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Friday, August 23, 2002

++ The Return of The 'The'

++ Is it just me, or are there a lot of bands cropping up with a "The" in their name? The Hives, The Vines, The Strokes, The Please, The Warlocks, The Shins. It must be a rock thing. After all, rock — "the rock," if you want to be hipper than I am — has returned with a vengeance, with bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes charming the socks off everyone from Williamsburg hipsters to the normally dance-music-prone English press.

Just look at the new issue of The Face: out of 40 "dressed-up, messed-up, young, sexy, drunk and dirty new bands" (in other words, the magazine's shotgun approach to pinpointing the Next Big Thing), fully half of them have a "The" in their name. This template — The [noun]s — took root with the British Invasion (there's a band name perfectly suited for the times: The British Invasion!) and has carried forward through punk, power pop, the garage rock revival, and more. What's in a name? Perhaps nothing intrinsic — after all, even the surliest rule-flouting rockers must accept the essential arbitrariness of language (save, perhaps for the odd onomatopoeic band name — does The Clash count?). Still, there's something simple, stripped down, even spartan in the nomenclature of these bands that seems appropriate for their back-to-basics sonic approach. And while not everyone I've cited above sounds alike, it's likely that they've all chosen their punchy, punky names at least in part for their associative qualities — the connections they spark in the vast, invisible database of pop music lore. Blame it on The Beatles! If they'd called themselves, say, Lennon/McCartney/Starr/Harrison, the ol' CSNY template might have proven more popular — and the charts would look more like the NASDAQ than a roster of sports teams.

The articular template actually splits into two camps, which we might call The Plurals and The Concept. On the one hand, there's the straightforward plural noun: The Strokes, The Doors, The White Stripes (there seems to be no rule on capitalizing the article, by the way). And then there are those bands that travel beneath a grander banner: The Cure, The Rapture, The Who. The Concept template is more malleable than that of The Plurals, in that it doesn't have to make sense. Witness San Francisco's The Please, who hitch a verb to their article and trundle off down the road toward rock 'n' roll incongruity.

I've always been fascinated by the semiotics of band names. At their most transparent, they reveal a band's desire to fit itself into a pre-established slot. But I'm more intrigued by the way that band names of particular genres coalesce around certain shapes and patterns and themes, with the unerring accuracy and inscrutable logic we can only chalk up to "culture." Digging into the soil of pop music history reveals clusters and patterns as densely packed as the layers of like-aged shells in geological strata.

Didn't you ever wonder why every crappy basement punk band used a three-letter abbreviation? After the rise of D.R.I., J.F.A., D.O.A., and their ilk, it seemed that no suburban tract was without a band or two of misfit kids banging away in their parents' garage beneath a three-lettered banner. At least MDC had the sense to fuck with the form, untethering their initials from the original name, Millions of Dead Cops, and embracing alternate monikers like Millions of Dead Children and Multi-Death Corporation. One punk band even got all meta on the nomenclature question, taking the alias No Use for a Name.

The Brit-pop bands of the early '90s found their own groove, favoring one-syllable words: Curve, Blur, Ride, Lush. (Many of these bands even displayed grammatical parallelism, choosing words that do double duty as nouns and verbs.) Brit-pop of a slightly later stripe expanded syllabically but stuck to the one-word template: Oasis, Travis, Coldplay. British bands of a more chemical inclination, perhaps taking a page from the psychedelic rulebook of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, opted for mismatched, mildly synaesthetic modifiers: the Stone Roses, the Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets, Black Grape.

To the best of my knowledge, no one has ever assembled a detailed taxonomy of pop music nomenclature. Such a project is undoubtedly beyond the scope of this column, but I'd like to take this opportunity to note some of my favorite conceits:

Alter Articles

These bands threw a major alphabetical wrench into the works when they shunned the definite article in favor of the indefinite: how to file a band like A Certain Ratio? Under "A"? Under "C"? (It's possible that the longstanding battle between sallow, surly record clerks and their customers was born of this conflict, a kind of tomato/tomahto debate that eventually escalated to the proportions detailed in High Fidelity.) Fortunately, these bands remained few; after A Certain Ratio came industrialists A Split Second, and then the indefinite article largely languished until A Minor Forest took up the charge (with a nifty musical pun wreaking extra havoc on the pronunciation).

A subset of the alter articles are the possessives: Her Space Holiday, His Name Is Alive, His Hero Is Gone. Note that all these examples tend to bear out the rule: the longer and/or more grammatically convoluted the band name, the more likely the band is to be self-consciously "experimental."

We've Got a Band Name and We're Going to Use It

OK, so perhaps that last formulation doesn't always hold up: We've Got a Fuzzbox and We're Going to Use It were more cheeky than geeky. Their 15 minutes as a band have long expired, but as a linguistic phenomenon, they occupy one of my very favorite categories: the band name as complete sentence. For whatever reason — very likely, the self-conscious experimentalism postulate — this form has thrived within emo and hardcore scenes. Most, but not all, of these examples hail from there: My Dad Is Dead, No For An Answer, Curl Up And Die, Sweep The Leg Johnny, Prevent Falls (if you take it as an imperative, it's a sentence, all right), Cars Get Crushed, Give Until Gone, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, and of course the inimitably titled ...and you will know us by the trail of dead.

Before them all there were They Might Be Giants; in the world of electronic music, Add N to (X).

Proper Names

Why exactly do the emo kids love wacky names so much? Where the early emo names tended to gravitas — Embrace, Rites of Spring — the third-generation bands have veered toward kitsch. Maybe it's because so many of these bowl-cut boffins are so insecure in their own skins, but there's a lot of playacting going on: hence bands like Rainer Maria, Ezra Pound, Paul Newman, Joan of Arc, Bob Tilton, and even The Baldwin Brothers — all named for real people who have nothing to do with the bands.

A cheekier variant of the proper name alias tweaks the celebrity name just enough to guarantee offending somebody: thus Jackie-O-Motherfucker and one of my longstanding favorites, John Cougar Concentration Camp.

All Mixed Up

With apologies to Ric Ocasek, who knew better than to encumber his well-oiled machine with fancy linguistic spoilers, what else but the phrase "All Mixed Up" captures the convoluted state of names like these? The Rachel's — a classic rawk name, but for that damned apostrophe. Literally, it must mean "The Of Rachel," which turns out to be remarkably close to the name of another Chicago pretento-rock outfit, The For Carnation. Yes, once again, it's the indies and the emos that seem so drawn to the strangely distended lapses of grammar, a syntax that could almost be described as Escherian. At The Drive-In is awkward, but not so bad — still, what exactly is conveyed by it? At the drive-in what? The Sea and Cake reportedly sprang from a mispronunciation ("The C in Cake"), and brings a nice bit of surrealism to the band's dreamy gusting. The all-time classic mixed-up name: Gastr del Sol.

Slightly less adventuresome than the AMUs are the bands employing Semiotic Clash, which takes the Strawberry Alarm Clock's penchant for odd modifiers one step further, often with an incoherent grammatical twist: Jimmy Eat World, Christie Front Drive.

Punctuation

Then there are the minimalists: those bands that look to the humble punctuation mark as the sign of their differentiation. There's not much to say about them except that they have caused endless grief for editors and fact-checkers everywhere. In fact, they're almost impossible to list in a sentence, as this example makes clear: Frente!, that dog., Adult., and Mission: (who recently changed their name to Crown City Rockers, under legal pressure from the Mission UK — who themselves had to add the "UK" after a cease-and-desist from the Philly R&B act the Mission). Other notables include ? and the Mysterians and The Roots' ?uestlove. The extreme case here is !!!, which is reportedly pronounced "chik chik chik," and runs so thoroughly contrary to any attempts at alphabetization that most record stores don't even file their CDs — they just use them to prop up tippy tables.

++ The above, of course, is only a smattering of the patterns spiraling through popular music like complex fractals. There are the Double Doubles (Liquid Liquid, Duran Duran), the Alphanumerics (23 Skiddoo, June of 44, Blink 182, Kid606), the Deliberate Misspellings (too many to list, from Led Zeppelin to Phish to Hawd Gankstuh Rappuh Emsees Wid Ghatz — no, I'm not making that one up). There are the straightedge bands given to compound words (Warzone, Slapshot), and those given to prepositions (Chain of Strength, Youth of Today). There are the hundreds of bands with "Youth" in their name. And of course the thousands upon thousands of triple-initialed diehards.

But no conceit remains stronger than the The. Doubtless, its current vogue will wane again; we may see a resurgence of the "Thee" mutation (Thee Headcoats, Thee Hydrogen Terrors, Thee Slayer Hippy) or perhaps a "Tha" or two (Tha Alkaholiks). Perhaps someone, inspired by the recursive logic of The The, will throw a little stutter into the mix, adopting a name like The The Strokes, say. And while there's no predicting what the next great wave of band nomenclature will be, I'd like to see someone use a haiku. Heck, if Fiona Apple could title an album with a short essay, surely 17 syllables aren't too many for a simple band name. Matty Karas has even offered an example to get the trend started:

"we are a rock band
"this is what you should call us
"no, there is no 'the.'"



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