Viet Cong’s loaded band name a cautionary tale to indie artists

Viet Cong plays a sold-out show in Seattle this Friday post-band name controversy. (Photo by Colin Way)

If a trip to the record store or a glance at local concert listings tells you anything, it’s that there’s no set rules on to how to name a band. It can be long, short, funny, serious, cute, esoteric, nonsensical, made up of initials, numbers, symbols, anything.

Often, especially for younger bands, names are chosen simply because they read well or sound cool. That might’ve been the case for the Canadian group Viet Cong when they formed three years ago in Calgary. The foursome performs this Friday, March 27 at Barboza in Seattle, a show that’s been sold out for months. Their self-titled debut album, seven intricate, psychedelic punk songs, is one of 2015’s most acclaimed.

But recently, the narrative around Viet Cong has taken another turn, one having nothing to do with music and everything to do with the name — that of the insurgent army that fought the South Vietnamese government and U.S. in the Vietnam War. All four members of the band — singer-bassist Matt Flegel, drummer Mike Wallace and guitarists Scott Munro and Daniel Christiansen — are white. 

In early March, Oberlin College in Ohio cancelled an on-campus concert, paying the band not to play at the urging of “Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American communities, both in Oberlin and beyond,” according to show promoter Ivan Krasnov’s written apology for inviting them. The press release went on to call the name “problematic” and “blatantly appropriative.”

The Oberlin cancellation might’ve been an isolated incident. To date, the rest of Viet Cong’s North American tour has gone smoothly, with no further protests reported. Without responding quickly with an official statement of apology from the band — who also declined to comment for the article — a charged dialogue ignited over the implications and consequences of names with the potential to provoke or invoke trauma for certain people or groups.

With Viet Cong, much of the debate has taken place on the Internet. In an Impose e-zine op-ed, Sang Nguyen, a first-generation Vietnamese-American, gives an emotional account of her South Vietnamese family’s escape from the civil war-torn country, having to leave behind several older family members.

“To see a phrase loaded with violence and trauma and emptied of its meaning is unacceptable,” Nguyen writes. “It’s an offensive name because it’s thoughtless.”

At the other podium, Andy Gill, of the post-punk band Gang of Four, called the policing of band names “illiberal, undemocratic and anti-progressive” in an interview with the U.K. newspaper The Guardian.

Viet Cong is of the same musical lineage as Gang of Four — who took their name from a 1960s Chinese communist group. But when Gang of Four came on the scene in the late ‘70s, did they receive the same scrutiny? When Women —Flegel’s and Wallace’s previous band — emerged just seven years ago, where was the outrage? Do band names matter more now than they did even in the not-so-distant past? Is Viet Cong’s worse than its predecessors’, or is news and opinion simply traveling faster — then dying down just as quickly?

That the Oberlin protest and cancellation didn’t have a domino effect on Viet Cong’s tour suggests so. And it certainly hasn’t been bad for business — almost every show has sold out.

When the band responded to the criticism a couple of weeks later, its statement apologizing for being “naïve” about the name surely didn’t satisfy its detractors — only changing it would do that — but did lead one to wonder: When your music is this good, and your songs decidedly apolitical, focused more on existential themes — life and death, man versus machine — should Viet Cong have been more considerate when choosing its name?