Pop musicians and boycotts share a long history, one that flows in two opposite directions.
In 1964, Dusty Springfield pulled the plug on her South African tour because promoters and government officials refused to honor a contractual stipulation that her audiences not be segregated. Two decades later, Artists United Against Apartheid reached the American Top 40 with a single in which 50 pop stars declared that they "ain't gonna play Sun City," a posh South African resort.
In other cases, it's the artist who's on the receiving end of the boycott.
Born-again folk singer Michelle Shocked — once considered a hero within progressive circles — startled fans two years ago with anti-gay remarks during a San Francisco performance. According to SF Chronicle reporter Leah Garchik, Shocked at one point declared from the stage that "God hates fags and you can tweet that I said so."
The story went viral, as did calls for a boycott of any venues that refused to call off her shows. Promoter after promoter cancelled her dates, and the singer-songwriter soon found herself with nowhere left to play.
Black Pussy, who played the Triple Nickel Tavern this past Sunday night, arguably have less to lose, and more to gain, from courting controversy. While the Portland-based group's first album was independently released back in 2012, an online petition that calls for either a name-change or a venue boycott was launched just last month. In its first two weeks, the campaign gathered more than 1,500 supporters.
Triple Nickel owner J.J. Grueter says this is the first time that booking the band has caused any controversy. "That was their third or fourth time playing here," he says of this weekend's show. "We got a bunch of emails saying we should cancel the show because their name is offensive, but that was about it. As far as I know, only one show [on the tour] has been cancelled."
According to band interviews, the name Black Pussy comes from Mick Jagger's original title for "Brown Sugar," which obviously would not have reached No. 1 had it not been changed. Depending on your source, the 1971 Rolling Stones song is either about slavery or heroin or both. Listen to the lyrics, and you may be surprised that it didn't cause more of an uproar. But then, most of us don't really listen to lyrics.
Offensive band names, on the other hand, are a little harder to miss: Joy Division was the name of the forced brothels in German concentration camps. Following the death of frontman Ian Curtis, the band carried on as New Order, a name that comes with its own Nazi connotations.
Last month, Oberlin College in Ohio canceled a show by Viet Cong — a Canadian band that, musically, is often compared to Joy Division — because of the atrocities committed by the political organization of the same name.
And on it goes: Indie-rock's most celebrated producer, Steve Albini, led bands called Big Black and Rapeman, which no one seemed to particularly care about. The same can be said for Pueblo band The Asbestos Tampons, who've been using that name for the past decade.
Interestingly, Sunday's Black Pussy show had the highest female-to-male ratio of any Triple Nickel gig I've attended. Women made up at least two-thirds of the crowd, which seems unusual for stoner rock in general, let alone for a band named Black Pussy.
Also surprising was just how good the band is, both live and on record. "Into Your Cosmic" could pass as an Urge Overkill outtake, while other songs echoed Blue Cheer and even The Stone Roses. Meanwhile, from the earnest hippie lyrics to the '70s stoner image — replete with vintage keyboards and Gibson Flying V guitar — the group came across onstage as exceedingly benign.
So much so that, in retrospect, a message on the band's Facebook page somehow seemed genuine: "Black Pussy does not condone or endorse any sexism, racism, ageism, violence, or any other douchebaggery that has been spoiling the party since the party started."
Whether calculated or clueless, the band's true intentions aren't altogether clear, perhaps not even to the musicians themselves. It's the same problem shared by Shocked, whose erratic post-boycott behavior has made it impossible to know where she's coming from. For her latest shows, she's been promoting herself as "The World's Greatest Homophobe."
The concept of free speech, at least in theory, includes boycotts and protests and calling yourself awful names, just so long as you don't cross the line into advocating violence. And that's the case for everyone, whether the intention is serious, ironic or simply tone-deaf.