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SO! Reads: Damon Krukowski’s The New Analog

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.

headphones by Flickr user Chris, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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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Evoking the Object: Physicality in the Digital Age of Music-Primus Luta

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Echoes of Ian Curtis: Film and the Punk Voice

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. For part three click here. For part four click here. For part five 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.  In today’s essay Landon Palmer shows us how film may be just as responsible as music for how we remember the punk voice.

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

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

In Joy Division’s 1979 song “Transmission,” singer Ian Curtis embodied several aspects of what made the group’s post-punk sound unique with the chorus, “Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, dance to the radio.” As a piece of music, its repetition is intense and rousing, working as a compelling instruction that, when played loud enough, can be felt to the bone via Curtis’s deep timbre. At the same time, Curtis’s voice is robotic and distant, the signature of the group’s bleak sound that signified the post-industrial alienation of Thatcher-era Manchester. A historically specific critique of media, “Transmission” plays out a loss of agency. In the 21st century, however, the song has circulated more as a self-referential testament to Joy Division’s – and Curtis’s – musical skill, a container and a summary of myth.

Image by Ho-Teng Chang @Flickr CC BY.

To adopt Alexandra Vasquez’s question that has framed this series, what happens to representations of punk sound as they change over time? I argue that the cinematic techniques employed in presenting Ian Curtis and his voice in both 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom 2002) and Control (Anton Corbijn 2007) help us to understand the construction of a mythic punk voice.

Punk’s avoidance of comprehensibility, identification, and what Dave Liang calls “the prettiness of the mainstream song” have existed in awkward relation to narrative cinema, which requires legibility as a central component of storytelling (70, 71). While displacing the voice through fragmentation and asynchronous sound work has proven vital to theorizing and subverting cinematic norms, rarely has depicting a well-known punk singer’s voice in cinema translated to a cinematic punk aesthetic, as Stacy Thompson argues regarding the narrative and documentary Sex Pistols biopics Sid & Nancy (Alex Cox 1986) and The Filth and the Fury (Julien Temple 2000) (49-50). Even the revered punk documentary The Decline of Western Civilization (Penelope Spheeris 1981) renders punk voices legible by providing lyric subtitles. However, the two most notable cinematic portrayals of Ian Curtis–24 Hour Party People and Control, released during the band’s resurgence in 21st century popular culture–demonstrate competing interpretations for a punk voice’s place within filmmaking and put into play the question of how to interpret it.

Image by a town called malice @flickr CC BY.

Despite Curtis’s short lifetime, his voice continues to be amplified throughout popular culture. These extended echoes of his voice have participated in shaping its meanings and myth. In his book Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures, Chris Ott writes that Joy Division’s music “defied imitation” (xiii); however, imitation (and citation) have fueled public memory of the band and augmented the myth of Ian Curtis. By the time Joy Division’s two LPs were re-released by Rhino in 2007, several contemporary bands–The Killers, Editors, Interpol and She Wants Revenge–built music careers that are openly indebted to this Manchester sound but distinct from its socio-historical context. Public memory of the group has been interpreted through uses of their music in the 1980s-set period pieces like Donnie Darko (Richard Kelly 2001) and Netflix’s Stranger Things (2016). The contemporary circulation of Joy Division’s music has extended to films that resurrect Curtis himself.

To start, 24 Hour Party People self-consciously stages an inquiry into Ian Curtis’s meanings and his contemporary resonance as part of the post-punk scene writ large. Chronicling the ‘70s-‘80s Manchester music scene through Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), the attention-seeking TV personality and unlikely underground music patron who formed Factory Records, the film fits several tenets of Thompson’s definition of punk cinema in its “engage[ment] with history” and “critique [of] its own commodification” (64). A tongue-in-cheek historical guide, Wilson narrates via a fourth-wall-breaking blend of mythmaking, footnotes, and commentary that reflects upon the film’s historiography as he articulates it, and in so doing overtly selects myth over “truth,” stating, “When you have to choose between truth and the legend, print the legend” (itself a quote dubiously credited to John Ford). The film’s self-conscious performance of history extends to its musical numbers, where Winterbottom liberally blends imitation with the genuine article through a mix of archival and staged footage, thus overtly staging encounters with key moments in Manchester musical history. The film’s play with historiography does not go so far as to trouble its reinforcement of a canonical timeline.

It is in this spirit that 24 Hour Party People brings actor Sean Harris’s portrayal of Ian Curtis to life. In re-creating Joy Division’s performance of “Digital” at the Hacienda Club, Harris invokes Curtis’s jittery-mechanical dance style while his “voice” remains Curtis’s. Additionally, the film mixes ambient crowd noises with a band of actors performing in synch to the song’s studio recording. 24 Hour Party People not only preserves Curtis’s voice as an inimitable icon of this history, but places the studio recording of “Digital” as the authoritative version of the song within the nascent period of the Manchester scene, thus mapping this studio recording onto the band’s live sound (rather than implementing an existing live recording). Curtis’s voice is reproduced only through the most valuable, resonant historical record of it–the recorded commodity.

Image by bixentro @Flickr CC BY.

The retrospective framing implied by this choice speaks to the film’s greater approach to Ian Curtis as a figure best understood (or perhaps inevitably shrouded) via his posthumous legacy, and thus foregrounds Curtis’s transformation into myth. Due to the timing of his passing, there exists a relatively limited media archive of the actual Curtis compared to other late-20th century rock singers of similar influence. Beyond official performances on television, music video, and records, scant recordings of Curtis performing and speaking are available via silent 8mm home movies and archival audio interviews. Thus, 24 Hour Party People cannot resort to the historical record(ing) in all instances, and thus Harris’s voice proves central to interpreting Curtis off-stage. In recalling Joy Division’s notorious first encounter with Wilson, 24 Hour Party People portrays Curtis as intimidatingly sure-footed, confronting Wilson through quick, direct speech and locked eyes. Harris conveys the actorly qualities that so often typecast him in villain roles. Further complicating Curtis’s public image, Coogan’s Wilson provides a counter-narrative of the singer following his suicide, asserting to the audience that Curtis was not exactly the “dark and depressive…prophet of urban decay and alienation” that his music suggested, and recounts a rousing collective rendition of “Louie Louie” with the band to prove his point. The only instance in which Harris’s actual voice is used as Curtis’s singing voice, this cacophonous chorus depicts a Curtis participating in a deliriously muddled punk sound. Yet even this counter-narrative does not challenge the mythmaking of Ian Curtis, for it reinforces Curtis’s suicide as central to his meaning and value as a musician.

Music biopics have long bolstered definitive interpretations of a popular performer’s biography. In contrast to 24 Hour Party People’s self-conscious approach to mythmaking, Control is adapted from Deborah Curtis’s autobiography and directed by a former Joy Division photographer. Control’s most conventional choices as a rock biopic are the narrative associations the film makes between events in Curtis’s life and his songwriting, connecting Curtis’s music directly to his troubled marriage and the distress caused by his epilepsy. Control juxtaposes Curtis’s interior life with his production of music, cutting to the recording of “She’s Lost Control” after he learns that a client in his unemployment office has died of epilepsy, and featuring a performance of “Love Will Tear Us Apart” following a scene in which he tells his wife (Samantha Morton) that he no longer loves her. Control thus connects the singer’s authorial voice to the film’s narrative voice, arguing that the sounds Ian Curtis left behind are legible remnants of his biography. In so doing, the film deterministically situates his life through the framework of his death, his music serving a seemingly inevitable path to his suicide and thus transformation into musical myth (staged at the end with a crane shot rising up to the Manchester skyline during “Atmosphere,” indicating a ubiquitous echo of Curtis that has transcended the corporeal).

Punks in Manchester. Image by agogo @Flickr CC BY.

The film’s voicing of Curtis is articulated through Sam Riley’s performance, not through archival audio of the singer. As with 24 Hour Party People, Corbijn initially planned to have Riley and the supporting actors mimic their performances. However, during preproduction the band of actors rehearsed together until they were confident enough to play live shows for Joy Division fans. This convinced Corbijn to utilize them as a sort-of legitimate cover band for the purposes of embodying Joy Division’s history. Riley’s voice is notably higher than Curtis’s and is thus distinctive enough that it resonates comfortably alongside the numerous bands of this century whose leads “sound like” Curtis. Indeed, the resonance of Curtis throughout contemporary alternative rock may have helped make Riley more palatable as an authorized substitute for Corbijn and Joy Division fans. Such homage through imitation is reinforced by Control’s end credits, which features The Killers’ cover of “Shadowplay.” Both of these invocations of Curtis locate his value in his contemporary influence, not his historic place, an approach evident in Control’s less overt interest in post-punk’s socio-cultural context than 24 Hour Party People.

Control is uninterested in recreating the details of Joy Division’s history with exacting verisimilitude, forgoing the archive for a resonant aura of the band’s history. This approach is evident in Corbijn’s visual decisions – shooting the film in black-and-white memorializes the band through the stark photography with which Corbijn captured them – as well as his musical ones. In Control’s depiction of the band’s breakthrough performance on Tony Wilson’s (here played by Craig Parkinson) Granada Television program So It Goes, for example, Corbijn’s Joy Division perform the enduringly popular “Transmission” rather than “Shadowplay,” the song they actually played. Joy Division’s breakthrough television moment was further recast through “Transmission” in a fan-made Playmobil animation that curiously combines introductory audio of Parkinson’s Wilson from Control with Joy Division’s 1979 performance of “Transmission” on BBC2’s Something Else. Control not only situates Curtis’s singing voice coherently within authorial and narrative legibility, but also reflects and participates in contemporary popular memorialization of Joy Division regardless of the historical accuracy of such choices.

Pamela Robertson Wojcik argues that the human voice and its mediation through recording technologies is an important but overlooked component of cinematic performance. It is also vital to consider how famous voices travel and gain meaning through processes of imitation and citation–tropes of authenticity which pervade the musical biopic. While 24 Hour Party People and Control avoid many clichés of the musical biopic, narrative cinematic imperatives of legibility, coherence, and individual-centered storytelling motivate each film to participate in the production of rock star myth despite efforts at historical critique in the former or the austere style of the latter. Even in punk, rock star death is the most compelling biographical framework. The punk voice has long held a discordant relationships to cinematic norms, and these two films demonstrate how the translation of punk sound into cinematic soundscapes presents the inherent problem of recounting punk’s history.

Featured image “scream” by be.refreshed @Flickr CC BY-NC-ND.

Landon Palmer is a PhD Candidate studying Film and Media in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University and recently defended a dissertation on the cross-industrial history of casting rock stars on film titled “Rock Cinema: A Transmedia History, 1956-1986.” He has published on popular music and moving image media culture in Music, Sound, and the Moving Image, iaspm@journal: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, and Celebrity Studies.

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If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag – Marlen Ríos-Hernández

Riot-Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique – Tamra Lucid

 

An Evening with Three Legendary Rebel Women at Le Poisson Rouge, January 27, 2017: Margot Olavarria, Bibbe Hansen, and Alice Bag

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. For part three 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 we feature Elizabeth Keenan, documenting an evening with three of punk’s legendary Rebel Women at a time of political crisis.

SOUND!

NO, SOUND!

–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.

Image from Flickr user astoller (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.”

Alice Bag performing at the International Women’s March, January 21, 2017

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.

Archival Photo courtesy of Alice Bag, (from l-r) Margot Olavarria, Alice Bag, Jane Wiedlin, and Shannon Wilhelm

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:
  1. 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.
  2. Enjoy yourself. Walking around thinking we’re totally fucked will not change anything.
  3. If you have numb yourself, go ahead, as long as you don’t become addicted.
  4. Spread love. The only thing that will counter Trump’s hate is love.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

Still from Bibbe Hansen’s screen test for Andy Warhol, 1964

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.

tape reel

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If La Llorona Was a Punk Rocker: Detonguing The Off-Key Caos and Screams of Alice Bag– Marlen Ríos-Hernández

Riot-Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique – Tamra Lucid

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

Can you imagine what would happen if young people were free to create whatever they wanted? Can you imagine what that would sound like?–Prince, in a 2015 interview by Smokey D. Fontaine

Prince leaves an invitingly “messy” catalog—a musical cosmos, really—just as rich for those who knew it well as for those encountering it with fresh ears. He avoided interviews like he avoided conventions. He made few claims. Read him as you will.

We are free to interpret Prince, but not too free. Yes, art is open, and perhaps Prince’s art especially. And yet many eulogies have described him as indescribable, as if he were untethered by the politics of his world; he wasn’t. Some remembrances assume (or imagine) that Prince was so inventive that he could escape stultifying codes and achieve liberation, both as musician and human being.  For example, Prince has often been called “transcendent”—of race, of musical genre, even of humanity itself.  This is overstated; he was rooted in all of these. Better to say, maybe, that he was a laureate of many poetics, some musical and some not. He responded to race, genre, and humanity, all things that he and we are stuck with. He was a living artwork, and these, by way of sound, were his media.

Prince was not transcendent. He was just too much for some to assimilate.

little prince

Since Prince’s passing last month, I’ve been struck by the idea that his career might have been, deliberately or not, an elaborate quotation of the career of Little Richard, who anachronistically has outlived him. Or, a sonic version of what Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls “signifyin(g)” in the African American artistic tradition in The Signifying Monkey: repetition with a difference, a re-vision—and, especially appropriate here—a riffing (66). Both Prince and Richard in their way defined rock music, even as rock—as a canonized form—held them at a distance. They were simultaneously rock’s inventive engine and its outer margins, but never, seemingly, its core—at least from the perspective of its self-appointed gatekeepers.

Love-Symbol-2

Rock and race have, to put it mildly, an awkward history. African-American rock artists rarely get their due from labels and taste-making outlets, in money or posterity, a phenomenon not at all limited to the well-known pinching of Elvis and Pat Boone. One might consider, for example, Maureen Mahon’s anthropology of the Black Rock Coalition, a group home to Greg Tate, Living Colour, and others dwelling on rock’s periphery. Canons are one way to understand how this denial works.

To be sure, some black artists have been canonized in rock, but always with a handicap, as Jack Hamilton has explained lucidly. In, for example, best-of lists (which I have browsed obsessively since Prince died, as if enshrinement there might confirm something about him; he is usually #40 or #50), there are only so many slots of color: Hendrix is the black guitar god; Little Richard the sexual sentinel rising in a repressed era; James Brown the lifeline to funk; Big Mama Thornton the grandmaternal footnote. Best-of lists published by major magazines and websites such as Rolling Stone and VH1, tend to name about 70% white artists, as well as 90-95% male ones. These lists have become just a smidgen more inclusive in the past decade or so. Still, only the Beatles and Rolling Stones are regular contenders to be named history’s greatest rock band.

We are free to interpret greatness, but not too free.

For those who care about lists enough to comment on them, much of the point is in the arguing, the freedom to declare an opinion that cannot be challenged on logical grounds. I certainly wouldn’t argue for more “correct” best-of lists, either for aesthetics or inclusivity. Lists have every right to be subjective. But they are also fascinatingly unmoored by any explicit standard for judgment. As a result, the debates that surround their ordering are full of unvarnished pronouncements of truth (and falsity), even for those who acknowledge the subjectivity of lists, which I observed first hand as I joined and posted on a Beatles forum and an Eagles forum to research this article (“…putting the Police and the Doors ahead of the Eagles is absurd, IMHO”). But why would anyone declare certainty about a question such as the best rock artist of all time, when it is so plainly open to personal interpretation?

Yes, lists are subjective. But who are the subjects that invest in them?

Love-Symbol-2

Prince’s career began in the late 1970s, a musical moment deeply reflective of what Robin DiAngelo calls “white fragility.”  The Beatles were gone after the 1960s and guitar music stood under their long shadow. Led Zeppelin were bloated and breaking up. Disco was in ascent. Rock had somehow convinced itself that it was neither rooted in nor anchored by queer, female, and racially marked bodies, as it indeed was and in fact had always been. White male rock critics and fans were busily constructing the “rock canon” as a citadel—impenetrable to “four on the floor beats” and diva-styled vocals—and there was nothing in its blueprint to suggest that there would be a door for someone like Prince.

Just one month after Prince finished recording his breakthrough, self-titled album in July 1979—the record gave us “I Wanna Be Your Lover” and “I Feel For You,” which Chaka Khan would take to chart topping heights in 1984—Chicago “shock jock” Steve Dahl staged an infamous event at Comiskey Park called Disco Demolition Night. The fascistic spectacle, which took place between games of a White Sox doubleheader, asked fans to bring disco records, which would be demolished in an explosion and ensuing bonfire on the field.

It was a release of pent-up frustration and a wild-eyed effort to rid the world of the scourge of disco, which many listeners felt had displaced rock with plastic rhythms, as Osvaldo Oyola discussed in a 2010 SO! post “Ain’t Got the Same Soul,” a discussion of Bob Seger, who famously sang in 1979, “Don’t try to take me to a disco/you’ll never even get me out on the floor.” Excited, drunk defenders of the “rock canon” rioted around the fire. The nightcap was cancelled.

These are the subjects who invest in lists.

Many who witnessed the event, both in person and on television, experienced its personal, racially charged, and violent implications. Aspiring DJ Vince Lawrence, who worked as an usher at the Disco Demolition Night game, was later interviewed for a BBC documentary entitled Pump Up the Volume: The History of House Music: [see 9:00-10:15 of the clip below]:

It was more about blowing up all this ‘nigger music’ than, um, you know, destroying disco. Strangely enough, I was an usher, working his way towards his first synthesizer at the time, what I noticed at the gates was people were bringing records and some of those were disco records and I thought those records were kinda good, but some of them were just black records, they weren’t disco, they were just black records, R&B records. I should have taken that as a tone for what the attitudes of these people were. I know that nobody was bringing Metallica records by mistake. They might have brought a Marvin Gaye record which wasn’t a disco record, and that got accepted and blown up along with Donna Summer and Anita Ward, so it felt very racial to me.

Lawrence notes that blackness was, for rock’s canonizers, part of a mostly inseparable bundle of otherness that also included queer people, among others. Although the disco backlash is often regarded as mainly homophobic, in fact it points to even deeper reservoirs of resentment and privilege.

When music companies decided to mass-market the black, queer sound of disco, they first called it “disco-rock”; two words that American audiences eventually ripped apart, or demolished, perhaps. Black and queer people—and women too, of all races and sexualities—represented the hordes outside of rock’s new citadel, whose walls were made from the Beatles’ cheeky jokes, Mick’s rooster-strut, Robert Plant’s cucumber cock, and Elvis’s hayseed hubris.

Little Richard, for example, was black and queer like disco; what to do with him? His drummer invented the straight eight rhythm, perhaps the genre’s most enduring motif. Here’s Little Richard was rock incarnate, total frenetic energy; Richard’s brilliant, singular approach to the piano  would launch a thousand rock tropes in imitation. But in canonization he could only be the nutrient-rich soil of rock—say, #36 on a best-of list—never its epitome, somehow.

I don’t know if Prince—a lifelong resident of Minneapolis, who came of age in the volatile Midwestern American milieu of white disco demolitions AND underground black electronic music culture—cared to consider this history, but he floated in it. He effectively signified on Little Richard not so much by quoting his music (though he owed a debt to him just like everyone who played rock), but by reproducing his position in the music industry. He was a queer noncomformist, never in the business of explaining himself, obsessed with control, whose blackness became a way of not flinching in the face of an industry that would never embrace him, anyway.

prince2

Love-Symbol-2

I interpret Prince’s musical personae as queer, not in the sense of inversion, as the anti-disco folks had it, but as a forever-exploration of sexual life. Prince’s queerness was not, strictly speaking, like Little Richard’s, but Prince took it on as an artistic possibility nonetheless. If Richard dwelled on this particular fringe as a consequence of his body, his desires, and the limits of social acceptance and religious conviction, Prince chose it as his identity. But Prince also lived and worked within limits of morality and, also like Little Richard, religion.

379999703_00f021d6a8_b

Image by Flickr User Ann Althouse, 2007

Touré writes in a New York Times obit of Prince’s “holy lust,” the “commingling” of sexuality and spirituality. Jack Hamilton writes of the doubt and moral uncertainty that coursed through songs like “Little Red Corvette.” Holy lust is arguably the central pursuit of rock; the term “rock and roll” is etymologically linked either to intercourse or worship, appropriately, emerging in both cases from African-American vernacular. Prince’s queer play with sex, sexuality identity, and religion is as rock and roll as it gets.

Love-Symbol-2

As punk sputtered, Simon Reynolds writes in Rip it Up and Start Again, funk appeared to rock fans as a racially tinged, politically and sexually charged savior. Bass, the heart of funk, was key to punk becoming post-punk around 1980. The instrument was suddenly charged with new symbolic and structural importance. During the same period, it is remarkable how many of Prince’s songs either have no bass, or rework bass’s role entirely. “When Doves Cry,” from Purple Rain (1984), Prince’s 6th studio album, is the best-known example of an ultra-funky track that withholds bass entirely, but “Kiss” lacks it, too, as well as “Darling Nikki.”

Earlier on Purple Rain, the bass on “Take Me with U” plays almost as a drone, buzzing like a minimalist’s organ.“Kiss,”from 1986’s Parade and Prince’s second-biggest hit yet only #464 on the Rolling Stone list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Timeis so tight, so locked in, so populated by alluring timbres that suggest an alien plane of instrumentation, that you forget it’s even supposed to have bass by rock top 40 convention. On much of 1980’s Dirty Mind, it is difficult to know which carefully tweaked synthesizer tone is supposed to index the bass, if any. Prince’s funk was even funkier for being counterintuitive, as Questlove notes. This gesture wasn’t rejection, of course, it didn’t “transcend” funk. Prince was still playing inarguably funky music, and the lack of bass is so unusual that it’s almost even more apparent in its absence. Free, but not too free.

Love-Symbol-2

Prince approached rock iconicity much as he approached bass, which is to say that he embraced clichés, but performed them inside-out, calling attention to them as both limits and possibilities, as constraint and freedom. “Raspberry Beret,” from 1985’s Around the World in a Day, is a boppy “girl group” song with sly allusions to anal sex, that uses exotic instruments and is written in an obscure mode. The virtuosic riff on “When Doves Cry,” instead of going where guitar solos go, comes right at the beginning of the track, before the drums, both seemingly isolated from the rest of the song and yet heralding it, too.

All of this worked very well, of course. His songs are just idiomatic enough to give listeners a foothold, but brave enough to evoke a world well beyond idiom. In retrospect, this is precisely what Little Richard had done. This is also what Hendrix and George Clinton and Tina Turner and OutKast have done, from where they rock out—way beyond the citadel, mastering many idioms, then extending them, at once codifying and floating away from genre.

Andre 3000 of OutKast rocking outside the box at Lollapalooza 2014, Image by Flickr User Daniel Patlán

Andre 3000 of OutKast rocking outside the box at Lollapalooza 2014, Image by Flickr User Daniel Patlán

Prince’s career calls back to the personal and artistic concerns, as well as the innovations, of Little Richard and other artists’ sonic expressions of blackness that both built rock’s house and sounded out the tall, white walls of the citadel that would exclude them. All of these artists, I suspect, find little point to hanging out near the citadel’s gates; there are other, funkier places to live. Prince himself was perfectly comfortable working athwart Warner Brothers, the press, stardom. He did more than fine.

We are free to interpret Prince, but not too free. Creative as he was, he lived in his time; he was no alien. The greatest testament to his genius is not that he escaped the world, nor that he rendered a new musical landscape from scratch, but rather that he worked in part with rock’s sclerotic structural materials to create such beautiful and fluid work.

Featured Image by Peter Tea, July 12, 2011, under Creative Commons license No Derivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0)

Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral

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Enacting Queer Listening, or When Anzaldúa Laughs–Maria Chaves

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

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

Black Mourning, Black Movement(s): Savion Glover’s Dance for Amiri Baraka–Kristin Moriah

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