Simon Tam, bassist and founding member of Portland’s all-Asian-American, dance-rock band The Slants, wants everyone to read the comments section.
That’s the thrust of the TED Talk, titled “Yes, Read the Comments Section,” he’s getting ready to deliver at this year’s TEDxBend event, which will feature 17 speakers, including Tam, and four performers, including The Slants, over the course of two sessions Saturday at Bend Senior High School. Tam’s TED Talk begins at 9:35 a.m.; The Slants will perform at 11:08 a.m. and 4:46 p.m.
If the idea of engaging in the politically and socially charged battles often found in the comment sections of online articles and videos makes you recoil in horror, well, you’re not alone.
“That’s how most people are,” Tam said recently while traveling to a tour stop in Denver. The Slants have been on the road since early April promoting their new EP, “The Band Who Must Not Be Named,” a response to the legal battle over trademarking its name that landed in the Supreme Court in January. “… Any time people pass an interesting news article or something, perhaps of great importance even, I always see people saying, ‘Don’t read the comments section,’ which is kind of funny because for those who work in marketing and social media, you want as many comments as possible; you want engagement.
“So when people send it to me, I’m always like, ‘What does the comments section say?’” Tam continued. “… For people who maybe have serious concerns, despite maybe having information being presented in a distasteful or offensive kind of way, is there something underneath all that? I believe that behind those messages of ignorance and hate is usually a story of pain and suffering. I think that most of the time, people don’t have different values than us; we have the same values, we just interpret them in different ways.”
Since forming The Slants in 2006, Tam has fought to bridge racial, political and social divides and dispel racial stereotypes. He and the rest of the band are committed to the Asian-American community — the band regularly performs at cultural festivals and anime conventions across the U.S. and has donated album proceeds to benefit cancer research for Asian-American women. The band’s name itself is, at least in part, an attempt to re-appropriate a racial slur.
That name has landed the band in the national spotlight over the last few years. The issues at the heart of the case In re Tam, which went before the Supreme Court in January, have actually been ongoing since 2010, when Tam applied to trademark the name The Slants and was denied under the Disparaging Provision of the Lanham Act when the trademark examiner determined the name to be offensive — in part using urbandictionary.com as proof, Tam said. He said he was shocked by the initial rejection, and even thought it was a joke at first.
“The only way they could actually deny something that is considered disparaging is if it’s considered disparaging by what they call a substantial composite of the reference group, or in this case, Asian-Americans. And in our denials, they actually have never found a single Asian-American who thought our name was disparaging or who filed a formal complaint,” he said. “They instead used sources like urbandictionary.com; they’ve been using things like photos of Miley Cyrus pulling her eyes in a slant-eye gesture and these racial slur databases.”
After a second rejection in 2011, Tam appealed, sparking a long legal battle. In 2015, the United States Court of Appeals struck down the provision in the Lanham Act, ruling the band’s First Amendment rights had been violated. The United States Patent and Trademark Office then petitioned the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
The fact the government cited urbandictionary.com and other online sources, instead of consulting Asian-Americans, was a sticking point for Tam and the rest of the band (lead vocalist Ken Shima, guitarist Joe X. Jiang and newest member and drummer Yuya Matsuda). And much to the group’s chagrin, the Washington Redskins threw their support behind the band (the team’s trademark registration was canceled in 2014 under the same provision as The Slants).
Tam said if the band’s members weren’t Asian-American, trademarking the name probably wouldn’t have been an issue to begin with.
“The government said that it was incontestable that the applicant is of Asian descent and part of an Asian band, thus the association,” Tam said. “In other words, they were basically saying if people go to theslants.com, they’re gonna find a bunch of pictures of Asian people, and in their minds, if someone saw photos of Asian people next to the words ‘The Slants,’ they’re gonna automatically think ‘racial slur’ instead of any other possible definition in the dictionary. But really, when you think about it, it’s a more convoluted way of saying anyone can register a trademark for ‘The Slants’ as long as they’re not Asian, because they’re using our racial identity as a context for denial.”
The band’s oral argument before the Supreme Court in January brought up a “strange mix of emotions” for Tam.
“For me, this has been a pretty significant chunk of my life, and so just kind of thinking about where that journey has taken me — you know, bits of my life spent in a legal battle, and to think that it was all gonna culminate in about 55 minutes of oral arguments, it was just a weird thing,” Tam said. “To hear my name being uttered and the name of my band being discussed by Supreme Court justices was really kind of detached and unreal for much of it.”
Tam said a decision could be handed down “any day now,” though he’s expecting it to come toward the end of June. In the meantime, the band is forging ahead with new material, including the aptly named “The Band Who Must Not Be Named” EP. Besides the name, the EP also features a direct statement to the courts, “From the Heart,” released as a single and video.
The EP also marks a new, more pop-influenced direction for the band, which is often compared to Depeche Mode, New Order, The Cure and more modern fare such as The Killers. A new lineup (Tam is the only original member; Shima joined in 2014, Jiang two years ago and Matsuda in November) helped push the band away from its hard-driving, punk-influenced earlier albums.
“I think it’s actually much better suited to the lineup that we have now, especially with Ken’s vocals,” Tam said. “… It really can kind of pull out the great qualities of his voice in a way that maybe sometimes gets buried with just a pure punk spin to the music.”
When the current tour wraps with TEDxBend, the band will go back to work on a full album, the proper follow-up to 2012’s “Yellow Album.”
“We went in with about 22 songs, so the other songs are being further produced and developed for the full length,” Tam said. “… With some turnover (in the band), it was a little tougher having a consistent lineup to write. Plus, we were touring and of course kind of fighting the government in a major legal case. So all those things kind of delayed new music for some time.”
And trademarked or no, The Slants will live on — as The Slants.
“At the end (of the Supreme Court argument), especially once it was all over and once we walked out, I just remember feeling this tremendous sense of relief,” Tam said. “Just that — OK, I’ve done everything I possibly could, now it’s in the hands of these eight justices and hopefully justice will occur. But finally it’s over, and we can just focus on the music, and we can focus on our activism and telling the story of the band, and not have to read all these legal briefs and get involved in all these debates. It’s just like, OK, I can hopefully go back to life after this.”