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Riot Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique

tamra_2016
PUNKSOUND

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

For full intro and part one of the series click here. For part two, click here.

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 Tamra Lucid. Here, Tamra offers her thoughts on how both technique and expression reinforce a gendered understanding of music. When punk sound plays with extremes, how can artists who feel trapped by these polemics resist?

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)

“Don’t touch that!” a virtuoso guitarist had once told me when as a kid I reached for his guitar.  The same phrase would later be delivered by a punk guitarist at a gig where I offered to replace a string broken during his performance.  As noted in the book Girls Rock , women are often told not to touch these sacred instruments (18).  I remember thinking that guitar was as complex as a car engine and as dangerous as a circular saw. Technique and theory are meant to liberate musicians (so that their dexterity can follow wherever imagination and inspiration may lead), but when experiencing gender discrimination from instructors and fellow instrumentalists, technique and theory can seem antagonistic. In this essay I show how the elite and virtuoso focus on technique and theory has catalyzed punk musicians to cultivate the raw, expressive, qualities of punk sound. Yet, paradoxically, I point out how movements toward a raw and visceral sound constitute a cage of their own, alienating an equally radical and virtuoso community of women in the punk scene. How do these sonic contours in the 1990s riot grrrl scene tell a story about injustice and community building through sound?

Iconic guitarist Eddie Van Halen, shredding. Technique can be a form of gendered gatekeeping. Image by K. Todd Storch @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Iconic guitarist Eddie Van Halen, shredding. Technique can be a form of gendered gatekeeping. Image by K. Todd Storch @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Theory and technique become a cage when they are used by sexist cliques, such as the heavy metal scene, which sought to maintain hegemony over local scenes and resources.  For the gatekeepers, there are many benefits to this form of discrimination–women are encouraged to act as doting fans rather than joining bands. As a teenager I saw many young women told by male musicians that their only permissible roles were those of sex object or fan. Early in my musical career when I put out an ad searching for band mates some male musicians would call just to laugh at me.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s when canons of punk tone and composition ironically became defined by an athletics-like dedication to speed, precision and endurance, riot grrrl bands were criticized for their primitive skills.  However, by removing the barriers to self-expression that this emphasis on technique and theory created, many people, not only female or female identified, were empowered to create music similar to performance art.  As Liam S. Ruin of the Columbia, South Carolina hardcore band Shirley Temple of Doom (1993-1996) said in an interview I conducted with them for this essay: “I still think emphasis on technique is gross and ableist and boring and obvious.”

In this time of sonic reform, some scenes came to prize sincerity over skill. Here, a new canon of theory and technique evolved–another cage.  Some related to the riot grrrl scene found themselves accepted by their community while receiving praise for abandoning a commitment to simplicity.  For example Associated Newspapers News North West previewed a gig by Sleater Kinney in Manchester, UK by describing them as “too musically competent to be a Riot Grrrl band.” Likewise, the female hardcore bands Girl Jesus and Free Verse (though politically aligned with riot grrrl) found little support in a scene that viewed them as a threat. It was as if the language of technique and theory was the language of oppressors, and using it implied submission to the status quo.  The directness of purpose which had liberated so many artists, became a new kind of cage for others.

Shot of Girl Jesus from 1995. Image used with permission by the author.

Shot of Girl Jesus from 1995. Image used with permission by the author.

As a roadie for Girl Jesus, I witnessed the immediate dismissal (including groans of disappointment) they suffered when confronting male bands at gigs many times.  Despite these jeers I also saw the way their ferocious music and performance, anchored by guitarist Gina Rush’s use of middle eastern scales, Shell Davina’s unique and unusual drumming style, and Grit Maldonado’s flamenco-like bass lines, reduced many male bands to discouraged silence and listless performances.  I remember thinking that riot grrrl, or what was left of it in 1993, would welcome such a powerful example of female creativity.  The feeling of competence I felt as Girl Jesus approached each gig with confidence in their music and technology helped me to reinvent myself, encouraging me to graduate quickly from roadie to musician.

Gina Rush carefully chose her amps and had them modded by an expert.  Shell used a vintage drum-kit that would make any collector drool.  But these distinctions were rejected by the riot grrrl audience who found them elitist and classist.  Though Girl Jesus was a band of working class lesbians they were treated the same way as male bands in the scene.  As Shell reported in an article entitled “Queercore: Ready to Face the Market” by Brent Atwood in the May 6, 1995 issue of Billboard Magazine: “As a female band, we expected a strong network of women in music to stick together.  Instead we found a lot of competition.”  She also pointed out: “We’ve had more club owners be sexist to us than homophobic.”  Despite their embrace of technology and technique, two domains that code as masculine, Girl Jesus nurtured into existence two of the more popular riot grrrl bands in mid-90’s Los Angeles, Patsy and my own band Lucid Nation, which began by rehearsing in Girl Jesus’s garage using their equipment.  The name of Girl Jesus’s first cassette demo succinctly captured the problem: “Afraid of Our Own.”

The cover of Free Verse's "Access Denied" album. Image used with permission by the author.

The cover of Free Verse’s “Access Denied” album. Image used with permission by the author.

A similar trajectory was found by the all female hardcore band Free Verse, whose first record “Access Denied” was released by the indie label Brain Floss Records.  Free Verse began in Lawrence, Kansas in 1995 and in 1998 relocated to Seattle.  Lucid Nation toured nationally with  Free Verse in the summer of 1998.  The experience was similar to what I observed as a roadie for Girl Jesus.  Male bands who looked down upon female musicians with disdain were stunned by their display of skill and ferocity.  However, when we played in Olympia, Washington, the riot grrrl community cowered against the back wall, clearly uncomfortable.  On the road we smiled ruefully over the irony of masculinist male bands becoming fans while female fans who shared our politics turned their backs.  This created a conundrum for Free Verse.  Although they were able to deliver a feminist message to scenes and individuals who were hostile to feminism, they could not enjoy the community of like minded women who identified as riot grrrl.

Over time, Free Verse earned enough respect that they were able to open for leading bands from a variety of scenes.  From Hardcore bands like The Blood Brothers to indie stars like Sleater Kinney.  From queer core bands like The Need and The Butchies to riot grrrl supergroup The Cold Cold Hearts.  Though Free Verse were chosen to participate in the Northwest Coalition For Human Dignity’s anti-racism tour October 2002, a tour sponsored by Ms. magazine and featured in ROCKRGRL magazine, the band was never able to achieve the following or recognition of the bands they shared bills with, information about them is hard to find on the internet today.

Liam S. Ruin, now one of the guiding lights of the new Riot Grrrl Intersectional movement, provides a more intimate look at how the pressures of technique and theory influenced Shirley Temple of Doom: “Not really any RG [riot grrrl] activity in Columbia SC.  Um, Slant 6 played there once.   Our scene was extremely nuclear. We played with our friend’s bands, The Trema, Erector Set, Guyana Punch Line.  We were pretty much all in each other’s bands or dating each other or whatever. Making it up as we went along.  Jessica saw me in the halls at school wearing a Pearl Jam shirt and told me ‘you’re way too cool to be listening to shitty bands.’ She made me a mix cd that was mostly D.C. Emo and Hardcore but it had Bratmobile, Bikini Kill and L7, too. Then she lent me her bass.  I practiced with Joy Division and Heavens To Betsy covers till I could play along.  We started a band with her boyfriend. Half of our band were really into Straight Edge H/C and the other half were into Huggy Bear, Fugazi, NOU, etc.”

Donita Sparks of L7. Image by Dena Flows CC BY-NC-ND.

Donita Sparks of L7. Image by Dena Flows CC BY-NC-ND.

Shirley Temple of Doom, despite reflecting a riot grrrl like platform in their lyrics received little attention from the riot grrrl community.  Eventually the band collapsed due to internal tensions regarding technique–as if the rhetoric of extremes around technique and expression had become an expertly baited, misogynist trap.  As Liam informed me: “The guys in the band were very technical and pushed me to play more technical bass lines but honestly, I get bored with proficiency. I’ve heard what guitars are supposed to sound like. I wanna hear what they’re not supposed to sound like. We split because of ideological differences. I got really into visceral bass-feels and wanted to sound like a disaster, and they wanted to be on Victory Records.”

How did the cage of technique and expression, evolve in a style of music that advanced freedom as its guiding praxis?  Early on, rock musicians were considered unskilled when compared to classical, jazz and country musicians. Later, virtuosity became central to rock music as bands like Yes, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd, sought radical sounds to accommodate an aesthetic cultivated by Cannabis and LSD.  As What’s That Sound? An Introduction to Rock and It’s History puts it: “Rock musicians now had a responsibility to create sophisticated music using whatever means were available.” Soon after this turn to virtuosity, guitarists like Eddie Van Halen became the Paganinis of their time, displaying jaw-dropping finger speed and impressive knowledge of scales and musical theory.

Later, punk rock crashed the party.  First in the hands of the MC5 and The Stooges, and then the New York Dolls, The Ramones, the Sex Pistols and many other bands, rock music turned again towards primitive and cathartic sincerity.  Musical virtuosity was literally spit upon.  The Ramones famously told The Clash that they needn’t worry about improving their musicianship before playing live because “as you’ll see tonight, we suck.”  Ferocity replaced dexterity.  Nihilistic and cathartic lyrics displaced idealistic flights of fancy. Punk quickly developed its own criteria to indicate mastery of the genre.  Bands like Fugazi and F.Y.P. typified a performance style that required frenetic motion while preserving the lockstep rhythm and hand speed, if not the musical knowledge and experimentation, of the earlier virtuosos.  Then riot grrrl arrived, freeing a generation of punk women who were uncomfortable with the athletic performance style of these bands.  For example, one of L.A.’s favorite riot grrrl bands Crown for Athena would perform at times with one member of the band sitting on the stage singing while clinging to the pant leg of another who stood immobile and emotionless.  Frenetic performance and blazing chord speed was no longer a requirement for legitimacy on the punk stage.

Flier advertising an International Woman's Day celebration featuring Lucid Nation. Image used with permission by the author.

Flier advertising an International Woman’s Day celebration featuring Lucid Nation. Image used with permission by the author.

Riot grrrl liberated me from the odious trial of confronting sexist music teachers, store clerks, booking agents, and record companies.  I learned from the movement that I could get by with simple barre chords. I could use cheap and borrowed gear and I didn’t have to worry about great tone. One of the bands I admired, Foxfire, a band of female high school students from Los Angeles, used an oven pan instead of a snare drum. Riot grrrl bands emphasized community by booking shows with each other and with activist groups like Food Not Bombs.  We made our own labels to distribute each other’s records.  When Lucid Nation opened for Bikini Kill at Terraza Jamay in Montebello, Kathleen Hanna took tickets at the door.

As my musical skills developed I found myself feeling restricted by the aesthetics of riot grrrl.  Beginning with Lucid Nation’s DNA record (2000) we began exploring cliches of what we called “butt rock,” now more popularly known as classic rock.  While we attempted to master the techniques of classic rock our intent was to deconstruct them by introducing unexpected twists of sound (like chaotic analog synth and noise pedals) and lyrics containing feminist perspectives.  At this point, we had moved on to other scenes, for example, the melange of Peace Punks, Black Panthers, and riot grrrls at Koo’s Cafe in Santa Ana, CA.  We played hemp rallies and non-riot grrrl political events like fundraisers for Big Mountain and other Native American causes.

1997 Image of the author with her "surrealist assemblage." Image used with permission by the author.

1997 Image of the author with her “surrealist assemblage.” Image used with permission by the author.

Eventually I developed a fascination with improvisation inspired by freestyle rap and augmented by the writing of Gertrude Stein and the recordings of Jack Kerouac. By the time our most successful album was released, the improvised Tacoma Ballet (2002), I prized musicianship and encouraged experienced collaborators, like Patty Schemel of Hole on drums and Greta Brinkman of Moby’s live band on bass, to bring to bear the breadth and depth of their musical knowledge.  I was delighted that Rick King of Guitar Maniacs in Tacoma allowed us to use his highly valuable collectible gear such as a 1967 Gibson Flying V and an array of legendary vintage pedals when we recorded the album.  I was proud when Patty said in an interview about Tacoma Ballet: “…there are always ideas that I have–interesting beats and such–that I could never incorporate into Hole or any other project.  In Lucid Nation I got to incorporate all my weirdness.” Though Tacoma Ballet made it to #1 on the New Music Weekly Chart of College and Secondary Market Radio Stations in December 2002 it received very little attention in riot grrrl circles. I found myself silenced again, not by advocates of technique, but by a community who valued raw expression.

Of course, in 2002 riot grrrl was less popular than it had been a decade before–it mostly consisted of isolated zine writers and bands.  Still, those who remained in the scene ignored Tacoma Ballet despite its success. When I asked them why, they explained that although they admired our work and the songs spoke to their experience, our band just wasn’t riot grrrl.  I was told that the skills and awareness of musical history displayed on the record were too self conscious, that I had become ambitious, or as more than one zine writer said, I had sold out.  Since I made no money on that record despite the attention it got, and we couldn’t tour behind it since the music was improvised, I found it hard to understand how such a purely artistic lark could be viewed as selling out.  I didn’t sell out, my increased respect for theory and technique just felt wrong when viewed from the perspective of the riot grrrl canon.

EDM and the new politics of punk sound. Image by Patrick Savalle CC BY-SA.

EDM and the new politics of punk sound. Image by Patrick Savalle CC BY-SA.

While new music hardware and software have helped level the field in ways that were not possible in the 90’s, the cage of expression and technique continues to govern a new world of highly individuated scenes.  EDM continues to fetishize the drop. Live performers need no longer be concerned about vocal pitch or knowledge of vocal harmony. Hardware like the Digitech VLFX, available on Amazon for under $200, corrects pitch and provides easy and automatic harmony vocals.  In this device, music’s ability to create unexpectedly cathartic experiences has been diminished, while the simple mimicry of technique has been elevated.

Perhaps new regimes of data are to blame.  Specific canons of theory and technique function as points of data that help define marketing audiences.  After all, bands often succeed by conforming to the sonic norms of their given scene.  For this reason, there is a tension between conservation and innovation.  An artist must conserve as much of their scene’s identity as possible while finding subtle ways to innovate.  Today, anyone can share their music on the internet regardless of traditional criteria. Despite this, a desire for acceptance and success continues to pressure musicians into accepting limitations to their creativity like technique and expression.

Cover image is of Tamra Lucid and by TheInfinite314 @Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA.

Tamra Lucid is an executive producer of Viva Cuba Libre: Rap is War the award winning documentary about Cuban hip hop legends Los Aldeanos, a producer of Edward James Olmos Presents Exile Nation: The Plastic People, and associate producer of The Gits documentaryWriting from her riot grrrl zines was reprinted in A Girl’s Guide To Taking Over The World: The Zine Revolution by Karen Green and Tristan Taormino,and in Hilary Carlip and Francesca Lia Block’s Zine Scene. Tamra blogs for Exterminating Angel Press and for Reality Sandwich where her most recent project has been a series of interviews with water protectors and filmmakers at Standing Rock.  She’s a founding member and primary singer of Lucid Nation.

tape reelREWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:

Listening to Punk’s Spirit in its Pre-, Proto- and Post- Formations  – Yetta Howard

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

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

Listening to Punk’s Spirit in its Pre-, Proto- and Post- Formations

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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 Yetta Howard. Yetta discusses the pre-, post- and proto- punk movements that resisted the hegemony of a dominant punk sound from within. How is resistance be productive of a radical identity?

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)



The radical impulses of punk sound are generally thought to encompass noisiness, inaccessibly, and inconsistency. Beyond the three chords, anti-virtuosity, and “fuck you” to dominant culture that came to define punk is its spirit of provocation. Punk’s ability to be categorized as a type of identifiable chaos is both what allows it to be readily commodified (in the case of pop-punk), and paradoxically what allows it to coalesce as identity (insofar as punk is the sound of marginal experience). Perhaps, in punk, we can listen for a sense of cultural libertinism, in line with what José Muñoz discusses as “the desire, indeed the demand, for ‘something else’ that is not the holding pattern of a devastated present, with its limits and impasses” (98). Where we hear musical norms challenged in terms of non-heteronormative erotics, like in Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum,” or as reflecting authoritarian violence, as in the Dead Kennedys’ “Police Truck,” is equally where we may locate punk’s fluidity and refusal to maintain a uniformity of sound.

While punk’s sonic offense to authority and legitimacy was initially cast as a mode of rejecting mainstream politesse and a reflection of a class-specific youth revolt, I want to suggest that these offenses can be made palpable as non-visually-inclined gendered and sexual incitements–inhabitations of sound that are physically felt as anti-normative auditory expression. We hear these expressions today in Xiu Xiu’s “Stupid in the Dark” (2014), set to an uncontrollable pulse “in the moonlight,” the non-normative embrace of violence and the erotic are tangible within the texture of this sinister sound. By listening here to punk’s fringes, I aim to highlight how it actively distorts normativity, disrupts readability, and refuses consistency. I propose that when disobedience is cast as a sexual or gendered event, punk incoherence moves closest toward sounding like a stiff middle finger to dominant uptake–an incoherence that signifies radical identity formation outside the dominant.

While punk became and continues to be legible as one of the most significant cultural upheavals of late-twentieth-century music, its anti-establishment ethos is most pronounced when it reflects gender and sexual transgression. This is most clear in a handful of punk’s first wave and, counterintuitively, in contexts that would not necessarily be called punk. Indeed, its proto-punk predecessors and postpunk experimenters become compelling places to listen to punk’s sonic spirit.

Embodying sexual and ethnic difference as audible protest, Alice Bag of the Bags and the Alice Bag Band, cultivated punk anger as both a menacing scream and a revision of white masculinist rage. As documented in Penelope Spheeris’s The Decline of Western Civilization (1981), while performing “Gluttony,” Bag aggressively meshes with the crowd and, wearing a pink mod dress, pushes slam-dancers out of her way. Uttering “watch the calories,” she fiercely shifts from a reproachable timbre to strident shrieks. In her Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage: A Chicana Punk Story (2011) memoir, Bag includes stories about witnessing her father abuse her mother as well as her struggles with dieting and abortion, all of which obliquely and explicitly informed the female bodily revolt we hear in her raw, counter-melodic vocalizations. As gendered, these forceful contestations of conformity extend to the rejection of homogenizing punk style heard on “We Don’t Need the English” (1979).

Also moving against social-sexual normativity, The Cramps’ version of Hasil Adkin’s psychobilly “She Said” on their Smell of Female (1983) live album—featuring a sex theater on its cover—conspicuously emerges as a sonic resistance to the status quo of mid-eighties sexuality. Alongside the frenzied vibrations of Poison Ivy’s and Kid Congo Powers’s sharp guitar plucking, Lux Interior narrates the hungover morning after a one-night stand using explosively orgasmic, hysterical repetitions of “wooo, eeee, ah, ah!” What we hear in these oppositionally tuned shrieks, grunts and cries is punk loudly throwing its disregard for accessibly and popularity into the ears of general decorum.

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The DVD cover of Losier’s documentary. Image used with permission by the author.

The lo-fi and brutish contours of punk have existed for decades along the margins of the genre. Before punk was called punk, before industrial became recognizable as its own genre within postpunk, Throbbing Gristle, which included members Genesis P-Orridge, Peter “Sleazy’ Christopherson, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Chris Carter, crafted their sound with a broken bass, a homemade modular synthesizer, and a set of cassette-players fed through a keyboard. Using  “industrial” to describe their noise pieces and eventually to name their label, the group had a creative friendship with Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. Burroughs employed Gysin’s cut-up technique in/as his writing, which he described/subsequently cut-up: “Images shift sense under the scissors smell images to sound sight to sound sound to kinesthetic” (RE/Search #4/5, 36). If the literary extremes of Burroughs’s words operate in the same scope as their synesthetic ambiguity, then the anti-music provocations that they suggest become something heard in Throbbing Gristle as gender non-normativity, bodily lawlessness, and erotically minoritarian practices.

In an early performance art show and exhibition titled “Prostitution” (1976), members of Throbbing Gristle (who began in 1970 as COUM Transmissions) made full use of accoutrements associated with the abject body: the exhibition featured images from the Playbirds series, pornographic magazine layouts of Tutti, and P-Orridge’s TAMPAX ROMANA, a mixed-media installation that included used tampons. The volume of these images is disruptive, their performative effects straddling the sonic-visual extremes of artistic practice. Appearing in Marie Losier’s The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (2011), the more recent bodily equivalent is P-Orridge and the late Jaye’s “Pandrogeny” project, a corporeal cut-up: both underwent plastic surgery to look like each other—the physical reference points, like Throbbing Gristle’s sounds’ connections with its sources, became lost as they became one, with P-Orridge getting tattoos of Jaye’s beauty marks, for instance. This is the anti-legibility that characterizes punk’s visionary sonic limits. In their modification of flesh, they embody the material alteration of what is heard in heavily processed tape, ruthless loops, and use of non-musical objects as modes of radical resignification.

Contemporaneous with Throbbing Gristle, Chrome’s formation in 1975 firmly placed its industrial experiments in anticipation of punk with their sonic legacy continuing as postpunk sound. In what is a typical two-ish minute duration of a punk song—say, the Germs’ “Manimal”—Chrome’s “Animal” from Red Exposure (1980) sounds as if it were made of chrome. Tinny, metallic tape manipulations and synthesized guitar make each note sound as if it were sinking in deep, murky water. It is a groove emerging from a bath of acid. For the less-vanilla-inclined ear, this combination of sounds is also immensely erotic. Listening to these multiple sonic elements against the logic of normative arrangement means listening to queer forms of relationally. Here, aural encounters are defined by misalignment rather than complementarity.

The equally confrontational sounds of proto-punk duo Suicide, consisting of the late Alan Vega’s often-terrifying vocals and alarming sparseness of Martin Rev’s keyboard work, ushered in what became No Wave. No Wave, New York’s downtown art-film-performance underground of the 1970s, was a cultural anti-movement that contested the increasing popularity of New Wave as subcultural sound. Visually documented in Kris Needs’s Dream Baby Dream: Suicide: A New York Story (2015), Suicide was one of the first to put “punk music” on fliers for their early 1970s gigs at avant-jazz venues and underground art spaces. We hear punk in Suicide when listening for deviations from punk’s dominant formulae of masculine, churning guitar-rock.

While Suicide’s shows were notoriously destruction-inviting as performances, the antagonism of their sound was established through the use of drum machines instead of drums, incorporation of shadowy forms of disco’s repetition, and, at times, a crooning gone awry. Accordingly, “Girl” on their self-titled 1977 album chill-drips sex as Rev’s opening sequence of full-bodied, low tones undulate at angles for its listeners. Less expected as an accompaniment is Vega’s quivery “turn me on,” murmured “yeahs,” and carnal utters of “oh girl,” which reassign any sense of typically gendered desire. He pleads “touch me soft” before fully offering himself up: these tortured requests morph into submissive orgasmic expressions of desire. Here we might call up the temporally correct yet misplaced mixture of black female sexual agency as disco rhythm and vocal moan-cries in Donna Summer mixed with Iggy Pop’s gravelly appeal on The Stooges’ “Penetration.” Punk’s transgressions are not merely sexual in this case, rather, they embody auditory forms of a sexual avant-garde.

Coming out of New York’s No Wave milieu, Sonic Youth, whose “The Good and the Bad” from their self-titled EP Sonic Youth (1982) defines punk in the negative, by forcing us to revel in dissonance. Thurston Moore plays heavy bass as Kim Gordon and Lee Ranaldo continuously build endless dissonance. The song collapses onto itself until it becomes a rebellious pleasure, an oppositionally melodic omen. The song ends with the heavy bass that initially introduced the song. In opposition to the three-minute Ramones single, it is eight minutes of exhilaratingly wrong notes and inconsistent drumming. The song doesn’t champion “bad,” it breaks down the binary: it refuses to be read as good or bad. Similarly, a live version of this song featuring some vocal work by Moore and Gordon is named “Loud and Soft”—a key description functioning all at once to signal the refusal to be named or the need for classificatory stability—sonic, social, or otherwise.

The musical analogue to Jamie Reid’s Nowhere Buses (1972) image, used for The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” (1977) single, is the vocalization of “no future.” Perhaps there was no future for punk’s initial impact if comprehensibility implied watering it down for dull masses. At stake in the politics of punk sound are the identities negotiated at its incomprehensible fringes–they productively and spiritually account for marginal experience. In Xiu Xiu’s “Stupid in the Dark”, we can detect a dark renewal of The Pistols’ not wanting a “holiday in the sun.” Like the others I have pointed to in this essay, Xiu Xiu recognizes how the prurient dangers of night are necessary for non-normativity and discordant strangeness to flourish. In Dirty Beaches’ distanced echoing we can listen for a bloody smirk in the muffled vocal of “Night Walk” (2013) and, rather than necessarily take that bus to nowhere, go somewhere by taking that walk on the other sides of the conventional.

Cover image is “Cramps-3” by Chad Johnson CC BY-NC-ND.

Yetta Howard is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at San Diego State University. She specializes in gender and sexuality studies, queer studies, and feminist theories of race and ethnicity. Emphasizing visual and auditory texts, her research and teaching focuses on 20th- and 21st-century American cultural studies with an investment in unpopular, experimental, and underground cultural production. Some of Howard’s work appears in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly, The Journal of Popular Culture, and Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory. Her book manuscript, Ugly Differences: Queer Female Sexuality in the Underground, is under contract with the University of Illinois Press. 

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Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs  – Maria P. Chaves Daza

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

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

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

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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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still

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.”

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(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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Sounding Out! Podcast  #50: Yoshiwara Soundwalk: Taking the Underground to the Floating World – Gretchen Jude

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

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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.

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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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