“College rock” has lost just about any use it once had as a genre signifier, now mostly just a descriptor for broad, alternative rock of an ill-defined era (‘80s through the ‘90s). That said, if there was ever an album to live up to the college rock tag it was eventually slapped with, it would be Violent Femmes’ 1983 eponymous debut. Violent Femmes is an album defined by the literal and artistic voice of its principal architect, Gordon Gano, the band’s vocalist, guitarist, and primary songwriter. Gano was 20 years old by the time of the album’s release, and while he already had an excellent understanding of how to compose a pop melody, there is little on this album, lyrically, that doesn’t betray his age. None of that is to say that the success of the Femmes was a mistake, or without intention — but that this was the key to their success and essential to their longevity. Gano and his cohorts would go on to dabble in christian music and pop music more explicitly aimed at radio play, but their initial offering has the best grip on their strengths. It’s all there in the band name/album title, really.
If that were the case, Violent Femmes might hold up as a forward-thinking piece of punk satire, akin to the work of Steve Albini, but Gano’s pop sensibilities are too pure and refined.
Gano whines his way through the bulk of the songs on Violent Femmes, leaning on a harsh vocal fry that would inform the deliveries of pop punk singers for years to come. The lack of traditional masculine verve in Gano’s voice allowed him to slip in lyrics and musings that very much confirm him as a young, straight man, all against the backdrop of Brian Ritchie’s nimble bass lines and Victor DeLorenzo’s manic drumming. The femme presentation lures the listener in with a feigned vulnerability that is violently contradicted by the masculine rage at the core of each song. In the abstract, this album could be the perfect send up of the ‘sad boi,’ a sonic depiction of weaponized male sensitivity and entitlement. If that were the case, Violent Femmes might hold up as a forward-thinking piece of punk satire, akin to the work of Steve Albini, but Gano’s pop sensibilities are too pure and refined. These songs are catchy, they’re fun — sometimes they even start to feel cool. As such, the album ends up playing as a means of building a hip persona out of embarrassment, bitterness and repression. Gano’s indifference to threats against the standing of his permanent record on the pithy “Kiss Off,” the ill-considered dub syntax on the saccharine “Please Do Not Go,” the demands to ‘get fucked’ on “Add it Up” — all faux-transgressive sentiments, dramatically corny today. And yet, The Culture has never really let go of this album — and so one can’t ignore the fact that there must be something resonant here. Violent Femmes’ may offer up a buffet of unappealing emotions, but they aren’t dishonest. Gano and Co. are oft-times gross and dorky, but as such, they’re unparalleled in their ability to speak to the suburban youth’s ascension into adulthood.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Album Canon.