Artists and Their Fans Need to Take Their Words Seriously

When a mysterious band left everything up to interpretation, hate filled the vacuum.

7 mins read

In the mysterious Swedish hip-hop collective Drain Gang’s most recent print interview—a rare thing in itself—members of the group told the Berlin fashion magazine 032c that it was not their responsibility to intellectualize their own work. 

“All we want is privacy,” group member Ecco2k said. “Personal stuff is not [anyone else’s] business. People make stuff up and speculate, but the alternative to that is way more uncomfortable.”

Despite the group’s clear disinterest in digging into the themes and subtext of their tracks, Drain Gang’s legions of fans, across generations, have stopped at nothing to either idealize their work, or shame others for not being willing to do the same. 

This combination — artists who just want to make art, sometimes obscure for the sake of it, and rabid fans who feel trying to find meaning from it — has created an uncomfortable dynamic for the group and the culture on which they’ve grown to leave an increasingly large imprint. In one case, as the collective were leaving a concert venue, crazed fans surrounded their car at a stop light, threw themselves onto it, and began taking photographs of them through the vehicle’s windows. 

On a larger scale, the group’s fanbase has grown to a point where, with the liberty granted by the group’s obscure messaging, devoted followers have willfully taken ambiguous lyrics as rallying cries for not-so-great causes. Fans can do this because Drain Gang leaves so much open to interpretation. The group’s lore hinges on an ethos of “sad boy” lonerism; for certain militant alt-right members of their cult following, this functions just as well as justification for acting out long-boiling feelings of political ostracization. “Here, their outsider status and ballads of alienation have long resonated with those who subscribe to alt-right ideologies,” 032c’s Cassidy George wrote of the collective’s virulent Reddit and Discord channels. “Particularly around the time of Donald Trump’s election, trolls in MAGA hats staked their claim over Drain Gang’s music on digital forums and have made a permanent imprint on the group’s perception — to the great dismay of the artists, who do not subscribe to right-wing or white supremacist ideologies.” 

Nothing about music, especially Drain Gang’s, is inherently political. But even non-political music can have political implications, and when it does — whether the artists themselves choose to do anything about it or not — it is up to the fans to ensure that it remains safe for themselves, their favorite musicians, and the greater world their actions will ultimately affect. As lofty as that may sound, it’s a lot more simple than it seems. Just as Drain Gang’s cultural impact comes from a series of smaller decisions — whether it be an interview turned down, a song lyric left unexplained, or a public statement left undelivered — our impact, too, lies on the same exact minute scale. A better world for our favorite artists could, for one, look like tour vehicles left unmobbed after performances. A better world for ourselves could look like inviting our peers into our fandoms when they aren’t aware, rather than shaming them for not knowing about them. A better world for everyone, at large, could be as simple as looking for the positives in ambiguous messages before we latch onto the negatives — and not devoting ourselves to said messages if we aren’t able to identify either.

In 1967, for instance, John Lennon penned the infamously strange Beatles song “I Am The Walrus,” purely because he found aimless analyses of his music absurd. In a letter he received from a young fan in school, he learned, much to his chagrin, that his band’s lyrics were being studied in classes. Full of obscure lyrics — “I am the egg man / They are the egg men / I am the walrus / Goo goo g’joob”—and equally-obscure soundscapes, the track, as much as it may have been initially wielded to combat fans’ tendencies to jump to conclusion, has since evolved into a beloved fragment of the Beatles’ mythos. 

“It is endlessly analyzable, and yet somehow analysis-proof,” linguist Ben Zimmer wrote in The Atlantic in 2017. “Lennon sneers at the overanalyzing expert-texperts like that Quarry Bank literature teacher who would kick Edgar Allan Poe if given half a chance.” It may be hard to admit, but sometimes the meaning of a song — or an act, or a discography — is simply that there isn’t one. “I Am the Walrus” is one such song. “Any interpretive effort runs aground on the limits of interpretation,” Zimmer wrote.

Much like anything involving the improvement of the world, the process of doing so by being a better consumer is, no matter what, one that takes time. But if it takes time for a fanbase to develop — a process we’ve all been part of before, whether we know it or not — we’re just as capable of making something bigger than music. In leaving their music so ambiguous, acts like Drain Gang leave infinite room for interpretation. Both parties involved — them as artists, and we as listeners — ought to take that power seriously.

Samuel Hyland

Samuel Hyland first-year at Vanderbilt University planning to major in English. He was raised in New York and writes about arts and culture. When he isn't fighting off sleep at campus libraries, he can be found silently praising local squirrels for their work ethic. (He/him)

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