If there’s been a defining theme of the last year or so on the Internet, it’s been what you might call nerd rage. The emergence of Gamergate and the feelings that fueled it might feel like a very 21st-century phenomenon, but it’s not — the Internet is merely a new (and, for many reasons, perfect) means for the expression of age-old vitriol. The question of where it comes from is important – it’s all very well to just wish these people would go away, or that some convenient bully might come by to flush their collective head down the toilet, but you can’t solve a problem without understanding its root cause. And curiously, you can find a pretty perfect framework for doing so in a single 30-year-old album.
It’s rough being a boy who can’t live up to what society seems to want you to do to be a man. It breeds frustration and resentment. The Internet over the last year has been full of that frustration and resentment, and while I certainly don’t endorse the actions of those behind it, like many men, at some fundamental level, I understand where they’re coming from. In my teens, I had similar feelings — a knot of anger and resentment and self-doubt, a feeling that the world was tormenting me with images of what I should be like and then denying me any chance to live up to them. How do you prove yourself a man if girls won’t even look at you? What’s wrong with them, anyway? Why are people talking about stuff like male privilege when being a male seems so shitty?
If you’ve never been a teenage boy, or you’ve forgotten what it was like, or made yourself forget, or never had to deal with the sort of feelings we’re discussing because you were the captain of the football team, it’s worth understanding where the toxic sense of resentment and entitlement that permeates so much of this culture comes from. And it’s surprisingly easy to do so, because you really only need to do one thing: listen to the first Violent Femmes record.
There have been plenty of artistic depictions of priapic, frustrated teen-boy angst over the years, of course, but nothing quite as perfectly self-contained and concise as Violent Femmes. The Catcher in the Rye is too genteel, Less Than Zero too casually nihilistic, Stand By Me too cute, Rebel Without a Cause too romantic. Violent Femmes, though — it’s all here, and that’s all that’s here. Every song is a portrait of poisonous youth, of self-loathing both internalized and externalized, of resentment and longing and rage. And, of course, of sexual frustration, a sense of desperate need that permeates every one of Gordon Gano’s keening, nasal syllables.
The album’s lyrics are certainly misogynistic, but that misogyny is just part of a general misanthropy. As is often the case in the real world, women are the focus of the narrator’s angst and anger, and it’s because society dictates that he measure his self-worth by his success (or lack thereof) in winning their affections. That verb’s not a rhetorical device, either: there’s a real sense here that life is a game at which you win or lose, a sort of competition in which the jocks get all the girls and all the glory, and beta males skirmish over whatever scraps of self-respect they can find.
This worldview, clearly, is a manifestation of patriarchy: it’s the system that privileges a certain model of masculinity that’s responsible for oppressing those who don’t live up to that view. Given that the model in question presents women as trophies to be won, you can see how resentment at being unable to “get” them has been so often directed at women themselves: but, as with so much to do with patriarchy, there’s a bitter irony implicit in this resentment, being that with their misogyny, the boys in question only serve to reinforce the very system that is oppressing them and women both.
As Laurie Penny wrote in her excellent piece for the New Statesman on nerd entitlement last month, “Feminism…. is not to blame for making life hell for ‘shy, nerdy men.’ Patriarchy is to blame for that.” This is 100 percent correct, and so is the point she goes on to make about the way that women fit into this vision of the world, existing purely to assuage male suffering. Referring to MIT professor Scott Aaronson’s description of male nerd suffering in high school, which inspired her piece, she notes that “there was not one mention of women in any respect other than how they might relieve him from his pain by taking pity, or educating him differently.”
Many writers (including me) have addressed these ideas in the abstract. But there’s a real power to hearing them expressed in song, and listening to this record is like stepping straight into the collective consciousness of r/redpill. It’s not a pleasant place to visit, but it’s a perfect exploration how the MRA worldview develops, how self-loathing metastasizes into violence, how patriarchal oppression makes misogynists out of those it deems beta males, and how PUAs see the world. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that writing in the first person doesn’t necessarily endorse or glorify the things being depicted. Press play.