Viet Cong’s new self-titled album manages to make me feel excited about guitar-heavy jams despite living in an age where there is a glut of such music. This Calgary four-piece is on the cusp of the almost unobtainable—a career in indie rock. However, what’s up with that name?
Is it a political statement? Do the members of Viet Cong want to critique American foreign policy and bait the political right? Or do Viet Cong seek to take on the name of an anti-American military group, ironically, to offend people of Vietnamese descent? In an interview with Impose Magazine, bassist-vocalist Matt Flegel elaborates on the band’s name choice.
“The Viet Cong were always the badasses in movies,” he said. “I’ve looked into it a bit more since then, but I didn’t really know the history of it.”
This apolitical theme runs through their music. Viet Cong lyrics are solely about the personal—fear of death, alienation, and ennui. On “Pointless Existence” Flegel sings, “If we’re lucky maybe we will get old and die” over the faintest suggestion of a bass line and skittering drums.
Yet despite the intent and innocence—or maybe ignorance—of the band, both the right and left were offended by the name. And though the name is perfect fodder for the right-wing outrage machine, political conservatives are relatively uninvolved in indie rock, so the majority of their most vocal critics are members of the left.
Viet Cong has no Vietnamese members, making their connection to the name suspect. That isn’t to say that if a group of Vietnamese or Vietnamese-Canadian artists chose the name instead of four white guys from Calgary that they would be free from criticism; rather, different dynamics would be at play.
The Viet Cong were a Communist/Vietnamese nationalist guerrilla group which operated in South Vietnam during U.S. occupation. The Viet Cong did not call themselves by that name, instead referring to themselves as the National Liberation Front. The name Viet Cong was a pejorative term created and used by Americans and their allies to refer to Vietnamese Communists.
Now for a dramatic understatement: The Viet Cong occupy a complicated place in Vietnamese history. Some Vietnamese viewed them as freedom fighters battling long-standing western occupation, while other Vietnamese people were brutally killed or alienated by their violent guerilla campaigns. In fact, the violence of the Vietnam War was a major impetus of Vietnamese immigration to North America.
The cruel irony is that many immigrants who fled Vietnam faced multiple barriers after settling in North America. Especially in an American context, Vietnamese immigrants were discriminated against and ‘Viet Cong’ became a slur used to denigrate the Vietnamese who had fled the group’s violence.
What does that have to do with a great post-rock band from Calgary? Nothing. Viet Cong’s music is brutal, austere, and overpowering. The juxtapostion of pop culture and war memories is meant to stir these types of emotion, but different groups of people have different experiences with this name.
When I saw Viet Cong this past weekend at a packed Bar le Ritz PDB, I was incredibly impressed with the band. Exuding the confident air of a band who has found its groove after a series of near brushes with critical acclaim, the band commanded the room throughout the show. On the 11-minute album closer “Death,” the entire room swayed back and forth in unison as the song and show built to an ear-ringing end.
I don’t think its name makes them a ‘bad’ band, but using the title Viet Cong as a sort of ahistorical signifier of loud and aggressive indie rock is incredibly myopic.
However, the band is not rushing to defend its name. In the same interview with Impose Magazine, guitarist Monty Munro said, “We didn’t mean it to be offensive to anyone. But we do understand [….] I’m not gonna be indignant if someone’s upset about it.”
Although there is a lot to talk about in Viet Cong’s music, the name warrants the same level of discussion and analysis. From Pitchfork’s mostly-white “People’s List” to the bassist of DIIV’s hateful reddit rants, there has been much criticism about the demographics of indie rock and the attitudes it breeds. Listening to critics instead of defending problematic actions should be the first step towards a more inclusive musical movement.