Today’s post is a bit of a confessional. Reflecting on Andreas Duus Pape’s post a few weeks back, Building Intimate Performance Venues on the Internet, I can not help but admire how closely Andreas relates podcasting with intimacy, and therefore; authenticity. Although it would be simple to critique this point as a case of circular reasoning (Podcasts are intimate because they are authentic. Podcasts are authentic because they are intimate.), I cannot help but wonder if there is something deeply honest and deftly earnest about this claim. Speaking as a musician, I believe that authenticity is a quality that cannot be conjured. It, like a feedback loop or proof of will, seeks only itself. But, how does the desire to be authentic shape performance? Does it affect what we listen for and who we listen to?
My adventures as a musician started in high school with a second hand guitar and a lot of free time. It only took a year before my pastime became something more like an obsession. First was my high school band: The Nosebleeds. The Nosebleeds played revved up versions of 50s and 60s rock and roll while all the other kids were covering Blink 182 and Operation Ivy. We were cool – really! Even at this early stage it was clear to me, authentic rock bands played old-school rock music. Even my punk guitar heroes from the 1970s like Mick Jones and Captain Sensible knew how to cop a Chuck Berry riff and Little Richard groove. After 3 years of humid Jersey shore dive bars and fluorescent high school talent shows we called it quits. Honestly, we just got bored. Also, our ace repertoire of fifteen songs was beginning to wear a little thin. . .
After The Nosebleeds came The Carpetbaggers. This was a sea-change in compositional direction. Instead of playing punky renditions of Twist and Shout, we affected a country twang and sang songs about travel and broken hearts. If you caught us on a good night, we would even throw a bit of Sonic Youth into the mix and evoke a wall of feedback out from silence. We played in New Brunswick basements and central Jersey bars and recorded an EP on an abandoned Tascam 1” reel to reel. Buzz words being thrown around at the time were: rootsy, alternative and raw. I had pulled the covers back from a revved up Chuck Berry only to find a wonderland of Americana – washboards, harmonicas, and acoustic guitars – waiting. This was, of course, what those rocker’s back in the day were inspired by – right? If The Carpetbaggers weren’t the real thing, who was?
When The Carpetbaggers broke up I joined one last band, The Acid Creeps. At this point, there would be no turning back from my descent into nostalgia. We aimed to resurrect the late sixties go-go bar house band. Taking care to acquire vintage Fender amplifiers, vintage reissue guitars, and even a knockoff Vox Continental organ. If that wasn’t enough, my sister sewed us matching orange paisley shirts which complimented our skinny black ties and sunglasses. We imagined ourselves as a period perfect garage band, exactly the sort we had seen in movies. We covered everything from Iggy Pop’s, I Wanna Be Your Dog, to The Sonic’s, Psycho, and the Detroit Wheels version of Little Latin Lupe Lu (which we all preferred). Only in our mid-twenties, we were experts (or snobs, depending on your perspective) at defining and defending what authentic garage music was, and what it was not. Before breaking up, we created a yellow 7” vinyl tomb to forever keep our music. It was named “The Bananna Split EP,” and at the moment it all seemed perfect. Authenticity, sold for five dollars at a show.
Reflecting, five years later, on these three epochs of music making – it is hard not to blush. Not only did I, for at least a year, consider each band the singular most authentic band ever; authenticity, as an ideal, began subtly to change the way I viewed myself. I transformed from Aaron the Weird Al Yankovic fan to Aaron, the garage rock expert in about 8 years. Wherever I looked for authenticity, I found it, and it was real. Not only that, but at the bar, we convinced ourselves and our friends of this notion. Conversations about which bands got it, and which did not, were frequent – if not mandatory. The answers became standard too: The Exploding Hearts, The Murder City Devils, The Misfits? They all got it. Bands like Metallica; for the most part, they did not. These conversations forever led us to equate the authentic with the obscure; a rabbit hole that twists and darts endlessly.
Authenticity in music is like feedback: powerful, seductive and dangerous. It is a very real, yet elusive concept that invites imitation and when left unchecked, can spread like a contagion. Although I love revisiting the music of my old bands, I cannot help but hear them now as a set of key moments in a greater life narrative. Iterations of myself left behind in an ongoing dialogue about authenticity. A dialogue, which, to this day, affects what music I choose to listen to, and what music I choose to avoid. Although none of my bands were truly “the real-deal,” it would be odd to claim that any were not authentic. Rather, this concept, authenticity animated each band – it kept us all going, and brought our music to life. My bands were authentic because I believed in them. I believed in my bands, because they were authentic.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD student at Rutgers University.
Last month, I braved hail, snow, and just about every kind of plague-like spring weather to hear Karen Tongson’s talk at Cornell about her soon-to-be-released book, Relocations: Emergent Queer Suburban Imaginaries (NYU Press’s Sexual Cultures Series). Karen’s project remaps U.S. suburban spaces as brown, immigrant, and queer, thus relocating the foundations of both queer studies and urban studies. While not a part of the “dykeaspora” of color that Karen deftly details, I am in solidarity with the lives she traces and the soundscapes she amplifies more passionately than Lloyd Dobler with his boom box.
After all, Karen and I grew up together in the dusty, palm-tree lined streets of Riverside, California, meeting at Sierra Middle School and plotting our way the hell out of Dodge. . .only to later realize that our mutual plottings were really survivings—and a hell of a lot of fun—and the Riv—with its raincrosses and dry riverbeds, lifted trucks and low riders—would stay with us wherever we went.
Since leaving Ithaca—Karen’s voice still warm in my ears like it used to be when tying up our parent’s pre-call-waiting phone lines—I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the way in which Relocations also reimagines the power of music. For Karen, music can help us know and love who we are more deeply, to enable us to “make do” with what we have been given in a way that liberates rather than incarcerates. Music is not just about “the differences it makes audible” (as Josh Kun writes in Audiotopia) but also, as Karen argues, about the ways in which sound gives us back to ourselves.
For example, a song that is spliced into Karen and I’s mutual musical DNA is “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” by The Smiths, (from 1986’s The Queen is Dead). Its various revolutions—both on turntables and in life choices—have affected us profoundly. In “The Light that Never Goes Out: Butch Intimacies and Sub-Urban Socialibilities in ‘Lesser Los Angeles,’” Karen uses the song as an affective touchstone for the ways in which sound can create “queer sociability, affinity, and intimacy” (355) while providing sonic moments of “self- and mutual-discovery” (360) and mediating relationships of place, power, pleasure, and privilege.
Karen’s ideas have since helped me understand why I used to listen to the song over and over in my lonely yet womb-like suburban bedroom, as if it were revelation and incantation. As I struggled with issues—identity and otherwise—Morrissey’s silken voice had the power to sound out the shape of my most secret wounds and simultaneously soothe them. Although I now know I am not alone in this, I thought I was back then, alone and waiting for someone to:
“Take me out tonight
where there’s music and there’s people
who are young and alive.”
In a now slightly-embarrassing Anglophilic phase—this was also around the time I was reading The Adrian Mole Diaries, watching My Fair Lady with Karen, and exchanging mixtapes with my British penpal—the Smiths were part and parcel of an England that I imagined as a long lost home. The U.K.’s pop cultural exports made it seem so much more tolerant of misfits of all kinds, let alone more temperate than SoCal for black turtlenecks and Doc Martens. At the time, I thought I was listening to difference—to the most remote space imaginable from the sweltering hothouse of Riverside—but Karen’s work reveals that I was really hearing the maudlin voice of my own longing, the jangly chords of my own desire, the oddball rhythms of my own heart.
I finally got myself to the actual England years later, thanks to the wonders of credit-card leveraged conferencing in destination locations. After the conference—at which I was, ironically, presenting on Los Angeles—I had the pleasure of spending a damp, foggy day record-shopping my way through brick-bound Nottingham. While I was gleefully flipping through velvety fields of plastic covers and comparing American imports with their UK counterparts, “There is a Light that Never Goes Out” came on the shop’s PA. With the first flare of guitar, I looked up from the record bins, startled by the warm recognition I felt at the sound of “home.”
At the time, I remember thinking that my thirteen-year-old self would be totally geeked out. However, I harbor little nostalgia for the volatile claustrophobia of my lonely tweenhood. Karen would describe my flash of recognition as “remote intimacy,” an asynchronous experience of popular culture across virtual networks of desire, a way of “imagining our own spaces in connection with others.”
Singing along for the thousandth time to Morrissey’s bittersweet grain, I realized that I wasn’t listening to my past in that record shop, but rather my thirteen-year-old self had been hearing the future in her bedroom. Dreaming of England had given her a way to grapple with the pains that ultimately produced my deepest longings: to overcome the “strange fears that gripped” me, to one day be able take myself “anywhere, anywhere,” and to feel the “light” of a love that would “never go out.”
It had taken a 5500 mile plane ride for me to realize that “home” was, in fact, a feeling of arrival rather than site of destination . . .and I couldn’t wait to get back to L.A. to give my homegirl Karen a call.
“There is a light that never goes out
There is a light that never goes out
There is a light that never goes out
There is a light and it never goes out. . .”
While there is a rich discussion in cultural studies about gendered representation in popular music, there remains very little about gendered listening experiences—or, more accurately—gendered perceptions of other’s listening experiences. Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies, one of the newest offerings from Duke’s Refiguring American Music series, makes promising headway in this direction, initiating a conversation about the way in which various types of listening practices—that of fans, musicians, and critics—are coded in the largely male dominated world of jazz. In popular music, however, this conversation has remained more nascent. As a female practitioner in the field with multiple identities—fan, vinyl collector, academic critic, consumer, blogger—it is uncomfortable how frequently I find people making very circumspect and circumscribed assumptions about the way in which I listen to music.
I have been collecting vinyl since the days when it was just called “buying records.” My first purchase at age 5, made via my Dad, was The GoGos’ Beauty and the Beat, which I still own, now carefully tucked into a plastic sleeve. And, thanks to my Dad’s gentle lesson in how to handle vinyl, it isn’t in very bad shape, either. Record collecting was a thrill my father shared with me, creating a connection between us that sometimes held when other bonds were endangered. No matter what, I always wanted to call him and tell him when I finally found a mint copy of Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall at a thrift store or Prince’s Purple Rain with the poster still inside.
A number of weeks ago, I was on a routine summer Saturday morning mission: trolling the yard sales in my neighborhood for kid’s stuff, used books, and vinyl. While I never expect to find the holy grail of record albums at a yard sale, I am always willing to flip through piles of Barbara Streisand, Eddie Rabbit, Billy Joel, and Herb Alpert in the hopes I might uncover it. Usually, I just end up taking in the ripe dusty smell and silently cursing the sad condition of the vinyl I find there, hating to leave even the most scratched-up Mantovani warping in the full summer sun. But you never know.
On this particular Saturday, I was vinyl hunting with my infant son strapped to my chest and had my dog, He Who Cannot Be Named, pulling at the leash. In effect, I had suburban motherhood written all over my body as I strained on my tip-toes to reach records at the back of the pile and whispered to my sleeping son about why I was so excited to find a Les Paul and Mary Ford record. In the midst of my record reveries, I overheard a man next to me begin telling the proprietor of the yard sale about his record collecting habit. He went on and on about how long he has been collecting, how many records he has, how he “just got back from buying a thousand records off a guy in Appalachin.”
My hackles were instantly raised by this conversation about record-size. I already felt a bit left out, as this man obviously chose to ignore the woman actually looking at the records in favor of the only other man around. Vinyl collecting remains an overtly male phenomenon, as Bitch Magazine discussed in their 2003 Obsession issue. Although I am embodied evidence that women do collect vinyl, I am used to being in the complete minority at record shows, music conferences, and dusty basement retail outlets and overhearing countless conversations just like this one. In spite of myself, I decided to jump in to the conversation. . I thought I would cast out a lifeline to my fellow vinyl junkie, as the yard sale guy was obviously not interested and just humoring the record geek in front of him in the hopes that he would cart away the entire stack. Plus, I miss geeking out with someone else who loves records. After a lifetime in urban California, I now live in a small town in Upstate New York. While the record bins are not so tapped out here, it is lonely going for a record head. So I said to him, “I collect records too. I can’t believe you found so many records in Appalachin.” My invitation down the path of geekdom, however, was rebuffed. “Oh,” he said, barely looking up, “yeah. It happens all the time.” And then back to yard sale guy.
I tried not to take it personally, but it became impossible after this same scene was re-enacted at four or five different houses down the block. This guy was like a cover version of the Ancient Mariner, compelled to tell man after man all about the size of his enlarging record collection, the beloved albatross around his neck: “Man, have you ever tried to move a thousand records all at one time? They are so heavy and they take up so much space!”
And, I was the invisible witness to his tale of obsession, love, and woe, silently flipping through records just a few steps ahead of him. That is ultimately how I knew he did not see me as an equal rival in the world of vinyl hunting—he let me get ahead and stay ahead in the bins, neither sneaking peeks at what I pulled or, fingers flying, moving faster and faster in the hopes of overtaking me. He just assumed that I, dog in hand and baby on chest, would pull complete crap.
My listening ears then, bear the weight of my gender and the limited ways in which women are expected to engage with music. Women remain perpetually pegged as teeny-bopper fan club leaders and screaming Beatle fans, perpetually deafening themselves to the “real music.” Despite the deft critiques of Norma Coates, Susan Douglas, and Angela McRobbie, in which the early Beatles audience is re-imagined as proto-feminist and teenaged girls’ bedrooms are viewed as sites of cultural competency rather than deaf consumerism, my female ears remain cast as those of a groupie but never an aficionado, as if the two are somehow mutually exclusive. Imagine the Ancient Mariner’s surprise when this vinyl mama plucked pristine copies of The Cure’s Faith, The Fania All Stars Live at Yankee Stadium, and Aretha Franklin’s Live at the Fillmore West right out from under his own blind ears.
Not so recently, while moving, I disbursed about half of my record collection to friends and used CD outlets. Although I eschewed many records that I never cared for, such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, I also let a few cool gems slip from my possession. For instance, my copy of Elvis Costello’s Goodbye Cruel World. Even though the album is barely listenable, I knew that by giving it away I was sacrificing a crucial claim to fandom – Elvis’s worst record ever.
If a music fan is identified by a deep love of an artist’s work, why do I feel that by abandoning a horrible album I lose my identity as a fan? Ideally, the music that establishes my root claims to fandom is immaterial; it exists apart from the album and can be likewise appreciated. In this scenario, the simple enjoyment of an artist’s work is an adequate condition of fandom. Realistically however, there is an odd hierarchy that is established via the supporting and community minded activities of a fan base’s members. A tier one fan may have collected several of Elvis’s albums, whereas a tier two fan has collected these albums and refuses to sing any other artist’s song at Thursday karaoke. Tier three fans clearly uphold both of the above conditions but also maintain fan shrines on Geocities (remember that?), where countless links too odd paraphernalia are set to an ongoing loop of “Pump it Up.”
A proclamation of love is inadequate for establishing fandom, instead it matters how you prove love. This is usually an economic quality. When I sold Goodbye Cruel World, I forfeited a share of my investment in Elvis, I became less of a fan than everyone else who owns it. Why is appreciation quantified economic terms? I originally sought out Elvis because of hip tunes like “Radio, Radio,” and maintain that “The Only Flame in Town,” (The 12” single from Goodbye Cruel World, which I still own) is complete garbage. Is it the case that a *real* fan needs to love an artist’s garbage alongside their best work?
There is a fruitful distinction to be made here, the differentiation between an artist and their output. While the artist would prefer (usually) an absolute synchronicity between output, fan and self, where each thing feeds off of the other, the fan that fits this mould is rare indeed. Generally fans adhere to one of the above archetypes: A fan of the music, or a fan of the figure. The genuine music fan is devaluated in this hierarchy, because their feedback hinges more on an abstract claim: “I love this song!” is frequently countered with, “But do you have the album?” For me, this means that other Elvis fans will have to take me at my word. More distinctly, I will stress a bit more when I move and really wonder the implications of – “Do I really need this record.”