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Surf, Sun, and Smog: Audio-Visual Imagery + Performance in Mexico City’s Neo-Surf Music Scene

 Riding the Surf Wave in a City Without a Seashore

On April 24, 2005, at Zócalo square in downtown Mexico City, the Surf y Arena music festival gathered around 100,000 people and nine bands, ranging from local, barely known groups to big names in the new-wave surf music scene: Fenómeno Fuzz, Los Magníficos, Perversos Cetáceos, Espectroplasma, Los Elásticos, Yucatán A Go-Go, Sr. Bikini, Lost Acapulco, and Los Straitjackets, the latter being the only U.S. band in the festival. One year before, hardly more than a thousand people attended the event, organized in a smaller venue at Alameda del Sur, a few hundred yards south of Zócalo square. Perhaps not even the bands were prepared for the huge response in 2005. Interviewed by local newspaper La Jornada,  Fenómeno Fuzz lead guitarist stated, “It’s the first time we see something like this, with so many people. Surf is an instrumental rock genre that was played in the 50s and 60s. There is no sand or sun here as in Acapulco, but we’ve brought downtown a bit of the beach vibe. In Mexico City there must be some 40 bands playing to this rhythm.” In the same interview piece, Lost Acapulco lead guitarist El Reverendo considered, “this festival is a success, for you realize this music is going up. People are on the same pitch. This is not a movement, but a style with many followers. […] It doesn’t matter if there is no beach here—you have to imagine it.”

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Sr. Bikini at Rock and Road on 30 de Marzo 2013, Image by Flickr User José Miguel Rosas (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The bands who played at the 2005 Surf y Arena Festival wondered whether the success was transitory or would endure. More than a decade later, some are still active, most notably Lost Acapulco, whose singles and compilations have been released in countries like Spain, Italy, and Japan; they have toured around the world, and have released a new EP, Coral Riffs (2015). Los Straitjackets lead guitarist Danny Amis has collaborated with local surf bands like Lost Acapulco and Twin Tones; after surviving a hard battle against cancer, he moved to Mexico City’s Chinatown. Los Elásticos also released a new album, Death Calavera 2.2, the Espectroplasma members formed Twin Tones and have played, toured and participated in the short film inspired by their first record, Nación Apache. In 2016, the Wild’O Fest brought together old and new surf stars, starring The Fleshtones (U.S.) and Wau y los Arrrghs! (Spain), as well as local legends Los Esquizitos and Lost Acapulco. In February 2017, the Russian band Messer Chups toured across Mexico, playing with local bands in several cities. So it seems the scene is alive and kicking.

Lost Acapulco’s LP Acapulco Golden cover art by Dr. Alderete (2004). Masks became a famous trait of Mexican surf music. Danny Amys from Los Straitjackets and some Lost Acapulco members wear them on stage, as well as many other surf bands. This cover echoes films from the 50s and 60s featuring wrestlers like Santo and Blue Demon.

Lost Acapulco’s LP Acapulco Golden cover art by Dr. Alderete (2004). Masks became a famous trait of Mexican surf music. Danny Amys from Los Straitjackets and some Lost Acapulco members wear them on stage, as well as many other surf bands. This cover echoes films from the 50s and 60s featuring wrestlers like Santo and Blue Demon.

Today we can listen to how surf music shaped part of Mexico City’s underground music scene in the last decade of the 20th century and the early 21st. Being 235 miles away from Acapulco, one might wonder how wearing sandals, short pants, floral print shirts, plastic flower necklaces, and dark sunglasses became trendy in the country’s capital city. To this beach imagery, surf bands and fans added references to classic Mexican media icons, like wrestler Santo, comedian Mauricio Garcés, and black and white sci-fi movies. The work by visual artists like Dr. Alderete—who has designed covers and posters for many surf bands, such as Lost Acapulco, Fenómeno Fuzz, Telekrimen, The Cavernarios, Los Corona, among others—has been crucial for this imagery cross-reference process.

Lima-based visual art magazine Carboncito cover art by Dr. Alderete (2012). The cover features Kalimán, main character of an old Mexican comic strip, as well as other characters associated both with surf imagery (the Rapa Nui statue, oddly resembling a bamboo Tiki figure) and spy films like James Bond.

In this article I portray the neo-surf music scene in Mexico as a cultural-musical set of audiovisual and performative traits shared, modified, and transmitted by the scene’s partakers. It cannot be said there is a surf music “urban tribe” (a trendy concept for several years in Mexican youth studies), but rather shared “aesthetic” expressions of cultural syncretism, responding to the increase of atomization and alienation in Mexico City.

Just as in ska, punk, or hardcore rock, a number of surf concert attendees participate in typical genre-related rituals like moshing. Surf fans, however, are more “performatic” in the way Diana Taylor understands this term in The Archive and the Repertoire as “the adjectival form of the nondiscursive realm of performance” (6). Several surf concert goers wear masks, originally worn by notorious Mexican wrestlers like Santo, Blue Demon, and Rey Misterio (whose son would later become a WWE star). At the concert, when a song’s tempo suddenly stops or changes, masked dancers pose as if weightlifting, jump and crowd surf, stage fights, and mimic swimming movements. Surf music is the lyric-less soundtrack for the intertwined performance of different cultural traits, portraying a prolific tension between a hedonistic attitude associated with an invented nostalgia for West Coast surf culture, and the halo of exoticness surrounding Mexican culture in the U.S. imaginary, as portrayed by surf bands and artists (just to name a few, Herb Albert’s “Tijuana Taxi,” Link Wray’s “Tijuana,” and Los Straitjackets’ “Tijuana Boots”).

Mosh pit with masked participants. On stage, Lost Acapulco plays “Frenesick.” Multiforo Alicia, Mexico City, March 20 2009.

Tracing the Origins of Mexican Neo-Surf Music Scene

Although surf music bands suffered heavily with the arrival of the British Wave, not all of them disappeared. Bands such as The Ventures became famous for covering surf standards. Others, like The Beach Boys, eventually migrated to different music styles. Later in the 1970s and 80s, bands like The Cramps, The Stray Cats, and The Go-Go’s kept alive surf-related styles, so that by the time Pulp Fiction appeared, in 1994, there were some interesting bands we already can consider “neo-surf,” such as Man Or Astroman? and The Tantra Monsters; Los Straitjackets re-formed and Dick Dale began touring again. Quentin Tarantino’s soundtrack to Pulp Fiction  (including songs by Southern California surf rockers Dale, The Tornadoes, The Revels, The Centurians, and The Lively Ones) contributed to bringing surf music back to mainstream attention, now as a vintage sound commodity (Norandi, 2002).

We might call this “the Pulp Fiction effect,” a phenomenon recognized by stakeholders in the scene, like Los Esquizitos guitar and theremin player Güili:

One day Nacho came up with the idea that we should play surf, because it was the moment in which […] in Satélite [a northern Mexico City neighborhood ] all bands wanted to play funk like Red Hot Chili Peppers or Primus. It became a virtuoso slap competition, and precisely no one was playing surf […]. Shortly afterwards, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction was released and surf exploded impressively with the movie’s theme. But we were already riding the surf wave.

Multiforo Alicia has been an important venue for the consolidation not only of a surf scene, but also of other emerging movements at the time. Founder and owner Ignacio Pineda remembers,

When we started Multiforo Alicia [in 1995], there was a generational shift. There were a lot of new bands that didn’t fit into what had been going on in the last 10 or 11 years, and they were the punk rock, ska, hip-hop, transmetal, emo, and nu metal movements, which nowadays are quite normal. […] Luckily for us, [Alicia] was like home for all of them.

Interview with Multiforo Alicia owner Ignacio Pineda, 2011

It is a common venue for surf bands (Norandi, 2002, Caballero, 2012), and through their recording label, Grabaxiones Alicia, they have produced albums for some of the most interesting instrumental rock projects in Mexico, among them Twin Tones/Espectroplasma/Sonido Gallo Negro (three groundbreaking bands with the same members), Los Esquizitos, Los Magníficos, Telekrimen, The Cavernarios, and Austin TV. Massive festivals and concerts, like Vive Latino or Surf y Arena, have also contributed to positioning neo-surf as an ongoing trend in alternative rock.

Masking Identity, Performing Difference

While the emergence of Mexican neo-surf was contingent upon local and international music trends in the mid-90s, its permanence has been due to processes of cultural syncretism and appropriation. Wrestler masks are a good example. Worn first by Danny Amis, and later on by Los Esquizitos and Lost Acapulco, masks quickly spread out as a neo-surf visual icon. Los Esquizitos drum player, Brisa, doesn’t remember there being an aesthetic justification behind the masked man using a chainsaw portrayed in their first album cover. Nacho complains, “Argh! We created a monster unawares! Ah, I sometimes regret that. I really regret having worn masks at a concert.”

Los Esquizitos greatly contributed to blend a Mexican surf flavor through their imagery on stage, as well as with their most emblematic song, “Santo y Lunave.”  One of the few songs with lyrics in the scene (and with spoken word rather than singing), it tells story of how Santo got lost in space, turning him into an important figure of Mexican neo-surf imagery. As Güili recognizes, “I think it was after the ‘Santo’ song when all the Tetris pieces fit perfectly into place—wrestling, masks, floral print shirts, surf— everything in the same box.”

Live version of “Santo y Lunave” by Los Esquizitos, Vive Latino Music Festival, Mexico City, May 17, 2009. The song was originally released in their first LP (1998)

“Performatic” moshing is another example of cultural appropriation. The apparently random movements of moshers in heavy metal concerts have been compared to the kinetics of gaseous particles (as in Silverberg, Bierbaum, Sethna & Cohen’s “Collective Motion of Moshers”) but in surf concerts their movements cannot be reduced to the categories of “self-propulsion,” “flocking” and “collision.” Here moshers interact in more complex ways, mimicking wrestling movements to the rhythm of the song in turn, enacting fights between masked and unmasked opponents, and helping other moshers to jump over the audience and crowd surf. They consciously perform the icons they associate with surf culture. They are aware of the differential traits existing between this and other rock sub-genres, and they externalize them through ritualized behaviors.  In other words, Mexican surf concert goers adopt moshing to participate in simulacra about stereotyped representations of Mexican culture and subjects.

Dancing Desires

In his book Popular Music: The Key Concepts (2nd ed), Roy Shuker describes surf as “Californian good time music, with references to sun, sand and (obliquely) sex” (2005,  262). This sexual suggestiveness is still present in Mexican neo-surf, as can be noticed in songs like Fenómeno Fuzz’s “El bikini de la chica popof” [“The Snob Girl’s Bikini”]:

Ella viene caminando en su bikini de color,

ella viene caminando y a todos nos da calor,

y sus piernas bien bronceadas me hacen suspirar.

Ella viene caminando y no ve a nadie más.

[She’s walking by, wearing her colorful bikini,

she’s walking by and everyone gets hot,

and her well-tanned legs make me sigh.

She’s walking by and doesn’t look at anyone else]

Other bands seem to reinforce this fetishization. Sr. Bikini have sometimes hired women dancers wearing masks and bikinis for their shows, and Los Elásticos have a permanent member, La Chica Elástica, who dances in every live show.

[Final part of a Los Elásticos concert in 2012, featuring La Chica Elástica. All-men and all-women mosh pits can be seen at 0:40 and 3:36.]

However, even though sometimes subject to hedonistic and stereotyped representations, women participate in every level of the scene, expressing agency as band members, scenemakers, and/or fans. Women play in the most representative bands, such as Fenómeno Fuzz’s former singer and bass player, Biani, or Los Esquizitos drummer, Brisa. There are also all-woman bands, such as Las Agresivas Hawaianas (whose brief existence is scarely documented on the internet), rockabilly trio Los Leopardos, and garage-oriented Ultrasónicas, whose members have continued playing solo, most notably Jessy Bulbo.

Offstage, both genders wear masks and enter the pit. Sometimes, when there are many moshers, men and women gather in separate pits. Dancing is much more prominent in the surf scene than in punk; participants appropriate a go-go, swing, rock ‘n’ roll, and ska dancing moves, mixing them with wrestling and weightlifting positions. The attendees accomplish their middle-class expectations of leisure and entertainment by showing off their outfits, feeling desire, desired and/or admired (even if ironically) through dancing and moshing—literally by performing such expectations in situ.

The scene overall, has been critiqued for being too retro and insulated from political critique.  As La Jornada‘s Mariela Norandi points out, “an element that the Mexican movement has inherited from the origins of surf is the lack of ideology. Curiously, surf is reborn in Mexico in a moment of political and social unrest [in the mid-90s], with the Zapatista uprising, the peso devaluation, Colosio’s murder, and Salinas’ escape” (2002, 6a). The fact that this scene has survived for over two decades, despite the many economic and political crises Mexico has faced ever since, suggests it works as an ideological outlet for scene partakers to elude their social reality. Just as it happened in the 60s with the Vietnam War, once again surfers stay away from social and political problems, and reclaim their right to have fun and dance. They wear their floral print shirts and dance a go-go style, remembering those wonderful 60s (6a).  For Norandi, the lack of lyrics in surf music may be partly responsible for most surf bands seemingly uncritical position.

Into the Surf Sound

Although half of Mexico’s states have a seashore, surf music in the capital is related to everything but actual surfing. The imagery built around it, considered “surrealistic” by Norandi (6a), is the most visible novelty in the new scene, since melodically and rhythmically speaking surf remains fairly simple, like garage or punk. However constrained, like other genres, to the 12-bar blues progression, it is in timbre where we appreciate how surf sound has been defined by several generations of music bands and players. A triple-level approach to surf music (timbral, melodic, and stylistic) can account for the creation and development of several genres or scenes associated to the rise of Mexican neo-surf, like chili western (Twin Tones, Los Twangers, The Sonoras), space surf (Espectroplasma, Telekrimen, Megatones), garage (Ultrasónicas, Las Pipas de la Paz) and rockabilly (Los Gatos, Eddie y Los Grasosos, Los Leopardos, among many others).

Appropriation, practiced through covering standards and imitating riffs and melodies, has been always crucial for shaping the surf sound, just as it was in preceding genres that  influenced rock ‘n’ roll, like blues, twist, and jazz. Although not exactly referred to as “surf standards,” there are some foundational songs that shaped the surf sound. Three pieces nowadays still debated as the first surf song—Duane Eddy’s “Rebel Rouser,”Link Wray’s “Slinky,” and Dick Dale’s “Miserlou”—influenced not only contemporary bands and their immediate successors, but also musicians in the ’90s wave.

These and other composers contributed collectively to establishing surf music’s standard traits: the 4/4 drum beat (whose earliest template may be Dale’s “Surf Beat”), the “wavy guitar” riff (perfectly illustrated in the beginning of The Chantay’s “Pipeline”), an extensive use of reverb, and the appropriation of “exotic” tunes (such as the Lebanese melody that inspired Dale’s tremolo style in “Miserlou”). Many surf songs contain, in particular, traits from “Slinky’s” guitar and “Surf Beat’s” drums. Both are simple and repetitive, but can be combined with other arrangements at will. This formula has been used in countless surf songs ever since.

a_taste_of_honey_-_herb_alperts_tijuana_brassCovering is a way of making connections with specific songs, and paying homage to (or deflating) admired bands and musicians. Links between a band and certain collaboration networks are thus established. Sr. Bikini covered Alpert’s instrumental version of The Beatles’ “A Taste of Honey,” setting up a dialogue with a musician that played a lot with Mexican stereotyped imagery and sounds (like the trumpets, substituted by electric guitars in Sr. Bikini’s version).

Lost Acapulco renamed The Trashmen’s “Surfin’ Bird” as “Surfin’ Band,” participating in a long chain of covers (including The Cramps and The Ramones) of a song that in turn was the result of mixing two pieces by The Rivingtons, “Bird’s The Word” and “Papa Oom Mow Mow.” Los Esquizitos have their own covers of The Cramps’ “Human Fly” (“El moscardón”) and Rory Erickson’s “I Walked With A Zombie.”

Los Magníficos’ “Píntalo de negro,” after The Rolling Stone’s “Paint It Black,” shows that, just as in punk, any piece can be turned into a surf song.

Sometimes it is just a trait (a riff, or a beat) that is referenced. Fenómeno Fuzz’s initial riff in “Tiki Twist” resembles Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” whereas two chili western songs (“Transgenic Surfers” by Los Twangers and “Skawboy” by The Bich Boys) echo The Ramrods’ harmonic and timbral arrangements for “Riders In The Sky,” another song with a long cover history, including Dale, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley. A surf version of this song was familiar to Mexican TV viewers in the 90s, since it was a regular soundtrack of furniture store Hermanos Vázquez spots.

Surf was born at a time when stand-alone effects units were just about to change the way music was made, taking audio manipulation off the studio and bringing it to the stage. For example, The Shadows are known for having used the tape-based Watkins Copicat, “the first repeat-echo machine manufactured as one compact unit” according to Steve Russell, responsible for the guitar delay effect in their 1960 rendition of Jerry Lordan’s “Apache,” since then a surf standard. In his book Echo and Reverb, for example, Peter Doyle examines how effects like echo/delay and reverb shaped sonic spatiality in 20th century popular music recording in the U.S., from hillbilly, country, blues, and jazz to rock ‘n’ roll.

Although Doyle only dedicates a few paragraphs to Dale, Wray, and surf instrumentals, acoustic effects greatly contributed to characterize their styles as well. Some traits are intricately related to genre specific manifestations, like the double bass in rockabilly, or the twang effect in chili western. Timbre, then, is the aural counterpart to the scene’s visual aspect, “invoking the rich semiotic traditions that wove through southern and West Coast popular music recording” (Doyle, 2005, 226). It has become a way both to continually define the genre and, in the Mexical neo-surf scene in particular, to overcome melodic and harmonic limitations. Thanks to timbral play, what used to be a blind alley in rock history became in the 1990s a mirror for young generations of Mexicanos to create and feel aligned with fashionable trends, and a sonic filter enabling them to examine their social situations and, sometimes, to willfully sidestep them.

Featured Image: Lost Acapulco in Estadio Azteca 2009, Image by Flickr User Stephany Garcia (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Aurelio Meza (Mexico City, 1985) is a PhD student in Humanities at Concordia University, Montreal. Co-organizer of the PoéticaSonora research group at UNAM, Mexico City, where he is in charge of designing and developing a digital audio repository for sound art and poetry in Mexico since 1960. Author of the books of essays Shuffle: poesía sonora (2011) and Sobre Vivir Tijuana (2015). Blog: http://aureliomexa.wordpress.com/

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Feeling Through the Keen and Grind: Team Dresch’s Personal Best

PUNKSOUND

Image of Alice Bag used with her permission (thank you!)

“Genres, styles form around places of cohesion, of transport, of passage.  Not an instrumental mathematics (though it can be that too), but a speculative one that seeks out locations of collective affect, of resonance between micro and macro spheres.” –Marcus Boon, “One Nation Under a Groove” 

Yes. Punk, is a way of living, being, thinking, and relating to the world. Yes, it is bigger than borders. . .greater than the sum of than any number of bands or even the label of “musical genre” altogether. Its dynamic style visually signifies; its DIY mode-of-operations can empower, even as its more capitalist-oriented versions can frustrate and exploit.

YES YES YES.

But also, NO!

Punk sounds!

Even if punk’s sound intentionally evades classification and clichéd high-fidelity top-ten lists like Keanu Reeves dodges bullets in the Matrix, it nonetheless exists. and means. and incites. and motivates.  and creates powerful structures of feeling that resonate through entire lifetimes, reverberations of that one all-ages basement show.

How do we know? Because, at the absolute very least, both of us have heard it with–and through–our bodies.  It has moved us, and not just symbolically, intellectually, politically, and metaphorically.  It has quite literally vibrationally, kinesthetically, heart-throbbingly, finger bleedingly, head-bangingly, body-smashing-up-against-others-bodily, in the pit of our stomachs-y, angry tear cryingly, skin tinglingly  moved us.

Without universalizing our respective experiences in the Jersey and Inland Empire/SoCal punk scenes of the 1990s/early 2000s–and our wide listenings and local involvements since then–we want to say simply that punk sound is not an abstract and negative entity.  Punk sounds–and punk’d sounds–form distinct sonic calls to some of us out there in the world that our bodies yearn to answer.

And its listeners’ understanding of and relationship to punk’s sound(s) matters. In her essay “On Not Playing Dead,” Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and (the) Julie Ruin lead singer Kathleen Hanna described one of the key powers of punk’s live sound as creating a threshold of physical exchange, a vibration drawing folks into “one of the only spaces where we give and receive pleasure publicly” to friends and strangers alike, which she argues “seems radical for a myriad of reasons, especially because it challenges the idea that sexuality/pleasure is only for people in straight/monogamous relationships and not something we as a community can have through music.”  Punk sound constructs, enables, and sometimes downright demands a variety of participatory responses, both individual and social.

In short, just ask a punk about what punk sounds like! They know! And they will tell you about it!  It’s up to us to figure out how to listen. And what better space to try in the audiovisual ‘zine that is Sounding Out!, started by folks whose scenes taught them how to forge and sustain community with and through sound.

This series (and its follow up in Spring 2017) calls bullshit on the related notions that punk sound is either simple presence–ye olde “three chords,” a misnomer that is always already more geographically and historically specific than popular discourse allows–or overdetermined absence, a too-open, too-inclusive sound that, to riff on Green Day, is simultaneously “nothing and everything all at once.”  And we very deliberately use “sound” rather than “music” as our guiding framework to think through punk’s sonic pull, not because punk “isn’t music” (a stale but ever present dis on the genre), but because punk itself sounds out the limitations of musical study ( in addition to Alice Bag’s musical manifesto below, see Leandro Donozo’s “MANIFIESTO POR UNA MUSICOLOGÍA PUNK” suggested to us by Alejandro Madrid).

Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands.  Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel.  While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and  how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?

In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on.  Today’s essay is by Gretchen Jude. Listen along as she reflects on growing up through listening to Team Dresch’s Personal Best.  And keep coming back every Monday in November for more!

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron Sounding Out! + Jenny Sounding Out!

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Photo of the back of Team Dresch’s Personal Best album, used with permission by the author.

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In the spirit of Critical Karaokefirst introduced by Joshua Clover at the Experience Music Project annual Pop Conference, this piece was written to be read with the album playing alongside. In anchoring my text/your reading so directly/literally in the sound, I hope those who have not had first-hand experience of growing up queer can understand on a more visceral level how I have heard/felt/lived through this music. Sounds work on bodies in non-verbal ways, so the sharing of these queer(ing) vibrations may allow fans to sense an underlying queerness in all punk sound.

Released in January 1995, Personal Best, the first album from Pacific Northwest quartet Team Dresch, rode the crest of the Queercore wave, itself propelled by decades of feminist, gay rights, and AIDS activism. The lesbian-identified band—Donna Dresch (guitar and bass), Jody Bleyle (guitar, bass, and vocals), Kaia Wilson (guitar and vocals) and Marci Martinez (drums)—was also fueled by the punk energy and DIY ethos that flared back to life with the Seattle grunge scene and Riot Grrrl movement.

The quartet’s technical skill showed their commitment to music; Dresch (who also produced the album) and Bleyle co-released the band’s debut on their respective labels, Chainsaw and Candy Ass Records. At the same time, the group’s cohesiveness and cooperation was evidenced in the complexity of their compositional strategies: self-produced albums, multiple time changes, shifts between guitar effects. Personal Best managed to rage without outward aggression. The band seemed to feel, like me, an anger that was full of anguish, a pointed fury at the causes of their anguish—yet leavened with humor (‘I spent the last ten days of my life ripping off the Smiths’).

The following is a critical listening of Personal Best.

(Side 1)

Something still remains in my body from the very first time I heard this album. The audaciously-titled “Fagetarian and Dyke” goes off like an alarm, with insistent guitar string strikes that ring in my ears and run down my spine with a shock. Once the drums come in, I am already swaying in time as the vocalist demands a breathless ‘how’ before rapidly morphing into a long-held growl—‘searching for you’. It was the music I had long needed without knowing.

The second song starts spare to the point of hesitance, a thin bassline with ominous guitar jangles and a backbeat promising a break in the intensity—until the band coalesces around Wilson’s rhythmic chant bristling with articulate screams. But contrary to the title—“Hate the Christian Right—I hear less hate than angry frustration. Bleyle’s vocals take the fore with melancholic power, making explicit the fundamental feeling, ‘the fear, fear I’m sick with it.’. The sound is dense and close, mixed with no reverb so I feel like I’m deep inside the music, sweating with the band. My hand moves with a will of its own toward the volume control, I crank it to feel the kick beating inside my chest like another heart, I can’t stop moving my feet, my legs, I am impelled to motion.

Looking back twenty-one years at this musical moment, it’s hard to fathom how much society has changed—in terms of both the structures of musical production/distribution and our understandings of gender/sexual identity. Yet when I encounter these songs once again, my listening remains fully present. How is it that this album still works to electrify me even today? Pressing play now, I hear this album through the patina of nostalgia. Even calling it an ‘album’ evokes another time, conjuring the act of flipping through stiff pages of family photos. There are tactile similarities—I slide the vinyl disc from its paper sleeve, grasp the edges of the cardboard dust jacket, leisurely run my eyes over the hand-scrawled track listing. I regard the cover image and recall my pleasurable smirk at the in-joke. But even back in 1995, when I listened on cassette and CD Walkman, I wanted to take this album with me everywhere.

Jangly guitar riffs, popping tom hits and Wilson’s clear soprano in multi-tracked harmony give “She’s Crushing My Mind” a jaunty opening. But the tension amps up with feedback on ‘she was born this way,’ and Wilson punches the verse: ‘she wants to (forget it)’. The song ends abruptly, no resolution, reflecting the unrequited queer love the lyrics express.

Even the words I use to describe the world have changed since 1995. I came out in 1986, before the word ‘queer’ was wrested from the verbal fists of homophobes. In retrospect, it was a brief moment, after feminism came out as lesbian, but before the ‘lesbian body’ was deprived of its ‘radical’ prefix—a time when it made sense to call lesbians ‘avengers’ or even ‘amazons’ (always in the plural). By 2016, having come out so many times in so many ways, I am no longer sure what others hear when they regard me pronouncing myself ‘queer’. And yet then as now, the energy I feel in this music goes beyond representation. The sound moves me with what Julian Henriques terms an “energetic patterning of vibrations” (76), setting in motion a sort of sympathetic resonance that shakes off labels and identity categories.

Just as I wonder when the darkness will end, “Freewheel” gallops in, cavalier, and drags me into the afternoon grass for some silliness. Wilson and Bleyle’s sweetly ironic harmony on ‘you can go back to your boyfriend’ sidelines ‘that girl,’ instead placing camaraderie front and center.

Nowadays, like most, I listen digitally, soft noise-reduction earbuds squished into my ears. Through my headphones, the violence of the 21st century bleeding light-speed across my mediated vision makes the sheer vulnerability underlying Team Dresch’s mad sounds even more striking. As a teen, I avoided mosh pits. Bony boy-elbows shot out at exactly the height of my eye sockets, and even combat boots weren’t enough protection from the public risk of my female body. At home or with friends, I sometimes reveled in the nihilism voiced by male punk bands. But the performance of an all-inclusive anger blindly striking out at society-at-large (which often seemed to involve getting drunk and fighting) mostly felt intimidating to me. Team Dresch retuned the timbre of punk rage—from frustration with authority-as-abstraction to lamentation over first-hand experience of oppression—then directed that incisive anger toward fundamentally feminist self-protection and catharsis.

The sincerity and solemnity of the riff that opens “She’s Amazing” bloom into a punk ballad that resonates with my best experiences of friendship. Wilson and Bleyle alternate and harmonize in tribute to female wisdom and strength. Even as the vocalists acknowledge their deep self-doubt and insecurity, the decisive instrumentals bolster them up.

It’s not that I didn’t feel angry. It’s that angry men sounded scary.

In a moment of stillness, I hear echoes of Patti Smith’s amazing(ly bent) cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” (1976). Smith’s fearless androgyny, her working-class snarl, her performance of desire for a woman exhilarate even today. Another old favorite rings in my ears: The Slits, playing as outlaws-on-the-lam. Underclass anthem “Shoplifting” (1979) double-dared me to flaunt needless authority, as Ari Up’s breathy vocals accelerate to an almost feline scream—‘run!’—and jangling guitars veer chromatic. I adored The Slits for their fearless extroversion—audacious yet always girly. I am ready, hungry for more.

(RECORD FLIP INTERLUDE)

In one of my ‘90s journals, I imagined Jody Bleyle, who sang “I’d trade the pennies to grow wings and eight more eyes.”

In one of my ‘90s journals, I imagined Jody Bleyle, Team Dresch vocalist who sang, “I’d trade the pennies to grow wings and eight more eyes.”

.

(Side 2)

“Fake Fight” opens punchy, with space in the bass and insistent hi-hat. Bleyle’s reedy tomboy alto alternately croons low and close into the mic (as if directly into my ear), then shouts along with synched noise pedal interludes: ‘I can see a brave tomorrow, don’t let this spaceship bring me down’.

Yvon Bonenfant describes the practice of queer listening—of listening as deeply feeling—as an attempt to recuperate queerness as community: “Queer listening listens out for, reaches toward, the disoriented or differently oriented other. So far, there are no majority queer cultures. Queer is always listening out through the static produced by not-queer emanations of vocalic bodies. Queer can like, love and enjoy those bodies in every way, but still needs to twist around and negotiate through them to find other queer” (78). For years I did this by instinct, paying attention to any hint of coded lesbian tendencies. In the pre-Ellen world, this was a survival technique.

Quirky “#1 Chance Pirate TV” shifts into high gear with 4/4 drumsticks and a vigorous punch on the toms. The song (a tribute to Sinead O’Connor) then suddenly slows into restful repetitions; ‘Sometimes it feels all right,’ Bleyle intones again and again—in a kind of mantra for getting through all the times when it doesn’t.

By the time I heard Personal Best, I had all but given up listening for my own bodily experiences—in the specifics of its love, anger, desire, suffering—offered back to me in music. Sure there were decades of lesbian folk music (yawn). But with Team Dresch, I didn’t need to engage in recuperative queer listening—this was unapologetically queer sounding. I was bowled over with this feeling—when you can give yourself over to the music because the people making the sounds know exactly what you’ve gone through, what you are living through. The reality you know by heart but have never heard affirmed in the voices around you.

“D.A. Don’t Care” rocks like a regal lullaby, but on a theme so heavy it presses my heart to diamond. Wilson’s caustic deployment of the cliché ‘and how was he supposed to know’ subverts the always-overdone ‘her word against his.’ From here the band rushes the album to its apotheosis, as Bleyle proclaims her own physical autonomy in the wake of abuse: ‘I know what to do with this body.’ The following verse leaves behind the dry vocal mix of the rest of the album, as the haunting image of a ‘polyester basketball uniform’ is buried deep in heavy bass, chilling with reverb.

In the hard-earned, bittersweet privilege of reaching my middle-age, I still shiver at Beyle’s chorus—not for myself now, but on behalf of those now young: the trans and genderqueer kids, an upcoming generation of dykes and fags—the ones mistreated, raised to have their own bodies and hearts turned against themselves. I want them to find music that catalyzes the scream: ‘I KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH THIS BODY.’

Barely time to breathe and then the grinding lead-in to Growing Up in Springfield,” a confessional of rejection and isolation in small-town America. Unlike Wilson’s, my mother didn’t ‘cry when I shaved my head.’ Nevertheless, the biting affirmation, ‘Those were the worst years of my life,’ rings satisfyingly through a burst of white noise.

With Personal Best, Team Dresch generates a synergy of sound and affect that engages me beyond nostalgia. The band weaves together multiple elements—voices with instruments, tempo and pedal shifts, the trajectory of song order, and lyrics that express the fallout of a queer girlhood in the rural Northwest isolation—to transform fear and self-hatred into courageous resistance. This synergy reflects (to paraphrase Adrienne Rich) a visionary, cleansing anger that dares me to feel new possibilities, both personal and political. Guitars chorus, drums pop sharp and clear, and vocals lie low but clear in the mix, embedded in a basement mix of mourning and menace. The keening rage in this album lances like a healing needle.

The lo-fi opening lines of “Screwing Yer Courage” break into Bleyle’s full-on howl. The heavy cacophony of the band feels like body-surfing like a 10-foot wave of sound. Even as she voices the desire to ‘move to the woods,’ the band’s sound performs a sense of community. The album ends with a tornado of noise, a storm that spins at exactly the right speed for me to join in. Softly, then more insistently Bleyle murmurs then cries: ‘I love you, baby, I love you.’ With one final delicious guitar arpeggio, slowly drawn out, the album is…

The music itself, the specificity of its vibrations, is of the essence. Attending to the experiential conditions of our listening is equally fundamental, and through articulating both sounds and contexts we may move past merely gesturing towards taste and invoking genre as shorthand for what we already value. As Nina Eidsheim describes, “in encounters through and with music, we are physically touched and we tangibly touch others” (183). In the case of punk and its queer progeny, we vibrate together in and with a visceral noise that harmonizes through its very dissonance.

Cover image is of crowd surfing at a 2006 Team Dresch reunion show by Flickr User Frances, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Gretchen Jude is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at the University of California Davis and a performing artist/composer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her doctoral research explores the intersections of voice and electronics in transcultural performance contexts, delving into such topics as presence and embodiment in computer music, language and cultural difference in vocal genres, and collaborative electroacoustic improvisation. Interaction with her immediate environment forms the core of Gretchen’s musical practice. Gretchen has been studying Japanese music since 2001 and holds multiple certifications in kotoperformance from the Sawai Koto Institute in Tokyo, as well as an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College in Oakland, California. In the spring of 2015, a generous grant from the Pacific Rim Research Program supported Gretchen’s intensive study of hauta and jiuta singing styles in Tokyo. This podcast (as well as a chapter of her dissertation) are direct results of that support. Infinite thanks also to the gracious and generous assistance of Shibahime-sensei, Mako-chan and my many other friends and teachers in Japan.

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SO! Amplifies: Indie Preserves – Norie Guthrie and Scott Carlson

Sounding Out! Podcast #55: New Brunswick Music Scene Symposium – Frank Bridges

This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith

Live Through This: Sonic Affect, Queerness, and the Trembling Body–Airek Beauchamp

Garageland! Authenticity and Musical Taste–Aaron Trammell

Sounding Out! Podcast #28: Off the 60: A Mix-Tape Dedication to Los Angeles–Jennifer Stoever

 

Malcolm Gladwell’s Bad Aesthetics

 

Malcolm Gladwell, who recently wrapped the first season of his podcast Revisionist History, has been on a roll lately. Not a particularly endearing one, though. I’ve been trying to locate his nadir, but it’s not easy with so many options to choose from. Is it in the New Yorker, when he condescendingly exclaims “Of course not!” in response to whether Caster Semenya should be allowed to compete in the 800-meter at the Olympics? He follows up with the assertion that no track-and-field fan disagrees with him, as if the complexity of gender identification is somehow best left to a majority appeal. Or is it in Revisionist History’s Episode 9, “Generous Orthodoxy,” when he chides Princeton students protesting the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name around campus? Calling one student “angry”—a loaded word to lob at a black woman—and surmising she would later “regret her choice of words,” Gladwell advises the students to instead threaten to leave the university if their requests aren’t honored. Why? Because otherwise “every crotchety old Princeton alum” wouldn’t believe they actually care about the university.

e3

For those keeping score, that’s Gladwell, who spent an entire other episode of his podcast lamenting that we don’t “capitalize” people’s educational potential well enough, counseling black students to separate themselves from an Ivy League education as a way to make a point about a pro-segregationist president. Gladwell’s seventh episode, “Hallelujah,” where he discusses musical genius, is not obviously about the kind of systemic inequalities he bumbles in the Semenya and Princeton examples. But the conclusions he draws about genius and the anti-pop aesthetic judgments he claims are informed by the same bad gender and race politics that would put a person’s gender identification in other people’s hands and place the burden of sacrifice on the aggrieved in matters of racial injustice.

The episode “Hallelujah” revolves around two songs that Gladwell argues reached their peak of genius years after they were initially recorded: “Deportees Club” (1984) by Elvis Costello and “Hallelujah” (1984) by Leonard Cohen. In each case, Gladwell asserts that the first recordings were flawed but that they attained a certain beauty in later versions that reveals something about how genius works, though each attained that genius status by different routes. While Costello is responsible for the version of “Deportees Club” that Gladwell loves—he re-recorded it as “Deportee” in 1985 (it wouldn’t be released until 1995 on a re-issue of Goodbye, Cruel World)—“Hallelujah” would peak for Gladwell in a series of covers, most famously by Jeff Buckley (1994), performed by artists other than Cohen. Gladwell’s focus on the process by which a song reaches genius status is a riff on David Galenson’s Old Masters and Young Geniuses theory. Here, Costello and the litany of “Hallelujah” coverers display a process of genius called “experimental innovation,” where the first draft is never the final draft, and genius is only unlocked after years of work. I’ll return to Gladwell’s notion of musical beauty and how it relates to his bad politics momentarily, but I first want to unpack the theory of genius that enthralls him in this episode.

mozart-beethovenGalenson’s notion of genius is a binary, where some geniuses (“conceptual innovators”) are very young, decisive artists and others, like the “experimental innovators” responsible for “Deportee” and “Hallelujah,” are endless tinkerers who tend to reach their creative potential later in life. Gladwell uses the same paradigmatic examples that Galenson does to categorize geniuses; conceptual innovators are Pablo Picasso, while experimental innovators are Paul Cézanne. Curiously, Gladwell notes that this theory of genius may be best exemplified in music, but he doesn’t seem aware that music scholars have already laid out this same broad theory of genius with easy comps: Mozart the young genius and Beethoven the old master. Moreover, Gladwell doesn’t seem aware that this is a lousy theory of genius.

I’ve written elsewhere about genius myths, and there’s a rabbit hole of problematic ideas out there about classical music genius that run from benignly self-serving to violently racist. One critique is particularly useful for pushing back against Gladwell, as it highlights the gender and race problems with Gladwell’s approach to genius. Tia DeNora’s Beethoven and the Construction of Genius (1994) is a painstaking deconstruction of Beethoven’s genius. While DeNora’s argument includes a number of moving parts, it can be summarized as a demonstration of the way “genius” isn’t so much innate talent as it is a combination of several social and political ideals intersecting with a person’s talents or insights.

It was the 90s, when postmodernity crested in musicology, and the aim of DeNora’s analysis is quintessentially postmodern: undo the Great White Man myth to make room for other kinds of histories and notions of genius to be accommodated. If we understand Beethoven’s genius to be firmly rooted in a number of social and political attitudes—including the reflexive belief that only a white man could be a genius—that tipped in his favor, then we can understand that history isn’t telling us that only men or only white people can be geniuses; rather, history is showing its biases. This sort of deconstruction doesn’t really move the academic needle now—most college freshmen can articulate the Great White Man critique—largely due to the work of DeNora and other deconstructionists who effectively cleared the space for us to build other kinds of scholarship on top of their work.

"Pop!Tech 2008 - Malcolm Gladwell" by Flickr user Pop!Tech, CC BY 2.0

“Pop!Tech 2008 – Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Pop!Tech, CC BY 2.0

Alas, though, the 90s truly must be all the rage right now, because Gladwell is wading right back into Great White Man territory. To be clear, he isn’t doing it on purpose, for whatever that’s worth. In Episode 9, the one where he counsels the black Princeton students to threaten to leave the school, he performs a whole Great White Man rant to establish his credibility as A Guy Who Gets It. But beyond understanding that there are too many things named after white men, Gladwell doesn’t indicate that he knows what the rub really is, that the name on a building or School is a tiny piece of a much bigger, systemic problem of race and gender. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, his ideas about musical genius betray his own tendency to set up hierarchies where Great White Men are always on top. So excuse me while I pump some air in my Reeboks, hitch up my Guess jeans, and douse myself in CK1; we have some 90s theory to attend to.

Gladwell doesn’t—and perhaps can’t—articulate what’s genius about the versions of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah” he reveres, and his assessment of the originals is similarly vague. About 1984’s “Deportees Club,” he exclaims, “Oh, god, It’s awful!” For Cohen’s 1984 “Hallelujah,” Gladwell borrows a line from Michael Barthel, who could’ve just as well been describing Gladwell’s podcast: “The entire performance is so hyperserious that it’s almost satire.” [Historiographic aside: Barthel, who is now a researcher for the Pew Research Center, seems to be the under-cited source for the “Hallelujah” history in both Gladwell’s podcast and Alan Light’s book on the song]. Gladwell may suffer a poverty of aesthetic language to describe what is or isn’t good about these songs, but by considering what he does and doesn’t like—what counts as genius or not for him—we can understand where his aesthetic allegiances lie.

Screenshot of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" video on YouTube

Screenshot of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” video on YouTube

Gladwell finds beauty in music whose emotional content is as stripped down as the acoustic guitar textures on the later recordings of “Deportee” and “Hallelujah.” The line he quotes from Barthel misses the point: Barthel likes the satirical nature of the original “Hallelujah” and finds the famous Buckley version—which becomes something of an ürtext for all the covers that came after it—an unfortunate telescoping of emotional range, a “Hallelujah” that only knows lament instead of the many “holy, broken, profane, transcendent” hallelujahs Cohen first explored. But all those hallelujahs, along with the “angry, loud, and upsetting” original “Deportees Club,” don’t seem to suit Gladwell, who prefers versions of the songs where both the emotional and musical content are as straightforward as possible.

Screenshot from Jeff Buckley's video for "Hallelujah"

Screenshot from Jeff Buckley’s video for “Hallelujah”

That Gladwell is drawn to the versions of Buckley’s “Hallelujah” and Costello’s later “Deportee” that feature an acoustic singer-songwriter coffeehouse vibe isn’t a coincidence. The villain in his account of genius is pop. Noting that both songs were initially recorded in 1984, he reminds us that year’s “biggest album” was Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” “pop music glossed to perfection…not a single stray note or emotion on that record.” “Thriller” was the final single from an album two years old, and it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100, so Gladwell’s definition of “biggest album” is suspect, but he’s looking for “the antithesis of ‘Deportee’ and ‘Hallelujah,’” so I’ll engage on his terms and zero in on his aesthetics by figuring out what he thinks is wrong with pop music like “Thriller.”

Gladwell offers a couple other assessments of pop aesthetics in his description of producers. Clive Langer and Alan Winstanley, who co-produced the Goodbye, Cruel World album “Deporteees Club” appeared on, are the ill-fitting pop perfectionists who try to harness Costello’s sound but only manage to screw it up. Trevor Horn is the guy spending four weeks—“a month,” Gladwell bemoans—shaping a snare sound for Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (1983). Whether it’s Langer and Winstanley, Horn, or Quincy Jones (who Gladwell doesn’t name but who produced “Thriller”), Gladwell has no space for the behind-the-glass work of sound design and sonic processing in his aesthetics of genius. He argues, citing Costello’s own assessment, that glossy pop perfection couldn’t capture the “dark, emotional, bitter songs, gritty and spare,” pouring out of Costello. For Gladwell, pop music production is the villain because it short circuits the true, raw emotion that he finds beautiful.

The problem with Gladwell’s aesthetics is that he’s mistaking his taste for genius, then reverse-manufacturing an explanation of genius that privileges a specifically white masculine mode of expression. “Glossy pop perfection,” in his estimation, covers up something beautiful, obscuring real emotion. But directly sharing one’s emotions—whether musically or politically—is more acceptable for some than for others. We need look no further than Gladwell for proof. If you’re Elvis Costello or Jeff Buckley singing laments? You’re a genius. If you’re a black woman protesting Woodrow Wilson at Princeton? You’re “angry.”

Joe Mabel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Joe Mabel [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the danger of directly expressing oneself underlies a wide array of black aeshetics, from Gates’s Signifying Monkey to Shana Redmond’s analysis of Janelle Monae’s “Cold War.” Redmond cites Darlene Clark Hines’s “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West” to highlight Monae’s engagement with “the acts of dissemblance that have long characterized black women’s participation in the public sphere” (398). Hines argues that Black women developed “a cult of secrecy, a culture of dissemblance” to protect themselves in public spaces, “creating the appearance of disclosure…while actually remaining an enigma” (Hines 915). It is Monae’s rupture of pop conventions—she breaks down and cries, dropping her lip synch even as the track plays on—that, on the one hand, creates the space for her to step outside of that culture of dissemblance and, on the other hand, marks the cover those pop conventions provide, the strategic, protective secrecy available under so much glossy pop perfection. In his 2002 “Feenin,’” Alexander Weheliye homes in on glossy pop voice-processing, the vocoders and filters (and, several years after his article, AutoTune) that render the R&B voice machinic, and contends that these processing techniques yield human desire that “can be represented only in the guise of the machinic” (39, emphasis mine). In other words, the gloss isn’t a bad thing. It’s a strategy that plugs technology into humanity in order to project ways of being beyond the white liberal humanist subject. In both Redmond’s and Weheliye’s analyses, the sound of pop, the glossy perfection that Gladwell holds up as the antithesis of genius, is employed by Black musicians to enable emotionality in a world that is otherwise hostile to such expression.

Gladwell’s bad aesthetics, his refusal to recognize beauty in pop music, is also bad politics. By holding up an aesthetic that prizes stripped-down, straightforward emotionality, a form of expression available to some but not others, Gladwell ends up in the same Great White Man genius bind DeNora and others unraveled in the postmodern 90s. So I’ll sum it up with a 90s phrase: genius is always already political. Denora argues—and Gladwell inadvertently demonstrates—that labeling artists as genius relies on politically volatile aesthetic judgments that reinforce existing power hierarchies, in this case along the lines of race and gender. Like his response to Princeton students and his armchair adjudication of Semenya’s gender identity, Gladwell’s theory of musical genius proves to be less a revision of history and more a revival of history’s worst politics.

Featured image: “Malcolm Gladwell” by Flickr user Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0

Justin D Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University, and a regular writer at Sounding Out!. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his current book project is called Posthuman Pop. He is co-editor with Ali Colleen Neff of the Journal of Popular Music Studies 27:4, “Sounding Global Southernness,” and with Jason Lee Oakes of the Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies (2017). You can catch him atjustindburton.com and on Twitter @justindburton. His favorite rapper is Right Said Fred.

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Trap Irony: Where Aesthetics Become Politics-Justin D. Burton

This is What It Sounds Like . . . . . . . . On Prince (1958-2016) and Interpretive Freedom-Ben Tausig

Live Through This: Sonic Affect, Queerness, and the Trembling Body

Sound and Affect

Marginalized bodies produce marginalized sounds to communicate things that escape language. The queer body is the site of sounds that engage pleasure, repression, rage, isolation, always somehow outside of dominant language. Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation. Affect is the vibrational space that is both bodily memory and anticipation. So where do sound and affect meet in queer bodies? How do marginalized peoples use sound and the body to express liberation, objectification, joy, and struggle?

Our writers in Sound and Affect tackle these questions across a spectrum of the marginalized experience.  Next week, Kemi Adeyemi, sloooooooows thingggggggggs doooooooooownnnnn so that we can hear the capitalist connections between the work expected of black bodies and the struggle for escape from this reality through the sonic affects, temporal shifts, and corporeal elsewhere of purple drank. Then, Maria Chaves explores the connection between voice, listening, and queer Chicana community formation: through space, across time, and with laughter. The series finishes with Justyna Stasiowska bringing the noise in a discussion of the trans body and the performance work of Tara Transitory.  Today, I open  by offering the concept of the tremble, a sonic form of affect that is necessarily queer in its affective reach.  Live through this. Get life from this. —Guest Editor Airek Beauchamp

I first became interested in the intersections of sound studies and affect theory when, in graduate school, I began to research alternative rhetorics of the AIDS Crisis. ACT UP!, the noisiest and most politically effective of the AIDS advocacy groups from 1987 through 1995, posited noise as presence and silence as loss throughout their campaigns. ACT UP! was notorious for their actions in which they invaded public spaces, from the FDA to the White House and used militaristic chants to create a disruptive cacophony that ran counter to the official silence of government policy. The organization harnessed noise as powerful weapon to shake the status quo.

The ACT UP! equation led me to a critique of AIDS-era politics in which sound and affect became the predominant modes of inquiry, allowing me to investigate how the situated body and the senses experience and invoke rhetorics of marginialization. This maneuver proved to be intellectually difficult, particularly because my post-structuralist training stubbornly insisted on a discursively constructed universe in which only language constructed reality. Instead, what sound and affective rhetoric allow for is exactly that which is beyond the text, that which communicates without strictly-defined language. Theorizing the AIDS crisis as a social event might be necessary in terms of understanding how our culture processes or catalogues such an event, but as I engaged with its archive, I felt bereft when facing the limits of such an approach. It offered nothing to soothe the pain or express the terror of those whose bodies disintegrated in the cruel grasp of the disease.

Rather than relying on abstracted theory to force the affect of the plague into a logical form, I needed something like Antonin Artaud’s work on the plague to explore the cultural but embodied affect of the disease. When Artaud was invited to speak about his essay “The Theater and the Plague” at the Sorbonne, he decided to actually incorporate his ideas about ‘liquefying boundaries” into his speech. Artaud began with a standard oratory but slowly devolved into a theatrical performance of the plague, eventually ending in shrieks of physical pain. By the end of his speech, the only people left in the lecture hall were a minor contingent of his close friends, including Anais Nin, who recounted the tale (Eshleman, 12). Artaud’s shrieks and howls engaged the whole body in the process of making sound, while also erasing semantic and syntactical codes.  Here is a video compilation of Artaud performances, to provide the smallest hint of his vocal performances:

To continue my research, I realized, I needed to understand bodies as instruments for processing, producing, and receiving sonic stimuli, while, at the same time, rethink how feeling, quite literally, moves bodies. Artaud led me to connect the sound and affect of AIDS in the 1980s through the unspeakable and the pre-semantic language of the body, deeply embedding these sound/feelings in a network of past experience, present and anticipatory states of being. His work gave me a different way to theorize, to grasp, to listen, to scream—to tremble and tremble in return.

I continued to connect the sinews between sound and affect in my February 2013 post for Sounding Out!, “Queer Timbres, Queered Elegy: Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass and the First Wave of the AIDS Crisis.” Through Galás’s visceral interactions with the unendurable pain embedded in history, I keenly felt the presence of the material body so lacking from post-structuralist critique of lived experience, alongside an urgent sense of agency. Galás’s performances made fascinating use of the “tactile effect of layered sound that is felt with the skin, in the bones, as well as with the ears, communicating a palpable experience that lies beyond the barely-nuanced music it is seductively easy to grow accustomed to.” The experience of listening to Galás helps us to realize that the body is a series of machines of input and output—processor and producer—systems that often forego semantic language and instead listen and speak in tremblings.

In what follows, I flesh out the notion of sonic tremblings: how it links what we call sound studies and affect studies, of course, but more importantly, how it speaks past the post-structuralist insistence on a world confined to text, and how we might build upon this notion in future theory and research. Our bodies’ materiality, a site of constant unfolding, engages with the world via a series of shimmers and impulses—such as the synesthetic vibration I am calling sonic tremblings—rather than with concrete events or objects in and of themselves. These tremblings, always intersectional, encompass past lived experiences, social and cultural constructions that restrict interpretation, and interpretations falling outside social or cultural codes. I understand the trembling body as both processor and producer of sound, a connection of trembling nodes eschewing the patriarchal structures of language.  And, though I write through and about the particular tremblings of my own white, queer, cis male body, that experience is by no means universal or at the center of my theorizations. Instead, I hope that the way I experience and understand sound studies and affect theory will open up new ways of hearing the world, especially for people whose experiences are not mine and who can add depth, nuance, and texture to the conversation. It is in fact through their variety and unique resonances that tremblings speak simultaneously to and against the limitations placed on queer bodies.

My articulation of affect with sound studies is necessarily queer, as it rejects binaries and speaks without definitive vocabulary, syntax, or grammar. Marta Figlerowicz, in “Affect Theory Dossier: An Introduction,” offers a good primer on the widely divergent ways in which scholars use the idea of affect. In Figlerowitz’s explanation, affect is always a self in motion, be it “the self running ahead of itself,” “the self catching up with itself,” “the self as self-discursive and always constantly mutating and adapting to ambient stimuli,” and/or “celebrations of Proustian moments when the self and the sensory world, or the conscious and the unconscious self, or the self and another person, fall in step with each other… to make a sliver of experience more vivid and more richly patterned than willful analysis could ever have” (4). In all of these cases, the body’s perception and the discourse of the self remain in motion, trembling with identifications that are at best fleeting, though richly communicative and expressive. Sound, as an always-present stimulus, works affectively in such a form of communication.

Image by Flickr User Graham Campbell,

Image by Flickr User Graham Campbell, “Goosebumps”

Queer bodies are inherently intertwined in theorizing sound and affect. The actual concept of affect itself is queer, implicating the unknowable, but concretely felt phenomena of the body. But rather than forming a linear narrative, affect is produced, and received, in a web of physical and neural processes that rejects the linear concept of time and instead are never static but self-referential and constantly evolving in response to our environment. To navigate this space I adopt the term “affective field,” used by Marie Thompson and Ian Biddle in their introductory essay to Sound, Music, Affect. An affective field describes a textural field of play between stimulus, meaning, and response; it relies on reproduction and broadcast, a field of listening/emitting/processing machines all working in a sort of continuous flow, always already present. The affective field model encourages the removal of emphasis on subject/object but instead focuses on interfacial relationships as a point of contact. Eradicating =the subject/object dualism is vital to exchange, as Yvon Bonenfant says in “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres“: “We cannot exchange with an object, only other subjects” (76).

Image From Flickr User Alvaro Sasaki, From Brasília Queer Fest!, 31 March 2013

Image From Flickr User Alvaro Sasaki, From Brasília Queer Fest!, 31 March 2013

Finding a theory that worked with the body and with subject/subject communication allowed me to make more sense of the ways in which ACT UP! used noise and silence as a way to build community, and allowed me to dig deeper into the idea of queer communication. The silent scream of the slogan Silence = Death succinctly articulated ACT UP!’s most definitive tactic: manipulation of the affective field. Their chants initially filled the streets, of New York, but by 1990 their actions had united them with Europe, creating world-wide noise in protest of the now-global epidemic, creating a distinct disjuncture to the silent death falling over gay communities. Noise offered the queer community both a form of protest and community, becoming an affective mechanism of agency. ACT UP!’s use of noise not only speaks to the dire need of queer bodies to exercise agency and demonstrate social worth, but it also helps break down the essential binary between encoded language and un-encoded sound. Rather than syntactical sound, noise communicates in trembles, resonating in both the psyche and in the actual body. Noise worked to unify disparate parts of identity–and disparate identities–a coalescing rather than normalizing process, a trembling vital to queer identity.

However, while ACT UP! worked to create noise—and to develop community through the trembling of their rage—they also communicated affectively with silence. Staging their now infamous die-ins, ACT UP! manipulated the affective field through the deafening buzz that accompanies silence, a somber quiet that refused to go ignored. These actions were not done to—but instead with—people, a disruption of the subject/object, or perhaps the subject/abject. But, it is the unexpected noise of the die-ins that I find most interesting. Not just the ambient noise of occupying bodies in space—people moving, coughing, breathing—but the loud silence created by the protest itself: a hushed roar that trembles through the room, the microphones, and the bodies of the listeners, a disruptive noise crafted from intentional silence. This silence itself resonates in the body, enabling them to erupt in tremblings of loss, of mourning, and of rage, the painfully loud silence of marginalized bodies at war with an epidemic about which no one in power seemed to care.

ACT-UP’s die-ins reclaimed agency within silence’s palpable materiality, using its noise to disrupt the affective field and reclaim space within it. Using the material body as both receptor and transmitter of the affective field, their noise created tremblings and spoke in associations both somatic and psychic. In the case of the die-ins, the silence mediated the noise of the voices of the dead, all talking at once through the trembling bodies of the living.

Adapting silence and the noise it brings, one of ACT UP!’s historical legacies, offers contemporary listeners agency over our marginalized bodies.   We must make some noise, and then “listen out” for particular affects of noise and silence in turn, as Bonenfant suggests, seeking the tremblings that touch our skins and resonate in our brains, bone, and flesh. The affective field permeates queer communication and offers to the marginalized an opportunity, through sound, to make noise, establish self, and establish communities.

At once subversive and coalescent, noise resists the codification of what our culture might traditionally consider to be “music” or other codified sounds, making it a necessarily affective communication. The discordant, unruly strains of Throbbing Gristle’s “Discipline,” for example, jarred, shaken, and trembled me into a powerful feeling of community amid dissonance and difference, of community through difference at key moments in my life.

At other moments, the shriek, fuzz, and wail of riot grrrrl punk act Bikini Kill, in particular, Kathleen Hanna’s growl in “Suck My Left One,” has awakened in me a strain of tremblings that move freely associative in their rage against the marginalization of women and the ways in which socially constructed gender roles also marginalize and demonize queer folks. While post-structuralism maintains that the self is necessarily disunified and can only be defined by its difference to others, I have to disagree. While academic methodologies make it difficult to form an argument based on my lived experience, when I feel the tremblings connecting me to Genesis Breyer P-Orridge or Kathleen Hanna and to their audiences, I am hard pressed to feel them as anything but real.

In fact, it might just be in endurance that I can best articulate tremblings as a sonic, somatic, affective phenomenon. Born of present stimuli, always connected to past experiences and anticipatory of the future, tremblings are unruly, unable to be pinpointed. They do not just express the order or pleasure that we find in traditional music, though they can encompass this as well. Instead, tremblings are communicative, they move through the I, the subject, while unifying other subjects through their rich and unnamable identifications. It speaks simultaneously to and against the limitations placed on queer bodies, expressing joy, pain, pleasure.

Featured Image: Genesis P-Orridge by Flicker User Jessica Chappell

Airek Beauchamp is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Arkansas State University and a Ph.D. candidate at SUNY Binghamton, where he specializes in Writing Studies. Airek is currently working on his dissertation, which details ways that universities can offer social and academic writing support to graduate students to better help them professionalize in their fields. His other areas of research include queer theory, affect theory, and trauma in the LGBTQ community.


tape reelREWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:

Music to Grieve and Music to Celebrate: A Dirge for Muñoz”-Johannes Brandis

“Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic”-Imani Kai Johnson

“Hearing Queerly: NBC’s ‘The Voice’”-Karen Tongson

One Nation Under a Groove?: Music, Sonic Borders, and the Politics of Vibration“–Marcus Boon

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