If You’re Satan And You Know It, Clap Your Handsby Max Barashenkov / Images by Jean Rene Onyangunga / 24.08.2011
She stands before me on the stage, in lines and forms that once I might have found attractive. Behind her face, two mighty Cs, they coil and embrace. Back then, as a freshly immigrated Russian kid, the Church had beckoned with unquestioned camaraderie, so alien in the motherland, and Capitalism dazzled with all the promises of riches. Soon wonderment mutated to distrust, distrust then quickly turned into dislike, and she, the frontman of The Arrows, drives further my disgust at this unholy union by holding up a pair of Raybans shades and bashfully proclaiming: “Who’s worthy of these glasses?” The congregation roars its worth. I guess we’re not all equal as the scripture says.
And Jesus looked around and saith unto his disciples: “How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:22)
Yet, at seventy rand a head for one band, Christ certainly pays. The new Zula, a venue magnificent enough to play the part, is full tonight, close to five hundred souls await the Durban duo. That clocks the earnings in around thirty-five thousand sacrificial Rands and I can’t help but think how much of this will be given back to God. Sure, there is some hope that The Arrows will fund some ministries with all that cash, but awareness of the human nature begs to differ. The problem with bands that openly bill themselves as ‘christian acts’ is that there isn’t much music there, merely PR for the Church. The organized religious circuit is a bona-fide cash-cow, providing a zealous fan-base almost instantly and a springboard to wider commercial success. The Arrows are a testament to that, having toured the States four times off Jesus’s back and drawing hundreds of impressionable youths, by advertising through the churches, all willing to fork out the extortionist cover charge.
The crowd around me is peculiar until you realize these people don’t go to gigs, they go to church and this show is just an extension of a sermon. The hall is full of awkward men and sheepish-looking women, some way too young, some way too old, but all unanimous in their tasteless dress. They seem a little threatened by this place, which bears the scars of decadence, but this is how The Arrows sell themselves – providing for the churchgoer a safe herd atmosphere with a spicy dash of edge. I smile at how, across a passageway, three coloured girls grind down to dirty hip-hop and at the disapproving looks that are thrown at them. For any ideology or belief to hold its sway, it needs a clearly outlined Other, an enemy of sorts, against which to steel its mettle. The Arrows paint this Other quite clearly in their video for “In The Words Of Satan”, the most offensive Christian propagandist montage I have ever stumbled upon and much revealing of their bigotry. While people interpret things in different ways and it is not the aim of this article to do a semiotic deconstruction of the video, three things can be easily gleaned from this visual manifesto – The Arrows hate money (which is “the root of all evil”), The Arrows hate people who listen to rock ‘n roll (a frame of heroin use is followed by a frame of a festival crowd followed by yet more heroin use), The Arrows hate all other forms of spirituality (imagery from other religions set to the lyrics along the lines of “it’s all lies”). This places me in the highly unwanted category of ‘Satan’ for merely being myself and, coupled with prior exposure to the two-faced nature of some hardcore Christians, forces out a scream: “There is no God in you, you judgmental bitch!”
The scream is sadly drowned out by the approving howls of the crowd, exploding in a thin forest of raised hands the second the Durban girls walk on stage. Not half an hour ago, they were comatose, barely vibrating to actual good music DJ Sideshow was playing, only starting to shake when she dropped some old school rock ‘n roll (perhaps the stuff from the 50s and 60s is pure enough for them). Now there is no escaping their shrieks, and one has to give The Arrows this – they do deliver a half-decent show. The performance is tight, the music an infectious blend of pop and indie rock, sprinkled with hints of jazz. The hooks and riffs are purposefully anthemic – elation is everywhere, yet there is a certain hollowness to both the sound and presence. The use of just the keyboard and the drums leaves a rather large aural gap, that The Arrows fill with exaggerated stage antics. Pam de Menezes beats and kicks her hoof with abandon, her face perpetually mid-orgasm, while Christie Desfontaine is so ferocious in her drum assault that she resembles a crusader knight charging against the heathens (and before the spears are raised – isn’t judgment on face value an intrinsically Christian trope?). Funny enough, they sound best when they enlist the boy-candy from The Dirty Skirts on the drums and another poor dick on acoustic guitar and kick out a spectacular country rendition of “I’m Gonna Find Me A Man”. I’m not sure as to what the message of this choice of cover is, but perhaps they should ditch the duo-pop thing all together and rock out in this vein all the time.
The real question then is – would their music sell without the backing of the Church? Opinions and tastes differ, no doubt, but have we not heard Lilly Allen and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs before? Why would 5fm or any other station playlist a song that, while cute, is nowhere near groundbreaking or catchy enough to be called a hit-single? Is it perhaps a concession nod to the Christian community that has already rallied behind The Arrows on purely ideological grounds? You can’t really play outright gospel music on commercial radio but in the new South Africa you have to appeal to all. This pushes The Arrows to a much wider audience, an audience that will lap up whatever their habitual radio DJ spins, and effectively conceals their Christian agenda. Read most mainstream media articles on them and you will discover that their Church roots are barely touched on, allowing them to operate as cultural shapeshifters–preaching the ‘right’ word of God through their lyrics while actively engaging in brand promotion, advertising whoredom and soul-selling. Cast your eyes to the Adidas armour Christie wears – a sickening combo of light blue tracksuit top and shorts, continue looking past the frequent product give-aways during their set and onto their Facebook page, where every second photo sluts itself with “Taken with our new OLYMPUS BLA-BLA-BLA CAMERA, check it out, you should get one!” The transcription is literal, the camera type – yes there are several Christ-approved models to choose from – is in capitals. The sell is especially effective under the undoubtedly highly spiritual trip to Jerusalem, all that is missing is the tag-line “God looks closer through an Olympus”. Got that in your sights? Now backtrack your gaze to the “In The Words Of Satan” video, particularly the part that condemns money…
Conclusions should be made and I, from the fiery pit that surely awaits me, can only say that Jesus is definitely not listening to The Arrows.
*All images © Jean Rene Onyangunga.