve effectively lost your right to just decide one day that you didn’t mean any of it. You forfeit not your right to change your mind, but your right to change your mind without explanation. It’s as if Gabel simply called for a “do-over,” and thanks to major label marketing budgets, it actually seems to be working. With every single dollar being pumped into promoting the new album, Gabel and the rest of the band are being protected from a fanbase that has every right to feel alienated and abandoned.
In the interview with Spin, bassist Andrew Seward shared his thoughts on those fans. “I don’t really give a shit,” he said, “It is a very youthful idealism. I don’t want to say it’s a phase, because I hope people keep that forever — but it’s a lot easier to think that way when you’re young and you don’t have bills to pay.”
And while it never seems quite fair to hold everyone up to the standard set by Fugazi’s Ian Mackaye, who’s practiced exactly what he’s preached for more than twenty years, it is worth noting that not only is Seward’s statement offensive and indicative of a striking ungratefulness toward the people who put them in a position where the majors would even be interested in them in the first place, it’s also misleading and inaccurate, given the current state of the music industry, where in light of bands like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the proliferation of powerful internet hype, the debate of the day is whether it’s financially necessary to sign with any record label at all, indies included.
Seward’s philosophical backtracking is nothing new. “I have bills to pay” is the standard defense put forth by anyone who’s ever found it too difficult to continue employing their youthful ideals once the realities of adult life set in, but it’s also a thoughtless and dismissive cop-out that creates the false impression that it’s not worth trying. In the consistently unprincipled realm of the glossy magazine, where no artist shall ever have his or her actions held up to any real scrutiny, Against Me! are being told repeatedly that what they’ve done is ok, that they need not be accountable for their own actions. They now exist in a world that’s not altogether unlike that of our most despised and ridiculed celebrities, where they’re surrounded by yes-men, by people who never dare call them into question for fear of losing their job. Or, you know, having their head smashed into a coffee shop counter.