In Defense of Questionable Band Names

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A couple weeks ago, I was talking up awesome cuddle-core group Jawbreaker Reunion to someone at a show and, after explaining how much I loved their first LP, the very dude-ish dude I was talking to said something to the effect of, “Well that’s great, but I can’t listen to them because they called themselves Jawbreaker Reunion, and you really shouldn’t joke about that shit.”

At first I thought he was just an overzealous Jawbreaker fan, but after browsing social media I realized that he’s not alone. Turns out that as JBR has been slowly getting attention from indie blogs, they’ve been inspiring a bevy of Tweets like this:

The simple fact is that, at least to the legion of Blake Schwarzenbach devotees out there, Jawbreaker was the second coming of Christ, and to joke about the third coming is nothing short of sacrilege. And while I wish I could say JBR was the only group that gets flack for their name, it seems like it’s impossible to have a name that doesn’t offend people.

Look at a band like Diarrhea Planet: they write solid, well-constructed rock songs with strong pop sensibilities and, as they without a doubt proved through their buzz-worthy sets at Governors Ball and Bonnaroo, they put on a ridiculous live show. But, despite these bona fides, mention of their name still most often elicits responses like this:

Even more troublingly, pretty much every media outlet, even those that claim to be concerned with DIY principles, seem to ascribe unwarranted value to a band’s name. A quick Google search of “worst band names” will bring up pages of listicle-type articles from major music mags talking shit about dozens of bands (only a few of which actually deserve it). Among the worst offenders is Noisey, which regularly publishes headlines like “The Front Bottoms Reflect on How Far They’ve Come for a Band Whose Name Means ‘Vaginas’”, “Jawbreaker Reunion! (…Is What Some Band Named Themselves)”, “Diarrhea Planet Named Their Band Diarrhea Planet” and “How to Ruin Your Band Name”.

By far the most prominent example of the press being hung up on band names comes by way of recently crowned indie darlings Perfect Pussy, whose breakthrough made more than a few journalists uncomfortable. Most famously, the New York Times refused to write about them in any way other than through obscure references on the grounds that they had an “unprintable name.” Despite Dozens. Of. Articles. Mentioning. Pussy. (including an awesomely named op-ed from 1911 called “Aroused About Pussy” [Cats]).

But the obvious point that all these Jawbreaker fans and bloggers seem to miss is that a band’s name has nothing to do with what it sounds like. After all, as the band with arguably the best name of the decade said, band names aren’t as well thought out as you think:

More importantly, having a “shitty” band name can serve a useful purpose. In giving a band a joke name, it’s almost like you’re testing your audience; if they can get past a joke name and find the serious band behind it, then they get it, they’re in. Moreover, the argument could be made that bands like Jawbreaker Reunion and Perfect Pussy answer an age-old question that the kings of ’90s emo themselves once asked: “1-2-3-4, who’s punk, what’s the score?”

It might seem like a stretch, but implications of having a “joke name” are pretty clear: at the end of the day, there’s no way that Diarrhea Planet is going to be pulling down huge ad campaigns and getting tons of radio play. By having a name that offends the offendable or even just refuses to take itself seriously, a band makes itself both impossible to market and that much more difficult to co-opt.

The hope then is that, by removing the possibility of “making it big,” bands like this are free to do whatever they want. If they know it’s probably not going to happen, then they’re less pressured to try to make themselves as appealing to the lowest common denominator as possible. In other words, Diarrhea Planet is free to have four guitarists finger taping at once, Jawbreaker Reunion is free to have a song with “ass, ass, ass” as a chorus, and Perfect Pussy is free to be borderline incomprehensible. And even if in doing that these bands happen to stumble into some degree of commercial success, then it’s almost guaranteed to be on their terms.