Editorial: On Glassjaw Frontman Daryl Palumbo’s Apology for Past Sexist Lyrics
Glassjaw singer Daryl Palumbo has done two good things this month. First, he and the band released their long-awaited third album, Material Control. Even though it took fifteen years to make it, the damn thing lives up to the reputation of its predecessors. Second, Palumbo has used the press campaign around Material Control to apologize for the sexist music the band released earlier in their career.
“It’s come up. It came up in a short Pitchfork thing. And it should come up. Those are some absurd things to say. The sentiment was frustration. I was a young guy, and I was supposed to be a man and I was not. I apologize for saying any of that. You can be frustrated, but I really wished I had written better lyrics. I wish I had better taste; I wish I wasn’t so insensitive. As a son to a widowed mother, a husband to the most amazing woman I ever met and as a dad, I feel idiotic for saying that stuff. Coming from a place in punk rock — to get those sentiments off of my chest — is ignorant. And acting like that isn’t punk-rock at all, because it’s not all inclusive. I was small-minded when I should’ve been a man.”
By “that stuff” he is referring to lyrics like “you can lead a whore to water / and bet she’ll drink and follow orders” from the song “Pretty Lush.” Or, in “Siberian Kiss:” “Like a bitch in heat I hope she know / So put another penny in and turn the crank until the frames / Cease to move and the movie turns into a photo / A photo the size of a kiss [and in the second chorus, “fist”] I hope she knows.” Each song appears on their 2000 album Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence.
That gross misogynist material was central to Palumbo’s identity in 2000. When Former A&R rep Mike Gitter wrote about Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence on this site in 2009 he called the album “rape rock” in the vein of The Mentors. Nobody needs to compare Palumbo to El Duce after 2017.
Palumbo was in no way alone in his lyrical faux pas. Jen Pelly’s must-read Pitchfork essay “Unravelling The Sexism of Emo’s Third Wave” details the similar lyrical bent that Brand New frontman Jesse Lacey explored. Lacey was accused of sexual impropriety with underage girls this year. His response was a loquacious, self-loathing non-starter. “The actions of my past have caused pain and harm to a number of people, “ Lacey said, couching his apology in the passive voice, without taking ownership of his actions. Instead of fixating on the hurt he imparted upon others he spent much of the post expounding on sex addiction and his personal burdens.
Glassjaw and Lacey were both part of the Long Island emo and posthardcore explosion that rocked the music industry in the early aughts. That explosion happened in-step with the so-called New Wave of American Metal, and to some extent both movements used Warped Tour as their launching pad. The NWoAHM itself had some misogyny issues; I’m glad The Black Dahlia Murder haven’t played “I’m Charming” in a year.
Warped Tour is ending this year. In an interview with Billboard, the tour’s founder and organizer Kevin Lyman implied that the rise of public discussions about sexual harassment, especially in the wake of the Lacey allegations, informed his decision.
It’s important that Palumbo is making these public apologies. Not just because it’s the right thing to do but because he’s showing people, men, the way forward. In the wake of these accusations of sexual impropriety, men are having trouble imagining what normal interactions between the sexes will look like in the long term. Garrison Keillor, another entertainment figure accused of impropriety, said, “a world in which there is no sexual harassment at all is a world in which there will not be any flirtation.” Take a casual look on Twitter and it’s not hard to find men sharing similar anxieties: how will the sexes talk to one another after this? Or — and this one’s funny — how will the species reproduce? According to the Washington Post, many men can no longer identify what is appropriate work behavior and what isn’t. Look at that interview with Lyman again: his answers easily scan as “ticket sales are an issue but we don’t know how to handle the sexual harassment problem if it hits us.”
Palumbo right now looks like the best case study of how to successfully navigate being a man and an artist in the post-#metoo world. The first step is owning the art you make as an artist. And he isn’t shuttering his business to avoid dealing with it. Step two then, is owning the art you like.
A lot of listeners resist this idea. That includes probably a good portion of people reading this. They want guilt-free entertainment, and feel that the separation of art and artist ensures that music can’t be polluted by what artists say and do. I get that idea, I just disagree. Nothing in life is ever free of guilt. Palumbo understands that. It’s why he’s right to apologize even though he’s not the same person he was when he wrote “Pretty Lush.”
Fans need to own this, too.
Here’s a start: Worship and Tribute was the album that got me into screaming in music. I was already a metalhead in 2003, but I had to wrap my head around Glassjaw before I could make the jump from Iron Maiden to Lamb of God (and now Mgla, or whichever obscure, occult act you prefer). I can look at that period in time and draw a direct line from hearing Palumbo’s music to seeking out Pig Destroyer, The Dillinger Escape Plan, and Converge.
Those acts and Glassjaw are all still indelible pieces of my music taste profile. They’re hardwired into my neurons. And they all partially made their career by writing misogynist music. Now they’ve all moved on or begun ending their careers. None of them have faced a firestorm like Lacey has, but none of them have ever really tried to redress their younger, more bitter songs.
Those songs meant something to me because of that personally furious lyrical content. Like many men, especially when I was young, I felt powerless, had no idea how to deal with romantic rejection or, worse, sexual harassment. That music, Palumbo’s music, made me feel less alone and, in the context of those situations those songs felt real and vital and lived-in. Especially when we are young and psychologically vulnerable, the ability to salve loneliness is one of music’s most redeeming qualities.
But those days are past, and while it would be intellectually dishonest to say I don’t enjoy those songs on account of my past, I can’t relate to that music that way any longer. Good; I shouldn’t have to. And while I love what that music did for me, I want a future where no young men can relate to that kind of music and have no call to relate to that kind of immature viciousness.
It’s not about what you like as a fan. It’s about what you do with your fandom: enjoy it privately, evangelize and make more fans like yourself, or try to make a world with better fans, period. As good as the music we hear is, it’s not out of line to ask for better music that does more for people than make them feel less lonely. If we want a world with better young people we also need to want a world with better music for them. Palumbo’s taking some of the first steps towards that better world, even if he’s not quite writing that better music yet.
Now admittedly there’s plenty Palumbo could improve on, too. While he stands out from the pack because he doesn’t beat around the bush and revel in woe-is-me the way Lacey does, in an ideal world his apology constitutes a bare minimum. Some sort of donation to a domestic violence shelter or similar nonprofit seems apropos from an artist who made money in part from a “photo the shape of a fist” lyric.
Glassjaw are still playing “Pretty Lush” live. It’s easy to think that a truly honest apology would involve not playing those songs or at least not singing those lyrics. Here he could take a cue from a woman in punk: Haley Williams of Paramore won’t sing the controversial lyrics in “Misery Business” any longer.
However, if Palumbo insists on singing Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Silence material, at least now we can take it as a good-faith effort to please longstanding fans forking over hard-earned dollars for tickets, and not some longheld public grudge against an unknown but still feeling and real person. At least it’s a start.