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‘Violent Femmes’ Still Sounds Fresh, But Flails in the Age of #MeToo

The coming-of-age genre boasts countless iconic scenes featuring teenage girls dancing alone in their bedrooms. Episode 17 of “My So-Called Life” (1994-5) perhaps best captures this liberated and uncaring expression of pure joy when protagonist Angela Chase (Claire Danes), having just gotten over a boy, jumps around her room while blasting “Blister in the Sun” by Violent Femmes.

As Pitchfork’s Steven Hyden writes, “Blister in the Sun” endures thanks to its immortal status as “a killer kick-off for your ‘I’m an Edgy Outsider and Want to Be Appreciated As Such’ mix,” surviving the evolution of music sharing from mixtapes to mix CDs to collaborative Spotify playlists. To this day, nose ring-wearing teens immediately recognize the song’s opening guitar riff. However, “Blister in the Sun” isn’t the only relevant hit off Violent Femmes’ 1983 self-titled debut. “Kiss Off,” “Add It Up,” and “Gone Daddy Gone” (made even more popular when CeeLo Green’s soul duo Gnarls Barkley covered the song in 2006) are just as familiar as the album’s opening track.

Depending on the listener, “Violent Femmes” sounds either like a bunch of teenagers whining about why they can’t get laid, or like a raw, exhilarating expression of the tender transitional period between childhood and adulthood, fueled by a lush cacophony of twangy acoustic instruments. For some audiences, part of what makes “Violent Femmes” so appealing is its simultaneous familiarity and unfamiliarity. The growing pains associated with coming of age are universally salient—almost everyone feels ugly (as explored in “Ugly”), lonely (as explored in “Confessions”), and horny (as explored in “Add It Up,” among other songs). However, not everyone is familiar with the genre of folk punk, especially folk punk made by three unassuming teenagers from Wisconsin. Although “Violent Femmes” is chock full of oddities, from marimba riffs and goofy falsettos to cartoonish voices and a lead singer who isn’t actually so great at singing, each song off the album has a totally infectious, singable melody that’s friendly enough for a mainstream audience.

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Violent Femmes actually pioneered the fusion of folk and punk, paving the way for everyone from the country-inflicted Meat Puppets to gypsy punks like Gogol Bordello. In addition, Gano’s wordy, neurotic singing style seems to have inspired all sorts of indie rock lead singers, like Stephen Malkmus, Jeff Mangum, and Thurston Moore. New York Times music critic Robert Palmer was so impressed with “Violent Femmes” when it first came out that he compared Gano to Lou Reed and folk-era Bob Dylan.

Musically, “Violent Femmes” rocks, even today. That being said, in the age of #MeToo, singer Gordon Gano’s lyrics aren’t as easy to swallow as they may have been in the past, since Gano aggressively begs women to have sex with him, demonstrating a lack of respect for the rules of consent and a belief that women owe him sex just because he wants it. Gano most explicitly does this in “Add It Up,” and in these verses, specifically:

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Why can't I get just one kiss?
Why can't I get just one kiss?
Believe me, there'd be some things that I wouldn't miss.
But I look at your pants and I need a kiss.


Why can't I get just one screw?
Why can't I get just one screw?
Believe me, I know what to do.
But something won't let me make love to you.


Why can't I get just one fuck?
Why can't I get just one fuck?
I guess it got something to do with luck.
But I waited my whole life for just one.

Feminists today fight the notion that women owe men sex, and here, Gano seems to believe that this woman owes him a kiss, a screw, or a fuck. Gano also isn’t exactly a role model for practicing good consent here, as he does not respect this woman when it’s implied she’s said “no” to his sexual advances.

Gano also sounds potentially threatening in the last track on the album, “Gimme The Car,” where he begs his dad to lend him the family car so he can have sex with a girl who might not necessarily want to have sex with him. He sings, “I tell ya what I'm gonna do / I'm gonna pick her up / I'm gonna get her drunk / I'm gonna make her cry / I'm gonna get her high,” describing how he plans to lower her inhibitions so he can “touch her all over her body.” Presumably, this girl refuses him, because he ends the song having changed the chorus from, “Come on, Dad, gimme the car,” to “Come on, girl, gimme your… / Cause I ain't had much to live for.” By complaining, “I ain’t had much to live for,” Gano seems to be guilting this woman into giving him what he wants, even though it may not be what she wants.

The largely male critics who continue to praise “Violent Femmes” often commend Gano for being so upfront about his regrettable, but relatable inner dialogue, probably because they haven’t had the sometimes scary experience of being on the other end of someone’s sex drive. Perhaps Gano is more immature than he is creepy, but “Violent Femmes” serves as yet another reminder that cultural touchstones aren’t morally infallible.

—Staff writer Danielle Eisenman can be reached at danielle.eisenman@thecrimson.com

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