One Random Single a Day #63: “Kerosene” (1992) by Big Black

(Content note: mentions of rape, CSA, Steve Albini, Big Black)

I really don’t know how I can go about handling the band and song in question today… so I’ll just jump right in. Big Black were an American rock band from Evanston, Illinois who were together between 1981 and 1987. It was formed by Steve Albini, who would go on to become a hugely influential record producer, writer, and engineer. Although Big Black only released two studio albums through the course of their career, their eschewing of any commercial, mainstream interference to their work – as well as the unique sound of their recordings alone – make them indelible influences on the indie rock boom of the late 80s, as well as the upcoming American rock music scene in general.

My personal stance on Big Black is… pretty complicated. See, there was a time when I was younger and rough, aggressive-sounding, pitch black rock music was totally My Thing. I was obsessed with Nirvana’s In Utero, which is how I came to know of Steve Albini (who produced the album) and, thus, Big Black. Big Black’s music, in particular, captured a certain kind of dark anger and dreariness, the likes of which I only ever mildly heard in industrial bands that came much later. The pulseless drum machine, ultra-fuzzy guitars, and Albini’s throaty vocals combined to create a series of recordings that sounded like they had come from the depths of sonic hell. And whether I like it or not, these two records (Atomizer and Songs About Fucking) are integral to crafting my appreciation for punk rock and music in general. The bass and guitar riffs in “Passing Complexion” alone are forever ingrained in me as some of the most pleasantly angry sounds I’ve ever had pass through my brain.

But there are criticisms, of course. Big Black are widely notorious for their controversial lyrics, which seem all the more poor in taste when coupled with the other components of their sleazy sound. Their songs deal with such sensitive themes as murder, rape, PTSD, racism, and misogyny with about as much subtlety as a chainsaw. The debut track to Atomizer, “Jordan, Minnesota”, deals with the subject of child sexual abuse with such gross fetishism that it’s frankly unlistenable. And while it could be argued that these songs were written as a condemnation of the horridness of these topics, I’m not convinced that these lyrics were written strongly enough to constitute them as “anti-” anthems and could actually be doing more harm than good. Even worse is reading interviews where the overtly privileged Albini discusses his music in great detail, pontificating on the issues that he so obviously feels entitled to have opinions on. I’m not at all convinced that Albini would ever do anything to help victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence besides write edgy, dark-sounding music with no noted sympathy for said victims. The guy had a band called Rapeman, for crying out loud.

Take for example, “Kerosene”, which is widely regarded as one of the band’s pinnacle achievements and most likely their most popular track (I know it was never officially released as a single in the US, but there are apparently copies of it in circulation in the UK, so here we are). When asked about the meaning of the song, Big Black’s bassist Dave Riley states: “There’s only two things to do [in rural America]: Go blow up a whole load of stuff for fun. Or have a lot of sex with the one girl in town who’ll have sex with anyone. ‘Kerosene’ is about a guy who tries to combine the two pleasures”. “Kerosene” is noted for its scratchy guitars, nihilistic lyrics, and the closest thing Big Black probably ever came to a traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. I always saw the first third of this song as the strongest, with Albini’s repetitive chanting of phrases like “Never anything to do in this town / Live here my whole life” while the steady bass and drums sluggishly drag along. I’ve never had the displeasure of experiencing numbing boredom in middle-America, but the dreary atmosphere of this track is like something straight out of Gummo. There is a brief moment of release the first time Albini shouts, “Set me on fire!”, but after that the song just sort of folds upon itself and remains as wearisome as its subject matter.

It’s taken me years to realize this, but I think what makes Albini’s lyrics so unsettling to me these days is the way in which he takes on the point-of-view of the destructive personalities in question. As “Stinking Drunk” takes on the view of a violent alcoholic and “Jordan, Minnesota” of a man who sexually abuses his five-year-old child, “Kerosene” is also told from the perspective of someone (or sometimes a group of people) who lights objects on fire out of sheer boredom. It’s as if the listener is meant to be challenged to empathize or see eye-to-eye with the person in question – but what purpose is there to do so? At what ends are we supposed to reach from all of this? I’m sure the target audience already realizes that the midwest is boring as shit and presenting a narrative where someone lights everything on fire  with no consequence is utterly pointless in the grand scheme of things. As for the previous mention of the lyrics’ melding of arson and sex, presenting this read into the mix only makes the song all the more salacious. So now fucking out of boredom is the theme of the day… how edgy? Moreover, the song had been under fire in the past for alluding to gang rape, and with lyrics like “Jumped kerosene, now what do we do?”, this isn’t really too far of a reach. I just don’t understand what we’re supposed to get out of sharing the point-of-view with a bunch of terrible people, especially when it’s never insinuated that they get their comeuppance or that the victim of the situation is a human being who deserves sympathy and justice.

Despite all these criticisms, it’s hard for me to say I hate the song completely. I’ve always been such an admirer of Big Black’s seedy compositions and production, and just listening to the music on this track brings me all the way back to younger, careless days. Of course, I would like to also push my criticisms for this track much harder than my praise. Albini may be a craftsman in the production department, but his lyrics are grossly ill-sighted. I can only draw the conclusion that the point of “Kerosene” (and similar songs) is for the listener to sympathize with the terrible speaker committing selfish acts because it is reflective of the corruption of the world and society at large that leads these people to commit such atrocities. Nonetheless, I don’t buy that “Kerosene” is at all progressive in any fraction of its lyrical content and it certainly doesn’t serve much of a purpose besides taking taboo topics and ejecting it toward audiences that will eat up anything as offbeat as this. Let’s stop pretending that Steve Albini is anything more than a decent producer and a total hack songwriter.

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One Response to One Random Single a Day #63: “Kerosene” (1992) by Big Black

  1. Pingback: One Random Single a Day #64: “Staring at the Rude Boys” (1980) by The Ruts | Films Like Dreams, Etc.

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