Bad Religion with Jim Ruland: Do What You Want: The Story of Bad Religion book
My staff pick this week isn’t something I’d recommend to everyone, but something I wanted to share some thoughts on. I’ve said numerous times that I’ll read almost any book about punk or a punk (or punk-adjacent) band. I would have read this book even if I wasn’t a fan, but I do count myself as a Bad Religion fan, albeit with some caveats. The first Bad Religion record I heard was Recipe for Hate when I was 13 years old or so, and between the new records they were putting out at the time like that and Stranger than Fiction and discovering their older material, they became one of my favorite bands. At some point, though, I cooled on them. Nowadays my position is that How Could Hell Be Any Worse? is awesome, their pre-Atlantic albums are classics, and while I like the two records I mentioned above, I don’t have time for anything after that. Further, when I revisit anything after How Could Hell, I can’t help but think about my high school years when I obsessed over those records, and I usually think to myself something like, “if this was my favorite band, I must have been an arrogant, insufferable little prick.” And I’m sure I was.
Do What You Want’s strength and weakness is that it takes everything I feel and think about Bad Religion and translates it into book form. The parts of the book that cover the records I like are interesting to read, as they cover a period when the band seemed passionate about their art and were engaged with a scene I’m still interested in. However, around the time they sign to Atlantic, it seems as if the band members start to view Bad Religion as a business, and those parts of the book read like a CNBC reality show. Their artistic decisions seem subservient to catering to the needs of their fanbase (customers?) and their attempts to stay politically relevant feel like ham-handed attempts to deliver a mainstream liberal ideology through a narrow template of melodic hardcore punk. Or, if you’re more cynical, to continue to market their music to an audience who has aged out of being teenage punks and into being Daily Show liberals.
Another thing that bugs me about Bad Religion’s music when I listen to it nowadays is that on one hand it’s comically pretentious, but in other respects it shows a lack of ambition, occasionally even laziness. This is another aspect of the band’s aesthetic that gets subsumed into the book. The book praises the band for their “intelligent” lyrics (even implying that they didn’t become more successful because their ideas went over their potential fanbase’s heads), but the book itself doesn’t have the depth of thought or research I would have liked to have seen. In particular, the book’s later chapters that cover the post-Atlantic years feel like paraphrases of those albums’ press releases. The main research for the book appears to be interviews with the band members, but it doesn’t seem like the interviewer ever challenges them. Their quotations are rarely insightful, and there isn’t much from perspectives outside the band. This includes Greg Hetson, who was in Bad Religion for something like 20 years before they fired him, but as far as I can tell did not contribute to the book. It would have been interesting to hear his perspective on the material in the book, as well as other people outside the band’s bubble.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure it took a ton of work and effort to put together Do What You Want, but much like Bad Religion’s music, it feels like it’s holding something back. Bad Religion is a business, and there’s a company line that everyone has to toe. And again, just like Bad Religion’s music, while I enjoyed Do What You Want on some level, it’s not insightful, exciting, fresh, or innovative enough to get me fired up.