At Real Gone, we love the Descendents. We’ve followed the various band members’ careers intensely for decades, through side projects and even through related production work coming from Bill Stevenson’s Blasting Room Studios. We’ve purchased pretty much everything from the Descendents and ALL catalogues and more besides.
In 2016, they announced a return with their first new album in a almost a decade and a half. You’d think we’d be over the moon. After all, we should be thrilled that some of our favourite punk musicians are adding to their already lauded back catalogue, especially after almost giving up hope of any new material…
We’re not. In fact, we’re upset. In fact, we’re utterly offended. In fact, we are so offended we’re BOYCOTTING the new release and we actively urge all punks with any kind of social conscience to think about joining us.
There’s a reason for this. Descendents have rather stupidly decided that this new album should be called ‘Hypercaffium Spazzinate’ [A companion EP is entitled ‘Spazzhazard’].
“What’s wrong with that? It’s goofy fun” seems to be the impression from US based fans, but actually, this couldn’t be any more misjudged or horribly offensive.
For those of you unaware, Descendents have a long standing obsession with coffee and caffeine and any stimulating effects. On the surface, that seems to be why they’ve invented two words that play on “hyper”, “caffeine” and “spasm”.
However, there’s also an unwelcomed second tier to this portmanteau mess. Spasm, taken by its very definition, of course, is fine. The slang variant for spasm and spasticity, spaz (or as our Transatlantic friends prefer, spazz), is not. It’s so horribly demeaning and offensive, that from here on, Real Gone will not even be using the offending word in this article; from this point, it will be referred to as “S”, or asterisked.
Whether you knew this or not, when any words referring to spasms get shortened to the slang z-ended variant, they automatically become a derogatory word used to demean certain groups of people with disabilities. If you use it to mean “geeky”, “dorky”, “socially awkward” or anything similar, you’ve automatically alluded to disability based learning difficulties.
In Britain, “S” is taboo. A word so horribly outdated and offensive that in the minds of the more thoughtful and disability aware, it is now on a par with racial slurs. In America, it means the same and yet, somehow, it isn’t considered anywhere near as offensive. For example, in an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, there is a reference to someone “driving like a S”; an early 80s Bill Murray comedy ‘Meatballs’ features a character named “S”, on the basis that he isn’t as smart as his friends. The softer approach to “S” in the US seems to allow it to go largely unchallenged…and this brings us to the matter in hand with the Descendents.
On the one hand, Descendents possibly did not mean to cause any offence, principally using “S” to play on caffeine related twitchiness, but being a band who are well known for their bespectacled, proud-to-be-a-nerd frontman, Mr. Milo Aukerman, they’ve also become a flagship band for the disaffected, for the geeky and “for broken punks everywhere”, as someone suggested only recently. With this in mind, there is no way they chose to use “S” – even as part of a clumsy, self-invented word – without people like the character in the Bill Murray movie at least somewhere in mind. In fact, it’s almost a certainty: in a 2010 interview with the Punk Globe website, Aukerman even refers to himself as “a sp*z”.
It’s wrong. Maybe it doesn’t have quite the same nasty stigma in the US as it does the UK, but it is still derogatory and potentially very, very hurtful. Surely the US has disability action groups…and surely they’d like the casual usage of words like “S” (and other similar derogatory terms) taken seriously, very in the way one might approach homophobia or racially charged language?
Of course, casual use of the “S” word within punk music isn’t a new problem. Occasionally you’ll still come across it used in a song. It’s on a Queers album; Screeching Weasel, Bracket and even Bad Religion in their younger, naive and less socially conscious years have all been guilty of dropping it in where it’s unwarranted. There are certainly many other examples, too…and, yes, usage within a song is still offensive, but the way Descendents have chosen to use it in 2016 takes things to a new level.
As their album title includes a variant of “S”, it’s much harder to avoid than any single usage within a song, wherever that may have been. It’s now written on an album cover which – when released – will be seen by thousands of people (consciously or otherwise). Being one of the big punk releases of the season, it’ll be reviewed on all of the alternative music websites, leading to hundreds more uses of “S” across the internet. Record stores in the US and Europe will have sections labelled especially for the album – all, obviously, with “S” written on for all to see. There are also t-shirts with the “S” word emblazoned on them as part of the artwork.
Is it fair to criticise a band over a use of a word and a choice of album title? Yes, in this case, we feel it is totally justified. Descendents are foolishly helping to revive an outdated word and almost legitimise it for the fun of their fans – and possibly even for a new generation. Milo Aukerman, Bill Stevenson, Stephen Egerton and Karl Alvarez – all now men now in their fifties – really should have been smart enough to rise above dated playground “humour”, to look at the bigger picture and understand that this has the potential to cause upset.
Milo learnt the art of biochemistry when he went to college, but it proves that academic smartness is one thing, social awareness is another. In the Descendents’ case, when it comes to disability issues, they’ve got a really long way to go.