EDITORIAL COMMENT: Descendents – Hypercaffium Outdatum Offensium

descendents_miloAt 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 A word so horribly outdated and offensive that in the minds of the more thoughtful and disability aware, it is now on a par with racial slurs.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.

Maybe Descendents 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”.

Maybe those in the US think it doesn’t have quite the same nasty stigma  as it does the UK, but the root of the word shouldn’t be ignored. Across Europe it is still derogatory and potentially very, very hurtful when used in this way.  Even in the US, it’s a disability slur, but people often choose to ignore that fact. 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? From a disability perspective, it’s just as unpleasant.

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.

July 2016



10 thoughts on “EDITORIAL COMMENT: Descendents – Hypercaffium Outdatum Offensium

    • Mmm, you’re a Yankovic fan. He’s been guilty of using the “S” word too. You probably think that’s funny, but judging by your attempt at humour, you’re not punching too high. Also, while we’re pleased that you seem so fascinated by other peoples’ intimate activities, we’re not sure of the facts. You might want to find another source for your gossip. Paul isn’t even affiliated with this site. We do, however, support his beliefs with regard to disability slurs.

  1. I see your point, but also the word spazz is different from the uk version in the us. I know they don’t mean harm, the band has always been reffered as spazzy with their obsseion with coffee. I’ve never seen that word being used as derogatory in the US. My cousin has cerebal palsy and I love him to death and he calls me a spazz. They don’t mean harm, simply just addicted to coffee.

    • In that case, it’s very much your cousin’s word to use as he sees fit. It isn’t the Descendents’. Your experience may vary, but we’ve seen lots of people in the US use *that* word in a derogatory way this week.

      On the new Descendents record, they refer to kids with ADHD as “spaz”. The US seems to have adopted it as a lazy, catch all term to label anyone who doesn’t fit the norm. It’s wrong.

  2. Interesting, but the article keeps citing the fact that the “offending term” means something completely different in the US and isn’t that the whole point? If we apply a UK definition to an American word its original meaning is kinda lost in translation? (that’s of course ignoring the fact that it is part of two clumsy made up nonsense words)

    • “Keeps citing”? I mention it once…and even then it comes with the disclaimer that the word has disability roots. Either way, that merely refers to how the Americans see that word. They’re failing to see that, no matter how they use it, it *is* horribly offensive to disabled people.

      As for it being an American word? No it isn’t. Sp*z is an offensive bastardisation of spastic, which comes from the Greek spastikos.

      • Possibly yes, but the definition of it in modern day America (as in your examples of popular tv shows) no longer means that. I read a comment somewhere by someone who said its like geek or nerd in the UK. As far as I can see it now means someone who is wildly clumsy and hyperactive, hence the use of it by a US band who play fast loud and drink copious amounts of coffee.

        • You’ve taken it to mean nerd or geek as a nation… The current usage in the US of sp*z as “clumsy or hyperactive” still has a root within disability.

          You really think it’s okay to use a disability related word to label someone as clumsy, or someone less cool than the “norm”? Okaaaay, you have a lot to learn. But since you’re about to have Trump as a president, respect for those with disabilities isn’t going to be so high on your priority list.

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