“What’s in a band name? Everything!”
[Yale Herald, March 4, 2004]
So I’m in the market for a band name. Much as I imagine the christening of a newborn must be for marriageable people, the naming of a rock group is a very exciting challenge. After all, it’s an entirely blank slate—a fresh opportunity to reach the world with a thought-provoking juxtaposition of words and sounds. It can be as personal or obscure or irreverent as you want it to be. If all goes according to plan, it will live on forever, to leap off the tongues of swooning fans, grace marquees and T-shirts and posters, and be hilariously mislabeled in iTunes libraries.
But where do you find such a name? You can’t be pushy with the muse. Though theoretically funny candidates pop up everywhere from discussion sections (“The Gestators”) to dining halls (“Grecian Cod”), when it comes time to pick one in earnest, the well turns up surprisingly shallow. Better, then, to let it come to you, as it did to me last week in the form of the movie Die Hard (not, I hesitate to admit, the first time the spark of inspiration has come to me in this form), when it struck me that Nakatomi Plaza, the building where a good 90 percent of the movie takes place, might just be the perfect name: catchy, vaguely exotic, and obscure enough for amusement (especially during the holidays, when you explain to your grandmother that your band is named after the building from Die Hard).
Much to my horror, a screamo band from New York had the same idea a year or so earlier. Sadly, this is only too typical of the plight of a perfectly good name—either someone’s already taken it, or they’ve taken something similar enough that yours is all but useless. (To wit, a friend who has been toying with the name Death Comes for the Archbishop—after the Willa Cather novel—since 1999 now loses sleep over the otherwise laudable ascendance of Death Cab for Cutie.) So, in increasing desperation, I began to search for something with some cultural import but no identifiable soundalikes. Charmed by its ring and novelty, I finally suggested “Fortyhands.” (After all, what ill could you possibly think of a band named for a game played with only duct tape and 40 ounces of malt liquor?)
“No,” a bandmate said. “Too indie.”
And therein lies the even greater problem that afflicts the would-be band namer: It’s all politics these days. We discerning listeners are only human, and, if linguistic anthropology tells us anything (which it doesn’t), it’s that our only response to the seething magnitude of new groups with new names is to devise syntactical categories by which to understand them. Thus, the band name, like it or not, immediately conveys decisive cultural information to the prospective listener. While this is a time saver for most, it’s also a gigantic pain in the ass for those of us who just want to rock.The phenomenon of predictability, once restrained to girly punk bands (see the ever-apt Emo Band Name Generator, still afloat somewhere in cyberspace), has now begun to infiltrate all areas of the music world. Whatever the implications, a band can be pigeonholed with increasing accuracy using only simple grammatical generalizations. For instance, if the definite article (the “the,” which is, go figure, already the name of a band) is followed by a plural noun, it most likely signifies either a hippie-friendly pop outfit or a slavishly fashionable garage revival band from New York or Sweden—the former if the noun is a misspelled animal (Byrds, Monkees) and the latter if it’s a symptom of heat exhaustion (Strokes, Hives).
“The” followed by an adjective is generally the sign of an unpalatable crusty punk band, particularly when that adjective is really the participial form of a verb that has to do with disenfranchisement (Exploited, Damned). A long series of seemingly unrelated words (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Do Make Say Think) means it’s a Canadian post-rock ensemble. Bands whose names aren’t names at all but arbitrary assemblages of symbols (!!!, +/-) have a certain edginess to them and are thus bound to be praised by rock critics as being bold, as well as hated by record store clerks for being impossible to file. Names with “new,” “super,” “red,” “black,” and, in some cases, “flaming” are governed by rules all their own. You get the idea.
The upside of this, I suppose, is that if you can decide what sort of band you want in advance, you can tailor your name to exude that quality. You can let the listener know sound unheard that you’re a Strokes rip-off (The Pants), an edgy, quasi-political math-rock combo (The Pantleg), or a working class punk band (The Pantsless); that you play juvenile frat-rock (Don’t You Hate Pants), overliterate college-smartass rock (Immanuel Pants), or good old-fashioned straight-up hyphen-friendly indie rock (Mumblepants). But if, like us, you still don’t know who you want to be, the pressure to pick the right name seems damn near insurmountable.
The relatively neutral middle ground seems to be the name that defies diagramming—a single, cryptic word. From unimpeachable legends (Nirvana, Pavement, Radiohead) to more obscure favorites (Beulah, Cursive, Mogwai, Blackstreet), multisyllabic nouns tend to make for the best names, although the rules are thoroughly flexible. Indie stigma or not, simplest is safest. Failing that, there is some consolation to be taken in the fact that some of the best bands in our cultural history have had terrible names (see The Beatles, The Smashing Pumpkins, Green Day, and so on). All the same, the task before me, as it is before countless noble, well-meaning rockers, is a daunting one. I’ll be happy to field suggestions, of course. If you need me, I’ll be here watching Face/Off until something inspires me.