Friday, October 3, 2008

Fall Out Baj: the Trouble with Ákos, Emo, and One Drowned Kitten

Hungarian singing star Ákos turned 40 this year. The world at large failed to notice.

Ákos, who made his mark before the days of the pre-fab, TV-packaged Megasztár, is one of the few home-grown stadium draws in Hungary. To the casual observer, he comes off as a typical self-aggrandizing, bloated crooner, whose videos are filled with weepy, candle-holding, Hungarian flag-waving youth, designed to reinforce exactly what Ákos means, or should mean, to his fan base. Ákos is also an outspoken advocate of nationalism and center-right politics within Hungary. But it wasn’t always blatant nationalistic pandering for Ákos. Before his solo career, he played in a much-loved, but much less listened-to synth-pop band, called Bonanza Banzai. Highly derivative of Depeche Mode, the Hungarian Depeche Mode Fan Club still regularly play Bonanza Banzai videos at their parties. So, how did this spandex-wearing, died hair aficionado of glam pop (and all the "People are People" values it represents) turn so deeply conservative?

The answer is that Ákos (as a persona) always was conservative, much like so many members of what constitutes your average ‘alternative’ community here in Budapest. You are more likely to see a Hungarian flag pin on a typical Hungarian punk than an anarchy symbol, as likely to see a swastika as a pentagram decorating a goth. Many counter-culture movements, which tend to be so socially progressive in the States, share a union with right wing nationalism in Hungary. And, by all appearances, it is a very comfortable marriage indeed. One the same bill, I saw Egészséges Fejbőr (Healthy Head Skin, or Healthy Scalp, a loud and profoundly racist hate-core band) and a rockabilly band Sonic Cats play together, the audience seamlessly transitioning from do-woping to "Blues Suede Shoes", to heiling Hitler along to lyrics of songs like "Fekete Majmok" ("Black Monkeys"). What is surprising about an EFB concert, is just how easy it is to fit in: they don't play to just skinheads, their audience is, by all appearances, a cross-section of (white, non-Jewish, obviously) Hungarian society. People bring their kids.

The most conspicuous manifestation the right/left union in Hungary was the recent (alleged) coupling of a far-right anti-Semitic blogger and the Hungarian chapter of the Animal Liberation Front, who paired to execute and document an action against entities involved in a theatrical performance at a Jewish run and patronized club, Sirály, that involved dumping a bucket of pig shit on the objectionable person's head. That an artist who drown a kitten on film was targeted by ALF, doesn’t really bear much comment; the art itself was banal, heartless, and just dumb, and ALF typically take such radical action against abusers of animals. What was shocking was the partnership of Hungary’s most vocal right-wingers and an organization with an ultra-progressive cause.

Why does such a thick cord of nationalism tie together so many counter-cultural factions here? The lameness of Hungarian rock is partially to blame (I am coming to realize that Hungarian rock is going to be the whipping boy of this particular blog). The majority of both successful and up-and-coming Hungarian rock bands give their audience little more than pale imitations of foreign bands, and have so piteously little to offer by way of non-manufactured rebelliousness, originality, or social agenda. Just look to Hungarian emo for a truly toothless, mall-ready, and vapid music scene. It is hard to see local emo as more than foreign fashion and identity filtered through semi-talented opportunists. Conversely, a band like EFB, in addition to longevity (their hate is a slow-burning one, they have been around for almost 25 years now), they offer passion, community, and social agenda. And believe what you want about youth apathy—they do want the structure of social agenda, a scene to aspire to (where acceptance is not signified by mall purchases and expensive hair-cuts), a cue about how to cope in such a quickly changing society—and I would venture to say that the world of the Hungarian teen is vastly more complicated than mine was when I was growing up.

Or perhaps its attractiveness lies in the fact that nationalism is one of the last causes which resists being bought and sold, or turned into a transient fashion, despite the best efforts of Ákos’s sellers (MTV, VIVA). Nationalism holds little hope of attracting corporate sponsorship. It is one of the few authentic grass-roots movements around, and Hungarian identity is a cause worth fighting for in these borderless days of the EU.

But god, don’t I just want to stop every flag-waving Hungarian punk and point out the disconnect there; that they are walking oxymorons. Don't I just want to take them by their shoulders, shake them really hard and demand to know how they could have possibly taken "God Save the Queen" literally. And as much as I also just want to write the whole thing off, I can’t. These are the kids I have taught, laughed with, cared for, who I don’t want to disavow because of a scribbled swastika or Justice for Hungary tee-shirt.

I don’t know, maybe Ákos is more relevant than I give him credit for, and at 40, is still a true representation of Hungarian counter-culture. That is a scary thought.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.


Peter said...

Great post. That was a subject I was pondering about. Thanks for the insight.

Rick said...

The pairing of rock music and racism has always been profoundly idiotic.

Those "Healthy Head Skin" morons can say whatever they want, but they'll never be able to get around the fact that they are playing music that is, by definition, multicultural. I don't know if the Hungarians have an alternate origin myth for rock and roll, but last I heard, it was invented by guys like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, and it's based on black R&B and blues music.

I'd be curious to know why racist Hungarian nationalists would choose to celebrate their patriotism by listening to and/or playing punk rock—music invented in America. Granted, Tommy Ramone, Ramones drummer and writer of their song "Blitzkrieg Bop" is Hungarian, but he's also Jewish. Most of the guys who are credited with inventing punk, like Joey Ramone, Richard Hell, Chris Stein, Handsome Dick Manitoba, and Lou Reed, are all Jewish as well. Danny Fields, the guy who discovered punk forefathers the MC5 and the Stooges (and the Doors) was Jewish. The guy who owned CBGBs was Jewish. And Malcolm MacLaren, the guy who brought punk to England, was Jewish.

Which is funny, because I guess this Healthy Head Skin band is actually playing in the style of late 70s, early 80s British working-class punk. Which was created by guys who listened to reggae and were heavily influenced by Jamaican and West Indian styles.

Skrewdriver, the skinhead band that these morons doubtlessly model themselves on, were fronted by a skinhead who began his music career in (wait for it . . .) a Rolling Stones cover band called "Tumbling Dice".

I mean, what's next? White Power Hip-hop?

Mokus said...

Rick - smile of the day goes to you. Thanks for the comment. If you go to the EFB website, you can see just how off-message they get. The bands they link to are primarily ska and anti-fascist bands filled with multi-ethnic members and messages.

Anyway, as Husker Du tells us, a new day is rising, but not for the likes of EFB.