The Firesign Theatre’s Wax Poetics: Overdub, Dissonance, and Narrative in the Age of Nixon
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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“Radio’s “Oblong Blur”: Notes on the Corwinesque”–Neil Verma
The New Wave: On Radio Arts in the UK–Magz Hall
This is Your Body on the Velvet Underground–Jacob Smith
What Feels Good to Me: Extra-Verbal Vocal Sounds and Sonic Pleasure in Black Femme Pop Music
The lyrics to Beyoncé’s 2008 song “Radio” treats listening pleasure as a thinly-veiled metaphor for sexual pleasure. For example, they describe how turning up a car stereo transforms it into a sex toy: “And the bassline be rattlin’ through my see-eat, ee-eats/Then that crazy feeling starts happeni-ing- i-ing OH!” Earlier in the song, the lyrics suggest that this is a way for the narrator to get off without arousing any attempts to police her sexuality: “You’re the only one that Papa allowed to hang out in my room/…And mama never freaked out when she heard it go boom.” Because her parents wouldn’t let her be alone in her bedroom with anyone or anything that they recognized as sexual, “Radio”’s narrator finds sexual pleasure in a practice that isn’t usually legible as sex. In her iconic essay “On A Lesbian Relationship With Music,” musicologist Suzanne Cusick argues that if we “suppose that sexuality isn’t necessarily linked to genital pleasure” and instead “a way of expressing and/or enacting relationships of intimacy through physical pleasure shared, accepted, or given” (70), we can understand the physical pleasures of listening to music, music making, and music performance as kinds of sexual pleasure.
Though Cusick’s piece overlooks the fact that sexual deviance has been, since the invention of the idea of sexuality in the late 19th century, thoroughly racialized, her argument can be a good jumping-off point for thinking about black women’s negotiations of post-feminist ideas of sexual respectability; it focuses our attention on musical sound as a technique for producing queer pleasures that bend the circuits connecting whiteness, cispatriarchal gender, and hetero/homonormative sexuality. In an earlier SO! Piece on post-feminism and post-feminist pop, I defined post-feminism as the view that “the problems liberal feminism identified are things in…our past.” Such problems include silencing, passivity, poor body image, and sexual objectification. I also argued that post-feminist pop used sonic markers of black sexuality as representations of the “past” that (mostly) white post-feminists and their allies have overcome. It does this, for example, by “tak[ing] a “ratchet” sound and translat[ing] it into very respectable, traditional R&B rhythmic terms.” In this two-part post, I want to approach this issue from another angle. I argue that black femme musicians use sounds to negotiate post-feminist norms about sexual respectability, norms that consistently present black sexuality as regressive and pre-feminist.
Black women musicians’ use of sound to negotiate gender norms and respectability politics is a centuries-old tradition. Angela Davis discusses the negotiations of Blues women in Blues Legacies & Black Feminism (1998), and Shana Redmond’s recent article “This Safer Space: Janelle Monae’s ‘Cold War’” reviews these traditions as they are relevant for black women pop musicians in the US. While there are many black femme musicians doing this work in queer subcultures and subgenres, I want to focus here on how this work appears within the Top 40, right alongside all these white post-feminist pop songs I talked about in my earlier post because such musical performances illustrate how black women negotiate hegemonic femininities in mainstream spaces.
As America’s post-identity white supremacist patriarchy conditionally and instrumentally includes people of color in privileged spaces, it demands “normal” gender and sexuality performances for the most legibly feminine women of color as the price of admission. As long as black women don’t express or evoke any ratchetness–any potential for blackness to destabilize cisbinary gender and hetero/homonormativity, to make gender and sexuality transitional–their expressions of sexuality and sexual agency fit with multi-racial white supremacist patriarchy.
It is in this complicated context that I situate Nicki Minaj’s (and in my next post Beyoncé’s and Missy Elliott’s) recent uses of sound and their bodies as instruments to generate sounds. If, as I argued in my previous post, the verbal and visual content of post-feminist pop songs and videos is thought to “politically” (i.e., formally, before the law) emancipate women while the sounds perform the ongoing work of white supremacist patriarchy, the songs I will discuss use sounds to perform alternative practices of emancipation. I’m arguing that white bourgeois post-feminism presents black women musicians with new variations on well-worn ideas and practices designed to oppress black women by placing them in racialized, gendered double-binds.
For example, post-feminism transforms the well-worn virgin/whore dichotomy, which traditionally frames sexual respectability as a matter of chastity and purity (which, as Richard Dyer and others have argued, connotes racial whiteness), into a subject/object dichotomy. This dichotomy frames sexual respectability as a matter of agency and self-ownership (“good” women have agency over their sexuality; “bad” women are mere objects for others). As Cheryl Harris argues, ownership both discursively connotes and legally denotes racial whiteness. Combine the whiteness of self-ownership with well-established stereotypes about black women’s hypersexuality, and the post-feminist demand for sexual self-ownership puts black women in a catch-22: meeting the new post-feminist gender norm for femininity also means embodying old derogatory stereotypes.
I think of the three songs (“Anaconda,” “WTF,” and “Drunk in Love”) as adapting performance traditions to contemporary contexts. First, they are part of what both Ashton Crawley and Shakira Holt identify as the shouting tradition, which, as Holt explains, is a worship practice that “can include clapping, dancing, pacing, running, rocking, fainting, as well as using the voice in speaking, singing, laughing, weeping, yelling, and moaning.” She continues, arguing that “shouting…is also a binary-breaking performance which confounds—if only fleetingly—the divisions which have so often oppressed, menaced, and harmed them.” These vocal performances apply the shouting tradition’s combination of the choreographic and the sonic and binary-confounding tactics to queer listening and vocal performance strategies.
Francesca Royster identifies such strategies in both Michael Jackson’s work and her audition of it. According to Royster, Jackson’s use of non-verbal sounds produces an erotics that exceeds the cisheteronormative bounds of his songs’ lyrics. They were what allowed her, as a queer teenager, to identify with a love song that otherwise excluded her:
in the moments when he didn’t use words, ‘ch ch huhs,’ the ‘oohs,’ and the ‘hee hee hee hee hees’…I ignored the romantic stories of the lyrics and focused on the sounds, the timbre of his voice and the pauses in between. listening to those nonverbal moments–the murmured opening of “Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough,” or his sobbed breakdown at the end of “She’s Out of My Life,’ I discovered the erotic (117).
Royster references a black sexual politics in line with Audre Lorde’s notion of the erotic in “The Uses of the Erotic,” which is bodily pleasure informed by the implicit and explicit knowledges learned through lived experience on the margins of the “European-American male tradition” (54), and best expressed in the phrase “it feels right to me” (54). Lorde’s erotic is a script for knowing and feeling that doesn’t require us to adopt white supremacist gender and sexual identities to play along. Royster calls on this idea when she argues that Jackson’s non-verbal sounds–his use of timbre, rhythm, articulation, pitch–impart erotic experiences and gendered performances that can veer off the trite boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl stories in his lyrics. “Through his cries, whispers, groans, whines, and grunts, Jackson occupies a third space of gender, one that often undercuts his audience’s expectations of erotic identification” (119). Like shouting, “erotic” self-listening confounds several binaries designed specifically to oppress black women, including subject/object binaries and binary cisheterogender categories.
Nicki Minaj uses extra-verbal sounds as opportunities to feel her singing, rapping, vocalizing body as a source of what Holt calls “sonophilic” pleasure, pleasure that “provide[s] stimulation and identification in the listener” and invites the listener to sing (or shout) along. Minaj is praised for her self-possession when it comes to business or artistry, but such self-possession is condemned or erased entirely when discussing her performances of sexuality. As Treva B. Lindsey argues, “the frequency that Nicki works on is not the easiest frequency for us to wrestle with, because it’s about…whether we can actually tell the difference between self-objectification and self-gratification.’’ Though this frequency may be difficult to parse for ears tempered to rationalize post-feminist assumptions about subjectivity and gender, Minaj uses her signature wide sonic pallette to shift the conversation about subjectivity and gender to frequencies that rationalize alternative assumptions.
In her 2014 hit “Anaconda,” she makes a lot of noises: she laughs, snorts, trills her tongue, inhales with a low creaky sound in the back of her throat, percussively “chyeah”s from her diaphragm,among other sounds. The song’s coda finds her making most of the extraverbal sounds. This segment kicks off with her quasi-sarcastic cackle, which goes from her throat and chest up to resonate in her nasal and sinus cavities. She then ends her verse with a trademark “chyeah,” followed by another cackle. Then Minaj gives a gristly, creaky exhale and inhale, trilling her tongue and then finishing with a few more “chyeah”s. While these sounds do percussive and musical work within the song, we can’t discount the fact that they’re also, well…fun to make. They feel good, freeing even. And given the prominent role the enjoyment of one’s own and other women’s bodies plays in “Anaconda” and throughout Minaj’s ouevre, it makes sense that these sounds are, well, ways that she can go about feelin herself.
Listening to and feeling sonophilic pleasure in sounds she performs, Minaj both complicates post-feminism’s subject/object binaries and rescripts cishetero narratives about sexual pleasure. “Anaconda” flips the script on the misogyny of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s hit “Baby Got Back” by sampling the track and rearticulating cishertero male desire as Nicki’s own erotic. First, instead of accompanying a video about the male gaze, that bass hook now accompanies a video of Nicki’s pleasure in her femme body and the bodies of other black femmes, playing as she touches and admires other women working out with her. Second, Nicki re-scripts the bass line as a syllabification: “dun-da-da-dun-da-dun-da-dun-dun,” which keeps the pattern of accents on 1 and 4, while altering the melody’s pitch and rhythm.
Just as “Anaconda”’s lyrics re-script Mix-A-Lot’s male gaze, so do her sounds. If the original hook sonically orients listeners as cishetero “men” and “women,” Nicki’s vocal performance reorients listeners to create and experience bodily pleasure beyond the “legible” and the scripted. Though the lyrics are clearly about sexual pleasure, the sonic expression or representation of that pleasure–i.e., the performer’s pleasure in hearing/feeling herself make all these extraverbal sounds–makes it physically manifest in ways that aren’t conventionally understood as sexual or gendered. Because it veers off white ciseterogendered scripts about both gender and agency, Minaj’s performance of sonophilia is an instance of what L.H. Stallings calls hip hop’s “ratchet imagination.” This imagination is ignited by black women’s dance aesthetics, wherein “black women with various gender performances and sexual identities within the club, on stage and off, whose bodies and actions elicit new performances of black masculinity” renders both gender and subject/object binaries “transitional” (138).
Nicki isn’t the only black woman rapper to use extra-verbal vocal sounds to re-script gendered bodily pleasure. In my next post, I’ll look at Beyoncé and Missy Elliot’s use of extra-vocal sounds to stretch beyond post-feminism pop’s boundaries.
Featured image: screenshot from “Anaconda” music video
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
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“I Love to Praise His Name”: Shouting as Feminine Disruption, Public Ecstasy, and Audio-Visual Pleasure–Shakira Holt
Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic–Imani Kai Johnson
Something’s Got a Hold on Me: ‘Lingering Whispers’ of the Atlantic Slave Trade in Ghana–Sionne Neely