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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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Sounding Out! Podcast #42: Listening in on Noisy Ghost ‘Our Madonnas Our Nobodies’

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOADListening in on Noisy Ghost ‘Our Madonnas Our Nobodies’

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This week, Sounding Out! is happy to share a podcast on nostalgia, performance, and sound. Please join host, Eleanor Russell (Northwestern University), as she guides us through through the popular sounds of the 1980s and compares her sonically-mediated memories to the lived perspectives of her co-hosts André Callot (Independent Artist) and Eric Wenzel (Roosevelt University). How do we remember urban space through sonic media, and is their a potential to queer our memories of the decade by revisiting our shared media ouvré? No matter where you stand on the issue, we recommend that if you enjoyed this week’s podcast you listen in on Eleanor’s other work exploring performance and sound at Noisy Ghost.

Podcast host Eleanor Russell is a Ph.D student at Northwestern University in the Interdisciplinary Program in Theatre and Drama. Her research interests include sound studies, women’s stand-up and performance art, and feminist epistemologies and phenomenologies. She is affiliated with the Critical Theory Cluster at Northwestern. MA in Theatre History and Criticism from Brooklyn College, BA Religious Studies from Grinnell College.

Featured image by Domriel @Flickr CC BY-NC.

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Podcast #34: Sonia Li’s “Whale” – Sonia Li

SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory– Stuart Fowkes

Learning to Listen: The Velvet Underground’s “Once Lost” LPs – Tim J. Anderson

SO! Amplifies: Cities and Memory

Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Inspired by how sound and memory interact, Cities and Memory is a sound program with the aim of “remixing the world, one sound at a time,” existing on the (already quite blurred) line between documentary field recording and sound art.

Its primary manifestation is an online global sound map, on which every location boasts two sounds, the “city” and the “memory.” The “city” sound is the faithful, documentary field recording capturing that place at that time, as it existed and was heard. The “memory” sound is a reimagined, remixed, reinterpreted version of that sound: everything from oral reconstructions, full-on techno tracks built around a field recording, ambient reimaginings, and all the points in between, as summarized in this roundup of creative approaches from the site.  The reimagined sounds represent how sound is remembered and experienced differently by each individual, and explore what happens in that magical period between sounds being physically experienced and their being mentally processed, interpreted, and above all felt.

Starting from that basic premise, Cities and Memory has collected more than 600 sounds from around the world in just over a year, with more than 100 artists, musicians, field recordists and sound enthusiasts contributing anything from a field recording snatched on a mobile phone through to a complete musical reconstruction.

Over recent months, Cities and Memory has expanded with a series of projects each exploring a different avenue or window onto sound that has been opened up. For instance, last November saw #HamburgSounds, an ambitious project to sound map the vast city of Hamburg, Germany and to reimagine its sounds. A four-day recording session garnered enough recordings for forty sound artists each to give their take on a different aspect of Hamburg’s sounds and what they meant to them. The results were symbolically released over a 24-hour period, representing a day in the city’s life, and in the memories and imagination of its citizens.  For more sounds from Hamburg, click here.

OS_Shareable_1 (3)

This year also saw a project using Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies cards as creative direction for reimagining field recordings. The reimagined sounds that came from more than 100 different creative strategies employed in the project were even more diverse than its locations, which covered everything from jungle in Thailand and Shanghai temples to the urban centres of Chicago, New York and London. Spectrum analysis, musical cryptograms, working simultaneously with artists in different countries, even TripAdvisor reviews(!) – every creative sonic technique in the book seems to have been used in one way or another.

The latest project, called Quiet Street, takes the form of a simultaneous digital and physical exhibition, reimagining the sounds of the city of Bath as part of its Fringe Arts Bath Festival.  The physical installation presents two sides of sonic memory – first, the documentary field recording of a location in Bath, and second the reimagined, or ‘memory’ version of the sound. The audience can navigate between two sonic ‘versions’ of Bath simultaneously on different sides of the space. One side broadcasts the “city” sound from a location, the other the matching “memory” sound, a remix or reinterpretation of the field recording, time-synced so that the sets of sounds shift in and out of one another in unison. The listener chooses – by his or her own physical proximity – to experience freely the two sound worlds.

Poster-3-small-724x1024 Visit the physical installation of Quiet Street  at Fringe Arts Bath Festival,                                         22 May 2015 - 7 June 2015 at 8/9 New Bond Street Place, Bath

Visit the physical installation of Quiet Street at Fringe Arts Bath Festival,                              22 May 2015 – 7 June 2015 at 8/9 New Bond Street Place, Bath

As the “city” and “memory” sounds are precisely time-synced in the installation, an additional creative challenge for the artists was to create reimagined version the same length as the source field recording. More importantly, they also needed consider not just how the reimagined sound stood on its own, but how it would live simultaneously in the same space as the field recording, creating a direct tension between “real” documentary sounds and the memory of those sounds in the same space.

The digital exhibition of Quiet Street allows the sounds to be explored through a map interface.  It also allows listeners to simulate the installation experience with a series of installation mixes, presenting the field recording and reimagined sound on opposite sides of the stereo field. You can access playlists here and here as well as download the album documenting the event here.

As a curator, the most exciting thing to me is that the central idea behind Cities and Memory is so open; there are almost infinite possibilities for its application. A new angle on sound, place or memory can bring up a new project at any point, and every contributor brings their own experience and interpretation.

In the course of exploring hundreds of field recordings, examining them in detail and finding a creative angle from which to reinterpret them, I’ve developed a new appreciation not just of field recording as a practice, but of how to listen to whichever environment I find myself in. It’s given me a new perspective on sound and on music, and how utterly blurred the lines are between the two. I listen very differently to the world now.  As Cities and Memory continues to grow, I hope many others will too.

C&M Website_Venice_3

 

Stuart Fowkes is the creator and curator of Cities and Memory, producing a large number of the source field recordings and reimagined ‘memory’ versions himself, as well as curating the project as a whole. Quiet Street runs from 22 May to 7 June at 8/9 New Bond Street Place, Bath, as part of Fringe Arts Bath, and digitally at www.citiesandmemory.com/quietstreet. Find out more about Cities and Memory and how to contribute: http://citiesandmemory.com/what-is-cities-and-memory-about/

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That Infernal Racket: Sound, Anxiety, and the IBM Computer in AMC’s Mad Men

[Warning: Spoilers Ahead for Folks Not Caught Up with Season 7, Episode 5!]

In one of the more memorable – and squirm-inducing – scenes of this season of AMC’s Mad Men, brilliant but eccentric copywriter Michael Ginsberg (Ben Feldman) presents his colleague, agency copy chief Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) with his own severed nipple, placed carefully in a gift box. Ginsberg explains to the understandably horrified Peggy that the gift is both a token of his affection and a means of relieving pressure caused by the arrival of Sterling, Cooper & Partners’ (SC&P) newest acquisition: a humming, room-sized IBM System/360 mainframe computer. Explaining his enmity for the machine and his increasingly erratic behavior, Ginsberg tells Peggy that the “waves of data” emanating from the computer were filling him up, and that the only solution was to “remove the pressure” by slicing off his “valve.”

The arrival of the IBM 360 in the idealized 1960s office space inhabited by Mad Men is obviously an unsettling presence – and not only for Ginsberg. Since its debut in Episode 4, commentators (e.g. WaPo’s Andrea Peterson, Slate’s Seth Stevenson) have meditated on the heavy-handed symbolism surrounding the machine – both in terms of its historical significance and its implications for plot and character development. Typically cued through noise (or lack thereof), it is worth reflecting upon the role of sound in establishing the computer as a source of disruption. Between the pounding and screeching of installation and the drone of the completed machine’s air conditioner and tape reels, the sonic motifs accompanying the computer underline tensions between (and roiling within) SC&P staffers grappling with the incipient digital age. Likewise, the infernal racket produced by the installation and operation of the IBM 360 adds an important dimension to the tensions resulting from its presence, which can be read as allegories for the complexities and contradictions of our relationship with technology.

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The tone of the conflict is set even before we meet the IBM 360 toward the end of Episode 4: The Monolith – a reference to Kubrick’s 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (Slate’s Forrest Wickman ably discusses the references). Like the unnerving silence used with such great effect in that film, the absence of sound frames our first encounter with the computer – or at least its promise. Early in the episode, Don Draper (Jon Hamm), newly rehabilitated from his forced exile from the agency, arrives one morning at SC&P to find the office deserted. The ghostly sequence is clearly meant to symbolize Draper’s detachment from the firm. But as the episode progresses and tensions mount over the possibility that the IBM 360 will render jobs obsolete, the desolate office suggests a more ominous meaning – a once lively space muted by cold, impersonal automation.

In following scenes, successive stages of mainframe installation are marked by convergences of conflict and cacophony. First, there is the din of the creative team as they evacuate their beloved lounge – now earmarked as computer space – and during which a distraught Ginsberg projects his indignation onto art director Stan Rizzo, who appears more accepting. “They’re trying to erase us!” Ginsberg exclaims bitterly. Later, Draper lounges on his office couch as a clop clopping of hammers outside signifies tangible change. As if this weren’t enough of a distraction, two men in the corridor begin to chat loudly over the noise. Going out to investigate, Draper strikes up a conversation with one of the men, Lloyd Hawley, installation supervisor and founder of a small technology company competing with IBM. “Who’s winning?” Draper asks innocently, “who’s replacing more people?” Clearly irritated by Draper’s tone, Harry Crane – SC&P media director and the computer’s lead cheerleader – offers Draper a condescending apology for the loss of his “lunchroom,” assures him the change was “not symbolic.” “No, it’s quite literal,” Draper retorts. Unabated, the pounding and screeching of construction work emphasizes his point.

For the remainder of the episode, the raucous noise of construction acts as a leitmotif underscoring tensions between characters – between Peggy and Lou Avery (Draper’s priggish replacement at creative director), and between Draper and the interloper Lloyd. Finally, the end of construction is punctuated by a return to silence, as Peggy arrives one morning to see workers glide mainframe components noiselessly into the office.

Mad Men Logo. Used under the auspices of fair use for identification and critical commentary.

Mad Men Logo. Used under the auspices of fair use for identification and critical commentary.

With this emphasis on technology as a source of symbolic, physical, and sonic disruption, Matthew Weiner and the creators of Mad Men draw upon a rich literary tradition. A relevant example contemporaneous with the show’s “present,” is literary critic Leo Marx’s 1964 text The Machine in the Garden, which examines the complicated relationships between a “pastoral ideal” and technological progress within American literature and popular imagination. Marx’s analysis reveals that sound is often used to convey the disruptive presence of technology within the bucolic landscape of the American continent. In Hawthorne’s Sleepy Hollow for example, it is the interrupting shriek of a locomotive whistle that breaks the author’s harmonious reverie: “Now tension replaces repose: the noise arouses a sense of dislocation, conflict, and anxiety” (15). In the decidedly un-pastoral modern office space, the noise of the computer installation nevertheless signifies a momentous social change and irrevocable loss. Picking out these tensions has always been one of the show’s strengths – whether it is the computer, Draper’s double identity, or the quiet endurance of women to the misogyny of midcentury work and domestic life.

Change, however, has significant consequences for Ginsberg, the young copywriter and Holocaust survivor who, as CBS’s Jessica Firger observes, has been deteriorating psychologically for some time. The proximity of the IBM 360, and the incessant drone of its mind-controlling waves eventually puts him over the edge. As Draper and Peggy enter the office early in Episode 5, Ginsberg glowers into the room housing the IBM 360. “Stop humming, you’re not happy!” he explodes. As Peggy attempts to soothe her colleague, our perspective shifts to look out at them from inside the glass-encased computer room. From here, the mainframe’s ambient noise muffles Peggy’s words, suggesting isolation between human and non-human. This play of speech and silence reoccurs later in the episode as Ginsberg, working alone on a Saturday with tissues wedged in his ears, spies Lou Avery and SC&P partner Jim Cutler inside the computer room, their voices made inaudible by the droning computer in a delicious homage to 2001 (see Vulture’s amusing gif). But the noise is clearly affecting Ginsberg. “It’s that hum at the office! It’s getting to me!” he tells Peggy later that evening. He even claims the computer has affected his sexuality.

Ginsberg’s noise complaints would have resonated in 1969 New York. In November of that year, the New York Times ran a feature on the city’s nerve-shattering noise pollution, calling it a “slow agent of death.” In addition to the myriad construction projects, subways, car horns, jet planes, and standing machinery populating the city soundscape, office workers found scant respite indoors where phones, air conditioners, “computers and typewriters and tabulators” whirred, whined, and clacked throughout the day. The article went on to report that scientists studying the impact of prolonged noise exposure on the human body had concluded a variety of ill effects on the heart and nervous system. Though no connection was made between computers and sexuality (as Ginsberg claimed), the article reported that laboratory rats under prolonged noise exposure had indeed “turned homosexual,” an opinion that underlined deterministic associations between sexuality, psychological disorder, and external stimuli.

An advertisement for the IBM 360. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

An advertisement for the IBM 360. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons.

As SO! editor Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman has argued, noise in midcentury New York also signified a sonic-racial politics, in which the mainstream “listening ear” recoiled at the “noise” created by Black and Puerto Rican others. In terms of Mad Men’s computer however, it is technology, economic anxiety, and mental illness, rather than ethnicity that frames sonic disruption. The basis of these tensions are similar however, and various interactions with SC&P’s IBM 360 demonstrate, as Stoever-Ackerman writes in SO!, “the ways in which Americans have been disciplined to consider some sounds as natural, normal, and desirable, while deeming alternate ways of listening and sounding as aberrant [and] dangerous.” Though similar, the conflict with technology on Mad Men does not suggest a clear us/them, or us/”it” binary. The banging of construction may be at first antagonistic, but it’s finite – eventually the computer is normalized within the SC&P office space to the extent that Peggy chides Ginsberg’s exasperation in Episode 5 by insisting “it’s just a computer!” Ginsberg’s reaction is more complex however, implicating a contradictory relationship with technology: once fully installed, has the droning computer become “natural, normal, and desirable” despite previous ambivalence? Is the keen awareness and anxiety towards technology symbolized through Ginsberg (albeit in a extreme form) suggested as the “aberrant” listening practice, or could it be Peggy’s apparent acceptance?

Like most cultural texts set in the past, it is possible to read Mad Men allegorically, as suggesting a certain ordering of meaning and values. From the perspective of those who have long since domesticated computers, the controversies and tropes activated by SC&P’s IBM 360 might strike us as familiar, even quaint. As the sociologist Bruno Latour has argued however, we would be wise to consider how technology exerts a kind of social agency that structures and impacts our daily lives. As historical symbolism, the sounds and noises of the IBM 360 on Mad Men should remind us that technological progress is not teleological, but a struggle over meaning in which anxieties (about jobs, mind-control, surveillance, subjectivity, etc.) may be variously accommodated, suppressed, or dismissed as irrational.

Featured image: An IBM 360 Mainframe. Borrowed from Wikimedia Commons CC 2.0

Andrew J. Salvati is a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University. His interests include the history of television and media technologies, theory and philosophy of history, and representations of history in media contexts. Additional interests include play, authenticity, the sublime, and the absurd. Andrew has co-authored a book chapter with colleague Jonathan Bullinger titled “Selective Authenticity and the Playable Past” in the recent edited volume Playing With the Past (2013)and has written a recent blog post for Play the Past titled The Play of History.”

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“DIY Histories: Podcasting the Past” -Andrew J. Salvati

“The Noise of SB 1070: Or Do I Sound Illegal to You?”– Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman

“DIANE… The Personal Voice Recorder in Twin Peaks” -Tom McEnaney

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