PINKWASH and Cancer And Beating Back Your Grief

On September 1, 2016

by Cory Lomberg


One of Fugazi’s 13 Songs is “Burning Too,” a call to action founded on the condition that “We have a responsibility / To use our abilities / To keep this place alive.” That phrase is one of the most concise summations of Fugazi, a band with an uncompromising ethos and a drive to capture significance when it feels like there’s none left.

PINKWASH fits this description in its own right, like all sharp, politically-minded artists should. So whether PINKWASH’s song of the same name (stylized “BURNING TOO”) is a wink or simply an act of semantic fate, it documents members Ashley Arnwine and Joey Doubek using their music to shove meaning back into a world that regularly toys with the prospect of self destruction.

They developed this skill long before forming PINKWASH. Arnwine and Doubek played in the D.C. area a decade ago as Ingrid, with the same two-piece lineup (drummer and guitarist, respectively). Both are now based in Philadelphia, where they recorded PINKWASH’s full-length debut, COLLECTIVE SIGH. But as we talk, they recall a few seminal D.C. punk bands, Fugazi not included: City of Caterpillar, Majority Rule, Pg. 99. Those all have something in common with each other and with PINKWASH, too: they’re melodic and cacophonous at once. They’ll use any sound to fill space, just so listeners can hold onto some.

“Pinkwashing” refers to the appropriation of LGBTQ+ culture, as well as a phenomenon in which corporations mark their goods with pink ribbons, indicating a supposed dedication to funding breast cancer research or support. But this is often just used as a sales tactic. There’s no regulation as to where the ‘proceeds’ are sent, or if any of them go toward the cause at all.

Doubek’s mother lost her battle against breast cancer, just as both of my grandmothers did one before I was born and the other too soon, though not as soon. It stole her from a marriage in which my grandfather always swore that he’d be the first to go. He spent a chunk of his adolescence in concentration camps, losing his brother and father at points throughout. Breast cancer was a force that isolated him as the last to survive, again.

Some days, this illness is a passing thought. On others, it’s an emotional preoccupation. My brain steeps in the possibility. You can’t avoid cancer, not for certain. Sure, there are mammograms and BRCA testing, as well as links to soy, aluminum, increased levels of estrogen and, in the case of my younger grandmother, toxic waste (this is my mother’s causal theory, based on the disproportionate number of childhood friends who lost their mothers to the same illness at approximately the same age).

Searching for solutions might be another coping mechanism. Texting my gynecologist, limiting my tofu intake, steering clear of the microwave, using organic deodorant  these are ways in which I knit a false-security blanket. It unravels just as quick as it materializes, but I usually maintain enough to keep my eyes covered.

That leaves PINKWASH at a pivotal angle in my coping structure. I act preemptively as to avoid thinking about breast cancer directly. I try to elude this illness rather than come to terms with my hatred of it. My parents don’t have their moms. My grandfathers don’t have their partners. It takes and takes with no point of satisfaction in sight.

Yet there’s something about punk music that never, ever sounds hopeless, even if it is. I think it comes down to volume. The capacity to fight rage with rage for two, maybe three minutes. Doubek finds reason in the limbo-like state of grief through song. With Arnwine, he approaches hopelessness like a flame, brushing up against it in order to understand it and find a way out.


COLLECTIVE SIGH, to me, specifically references the space between experiencing pain and then moving forward from it,” Doubek says. “It’s been important for me to remember that everyone experiences pain and that we all should be cognizant of that and kind to each other, in whatever capacity that we can.”

ANOHNI has helped me grasp the importance of PINKWASH, and not just because both acts identify in all-caps. Who could be more punk than her? She sings of capitalistic horrors, nuclear warfare, climate destruction and Big Brother’s watchful eye over a beat sent from Hudson Mohawke. “Execution” twinkles toward vocal loops, all criticizing the death penalty. In an interview with Pitchfork, Brandon Stosuy asked if she could imagine people listening to her songs and grasping their heavy themes at the club. A similar question comes to mind in the case of PINKWASH, though the setting rolls out beneath the low ceiling of a DIY space, not on a dancefloor sprinkled with strobes. Even Arnwine and Doubek lose themselves in the noise, pushing past the content of their lyrics in search of a physical release.

“I think 98 percent of the time, I’m not processing grief when I’m playing,” Doubek says. “I’m just pushing things out there. Obviously, sometimes I have my moments.”

Like ANOHNI, PINKWASH ties every sound to pain. “METASTATIC” recalls stage IV breast cancer, at which point cancerous cells spread to other organs like the brain or lungs.

The first half of “SIGH” is fuzz and a voice encouraging, “Inhale, exhale.” But those words aren’t enough to penetrate white noise, the kind that’s framed by a white, dividing curtain beside a bed dressed in white sheets made to occupy in a pale hospital gown. A shock of noise interjects, dragging in drums and a request from Doubek: “Please, play the part / Sigh / And let me die alone.” The record pays constant consideration to this “part,” or Doubek’s role as a caretaker for his mother while she was sick.

But roles are supposed to wrap up at some point. That’s the thing about an illness as consuming as cancer. The end can be final, yet painfully inconclusive. COLLECTIVE SIGH’s closing track isn’t the last step in a set of instructions packaged with grief. “WALK FORWARD WITH MY EYES CLOSED” weaves some urge to readapt in its cyclical riff. Before moving on, we can begin by moving forward.

This is a vastly different resolution than that of ANOHNI’s HOPELESSNESS. In a way, Arnwine and Doubek uncover a beautiful compromise with the universe. When faced with real horror, you’re allowed to feel everything. A PINKWASH performance leaves no emotional surface unscraped, no sensation unnerved. They couldn’t offer less if they tried.

“I kind of wish I had another option,” Arnwine says of an expressive performance style that both her and Doubek embody onstage. “Sometimes it takes a lot out of you.”

At least it can beat back the bad feelings, that 2 percent of processing that may creep up again. The sound of PINKWASH offers reassurance that if grief washes over you, something will come after it. You can even create that something with whatever lies inside your head or hands. You can keep this world alive as long as you’re in it.

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