The Firesign Theatre are the only group that can claim among its devoted fans both Thom Yorke and John Ashbery; who have an album in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress and also coined a phrase now used as a slogan by freeform giant WFMU; and whose albums were widely distributed by tape among U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, and then sampled by the most selective classic hip hop DJs, from Steinski and DJ Premier to J Dilla and Madlib.
Formed in 1966, they began their career improvising on Los Angeles’s Pacifica station KPFK, and went on to work in numerous media formats over their four-decade career. They are best known for a series of nine albums made for Columbia Records, records that remain unparalleled for their density, complexity, and sonic range. Realizing in an astonishing way the implications of the long playing record and the multi-track recording studio, the Firesign Theatre’s Columbia albums offer unusually fertile ground for bringing techniques of literary analysis to bear upon the fields of sound and media studies (and vice versa). This is a strategy that aims to reveal the forms of political consciousness that crafted the records, as well as the politics of the once-common listening practices binding together the disparate audiences I have just named. It is no accident that the associative and referential politics of the sample in “golden age” hip hop would have recognized a similar politics of reference and association in Firesign Theatre’s sound work, in particular in the group’s pioneering use of language, time, and space.
The Firesign Theatre is typically understood as a comedy act from the era of “head music” — elaborate album-oriented sounds that solicited concerted, often collective and repeated, listening typically under the influence of drugs. But it may be better to understand their work as attempting to devise a future for literary writing that would be unbound from the printed page and engaged with the emergent recording technologies of the day. In this way, they may have crafted a practice more radical, but less recognizable, than that of poets —such as Allen Ginsberg or David Antin, both of whose work Firesign read on the air — who were also experimenting with writing on tape during these years (see Michael Davidson’s Ghostlier Demarcations: Modern Poetry and the Material Word, in particular 196-224). Because their work circulated almost exclusively on vinyl (secondarily on tape), it encouraged a kind of reading (in the strictest sense) with the ears; the fact that their work was distributed through the networks of popular music may also have implications for the way we understand past communities of music listeners as well.
The period of Firesign’s contract (1967-1975) with the world’s largest record company parallels exactly the recording industry’s relocation from New York to Los Angeles, the development of multitrack studios which made the overdub the dominant technique for recording pop music, and the rise of the LP as a medium in its own right, a format that rewarded, and in Firesign’s case required, repeated listening. These were all factors the Firesign Theatre uniquely exploited. Giving attention to the musicality of the group’s work, Jacob Smith has shown (in an excellent short discussion in Spoken Word: Postwar American Phonograph Cultures that is to date the only academic study of Firesign) how the group’s attention to the expansion of television, and in particular the new practice of channel-surfing, provided both a thematic and a formal focus for the group’s work: “Firesign […] uses channel surfing as the sonic equivalent of parallel editing, a kind of horizontal or melodic layering in which different themes are woven in and out of prominence until they finally merge. Firesign also adds vertical layers to the narrative in a manner analogous to musical harmony or multiple planes of cinematic superimposition” (181). But more remains to be said not only about the effect of the Firesign Theatre’s work, but about its carefully wrought semantics, in particular the way the “horizontal” and “vertical” layers that Smith identifies were used as ways of revealing the mutually implicated regimes of politics, culture, and media in the Vietnam era — at the very moment when the explosion of those media was otherwise working to disassociate those fields.
The group’s third album, Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers is typically understood as their first extended meditation on the cultural phenomenology of television. Throughout the record, though there is much else going on, two pastiches of 1950s genre movies (High School Madness and a war film called Parallel Hell!) stream intermittently, as if through a single channel-surfing television set. The films coincide in two superimposed courtroom scenes that include all the principal characters from both films. By interpenetrating the school and the war, the record names without naming the killing of four students at Kent State and two students at Jackson State University, two events that occurred eleven days apart in May 1970 while the group was writing and recording in Los Angeles. Until this point rationalized by the framing fiction of a principal character watching both films on television, the interpenetration of the narratives is resolvable within the album’s diegesis—the master plot that accounts for and rationalizes every discrete gesture and event—only as a representation of that character’s having fallen asleep and dreaming the films together, a narrative sleight of hand that would testify to the group’s comprehension of literary modernism and the avant-garde.
The question of what may “cause” the interpenetration of the films is of interest, but the Firesign Theatre did not always require justification to elicit the most outrageous representational shifts of space (as well as of medium and persona). What is of more interest is the way rationalized space — the space implied by the “audioposition” of classic radio drama, as theorized by Neil Verma in Theater of the Mind— could be de-emphasized or even abandoned in favor of what might instead be called analytic space, an aural fiction in which the institutions of war and school can be understood as simultaneous and coterminous, and which more broadly represents the political corruptions of the Nixon administration by means of formal and generic corruption that is the hallmark of the Firesign Theatre’s approach to media (35-38).
While the techniques that produce this analytic soundscape bear some resemblance to what Verma terms the “kaleidosonic style” pioneered by radio producer Norman Corwin in the 1940s — in which the listener is moved “from place to place, experiencing shallow scenes as if from a series of fixed apertures” — even this very brief sketch indicates how radically the Firesign Theatre explored, deepened, and multiplied Corwin’s techniques in order to stage a more politically diagnostic and implicative mode of cultural interpretation. Firesign’s spaces, which are often of great depth, are rarely traversed arbitrarily; they are more typically experienced either in a relatively seamless flow (perspective and location shifting by means of an associative, critical or analytical, logic that the listener may discover), or are instead subsumed within regimes of media (a radio broadcast within a feature film which is broadcast on a television that is being watched by the primary character on the record album to which you are listening). According to either strategy the medium may be understood to be the message, but that message is one whose horizon is as critical as it is aesthetic.
The creation of what I am terming an analytic space was directly abetted by the technological advancement of recording studios, which underwent a period of profound transformation during the years of their Columbia contract, which spanned the year of The Beatles’s Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (arguably the world’s first concept album, recorded on four tracks) to Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here (arguably that band’s fourth concept album, recorded on 24 tracks). Pop music had for years availed itself of the possibilities of recording vocals and solos separately, or doubly, but the dominant convention was for such recordings to support the imagined conceit of a song being performed live. As studios’ technological advances increased the possibilities for multitracking, overdubbing, and mixing, pop recordings such as Sgt. Pepper and the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) became more self-evidently untethered from the event of a live performance, actual or simulated. In the place of the long-dominant conceit of a recording’s indexical relation to a particular moment in time, pop music after the late 60s came increasingly to define and inhabit new conceptions of space, and especially time. Thus, when in 1970 Robert Christgau asserted that the Firesign Theatre “uses the recording studio at least as brilliantly as any rock group” (and awarding a very rare A+), he was remarking the degree to which distortions and experiments with time and space were if anything more radically available to narrative forms than they were to music.
The overdub made possible much more than the simple multiplication and manipulation of aural elements, it also added depth and richness to the soundfield. New possibilities of mixing, layering, and editing also revealed that the narrative representation of time, as well as spatial element I’ve just described, could be substantially reworked and given thematic meaning. In one knowing example, on 1969’s How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You’re Not Anywhere at All, an accident with a time machine results in the duplication of each of the narrative’s major characters, who then fight or drink with each other.
This crisis of the unities is only averted when a pastiche of Franklin Delano Roosevelt interrupts the record’s fictional broadcast, announcing the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and his decision to surrender to Japan. On a record released the year the United States began secret bombing in Cambodia, it is not only the phenomenological, but also the social and political, implications of this kind of technologically mediated writing that are striking: the overdub enables the formal representation of “duplicity” itself, with the gesture of surrender ironically but pointedly offered as the resolution to the present crisis in Southeast Asia.
To take seriously the Firesign Theatre’s experiments with medium, sound, and language may be a way of reviving techniques of writing — as well as recording, and of listening — that have surprisingly eroded, even as technological advances (cheaper microphones, modeling software, and programs from Audacity and Garage Band to Pro Tools and Ableton Live) have taken the conditions of production out of the exclusive purview of the major recording studios. In two recent essays in RadioDoc Review called “The Arts of Amnesia: The Case for Audio Drama Part One” and “Part Two,” Verma has surveyed the recent proliferation of audio drama in the field of podcasting, and urged artists to explore more deeply the practices and traditions of the past, fearing that contemporary aversion to “radio drama” risks “fall[ing] into a determinism that misses cross-fertilization and common experiment” (Part Two, 4). Meanwhile, Chris Hoff and Sam Harnett’s live performances from their excellent World According to Sound podcast are newly instantiating a form of collective and immersive listening that bears a resemblance to the practices that were dominant among Firesign Theatre listeners in the 1960s and 70s; this fall they are hosting listening events for Firesign records in San Francisco.
It is tempting to hope for a wider range of experimentation in the field of audio in the decade to come, one that either critically exploits or supersedes the hegemony of individualized listening emblematized by podcast apps and noise-cancelling headphones. But if the audio field instead remains governed by information-oriented podcasts, leavened by a subfield of relatively classical dramas like the very good first season of Homecoming, a return to the Firesign Theatre’s work can have methodological, historical, and theoretical value because it could help reveal how the experience of recorded sound had an altogether different political inflection in an earlier era. Thinking back to the remarkably heterogeneous set of Firesign Theatre fans with which I began, it is hard not to observe that the dominant era of the sample in hip hop is one where it was not the Walkman but the jambox — with its politics of contesting a shared social space through collective listening — was the primary apparatus of playback. However unwished- for, this determinist line of technological thinking would clarify the way media audiences are successively composed and decomposed, and show more clearly how, to use Nick Couldry’s words in “Liveness, ‘Reality,’ and the Mediated Habitus from Television to the Mobile Phone,” “the ‘habitus’ of contemporary societies is being transformed by mediation itself” (358).
Featured Image: The Firesign Theatre (ice cream baggage claim): John Rose, courtesy of author.
Jeremy Braddock is Associate Professor of English at Cornell University, where he specializes on the production and reception of modernist literature, media, and culture from the 1910s throughout the long twentieth century. His scholarship has examined the collective and institutional forms of twentieth-century authorship that are obscured by the romanticized figure of the individual artist. His book Collecting as Modernist Practic— a study of anthologies, archives, and private art collections — won the 2013 Modernist Studies Association book prize. Recent publications include a short essay considering the literary education of Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus and an essay on the Harlem reception of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He is currently working on a book on the Firesign Theatre.
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The New Wave: On Radio Arts in the UK–Magz Hall
This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith
Analog revival has gained traction across many media in recent years, but perhaps nowhere so strikingly as in sound. The shifting formats and fortunes of a digitally reshaped music industry invite, for many, the counterposition of a bright nostalgic picture. Yet artists and engineers whose work has spanned the transition from analog to digital sound find that the romanticization of the former can have a weird overreach. For example, when Dave Grohl produced a digital-decrying documentary on the LA studio Sound City, engineer Larry Crane was bemused that “Grohl seems to be attributing the arc of his career to the magic in a Neve console.” Recordists like Crane find themselves in between the Scylla and Charybdis of digital-era music: on one side, the embrace of new tools that are as entangled with corporate control structures as they are convenient; on the other, a skepticism that overshoots its mark, fetishizing old technologies and cementing a previous generation’s in-crowd as gatekeepers. Decades after digital media triggered one of the most momentous transitions in sound recording, the debate around their use is anything but settled. Tied up in this contest are questions of how and what pre-digital media will be preserved, but also problems like whose use of technology in music-making constitutes authentic talent and who has authority in the determination.
When Damon Krukowski steers into these waters with The New Analog: Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World (The New Press: 2017), he is quick to qualify that his memorializing of pre-digital practices “is hardly a Luddite’s call” (12). Noting the “all-or nothing response” that “dominates popular discussion of the many anxieties provoked by the digital revolution” (9), Krukowski contrasts the disruption-embracing “clean break” with life on the “technological island” (8) of confining one’s practice to outmoded materials. Addressing a reader who lives more or less contentedly in a contemporary media world, he speaks as a kind of expatriate of the analog island. He, too, lives in the digital present, but he sees it through the lens of decades spent working with and listening through analog machines. His project of defending analog listening practices takes inspiration from the efforts of urbanist Jane Jacobs, who labored to turn back the tide of redevelopment and suburbanization by celebrating the organic functionality of city life. His central argument for preservation is that “what we are losing in the demolition of analog media is noise” (197, emphasis original). Noise becomes a character in The New Analog akin to the city block in Jacobs’s work: a wrongly maligned figure that has quietly formed the basis of experience and utility in the old mode.
Though Krukowski’s definition of noise is flexible in some ways, he casts the digital as its uncompromising antithesis. This position precludes what could make the book more forward-looking in its aim: a consideration that noise might become a new kind of character in the digital realm rather than disappearing at its edge. Noise shows up in analog media as buzzing undercurrents and as modes of distortion when electrical signals exceed their ranges; digital media, while lacking these, are replete with moments of failure when a system is fed the wrong kind of information or pushed beyond its intended bounds. In their repetition, these moments of error become a new kind of noise that, just like analog noise, forms an unremovable layer of our experience in mediated environments. By declining to look for digital noise and instead focusing so squarely on noise as something lost to the digital transition, Krukowski misses a chance to center a more significant linkage with Jacobs: many of the problems he sees in digital-era sound are not due to the inherent nature of digital media but rather to the same motives of control and segregation underpinning the drive toward suburbanization.
Yet his original and thoughtfully cast historical route points us toward these culprits, even when the language drifts toward a more technologically deterministic stance. It is thus that his book still provides a vibrant body of historical consideration we can leverage in using noise to reshape our digital ways of listening. The moments when Krukowski lets technology stand in for the human motives that construct it give unfortunate cover to what should be the targets of such a critique. But his real concern toward the digital era arises from specific changes in the landscape of aural awareness, and he ultimately succeeds in the task of elevating his argument above the cliché of deterministic digital-bashing by setting its true focus not on the digital but on the era.
Readers might be surprised, for instance, to discover that The New Analog’s first chapter covers a development in sound — the transition from mono to stereo — that has nothing to do with digitization at its outset. The chapter narrates the release of Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon as a critical moment in consumer audio’s treatment of headphones as the ideal listening space. This movement toward individualized experience becomes a crucial part of setting the stage for the actual entrance of the digital. The design of digital media, Krukowski demonstrates, has not just carried forward this trend but absorbed it as a guiding principle, and has effected the same transformation not just in listening to music but across all kinds of daily situations. “The stream of digital information can put each of us in a different space than the others, even as we hurtle together through a tunnel on fixed tracks,” (49) Krukowski observes of the changed social experience of riding a subway. The comment makes an easy metaphoric return to music: digital design is now funneling sonic experience into a small number of streaming platforms, each promoted on the appeal of moving out of a collective listening space into one of personal curation. Claiming that a dangerous disorientation can arise in the separation of such neatly personalized spaces from their messier surroundings, the chapter closes with a cautionary tone: bad things can happen when we follow along with the digital logic of turning a once noisy situation into “a stream that is signal only” and when we stop “paying attention to noise.” (51, emphasis original).
Noise closes out each chapter, constituting the shared floor on which the book’s arguments stand. This construction calls for scrutiny, because noise is a notoriously slippery figure. As Marie Thompson notes in her recent interview with SO!, subjective and objective definitions both lay claim to noise, bringing along problems of politicized value judgment and erased context. At the same time, the term’s many meanings (electrical, legal, musical, etc.) serve as useful bridges. In Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience, Aden Evens uses noise as a primary example when he suggests a “productive ambiguity” can prompt connections that help different disciplines approach meeting points. Krukowski would, it seems, endorse this idea. He couples his formulation of noise to that of analog — an analog medium is identifiable by its noisiness, and noise is the substrate by which meaning takes hold in an analog medium.
Is it fair, though, to chain the figure of noise so tightly to analog recording that we must say it is wholly lost in the move to digital? In arguing that digitally mediated communication lacks the analog mode’s quality of perceivable distance, Krukowski lists perceptual coding — the application of “psychoacoustic research to digital sound processing” (75) — as one culprit. Jonathan Sterne, in MP3: The Meaning of a Format, points to perceptual coding’s advent as a moment when noise was domesticated. Where engineers had long sought to minimize noise, perceptual coding meant that “communication engineering exhibited a new attitude toward noise. Once you can use signal to hide noise, the game is up. Noise ceases to matter as a perceptual category.” This change in noise’s status does not eradicate it or lessen its importance, though. According to Sterne, this domestication made noise more available as a site for artistic exploration and subversion. But if noise is a key foundation on which we find meaning through listening, as Krukowski compellingly argues, and noise has been subjected to a great domestication, what does that say about the forces at work upon our listening?
A fascinating answer emerges in a thread that pops up multiple times across Krukowski’s anecdotes: the relationship between patriarchal domesticity and the shaping of digital sound. In the chapter on stereo, he includes an ad from a 1962 Playboy issue where a man carries a woman as if across a threshold; she, in turn, holds a stereo set in its portable case. The ad pairs the stereo and the wife as two laudable choices in the man’s domestic assemblage. Both are manageable enough for him to carry home, yet both promise to extend his control — Krukowski notes that such marketing material touted stereo products as letting their owners occupy “the producer’s chair” (28) by granting listeners new agency over the mix. That focus on idealized male consumers echoes still through gendered suppression in musical exchange: as Elizabeth Newton writes, “Though women have collected vinyl since the inception of the medium, female collectors, like the women musicians being collected, often lack representation in public space that is commensurate with their actual involvement.”
True to the analogy with Jane Jacobs’s struggle against the developer Robert Moses, the patriarchal force that has ingrained itself so thoroughly in digital audio is also a suburbanizing one, keyed to a politics of racial segregation that frequently cites noise as a justification. In “‘Just Be Quiet Pu-leeze’: The New York Amsterdam News Fights the Postwar ‘Campaign against Noise,’” Jennifer Stoever documents how “white press discourse on Puerto Rican migration firmly attached ‘noise’ to the voices, bodies, and neighborhoods of Puerto Rican migrants — portraying white flight to the suburbs as a justifiable escape to suburban refuges of peace and quiet and targeting urban areas such as Harlem in ‘antinoise’ campaigns” (PAGE). Regina Bradley traces this “connection between whiteness and quiet” through to a contemporary moment in her SO! post “Fear of a Black (in the) Suburb.” The history of racially targeted noise ordinances intersects Krukowski’s narration of the proto-digital movement toward private listening. He quotes LL Cool J’s “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” as a noise-ordinance-defying affirmation of boombox listening, the antithesis of headphones and their sonic compartmentalization. Dwelling on the song’s line “Terrorizing my neighbors with the heavy bass,” he points to the artist’s intentional use of noise as a political implement, bound up jointly in his listening and his music making.
For Krukowski, the song is noteworthy in demonstrating a practice lost to the wave of noise-eradicating digital development in sound. If we approach it with the consideration that noise might not have been lost but rather domesticated, however, it serves more as a guidepost. Were he looking to LL Cool J’s example as one in need of a digital-era parallel, Krukowski might arrive at a different treatment of Kanye West’s post-release revisions of his album The Life of Pablo than he gives later in the book. Rather than describing West’s changes as “art severed from its own history” (169), he could instead credit the album’s uniquely digital instability as a moment of usurping the corporate platform as the arbiter of a record’s final version — an instance of harnessing digital noise within a digital environment to reorient its assumed parameters of authority and a prompt for listeners to consider their own role in deciding what version of the text should prevail.
Though Krukowski declines to bring it to the forefront, the involvement of a domesticating and segregating force lends further weight and precision to The New Analog’s historical argument. Returning to his invocation of Jane Jacobs, Krukowski analogizes the dichotomy of street and home with that of analog and digital. “Noise has a value of its own—the value of shared space and time,” he writes. “The urban spaces we occupy are built on that commonality. The street is a noisy place. And the street has value, as Jane Jacobs pointed out” (207, emphasis original). The contrast between analog street and digital home reaches back to rescue the book from the flawed pronouncement that digital tools themselves are the problem. We are left to consider a much richer historical argument about the alarming success that efforts of domestication and power-consolidation have found in intertwining themselves with digital media.
In that light, readers looking for an actionable takeaway from The New Analog shouldn’t just unsubscribe from streaming services and start (or resume) buying vinyl records. They should redirect their attention toward the very thing of whose existence Krukowski seems skeptical: digital noise. Even though the digital home is built to confine, there are new noisy streets outside it to be explored. Krukowski recounts how the band Can endeavored to let their recording studio “compose on its own” and to become an activating, curating conduit for the sounds of tape machines. “In Can’s studio technique,” he writes, “noise and signal are equally significant materials…. the noises in it are no less human than the signals” (138). If we look for digital noise, we will see that it bears no less potential for meaning and beauty than Can’s analog noise, as artists are already proving with techniques like glitch and sampling. We as listeners can do more to help realize that aim by celebrating digital noise, by recognizing what it reveals and critiques. For a project that with less care could have steered off into the welcoming terrain of nostalgic grievance, The New Analog offers a surprising amount to point our way forward.
Holly Herndon’s “Home” uses sonic and visual sampling to turn the surveillant gaze of an intimate digital space back on itself.
Featured image: “Scenes From The Recording Studio” by Flickr user G. Dawson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Andy Kelleher Stuhl is a writer, sound artist, and software developer focused on creative infrastructures and the politics of mediated sonic exchange. His work looks to musicians for inspiration and aims to apply musical creativity as a model for new paths in such domains as digital humanities and the critique of technology. His research has investigated the phenomenon of analog fetishism from the perspective of sound engineer communities and, more recently, the process and aspirations behind interactive musical works. He holds a master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a BA in Science, Technology, and Society from Stanford University.
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SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format–Aaron Trammell
Digital Analogies: Techniques of Sonic Play–Roger Moseley
An Evening with Three Legendary Rebel Women at Le Poisson Rouge, January 27, 2017: Margot Olavarria, Bibbe Hansen, and Alice Bag
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 we feature Elizabeth Keenan, documenting an evening with three of punk’s legendary Rebel Women at a time of political crisis.
–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)
This is not normal/let’s not pretend.
–Alice Bag, “Reign of Fear”
Since November 8, nothing has felt normal in the United States. Instead, every day brings new concerns about what the Trump administration might dismantle, destroy, or defund. The first two months have brought two attempts at an executive order barring immigrants to the US from predominantly Muslim countries and re-introduced the nation to the following cast of characters: a billionaire with no public education experience placed in charge of the Department of Education seeking to push a religious agenda; a man who once vowed to abolish the Department of Energy nominated to helm it; a white supremacist, Breitbart-editor consigliere; and a conspiracy-theorist National Security Advisor with suspicious ties to Russia.
This is not normal.
Let’s not pretend.
But in her song, “Reign of Fear,” Bag counters with defiance: “We’ll resist you/We won’t stand by.”
“Reign of Fear,” which Bag performed last at “Rebel Woman,” an event at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City, encapsulated the evening’s message of resistance. Hosted by Three Rooms Press, “Rebel Women” featured readings from Margot Olavarria, Bibbe Hansen, and Alice Bag, all of whom have crafted careers that blend music and literary performance. Olavarria is the founding bass player for the Go-Go’s; she later played bass for post-punk experimental band Brian Brain, and holds a PhD in political science. Hansen, an actress, artist and musician, grew up in New York City’s art world. As a teen, she worked with Andy Warhol and played music with Jan Kerouac. Later, she co-founded the ironic Black Flag tribute band, Black Fag, with “terrorist drag artist” Vaginal Creme Davis (who also played with Alice Bag in Cholita). As lead singer and co-founder of the Bags, Alice Bag emerged as one of the most influential Chicana voices in the punk rock scene in Los Angeles in the 1970s (She later documented the women of this scene on her website). Since then, her musical career has included groundbreaking bands Castration Squad, Cholita, and Las Tres, as well as her self-titled solo debut in 2016. Her memoirs Violence Girl (2011) and Pipe Bomb for the Soul (2015) document her music and activism, from L.A. to Nicaragua.
“Rebel Women,” held just two days after the Women’s March on Washington, D.C.—and the satellite marches across the country and internationally—offered an opportunity to reflect on approaches to resistance, whether through music, words, or direct action. Although the Women’s March came under criticism for an initial lack of diversity, it became a protest led by activist women of color, with speakers and performers pushing back against the normalizing of misogyny from a pussy-grabbing president. Both Bag and Olavarria had attended the march in Washington, D.C.; many in the audience had marched there or in the crowd of 500,000 in New York City, which gave “Rebel Woman” a particularly urgent charge.
And our present moment calls for such urgency; among many other necessary actions, we need popular music scholars to rethink how resistance continues to be a productive idea for musicians and protesters, especially those with marginalized identities. In the past few months, “resistance” has experienced a resurgence in political circles. Many of the most popular posters at the Women’s march picked up on the idea of resistance, including one featuring Star Wars’ Princess Leia and the slogan, “A Woman’s Place Is in the Resistance.” #Resist has become a buzzword for organizing against the Trump administration, whether for women’s rights or against the administration’s racism, for health care or against various cabinet nominations. As a hashtag, #resist is remarkably open, allowing social media users to make connections between causes. This is what the performances of “Rebel Women” did so well for the audience at Le Poisson Rouge.
Calling an event “rebel women” positions Bag, Hansen, and Olavarria as “resistance” fighters. The title “Rebel Women” conjures Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and the punk-rock feminism of Riot Grrrl, a generation of feminism after Bag and Olivarria participated in the L.A. punk scene and nearly two decades after Hansen starred in a Warhol film based on her own life. Bag and Olavarria, first active as musicians during the 1980s, connected the present moment to the time when punk rock positioned itself against the policies of the Reagan administration. Situating their resistance in their Latina identities (Bag is Chicana, Olavarria is Chilean, both are Angelenos), they conveyed to the mostly white, mostly middle-class New York audience an urgent, intersectional politics. Hansen, who said she wasn’t “given the memo” to connect her reading to politics, read what she called a “time capsule.”
The stark contrast between these performances brought up questions of power and privilege around what types of memoir are available to different types of women. Bag and Olivarria performed the intersectional oppressions that shaped their lives and connected them to politics, while Bibbe got to be “herself” (that is, unmarked, apolitical, and white). Was this a sign of a tacit understanding white women aren’t going to be as affected by Trump’s policies? (after all, white women elected Trump). Are women of color always expected to perform the emotional labor of connecting their oppressions to political policy, while white women can merely tell stories? Because it is exhausting for women of color to perform this emotional labor–and it can often be exploitative–its all the more important to recognize that Bag and Olivarria chose to do so at Le Poisson Rouge, as I am certain they constructed their performances to speak to this audience (to think otherwise would deny some incredibly smart women their agency).
With those differences in mind, “Rebel Women” underscored for me that intersectional feminism has much to offer in terms of reframing studies of resistance within popular music and is key to ensuring the field’s continued viability in the face of multiple, destructive Trump policies. The concept of intersectionality, developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the ways that multiple axes of identity—for example, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or class—affect people in multi-dimensional ways. Crenshaw’s work stresses the importance of seeing intersectionality as an expression of structural power, not just an individual’s conception of their personal identity. Drawing on these intersections can help add complexity to how we understand “resistance” (or even #resistance).
While the study of resistance used to be common in popular music studies—especially in the 1990s—the framework rightly came under criticism as too binary, a position of counterculture vs. mainstream that worked well for glossing 1960s antiwar protests and punk rock, but too simplistic for exploring the nuances of the late-capitalist marketplace. As a theory that emerged from Marxist scholars and examined mostly close-knit, male-dominated subcultures (with formative texts such as Resistance Through Rituals and Subculture: the Meaning of Style), “resistance” was never ideal for grappling with networks organized from a diverse population. An intersectional view, however, understands that the “resistance” group is not evenly or equally affected by the policies of the dominant group; that multiple oppressions shape the forms of resistance available to individual actors; that people facing multiple oppressions also face heightened stakes when they engage in political protest; and that responding to the dominant group requires a commitment to others whose oppressions you may not share.
Olavarria’s performance, which opened the evening, illustrated intersectional resistance by interweaving work from the past and present. Instead of feeling piecemeal, each fragment signaled how structural power and resistance intersected in her life. In the first vignette, she described how, shortly after Trump received the Republican nomination, she ducked into a bar in Florida to escape the rain. A man next to her began to praise Trump. So did another. Finally, one turned to her, to ask what she thought of Trump’s policies. She responded: “’No habla Inglés. Yo soy Mexicana.’ I’m not really Mexican. I’m from Chile, known for poetry and protest. But today we are all Mexican, all Muslims, all immigrants.” Of course, we aren’t all Mexican, Muslims, or immigrants—but we can show thoughtful solidarity. Olavarria’s act of resistance worked because she effectively deployed her Latina identity to make a powerful intersectional point.
Intersectionality offers an important understanding, that not all moments are prime for resistance from every body in the same way. Women of color, for example, face different stakes and consequences than white women at the airport and at border crossings. In an excerpt from her entry in the musician’s guide Tour Smart, Olavarria recalled her band Brian Brain being pulled over by the US border patrol in the late 1980s. Dressed head-to-toe in thrift-store plaid in honor of their record label, Plaid Records, Olavarria didn’t look the part of a stowaway. But that didn’t stop the border guards from questioning her although she had a valid driver’s license, and her English bandmate’s visa had expired: “I was quizzed on civics. Then it was where did you go to high school? Who was your kindergarten teacher?” As the questioning grew more in depth, Olavarria “started to imagine working in Juarez in plaid attire.”
Olavarria’s story cannot be separated from Latinx identity, nor can they be separated from the politics of race, borders, and national identity in the United States. Instead, she illustrates that proposals such as Trump’s proposed “wall” have deep roots in anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant policies, and they show dark possibilities about the eagerness with which ICE embraced Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” Her story also emphasizes that, although our current moment is certainly an intensification of such harassment, deportation, and incarceration, women of color have faced these dangers in the U.S. for a very long time. What’s new, beyond Trump’s policies, is increased white feminist attention to these issues, an opportunity for both increased resistance and wary skepticism. Olavarria ended her segment with six suggestions for resistance reminding the audience that in these dark times, “walking around thinking we’re totally fucked will not change anything.” She certainly spoke to my struggle in that moment; the response in the room suggested I wasn’t alone.
Margot Olivarria’s Tips for Resistance:
- Wear your safety pin. It is appropriate that a punk fashion accessory has become the symbol of political dissidents. It may also come in handy when militarized police tear your clothes.
- Enjoy yourself. Walking around thinking we’re totally fucked will not change anything.
- If you have numb yourself, go ahead, as long as you don’t become addicted.
- Spread love. The only thing that will counter Trump’s hate is love.
- It may be that the only way we can say, “You’re fired!” to Trump is through the vote. Register as many progressive minded people as you can. Midterms will be crucial.
- If you see something, do something. Protest against all injustices we witness. Art mightier than the sword. Surround yourself with like-minded people and express outrage. As love Trumps hate, expression beats depression.
Hansen’s “time capsule” from 1964 described events leading to her starring in Andy Warhol’s film, Prison, based on her experiences in reform school. Hansen’s performance, told from behind her dark “reading sunglasses,” took on the tenor of a world-weary teenager.
She had run away from her parents—her father was Fluxus painter Al Hansen and her mother was poet and New York bon vivant Audrey Ostlin Hansen (who died at age 37 in 1968)—and was feeling stir-crazy at her friend Jeff’s apartment, because he only had “the same 40 books every hipster has.” So when her pal Janet Kerouac called with an invite of learning to cook spaghetti and taking acid for the first time, she jumped at the chance, even though she wasn’t sure about the acid part, because it was “too earnest.”
By ten that night, we’re rolling around, and spaghetti is everywhere. We’re dipping it in sauce, hurling it everywhere. We slither and roll across the floor like the first reptiles emerging from the primordial ooze. All the guys have hard-ons. I’m not really into orgies. They’re more like work, you know?
Hansen’s skill as an actor was on full display in her reading, as she vanished into her narration, capturing a unique combination of jadedness and enthusiasm. But every once in a while, a line like, “I may be a kid, but I’m also a freak,” would jump out. It was only toward the end of her reading, when Bibbe describes herself, still high, playing hopscotch with kids in the neighborhood that she reminds us: this is a child of twelve. The kids’ mom takes Bibbe in and gives her some cake, and she is astonished that this what normal parents do for kids.
The moment reveals the vulnerability of Bibbe, the runaway. She might have some agency in choosing to spend time with hipster boys and Jan Kerouac, but those come along with expectations of orgies and acid. It doesn’t leave much room for childhood, hopscotch, and cake. After this realization, Bibbe decides to call her father, who tells her, “I ain’t going to jail, so I guess you are.” In this powerlessness, Hansen found an upside: the day her father got her out of juvenile detention, he took her to lunch with Andy Warhol. Finding that upside does not mean that Hansen lacks self-awareness; instead, the moment read as one of acceptance. She cannot create a new girlhood for herself, just as she couldn’t escape her family by hiding with hipsters. “In the end,” she said, “you get what you get.”
Although Hansen’s reading felt disconnected from current politics, I heard her contribution to the evening as a moment of personal resistance. Hansen has often been defined by the men surrounding her: daughter Al Hansen, youngest of Andy Warhol’s Factory stars, mother of musician Beck. Instead of giving us Bibbe through her connections to her father, or to Warhol, she reframed her adolescent experiences so that they became side characters, opening up space for her unique, clear, adolescent voice, recast through a woman’s perspective.
Alice Bag, singer of The Bags, finished out the night with combined spoken word and live musical performance. After playing in many bands since, Bag released her first solo album in 2016 on the independent punk label Don Giovanni Records. In the intervening years, she worked as an activist and teacher, both in the United States and in Central America. Her combination of readings from her memoirs and musical performance with Tanya Pearson evoked a lifetime of resistance. As the only performer to combine spoken word and live musical performance, Bag situated her songs in the readings she selected from her memoirs. Although the songs are relatively new, they drew on her rich experience with Latinx activism and education.
Her first excerpt, from Violence Girl, described the march for the National Chicano Moratorium on March 29, 1970, the largest anti-Vietnam protest by a minority group. Bag went to the march with her father. Until that moment, she said, “I had never realized I was part of a minority. Our enemies were not afraid to throw bottles at us, or shoot us.” The moment inspired a song that Bag performed, “White Justice.” Framed from a child’s perspective, “White Justice” explores the dawning realization that a march is not a parade, and that it may have dangerous consequences, even violence. At first filled with vivid colors of “blue skies/brown berets,” “green lawns,” and “yellow corn,” the mood turns when the police arrive, with “black gloves/blue collars/blood red/silver dollars,” a moment she connected to the present day: “Our struggle then was here at home/And it’s still going on.”
Bag encouraged the audience to sing along at the chorus of “White Justice”—and many members of the mostly white audience did. This eager participation stood in stark contrast to an incident I witnessed at the Women’s March in New York City, when a man tried to get a “Black Lives Matter” chant going during the New York City march and it was slow going.
Bag’s next story, from Pipe Bomb for the Soul, illustrated that, while she was a member of an oppressed minority in the United States, she brought privilege with her as a teacher in Nicaragua. In her words, “I discovered a lot of things, mostly my own ignorance.” She returned to the United States and taught for over 20 years. Her next song, “Programmed,” expressed her frustration at the post-Leave No Child Behind state of education. At a certain point, she said, “The kids were asked to bubble in Scantrons. We need to teach kids to think for themselves, to value their heritage and experience.”
Finally, Bag ended with the song that began this blog post: “Reign of
Fear.” Inspired by the election, the song acknowledges both fear and
resistance. It is fear that elected Trump; it’s fear that now
motivates some of thethe resistance against him is a stance against
that fear. The fears that elected Trump are fears that treat rights as
a zero-sum game—that if women, or people of color, or queer people, or
Muslims, or Mexicans, or anyone else should gain rights or power, then
white men will lose theirs. In rejecting this view, Bag offers an
intersectional resistance in a punk song, noting “the future comes in
all colors and creeds.” Women of color have been leaders of the
resistance since Trump was elected, but they have also laid a
groundwork for intersectional feminist activism over decades of work.
This is not normal. Let’s not pretend.
But, in resistance lies hope.
In the small space below Le Poisson Rouge, Bag’s voice and Pearson’s guitar swelled to fill the room with that hope:
We reject your/Reign of fear. The future is female/the future is queer. Look out, man/’Cause the future is here.
Featured Image of Margot Olavarria, Bibbe Hansen, and Alice Bag by Christine Tottenham, Used here with permission of the Women of Rock Oral History Project.
Elizabeth K. Keenan completed her doctorate in ethnomusicology at Columbia University in 2008.She is currently reworking her academic work on popular music and feminism since 1990 into a book for normal humans. She has published in Women and Music, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Archivaria, and Current Musicology, as well as two chapters in Women Make Noise: Girl Bands from Motown to the Modern (2012). Her proudest moment is finally getting to interview Carrie Brownstein, for NYLON, more than ten years after she tried to interview Brownstein for her dissertation. She sometimes writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae website, and her occasional blogging can be found at badcoverversion.wordpress.com.
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