“I hear you. You sound like you’re in a lot of pain.”

“Oh, Jesus fucking Christ! Speak like a fucking human being!”

– Black Mirror S5E2, “Smithereens”

Are you sexually aroused by correct explanations? If so, type “what is a soyboy” into Google, kick back with a glass of wine, and get ready for the least erotic evening of your life.

Nobody gets it right. Even Wikipedia misunderstands the soyboy concept, which feels suspiciously tactical, like a group of libertarians not knowing the age of consent.

“Soy boy is a pejorative term sometimes used in online communities to describe men perceived to be lacking masculine characteristics.”

No. This could describe many male groups throughout history: dandies, SNAGs, beta males, nerds, metrosexuals, incels, and so on. A soyboy is a specific cultural archetype. Urban Dictionary is equally confused, although I like “The darkest nick kerr”‘s definition (“A submissive cuck”), which has brevity on its side.

A soyboy is not someone who uses insults like “arsetrumpet” and “fuckwaffle”. That’s a cockwomble. Cockwombles are frustrated young British men, raised on Monty Python and Douglas Adams, who cloak their seething anger and resentment issues in cutesy swearing and exaggerated “Britishness”.  Soyboys are not cockwombles.

“Soy” is the load-bearing pillar of the word. It indicates a mindset: deferential, milquetoast, pandering, and overly eager to please. It can be used as an intransitive verb (“DrDisrespect really soyed out with his Youtube apology video”), or as a predicate adjective (“when John Scalzi typed ‘dudebro’, it was very soy of him”). There is no matching “soy girl” archetype, but a lot of soy behavior is female-coded, so it doesn’t stand out as abnormal when women do it. Women can be powerful vectors of the soy mindset.

But it denotes something more: an awareness of the DeBordian Spectacle of modern life, and a desire to manipulate it. The soyboy’s emotional displays are always performances, enacted for a real or imagined camera, calibrated with an eye toward going viral.

Where did it come from?

“Soy” is the result of the worst parts of Youtube and Reddit getting mashed into a compost and seasoned with various bits of cultural detritus (kiddie entertainment, social justice/wokeness,  overambitious “influencer” careerism, and late noughties blogging culture). The soyboy has always been with us, but around 2012 he started to rule the world.

Soyboys are creatures built to exploit algorithms. Their traits – lazy puns, phony enthusiasm, and exaggerated feminized mannerisms – are actually social hacks designed to elicit a maximum of attention for a minimum of effort, and the more the world becomes run by filters and discovery networks, the more the soyboy thrives. They are lifeforms optimized to attract clicks and upvotes.

So when you see someone like this…

…Understand that you are witnessing the pinnacle of evolution. This is a beast designed dominate his environment the way the wolf dominates his.

Most of us hated it when the internet “karmafied” itself in 2007 or so (with every site having upvotes and downvotes and reputation scores). The soyboy loved it. He wants a number attached to his name, demonstrating his value. He loves cold data, and abhors context and nuance. Life should be simple, he thinks. People should have numbers floating beside their heads, showing whether they’re objectively Good or Bad.

Soyboys are somewhat pathetic figures, but we should not hate them. We should hate instead the world that creates them.

Ben Sixsmith notes that he possesses cockwomble traits. Sadly, I have soyboy traits. For example, I recently wrote:

One advantage of me being Australian (aside from the whole walking upside down thing, which gets old fast)

That’s soy humor. The stale “hurr hurr, people in the Antipodes stand upside down” gag, along with the fact that I’m basically “othering” myself, becoming a wacky cartoon Australian stereotype to appeal to a perceived American reader. And my trying-so-hard-to-sound-casual construction (“the whole walking upside down thing”) is derived from ValSpeak, which has a noticeable influence on soyboy speech patterns.

I will leave it in. It’s a chance to reflect on my mistakes and grow. I’m listening and learning.

What makes a soyboy a soyboy?

The biggest trait is “fake enthusiasm.” Redecorating their Animal Crossing garden? Unboxing a Funko Pop? Learning that the cast of Darkness Man: Darkening Dark of the Darkest Darkness now has six Chris actors instead of five? All of these reduce a soyboy to helpless spasms of squealing, seal-clapping glee.

Soyboys have one emotional gear and react to everything in the same way. They’re like those poker machines that scintillate with flashing lights regardless of whether you’ve won five cents or five thousand dollars.

Indeed, “react” is the foundation stone of the soyboy identity. They are passive creatures. They do not create, imagine, or dream. Making a original song is risky: maybe it won’t be any good and people will hate you and your social credit score will trend downward and the only solution will be SUICIDE. It’s far smarter to cue up a song from the critically acclaimed new Beyonce album and film yourself flapping your hands and gurgling and making chimplike noises in between utterances of “yass!” and “slay queen!” Everyone loves Beyonce, unless they’re racist. You can’t fail.

Soyboys seldom make anything original. They attach themselves like barnacles to whatever’s popular and hope for a free ride to the top.

As you’d expect, “reaction” videos are the quintessential form of soyboy content. It’s an easy form of video to churn out, and plays both to the soyboy’s strengths (identifing rising trends) and away from their weaknesses (originality, thought, and effort).

Again, they are slaves to their analytics page. They are not people so much as they are semi-intelligent slime molds that Youtube has trained to slowly wander through a maze, following tiny crumbs of ad revenue.

If you are a child, soyboy enthusiasm will seem infectious. Little Timmy flees his nightmare of a school (with its jeering bullies, girls who pre-emptively reject you even though you haven’t asked them out, and overmedicated zombie teachers) and runs into the soyboy’s technicolor embrace, where life’s a party and everything’s great. A parasocial relationship develops where Little Timmy regards the soyboy as his friend.

But once you’ve seen behind the veil, you’ll find them creepy and insincere. You’ll realize that it’s basically an act. Most soyboys are miserable, living in a hell that locks from the inside.

A good example of this is kandyrew, a “content creator” for the first-person-shooter Apex Legends.

Note the wacky smiles, suggesting he’s just overjoyed to log on and play this wonderful game from EA.

I stopped playing Apex Legends two years ago. It’s a good game, I just got bored with it. Kandyrew has logged more hours on Apex Legends than me by a factor of three. There is no way he’s still excited to sign on every day, get Kraber one-shotted and then t-bagged by MyBallsInYourMouthTTV.

It’s insincere, in other words. A performance. One that never ends. His community expects him to keep playing this game forever. He cannot change course, or his brand will die. Soyboys have taken the DeBordian spectacle, and plunged it through their chest. It’s part of the flesh, and if they pull it out, fatal bleeding will start.


Numerous cliches and stereotypes have emerged from soyboy culture. Occasionally they cross over into the mainstream. There’s the infamous soyboy face, or “soyface”.

…the “soy eyebrow raise”.

…and the “soy point”.

Other soyboy fashion tropes exist, such as soy glasses (thick, with box frames) and the soy beard (a bushy but nonthreatening mass of “beardscaped” facial hair, usually paired with a flannel shirt).

But the clothes don’t make the manlet, and the soyboy’s essence is in his personality: nebbishness, hyper-accelerated and packaged into a commodity.

Is there a soyboy anthem? A song that captures this important cultural moment the way “Smells Like Teen Spirit” does Seattle grunge?

Good question. There are many contenders, such as “Ho Hey” by the Lumineers, “Lanterns” by Birds of Tokyo, and various Imagine Dragons songs. But my own choice for most soy song ever written is “Fireflies” by Owl City.


“Dad jokes” are a fascinating example of how soyboys don’t just attach themselves to culture, they mutate it in their image.

Originally, dad jokes were just that: the kind of jokes dads tell. Usually they’re an aggressively unfunny pun.

“What do you call a fish wearing a bowtie? Sofishticated.”

Dad jokes are now extremely soy. In 2023, the median dadjoker is not a dad at all, it’s a 27 year old millennial “influencer” who plays the ukelelie. Why?

First of all, dad jokes are nearly effortless to write. Can you think of two words that sound the same? Congrats, you made a dad joke. They are the reaction videos of humor.

They’re also inoffensive, which is important for soyboys (who live in mortal fear of being “cancelled”). Dad jokes are an accepted and well-known form of cultural expression. We know what they are, and we know how to react when we hear one. Soyboys don’t do anything unless they’re sure of the reaction they’ll get.

But something always goes missing in the delivery.

Dad jokes are trolling more than they are humor. No actual dad could give a shit whether you laugh or “get it”. He lets his joke stand in all it’s awfulness. In fact, if you don’t laugh, that makes it funnier. The hypothetical dad is demonstrating his freedom: the rules of comedy have no power over him.

But “soy dad jokes” are always delivered with an apology, an explanation, a justification. They lack self-confidence, and this destroys their breezy liberation.

“What do you call a fish wearing a bowtie? Sofishticated. Heh…get it? it’s a dad joke. Oh my god, that was cringe. Dad jokes, huh? Gotta love ’em. Anyway, click like and subscribe.”

It copies the form of the dad joke, but it’s missing the soul. It’s like a freestyle jazz solo where every note is meticulously planned out ahead of time.

Traditionally, trends become uncool when parents steal them from their kids. Dad jokes are a rare example of the trend happening in reverse.

Pop culture

Soyboys are notoriously fond of the pan drippings of pop culture.

When Marvel shits, the soyboy eats. When DC pisses, the soyboy drinks. When Disney farts, the soyboy breathes. When Warner Bros cums, the soyboy swallows.

This is the difference between the American soyboy (say, Robert “MovieBob” Chipman) and the Anglo cockwomble (say, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw). Cockwombles adopt an attitude of smug superiority toward media – they think they’re too good for it – while soyboys present themselves as enthusiastic consumers. Cockwombles imagine themselves above mass media. Soyboys stand inside it.

I don’t mean to insult those who enjoy children’s entertainment. We all have our ways of relaxing: I sometimes watch cartoons. Why not? God doesn’t delete the universe when he detects a 33-year old man watching Blues Clues, even though He probably should.

But the soyboy doesn’t watch Marvel movies because he wants to. He does it because this is what’s popular, which strikes at the crux of why soyboys are so alien and disturbing. They’re good at conjuring extremes of emotion…but it’s always at least a little calculated.

Soy-cial Justice

Yes, soyboys are “woke”, but a special kind of woke.

Social justice has a hierarchy, generally determined by whose group has suffered the most. Those at the top often become outright grifters, exploiting their victim status for financial gain.

That’s obviously a joke, but it’s still setting the frame. “Me yammering about representation in TV shows is work, and I should be paid.”

I wish I’d screencapped an old forum thread where some microaggression was commited, Shanley Kane showed up, profanely “educated” the wrongdoer in what they’d done wrong, and then dropped her Ko-Fi link, so that people could compensate her for the “emotional labor” she’d undertaken on their behalf. The high achiever in this class is definitely Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose acclaimed Atlantic cover story The Case for Reparations proposes a redistribution of wealth from America’s white upperclass to its black underclass: a group he himself is a member of.

But soyboys don’t (and can’t) do that. They are at the bottom. They’re typically white men: the historic oppressors.

White males are often called upon to reflect upon their privilege, but ironically, within the social justice ecosystem, they are the ones with the least privilege of all. It’s honestly brave, in a way. Like signing up for the army when your name is Private McPutMeOnLatrineDuty.

Their standard mode is to grovel pathetically. “Please give me a chance! I’m not like those other yt males!”

John Scalzi’s Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is remains a foundational text in soyboy lore, as important in its way as the Magna Carta or the Code of Hammurabi. Here we see all the mental processes of the white male soyboy: the self-flagellation, the use of “dude”, the wacky rAnDuMb humor about vampires, the extended videogame metaphor (because we’re nerds, and we don’t understand anything unless it’s related to a videogame). This essay is almost unnecessary in light of Scalzi’s: he’s like a machine that’s sharing its own blueprints.

Again: how sincere is this?

Often, very sincere. I don’t mean to imply that Scalzi et al do not genuinely believe in anti-racism and so forth. But there’s still the confounding variable that social justice is the prevailing cultural wind. It takes no particular courage to stand against Andrew Tate or JK Rowling on a social media platform. You’re kicking the easiest of targets, and gaining social cred in the process.

The EnSoyclopedia

The visual presentation of soyboys comes from Youtube and Tiktok, but their writing style mostly comes from Reddit. If you use the phrases below, you might be a soyboy. Does this worry you? Well, being fanatically curious about your social standing is a soy trait too.

If your response is “fuck you, these words are who I am. I’m gonna say ‘heckin’ doggo’ all I like and you can’t stop me. Go cry about it” then you are probably not actually a soyboy.

“Scientist/doctor here…”

“That’s enough Internet for one day”

“Instructions unclear, penis stuck in blah blah blah”

“Let’s break it down…”

“Louder, for those in the back.”

“Buckle in, we’re going for a ride.”

“This needs to be higher.”

“Sir, this is a Wendys”

“Can confirm.”

“It’s almost as if…”


“Sexy time.”

“That happened.”

“As you do…”

“Let people enjoy things.”

“Y’all folks.”


“Having a normal one.”




“Everybody go home, this comment wins the internet”

“Username checks out.”

“My brother in Christ”

Some of these phrases are from TV. Others emerged from Reddit. All are extremely annoying. It really doesn’t matter, they exist as shibboleths of group identity. “We use these words because we use these words.”

Additionally, ChatGPT’s default tone (“in conclusion…”) is heavily soy. Though there’s the “chicken or the egg” question as to whether the AI talks like a soyboy, or whether soyboys talk like AIs.

The Fate of the Soyboy

Soyboys have undergone rapid cultural evolution. They exist with their faces pressed against the belt-sander of the Google or Reddit algorithm and anything unique or edgy eventually gets blasted away.

PewDiePie no longer makes edgy jokes. The Angry Video Game Nerd swears far less, and uses milder words. Many soyboys are glad to see the forum-based internet of the past die, because it contains posts written by them that would be considered advertiser-unfriendly today. The gradient of the soyboy is toward corporate blandness.

Earlier, I said that algorithms caused the rise of the soyboy. It might be more accurate to say (particularly on Youtube) that they caused everybody who’s not a soyboy to fail.

Occasionally, soyboy tropes get purged for sheer annoyingness. “DoggoLingo” used to be a big soy marker, but I no longer see anyone using it. Even the place that started it all, /r/rarepuppers, has abandoned it. The internet has turned against it in a big way.

I think the “soyface” will undergo the same fate. It’s too famous, and too heavily mocked. Although if I look at the last twelve MrBeast video thumbnails, he’s soyfacing in eight of them, so maybe there’s some gas in the tank still on thsy onr.

The nucleus of soy (fake emotion) will never go away, but individual soyboys will. It’s an exhausting life, performing a sick, neverending dance to make the Youtube algorithm happy. There’s no endgame. No way to “win”. The future is an algorithmic boot stomping on a soyface forever.

Often, you’ll see signs of soyboy burnout. Look  for Twitter updates containing phrases such as “taking a break” or “dealing with life” or “adulting”. Or you’ll see hints of trouble in their personal life – abuse accusations, perhaps. The technicolor world of the soyboy is as shallow as it is fake, and there’s always messy, ugly reality bleeding through.

My advice for the aspiring soyboy is to remember that it’s impossible to stay switched on all the time. Eventually an emotional hangover sets in. You have to unplug, switch everything off, and enjoy the sound of soylence.

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“Remember that all worlds draw to an end and that a noble death is a treasure which no one is too poor to buy.”

The beginning of the end: the ape Shift finds a lion skin. Sensing an opportunity, he dresses his donkey friend Puzzle in the skin and has him pretend to be the great lion Aslan.

The crude hoax works, and Shift (who appoints himself as “Aslan’s” spokesperson) is soon Narnia’s de-facto ruler. He fells the forests, enslaves the gullible populace, and throws open the gates to an enemy nation in the south. Worse is coming. In our world the apocalypse will be heralded by four horseman. Narnia gets one, and he rides a donkey.

Where The Magician’s Nephew was the Book of Genesis for Narnia, The Last Battle is patterned upon Revelations. Its plot points – the false prophets, the signs and omens, even the sybaritic decadence of the ape – are drawn beat-for-beat from Revelations and often you can identify the exact chapter and verse. But Lewis does something that John of Patmos doesn’t: he writes affectingly about the psychological devastation caused by the final days.

The book’s best passages describe the confusion and heartsickness of the Narnians under the fake Aslan’s rule. The Great Lion has returned at last…and he’s doing this? Previous Narnian villains (Jadis, Miraz, and Rabadash) were clearly usurpers and outsiders, but now the tyrant is Aslan himself.

The King and the Unicorn stared at one another and both looked more frightened than they had ever been in any battle.

“Aslan,” said the King at last, in a very low voice. “Aslan. Could it be true? Could he be felling the holy trees and murdering the Dryads?”


Suddenly the King leaned hard on his friend’s neck and bowed his head.

“Jewel,” he said, “What lies before us? Horrible thoughts arise in my heart. If we had died before to-day we should have been happy.”

“Yes,” said Jewel. “We have lived too long. The worst thing in the world has come upon us.”


“You will go to your death, then,” said Jewel.

“Do you think I care if Aslan dooms me to death?” said the King. “That would be nothing, nothing at all. Would it not be better to be dead than to have this horrible fear that Aslan has come and is not like the Aslan we have believed in and longed for? It is as if the sun rose one day and were a black sun.”

“I know,” said Jewel. “Or as if you drank water and it were dry water. You are in the right, Sire. This is the end of all things.”

The book also has the best villains of any Narnia book, or at least the most villains: Puzzle, Shift, Ginger, Rishda, Tash, and Griffle. Lewis deserves credit for keeping them separate, with their own personalities and motives. Puzzle’s a goodnatured dimwit who redeems himself by the book’s end. Shift’s motives are silly: he’s a glutton who takes over Narnia because he wants more fruit.

“But think of the good we could do!” said Shift. “You’d have me to advise you, you know. I’d think of sensible orders for you to give. And everyone would have to obey us, even the King himself. We would set everything right in Narnia.”

“But isn’t everything right already?” said Puzzle.

“What!” cried Shift. “Everything right?—when there are no oranges or bananas?”

“Well, you know,” said Puzzle, “there aren’t many people—in fact, I don’t think there’s anyone but yourself—who wants those sort of things.”

“There’s sugar too,” said Shift.

“H’m, yes,” said the Ass. “It would be nice if there was more sugar.”

Shift and Puzzle soon end up over their heads and become pawns of the Talleyrandian tomcat Ginger and the foreign warlord Rishda. These two are cynical unbelievers who use the idea of gods to manipulate the Narnians and Calormenes alike. They would have agreed with Seneca that “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.”

But Ginger and Rishda are too wise for their own good, because they accidentally summon the Calormene god Tash to Narnia. He’s depicted as a nightmarish bird-headed demon with four arms, evil incarnate. But the book’s most interesting antagonists are Griffle’s band of dwarves, who learn that Shift has been fooling them and resolve never to believe in talking lions again…with the result that they deny the true Aslan when they meet him.

The book could be read as racist and often has been been. Its plot (a white country being overrun by brown-skinned invaders) evokes Jean Raspail’s Camp of the Saints as much as anything, and it was written contemporaneously with the Windrush. It’s possible Lewis intended some sort of political point about immigration.

But it’s not particularly likely, either. The Calormens are a careless blur of vaguely Oriental tropes, their motives are the economic exploitation of Narnia rather than a racial Great Replacement, and their religion (which is polytheistic and involves human sacrifice) seems more like the Aztec one that Islam. Lewis doesn’t really care about them: they’re a McGuffin to support his eschatological metaphor. There are many bad Narnians, as well as a good Calormene soldier. Also, in the post-Narnian afterlife “…Lucy looked this way and that and soon found that a new and beautiful thing had happened to her. Whatever she looked at, however far away it might be, once she had fixed her eyes steadily on it, became quite clear and close as if she were looking through a telescope. She could see the whole southern desert and beyond it the great city of Tashbaan.” So it seems there are Calormenes in heaven, though I doubt they still worship Tash.

The only possibly racist passage comes after Tirian, Eustace, and Jill brown their faces to impersonate Calormenes.

Then they took off their Calormene armour and went down to the stream. The nasty mixture made a lather just like soft soap: it was a pleasant, homely sight to see Tirian and the two children kneeling beside the water and scrubbing the backs of their necks or puffing and blowing as they splashed the lather off. Then they went back to the Tower with red, shiny faces, looking like people who have been given an extra-specially good wash before a party. They re-armed themselves in true Narnian style with straight swords and three-cornered shields. “Body of me,” said Tirian. “That is better. I feel a true man again.”

…But I think the contrast intended by “I feel like a true man again” isn’t Narnian vs Calormen but disguised vs undisguised. Tirian is himself again, instead of pretending to be someone else. Even if it’s not, these words come from a fictional character whose opinions are not necessarily Lewis’s.

The book does provides a window into Lewis’s opinions on various topics. Susan, famously, is not present at the end.

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.'”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill, “she’s interested in nothing now-a-days except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

“Grown-up, indeed,” said the Lady Polly. “I wish she would grow up. She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can.”

Again, take from that what you will. But I co-sign Lewis’s sentiments: your teenage years are the silliest of one’s life and if you have fondness for them I pity you.

We learn about Lewis’s feelings on socialism, which were complicated. Like Orwell, he didn’t see communism and capitalism as necessarily opposed, but two different whips that power can wield. Some of Shift’s tirades could have come straight out of Animal Farm.

“And now here’s another thing,” the Ape went on, fitting a fresh nut into its cheek, “I hear some of the horses are saying, Let’s hurry up and get this job of carting timber over as quickly as we can, and then we’ll be free again. Well, you can get that idea out of your heads at once. And not only the Horses either. Everybody who can work is going to be made to work in the future. Aslan has it all settled with the King of Calormen—The Tisroc, as our dark-faced friends, the Calormenes, call him. All you horses and bulls and donkeys are to be sent down into Calormen to work for your living—pulling and carrying the way horses and such do in other countries. And all you digging animals like moles and rabbits and Dwarfs are going down to work in the Tisroc’s mines. And——”

“No, no, no,” howled the Beasts. “It can’t be true. Aslan would never sell us into slavery to the King of Calormen.”

“None of that! Hold your noise!” said the Ape with a snarl. “Who said anything about slavery? You won’t be slaves. You’ll be paid—very good wages too. That is to say, your pay will be paid in to Aslan’s treasury and he will use it all for everybody’s good.” Then he glanced, and almost winked, at the chief Calormene. The Calormene bowed and replied, in the pompous Calormene way:

“Most sapient Mouthpiece of Aslan, the Tisroc (may he live forever) is wholly of one mind with your lordship in this judicious plan.”

“There! You see!” said the Ape. “It’s all arranged. And all for your own good. We’ll be able, with the money you earn, to make Narnia a country worth living in. There’ll be oranges and bananas pouring in—and roads and big cities and schools and offices and whips and muzzles and saddles and cages and kennels and prisons—Oh, everything.”

“But we don’t want all those things,” said an old Bear. “We want to be free. And we want to hear Aslan speak himself.”

“Now don’t you start arguing,” said the Ape, “for it’s a thing I won’t stand. I’m a Man: you’re only a fat, stupid old Bear. What do you know about freedom? You think freedom means doing what you like. Well, you’re wrong. That isn’t true freedom. True freedom means doing what I tell you.”

“H-n-n-h,” grunted the Bear and scratched its head; it found this sort of thing hard to understand.

The Last Battle seems like almost nothing in summary. Narnia is taken over by the rival state of Calormen, then things get so bad that Aslan ends creation and starts a new one. But the book is hard hitting and emotionally moving, and takes in the Narnia series in directions that are unusual for it, although not unusual for the author.

Lewis actually wrote a fair amount of dystopian fiction. The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters contain striking portrayals of hell (the original dystopia), depicting it first as a rainy joyless town and then an absurd bureaucracy. That Hideous Strength is a dry run for George Orwell’s 1984 that depicts Great Britain falling under the spell of rampant NICEness. And in 1956, he swung a wrecking ball through Narnia. It’s a grim end to the series – the plot could be summed up as “everyone dies, plus some asterisks and footnotes” – but it’s an emotionally powerful one. Lewis could have turned Narnia into a production-line franchise like the Famous Five or the Hardy Boys – an infinite-money crank, with Lewis spinning the handle until the magic disappeared. Always Christmas and never winter. But he realized that good things must come to an end. If they don’t, they cease to be good.

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Nobody told me the Banshees were this heavy. Songs like “Regal” and “Icons” rival Killing Joke and Public Image Ltd in cathartic intensity and sheer violence, with Susan Ballion’s voice spiking and cleaving through a white wall of guitar distortion like an ice-axe. They’re the record’s easy-listening songs.

Join Hands proves that post-punk was more than the aftershocks of punk, it was its own movement, and probably a musically more interesting one. Punk was the past’s bitch: 50s rockabilly with a MXR Distortion Plus fuzzbox. Here we’re getting the future, even though we might not want it. You can always predict what the next chord on a Sex Pistols or Ramones song is going to be. You can’t do that on any song here. It’s strange and unfamiliar.

Which is not to say that Join Hands isn’t in debt to the past.  “Join hands” is just another way of saying “Come Together”, after all (though now the cover has four soldiers, instead of four self-hating Liverpudlians). Side B contains a reworking of “Oh Mein Papa” (which Eddie Calvert got to #1 in 1954, three years before Ballion’s birth). Musically, it isn’t far removed from what Bowie and Iggy Pop were doing in Berlin in 1977. And on the (improvised) fourteen minute long “The Lord’s Prayer”, Siouxsie Sioux’s lyrics become a filmstrip of old nostalgic references: Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”, Mohammed Ali’s trash talk, nursery rhymes, and the Beatles again (“twist and shout”).

But these images of the past are invariably mocked and desacralized here, their bodies twisted on the torture equipment of Steven Severin’s bass and John McKay’s guitar while High Inquisitor Ballion lays into them. “We have ways of making you talk.” Punk rock was about breaking away from modernistic rock practices and returning to its roots. But in post-punk, the past isn’t deified, it’s investigated and interrogated.

“Icon” has the album (and movement’s?) defining lyric: the church-spire ablaze. Faith tested against flame, and losing. In the real world, John Lennon was shot and Muhammed Ali got Parkinsons and innocuous institutions (parents, schools, and so forth) were sources of misery and even horror for many of us.

And even if the past really was good, you can’t hold onto its pleasures. Your mom and dad are growing old and forgetting your name, your church went into arrears, and your childhood playground was bulldozed long ago. And you’ve changed, too. Your innocence is gone, and you will never see the world as you once did. Time’s geodesic points only forward, and those who try to remain in the past find its memories turning to a pit of gray ash under their tongue.

Join Hands carries a grim message like a lash: there are no roots to go back to, not for rock music or anything else. There is only one possibility left: cold, scientific knowledge. If we never feel pleasure again, we may as well understand what was going on under the hood of concepts like “God” and “health” and “family”. That’s the artistic approach of post-punk: to dissect everything, and not care if it dies in the process.

The Banshees are often more interested in creating spectacles than songs. “Icon” and “Playground Twist” show them at their best: fiery, memorable tracks with huge hooks and apocalyptic thunder. The first is a stately British apocalypse. It has a world inside it, burning from horizon to horizon. The second suspends the listener in a maelstrom of flanging guitar sound and whiplashing meter changes. You feel physically destabilized when you listen to it, as though the ground is collapsing under you.

It breaks ranks with other postpunkers in important ways: the lyrics are precise and literal. Siouxsie feels sincere in her writing, which a refreshing in a genre already known for cloying, unctious irony. “Playground Twist” takes odd material (getting shoved around on a cruel playground where nobody’s your friend) and makes it seem genuinely horrible, the way a child would feel it. The Banshees mean every word here.

At times they go on a bit long, becoming ships lost in squalling noise. I generally skip “Placebo” and “Premature Burial”. They’re just empty boxes of guitar skronk.  Occasionally Ballion’s lyrics strike dead notes, particularly on “”Mother / Oh Mein Papa”, where she becomes an angry Dr Seuss. (“The one who keeps you warm / And shelters you from harm! / Watch out she’ll stunt your mind / ‘Til you emulate her kind!”)

Post-punk worked best as a musical stress test. It was about flinging songs into walls, and seeing how and where they break. The subgenre was about exploring limits and failure points, and part of that is wearing out the listener’s patience (and defying their expectation for catchy melodies, etc). That happens a lot here, because Siouxsie and the Banshees want it to happen, but that doesn’t make it any more tolerable.

Strangely, the fourteen minute “The Lord’s Prayer” is among the album’s strong points. The music just explodes out endlessly like a rolling pyroclastic flood, leaving Ballion performing an audacious tightrope-walker’s act over a sea of magma. She pulls ideas out of her head and shrieks them like a human klaxon. I don’t know to what extent it was inspired by “Sister Ray” by the Velvet Underground, but I think the answer is “heavily”.

In some respects Join Arms has aged, in others it hasn’t at all. It’s a backward-looking piece of experimentalism, but the distant past is as unfamiliar as the future. And its focus on World War I is an interesting choice, because it’s one of the clearest clashes of romanticism and realism that culture ever produced. The Armistice that ended World War I was signed at 5:12 am on the 11th of November, but the ceasefire was delayed until 11:00am. This gave the Armistice a gravitas, it was felt. Poets would be able to write that the war ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. Two thousand seven hundred and thirty-eight additional men died so this could happen.

Everyone suddenly burst out singing;
And I was filled with such delight
As prisoned birds must find in freedom
Winging wildly across the white
Orchards and dark green fields; On; on; and out of sight.

Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted,
And beauty came like the setting sun.
My heart was shaken with tears and horror
Drifted away ….. O but Everyone

Was a bird; and the song was wordless;
The singing will never be done.

  • Siegfried Sassoon, “Everyone Sang”
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