“When I wear my eyeliner, me siento más macha (I feel more macha) I’m ready to fight” (54)
Makeup has long been an intentional part of a chola aesthetic: in particular, the skillful sign of bold black eyeliner or a carefully arched, thin, brow. The quote above by Norteña Xótchil, one of author Norma Mendoza-Denton’s interviewees, reminds us that make-up not only creates a sense of empowerment but also evokes the idea of physical strength (“feeling macha”). Norma Mendoza-Denton’s ethnographic study Homegirls: Language and Cultural Practice among Latina Youth Gangs (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008) presents a project of high ambition, and even higher execution, in its carefully crafted discussion of the linguistic and cultural practices of Latina youth gangs at Sor Juana High School in northern California. Homegirls offers much needed insight into the relationship between language style and the cultural, lived experiences of Latina youth gangs. She centers her analysis on the linguistic, the cultural, and the phonetic, and in this way she pushes students of ethnic studies and sound studies to consider how young Latinas craft and articulate their own identity through meaning-making practices that challenge tropes of deviancy that are often unfairly cast on young women of color.
Throughout the book, speaking chola – an urban, gendered variation of Chicana English – becomes an audible badge, a marker of experience rather than a punch line, a culturally appropriated costume, a music video fad, or linguistic variety in need of policing. Recently, celebrity white or non-Latina women, such as Gwen Stefani and Lana Del Rey, have adopted telltale signs of a chola aesthetic – the crisp centered hair part, baggy pants, big hoops and/or only-the-top-buttoned plaid shirt. By focusing on the language styles of cholas, Mendoza-Denton encourages readers to think beyond the stereotypical images and sounds that so often circulate in mainstream media about cholas. Homegirls offers Sound Studies and Chicana/o Studies scholars a notable addition to the growing literature on the intersections of language, race, and sound.
“You gotta take pride to do your clothes
you know I have to iron,
when I go out I have to iron my shirt for half an hour
or forty-five minutes, you know,
my pants, you know
they gotta be
you know they gotta-” (56)
Homegirls joins conversations on Latinas and gang culture (Fregoso 2003; Miranda 2003; Ramírez 2009), which have historically been male-centered. Thelma, one of the Norteña girls, demonstrates in the quotation above her engagement with an aesthetic practice often linked with Latino gang members. Although the topic of language and linguistic identities, specifically bilingualism and translating, are emerging topics within Chicana/o Studies, Mendoza-Denton’s work joins that of a small number of scholars who take on Latina/o language practices and identities as the central focus of their work. She observes, in fact, how identity and meaning-making processes are intertwined to language, as are other social markers of identity such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, and accent. Homegirls joins recent discussions that demonstrate specifically how accents are vocal stand-ins for a person’s racialized, classed, and gendered experience. Where Fregoso and Miranda center their discussion on the cinematic representations of cholas and a historical account of pachucas respectively, Mendoza-Denton’s work is more in line with Miranda’s ethnographic approach to Latina youth gangs. Homegirls listens to the women’s voices and allows them to speak for themselves. This approach yields a work that reminds us how language identities are racialized when conflated with other racial markers, how they negotiate power relations (in/out group dynamics), and how they can also function as political forms of resistance.
“My dad dice que me miro como lesbian (says I look like a lesbian), my mom dice que qué guangajona (complains that it’s baggy). How much you wanna bet that I can go outside like this y no me dicen nada (they won’t say anything)” (151)
Maureen, a 14-year-old participant, speaks above to the code switching that many of the young women in this study practice. Mendoza-Denton re-imagines the chola as an innovator, highlighting the role of language and the body in creating new cultural practices. For example, in Chapter 5, the author heralds an exciting discussion on play and applying makeup as forms of gendered performances expanding on notions of beauty and grooming amongst Latina youth. She writes, “The symbolic and unconventional use of makeup among the girls claiming Norte and Sur at Sor Juana High School literally painted gender and ethnicity on their bodies,” marking a critical intervention in how the chola aesthetic racializes and genders bodies, yet also functions as a self-directed performance (152). In paying close attention to the symbolic meaning of makeup and its application, the ritual of carefully drawing the brow dismantles the mainstream appropriation of this often-criminalized look.
Mendoza-Denton’s close phonetic analysis demonstrates how the visual aesthetic coupled with a sonic aesthetic speaks to the political implications of embodied linguistic and cultural practices. The chola vocal aesthetic challenges traditional notions of femininity, closely associated with politics of respectability through Spanish honorifics like “usted,” within the Chicano family. This idea echoes other studies that show how pachucas, precursors to contemporary homegirls, with their extravagant attire and deviant behavior embody an adolescent rebellion against the patriarchal Chicano family and how pachuquismos forged a stylized linguistic resistance. Such stylized linguistic and embodied resistance can be seen in the excerpt below from T-Rex, one of Mendoza-Denton’s most candid participants in her study.
T-Rex: A girl could be more macha than some guys. For example me.
Norma: You think you’re more macha than guys?
T-Rex: I am more macha.
Norma: What makes you macha?
T-Rex: The way I act. The way I don’t let them step on me. (164)
In this brief excerpt, T-Rex articulates her notions of being ‘macha,’ a prime example of a discursive and material Latina youth practice that transcends the boundaries of normative gendered expressions for Latina youth. We are accustomed to seeing urban cholas with curiosity, envy, or both. Mendoza-Denton allows us to hear them and gain a deeper understanding of their social practices.
In framing the chola aesthetic as a transgressive type of beauty, Mendoza-Denton poses that the cholas in this study act as cultural producers who assign alternative meanings to femininity through their body and speech. Recalling Xóchitl’s remarks about mascara, the eyeliner serves in one form as a tool for a racialized feminine ideal of beauty, while simultaneously a sign for “willingness to fight” for other girls (154). Eyeliner, in this example, very visibly displays the complex interactions and negotiations of gender norms and agency. In this sense, Mendoza-Denton grants the reader a primary example of how cholas participate in a type of feminine gender expression that challenges expected ways of acting, which includes speech.
From Mendoza-Denton’s conversation with T-Rex, we see that speech and accent are just as meaningful in the construction of this alternative aesthetic. T-Rex, explains how the eyeliner is a “power-based interpretation” that when correlated with a tough, or even threatening, manner of walking—the use of the body—cholas command power and respect. Here, her intervention serves not only to gain a deeper understanding of Latina youth practices but also frames the chola as an empowered, vocal (what some would consider, mouthy) woman. Too often cholas receive harsh criticism or complete disregard for their assumed subversive behavior, criminality, and social deviance. In Homegirls, Mendoza-Denton challenges those notions by finding the symbolic capital in how these young women employ discursive, material, and phonetic practices.
The final two chapters of the book focus on the specific linguistic features relevant to studies of language and sound. Mendoza-Denton highlights phonetic variation among the girls speech in how their realization of /I/ demarcates core speakers from members of the group in the periphery yet points to similar speaking characteristics for girls of both gangs. The author’s focus on the stigmatized Th-Pro set (i.e. something, nothing) in the speech of Latina girls demonstrates how it discursively positions theses young women’s interactions and group affiliation due to its frequency and saliency. These later chapters demonstrate one of the author’s most significant contributions: projecting a specific accent is often linked to the creation of an identity. As Mendoza-Denton writes, “How speakers pronounce their words says a lot not only about the identities that they wish to project, but also about the history of the language(s) that they speak” (231). These linguistic variations give readers insight on the importance of how distinctive discourse markers are vital in the creation of stylized identities for young women of color.
Norma Mendoza-Denton has produced a rich account of a community largely ignored and misinterpreted in the conversations on Latina youth culture in the United States. As she reminds readers in her conclusion, Homegirls is one of the only studies of its kind that documents gang dynamics outside of discussions regarding violence, control over territory, or drug trafficking. While this approach provides a much-needed focus on the self-making and cultural processes amongst youth of color, I wonder if some significant discussions might be left out with this approach. Although there is large need for research on this topic that deviates from traditional approaches (such as criminality, violence, drug trafficking) when working with youth, particularly women of color, in her effort to subvert these sociological mainstays Mendoza-Denton avoids certain experiences that leave out pertinent context.
For example, in her discussion of the young women’s makeup practices, Mendoza Denton mentions the perceived threat they pose to teachers and police at school but does not go into more detail. These questions are not to discount the contributions of the book but rather to introduce future considerations for work surrounding Latina youth gangs. However, for Mendoza-Denton, the focus on the creativity and agency these young women embody is never lacking:
“So when you walk down the street,
you got the special walk, [begins to walk deliberately, swinging her upper body]
you walk like this,
you walk all slow,
just checking it out.
I look like a dude, ¿que no?
I walk, and then I stop.
I go like this [tilts head back – this is called looking “in”]
I always look in, I always look in,
I never look down.
It’s all about power
You never fucking smile.
Fucking never smile” (155-6)
Homegirls is at its finest when the reader is presented with excerpts like the quote above where T-Rex’s assertive physical and mental stance illustrates the linguistic and cultural practices that Mendoza-Denton seeks to highlight in her work. Mendoza-Denton’s contribution to this topic privileges the symbolic capital in linguistic, embodied, and cultural practices which sets up a platform for future work on Latina identities. When we read cholas in popular culture we might think of the aesthetic, the stereotypes, the big hoops, the dark lips, and the mascara. When we read Homegirls, Norma Mendoza-Denton compels us to consider the complex web of how linguistic and cultural practices (through material and vocal embodiments) speaks to the intersections of race, gender, and class amongst Latina youth gangs.
Featured image is of Yasmin Ferrada (the author’s sister) as photographed by King Kast. It is used with permission by the author.
Juan Sebastian Ferrada is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His work investigates the intersections of language and sexuality among LGBTQ Latina/o communities. Specifically, Sebastian explores the politics of Spanglish as a method for articulating ideas of sexuality and family acceptance within an LGBTQ Latina/o community organization. Sebastian earned a B.A. in Global Studies, in addition to a B.A. and M.A. in Chicana and Chicano Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Deaf Latin@ Performance: Listening with the Third Ear — Trevor Boffone
In Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-Language Radio and Public Advocacy (NYU Press, 2014), Dolores Inés Casillas turns up the volume on the sonic and the political dynamics of the Latino immigrant experience in the United States. A theoretically rich yet accessible book, Sounds of Belonging jump-starts Spanish-language radio studies, proving that the broader field of radio and sound studies can no longer continue to ignore or silence the importance of Spanish-language radio—from its historical significance for Spanish speaking Latinos to its lucrative place in radio markets today. Spanish-language radio reveals the power of sound in shaping the lived experiences of Latina/o communities, including immigrants and those with deep roots in the United States. Casillas shows how sound acts as a platform through which Latin Americans insert themselves in the U.S. imaginary, despite the nation’s attempts to erase their presence.
Sounds of Belonging provides keen insight into the constant buzz of immigration on the airwaves. Some questions that propel this book: What sonically constitutes the Latina/o experience in the United States? Also, what immigration-related sounds are found on Spanish-language radio airways? Casillas’s emphases shows how little we know of how the Latina/o sounds.
Sounds of Belonging deftly navigates the historical and contemporary domains of Spanish-language radio, theorizing them as a dynamic sonic terrain where we can listen to struggles for and against power, as well as to modalities of difference. Beginning with the traces of Spanish-language radio that emerged early in American radio’s so-called “Golden Age” in the 1930s-1940s, moving through the activist-driven bilingual Chicano community radio of the 1960s and 1970s, and then laying out the landscape of the highly profitable world of Spanish-language broadcasting today, Casillas guides readers through a historical trajectory of Spanish-language radio. She draws from Spanish-language radio broadcasting in its commercial and non-commercial iterations, while keeping tuned to the transnational connections transmitted through these frequencies.
Casillas engages with critical cultural studies, Chicana/Latina studies, and radio/media studies to explore the production of masculinity on El Cucuy’s morning radio program. Casillas studies El Cucuy as both an on-air personality and a political figure advocating for immigrants’ rights, illustrating the “complex interplay of gender, labor, and globalization” (104). While El Cucuy’s “shock-jock” style–imbued with sexual humor–often garners him comparison to Howard Stern or Rush Limbaugh, El Cucuy does more than shock and entertain his listeners. Casillas argues that sound and immigrant listening practices are integral to El Cucuy’s discursive aural constructions of a transnational working-class male audience, one that is not shamed for speaking Spanish, enjoying ranchera music, or laboring in “women’s work.” However, by highlighting how El Cucuy and his listeners reinscribe traditional gender roles that silence and marginalize Latinas, Casillas reveals the complexity of El Cucuy’s political advocacy for male workers on the one hand, and the program’s misogynistic message on the other.
Sounds of Belonging pushes scholars to think more thoroughly about the role format and genre play in the characterization of radio stations, as well as the audience constructed through these programming choices. She characterizes Spanish-language radio as both on-air dialogues and conversations between callers and radio hosts. This approach provides an intersectional analysis comparing radio listeners to those working in production. Casillas opens a line of inquiry into non-normative or non-hegemonic radio practices by positing that Latino radio listening is public and communal and not a solitary practice. Casillas shows how research that frames listeners as a market—simply audiences or consumers—polarizes our understanding of radio practices, particularly within research on Spanish-language radio.
One of Casillas’s most important interventions is her granular analysis of the role of radio in Latino communities, particularly within migrant and working class groups who may have easier access to and familiarity with radio, as opposed to other media such as the Internet. For these communities, radio becomes as an anchor, grounding the cultural ties Latinos have to the communities they migrated from—through stations’ language and music—but it also functions as a way to aurally migrate between borders, specifically when listeners-turned-callers locate themselves bi-nationally.
Casillas also argues that Spanish-language radio is an alternative site of congregation and dialogues amongst communities that are marginalized and made hyper visible by mainstream English-language media. Anti-immigrant policy and legislation—heard and seen in popular media as a narrative of “illegal aliens” invading America—is the backdrop against which Casillas explores the role of Spanish-language radio as an “acoustic ally,” a concept she explores in the chapters “Acoustic Allies: Early Latin-Themed and Spanish-Language Radio Broadcasts, 1920s-1940s,” and “Sounds of Surveillance: U.S. Spanish-Language Radio Patrols La Migra.” She explains that Texas and California were home to the debut of U.S. Spanish-language radio in the 1920s, crafted specifically for Mexican listeners. Radio announcers such as Pedro J. Gonzalez brokered airtime, typically broadcasting during the unfavorable times of late night or early morning. As a method of resistance, radio provided Spanish-language audiences with the capability of listening to “home.”
In the chapter “Mixed Signals: Developing Bilingual Chicano Radio, 1960s-1980s,” Casillas uncovers a major gap in research on the aurality of the Chicano Media Movement. She pivots the analytical lens of Chicano movement activism from urban to rural areas and traces the emergence of bilingual community in conjunction with farm worker activism in California and Washington. Bilingual community radio stations such as Radio KDNA in Granger, Washington, KBBF-FM in Santa Rosa, California, and Radio Bilingüe in Fresno, California—places that rely heavily on low-wage farmworker labor—showcase how the political activism of this movement era took place on emergent community airwaves. Listener-focused Chicano community radio stations “sought to broadcast independent of commercial influence, produce local programming, and, perhaps most significant, operate under the full control of Mexicans and Chicanos themselves” (52-53). While under the control of Chicano/a community radio producers, Casillas demonstrates how the funding model for community radio stations—namely, a heavy reliance on grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting—underscores the bureaucratic limitations for public broadcasts.
Sounds of Belonging opens the path for a new line of inquiry regarding Spanish-language radio while revealing that there is much work to do in the area of Spanish-language radio studies. Despite the chapter “Mixed Signals”’s focus on the community radio format, Casillas’s dedication to commercial radio highlights an urgent need for scholarship on non-commercial radio. Studying non-commercial stations will advance necessary conversations around content and innovation rather than economic success and failure.
Overall, Sounds of Belonging is an exciting and foundational text for scholars and readers interested in Latina/o media studies, sound, radio, cultural production, immigration and the Latina/o experiences in the United States as experienced and lived through sound and listening. Casillas’s agility in drawing from various theoretical and methodological perspectives provides a rich analysis of Spanish-language radio situated in a transnational context that reflects not just the listenership, but also the continued importance of radio for Latina/o communities living throughout the U.S. borderlands.
Monica De La Torre is a doctoral student in the Department of Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at the University of Washington. Her scholarship bridges New Media and Sound Studies by analyzing the development of Chicana feminist epistemologies in radio and digital media production. A member of Soul Rebel Radio, a community radio collective based in Los Angeles, Monica is specifically interested in the ways in which radio and digital media production function as tools for community engagement. She is an active member of the UW Women of Color Collective and the Women Who Rock Collective. Monica earned a B.A. in Psychology and Chicana/o Studies from University of California, Davis and an M.A.in Chicana/o Studies from California State University, Northridge; her master’s thesis was entitled “Emerging Feminisms: El Teatro de las Chicanas and Chicana Feminist Identity Development.” Monica received a 2012 Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, which recognizes superior academic achievement, sustained engagement with communities that are underrepresented in the academy, and the potential to enhance the educational opportunities for diverse students.
Featured image: “Hi-Fi” by Flickr user Feans CC BY 2.0
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
The Sonic Roots of Surveillance: Intimacy, Mobility, and Radio — Kathleen Battles
Sounding Out Podcast #24: The Raitt Street Chronicles: A Survivor’s History — Sharon Sekhon and Manuel “Manny” Escamilla
SO! Reads: Susan Schmidt Horning’s Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture and the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP
The recently published Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP (Johns Hopkins Press, 2013) is historian Susan Schmidt Horning’s first book. Veering away from the usual sound recording suspects (like the phonograph), Chasing Sound shows the studio and the audio engineer as central to the cultural and technological changes associated with the production and reproduction of sound.
According to Schmidt Horning, such changes were reflected in the shifting ideal of recorded music as a representation of live performance to the ideal of recorded music as a studio-engineered creation. Using the accounts of those responsible for recording sound, Schmidt Horning constructs a rich narrative that manages to be accessible while still focused on the highly technical work required of studio workers. That said, by focusing so heavily on user practices and anecdotes she misses an opportunity to engage with the theoretical implications of the ways audio engineers imagine and describe the actual space in which they work. Still, I contend that Chasing Sound represents an indispensable and critical approach for historians of sound, one that is unafraid of reconfiguring the central players in a narrative as big as the history of recorded music.
As a contribution to sound studies, Chasing Sound follows in the footsteps of Trevor Pinch’s Analog Days, the first work to explicitly apply Science and Technology Studies (STS) approaches to the history of a musical instrument. For Pinch, a critical understanding of sound requires examining the ways in which society and technology produce historical sites of change and stabilization. This approach focuses on understanding the ways people engage with technologies of sound, in order to interrogate their cultural and historical meanings. A historian of science and technology by training, Schmidt Horning has thus devoted much of her academic career to writing about the production and reproduction of sound through the practices and tacit knowledge of engineers, producers, musicians and technicians at music studios. By following the breadcrumbs dropped by these actors, Chasing Sound reveals the rich history of commercial studios and the cultural ideals cultivated therein.
Methodologically, the author draws on a mixed bag of sources, which include oral histories from early recordists, interviews with more contemporary audio engineers, her own ethnomethodogical studio research, trade literature, and archival documents from big studios like EMI. The book proceeds in chronological order, with each chapter laying out changes in the physical and acoustic qualities of commercial studios as they shifted from bare-walled rooms with “the recording horn jutting through a wall at the far end of the room” (9) to multi-track studios complete with “Mission furniture, [and] hand-laid distressed wood floors.” (209) The author plots these changes alongside improvements in the science of acoustics, the importation of techniques and tools from the more well developed medium of radio broadcasting, the consolidation and growth of the recording industry, the rise of independent labels, the emergence of new attitudes and musical tastes, and the professionalization of audio engineering.
Chasing Sound, unlike many other books on the topic, places the studio in relation to a set of changing cultural expectations regarding recorded music. Where recordings were once understood as a reflection of live performance, they later were seen as a signature creation of music studios. Rather than focusing on the phonograph, gramophone, microphone, or magnetic tape, the author argues that the recording studio belongs at the center of recorded music because it was there that the ideal of music as a “technologically mediated art” was first engineered into cultural listening norms. Consequently the audio engineer, or recordist as he (or in rare cases, she) was known prior to the 1930s, must also be understood as central to narratives regarding recorded sound from its inception. In this way, Schmidt Horning aims to recontextualize and centralize the studio and its inhabitants within histories of the production and reproduction of sound.
Because the audio engineer represents an inextricable part of this history, each chapter devotes time to the technologies and practices cultivated by the amateur recordists and trusted professionals responsible for recording sound. Initially such practices formed the basis of their tacit knowledge regarding the proper “staging” of artists in relation to acoustic recording horns among other techniques, but by the 1950s, sound engineers were responsible not just for positioning artists, microphones, and the increasingly important work of “enhancing” recordings during post-production. The book concludes by charting the unfettered rise of independent studios as well as the consequent proliferation of (and backlash to) new sound manipulation technologies in the 1970s.
Throughout the text the author notes the ways in which audio engineers often lamented the increasing technological mediation involved in record production, even as it granted them more creative control and prestige.
Schmidt Horning’s methodology represents Chasing Sound’s strongest quality. The rich narratives of the audio engineers allow the author to directly connect their technologically and culturally informed ideas about what constitutes good sound to the desires and expectations of listeners. In addition to this work, Schmidt Horning also highlights the ways in which advances in engineering technology did not necessarily overlap neatly with cultural norms. Throughout the text the author notes the ways in which audio engineers often lamented the increasing technological mediation involved in record production, even as it granted them more creative control and prestige. Such examples reveal the tightly knit relationship between ideas of liveness, talent, creativity, and authenticity. Chasing Sound is full of stories that detail the complex material, artistic, and ethical constraints around which recordists and engineers navigated in order to achieve the perfect sound.
The author’s methodological approach certainly helps to structure the narrative, but there are also ways in which it prevents her from digging in to important theoretical discourses regarding the studio. As Eliot Bates notes in his article, “What Studios Do,” the way audio engineers conceive of their workspaces is crucial for making sense of the power relations and social interactions that govern and are governed by studio spaces. Chasing Sound does not pursue these discourses. The author briefly mentions how the metaphor of flight is often used by sound engineers regarding the increasingly complex console controls of the 1950s and 60s but does not provide further elaboration on the implications of such a comparison. Even if the participants in her study did not reflect on their colloquial notes about the studio space, it would have been interesting to see Schmidt Horning consider what these metaphors reveal about the changing roles of the engineer.
These points aside, Chasing Sound is an important read both for those with a general interest in the history of sound production and reproduction as well as those scholars more specifically invested in understanding the role of recorded sound in society. Since I discussed the book’s limitations in “Making Music in Studio X,” Chasing Sound has become a foundational text in much of my research. Specifically, the author’s claim that the studio is (and has been) a critical site for examining broader industrial, technological, and cultural changes resonates deeply with me because it offers a critical methodology for considering issues of identity and power within studio spaces that are often neglected. In this regard, Chasing Sound is important not just for what it discusses, but also for what it does not. Noting the lack of female and black audio engineers discussed throughout the book, the author laments, “For the first century of sound recording, the field of audio engineering and recording studios in particular comprised a profoundly white male-centered culture that reflected corporate culture at large and technical professions in particular.” (9) The absence of these faces serves to remind us that while successfully “chasing sound” certainly relies on the cultivation of craft skill, and tacit knowledge, it also depends heavily on access.
Chasing Sound stands out as the most exhaustive history of audio engineering available. Schmidt Horning’s user-focused narrative successfully ties together changes in studio configurations and audio engineering practices with cultural expectations regarding recorded music. This helps to show how the studio and audio engineer can easily be recognized as central figures in the history of sound reproduction. Chasing Sound’s intervention is necessary as the history of recording is often told through artifacts like the phonograph, microphone, and magnetic tape, not living spaces like the studio and its inhabitants. Schmidt Horning’s dedication to telling these neglected stories is what makes the book come to life. Her research promises to open up new avenues for others interested in these issues. For me, this means pursuing lines of inquiry related to the growing philanthropic interest in the recording studio as a site for engaging and “assisting” low-income communities. In this way Chasing Sound asks us to recognize the recording studio as a critical site for the production and reproduction of our assumptions about what counts as appropriate, good, or real in music and people.
Featured Image: My Recording Studio by Flickr User Fabio Dellutri
Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo is a PhD student in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell University. Since completing a senior thesis on digital music software, tacit knowledge, and gender under the guidance of Trevor Pinch, she has become interested in pursuing research in the emergent field of sound studies. She hopes to combine her passion for music with her academic interests in technological systems, bodies, politics and practices that construct and are constructed by sound. More specifically she would like to examine the politics surrounding low-income community studios, as well as the uses of sound in (or as) electronic games. In her free time she produces hip hop beats and raps under the moniker Sammus (based on the video game character, Samus Aran, from the popular Metroid franchise).
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
Making Music at Studio X: The Identity Politics of Community Studios— Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo
SO! Reads: Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation— Seth Mulliken
We are living in strange times. Our experiences, especially our musical experiences, have become fragmented and odd. The album has been declared dead, live concerts are now silent, listened to on headphones, and some of our favorite performers exist in a faux-holographic space between life and death. The fragmentation of our musical experiences is indicative of a larger set of changes that encourage sound studies to pay attention to fragmented, outlying, and diffuse sonic phenomenon. In his new book Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, part of Jonathan Sterne and Lisa Gitelman’s “Sign, Storage, Transmission” series at Duke University Press, David Novak pays attention to one such fragmented and outlying realm, Noise music. Novak’s contribution to sound studies is to encourage us to deal with the fragmented complexity of sonic environments and contexts, especially those where noise plays a crucial part.
The past decade has seen growing public attention to noise as pollution, as problem, and as a poison. Examples of noise as a social issue needing immediate response abound, but one letter to the editor from the Wisconsin Rapid Tribune epitomizes the way that noise is sometimes read as a problem to be overcome. Novak’s book is one a few recent books, including Eldritch Priest’s Boring Formless Nonsense, Greg Hainge’s Noise Matters, and Joseph Nechvatal’s Immersion Into Noise, that complicate the idea of noise as problem. What sets Novak’s book apart from these is how his ethnographic approach allows him to approach Noise music from both the macro-perspective of its historical context and the micro-lens of his personal relationship to it.
For Novak, Noise music is a trans-cultural, transnational interaction that is both material and abstract. His analysis of it works to blur the boundary between both large-scale networks of exchange and the highly individuated experience. Novak relates the story of Noise music as originating in Japan in the 1980s. Noise musicians working separately caught the ears of American fans. Some of these fans were well-known musicians themselves, who brought Noise recordings and eventually the performers themselves to a wider U.S. audience. At the time, Noise was generally understood as taking one of two binary positions. Either Noise music was understood as a uniquely Japanese cultural expression, or it was instead theorized as a product of the Western imaginary motivated by the production of Japan as the anti-subject within modernity (24). Novak wisely recognizes the limited nature of these two positions, and seeks a more sophisticated method of understanding the circulation that creates Noise music, contributing, ultimately, a theory of feedback. Here the transnational circulation of materials, ideas, and expressions constitutes a culture itself, one that is not distinct from either the Japanese or the U.S. manifestations of Noise music (17). This a welcome contribution to compositional and intersectional perspectives on cultural exhange.
If Noise music is a circulation, a set of experiences and contexts, flows and scapes, ecologies and environments, then genre boundaries can not adequately describe the contextual and historical exchange of sound. Though genre must be considered, Japanoise does not find Novak searching particularly rigorously. He chooses two key Noise musicians, The Nihilist Spasm Band from Canada and Merzbow from Japan and describes their historical context, reception, and influence. But other than those descriptive basics, he is unsuccessful in finding anything new to say about Noise as genre. Concluding the chapter, he casually states that the existence of Noise threatens the boundaries of other musical genres. Though this fascinating statement would have been worthy of a chapter, and certainly foundational to his central idea (that Noise music is diffuse), Novak misses an opportunity to better support these connections in his chapter on genre.
Most interesting, however, is Novak’s focus on the material conditions of the production of Noise music. In describing the diffuse flows and scapes of Noise music, he addresses a plurality of experience: from the technological to the spatial to the private dimensions of listening. These concerns put him in conversation with Louise Meintjes’ Sound of Africa and Julian Henriques’ Sonic Bodies. Like these scholars, Novak refuses to locate the material conditions of production as solely economic, technological, or cultural. Instead, Noise music results from of an assemblage of conditions and possibilities. This is best exemplified by how Novak distinguishes the live music experience from the recorded. Here, Novak resists the neat distinction, long established in musicology, that hears the live experience as collective and interactive, and recorded music as individuated and passive. Instead, Novak suggests “liveness” and “deadness.” Liveness and deadness are not bounded to the dichotomy of the live performance with the recording, but rather two qualities that float through and with both experiences. “Liveness is about the connection between performance and embodiment… deadness, in turn, helps remote listeners recognize their affective experiences…” The experience of live Noise music, according to Novak, often challenges the boundaries of what is often expected when hearing live music. I have seen this in my own experiences standing in an audience surrounded by shrieking, booming, droning noises.
Truth be known, I’m as taken with Noise music as Novak. If his book confesses to being written by a critical but vehement fan, then I ought to confess the same of the music which I love so dearly. I had the chance to see Merzbow perform in Raleigh in August. He strummed obviously homemade instruments, turned fader pots, and concentrated intently on his laptop. A fan was crawling through the crowd on their hands and knees; occasionally they stood to sway, then returned to crawling. I thought that this behavior might seem odd, but in the context of Merzbow’s performance, it was as legitimate as any other. Through these odd behaviors, the fan demonstrated Novak’s conception of individuation within Noise music. The material conditions of the performance, the screeching Noise, made it impossible for me to ask the person what they were doing or feeling. I experienced the fan and the Noise in a tension from which there is no resolution. We were both uncomfortably located in a multiplicity of experiences. These experiences don’t resolve to a whole, but rather pulsate and echo and feed back into each other, intertwining with expectations of behavior, material conditions, and embodiment(s).
Japanoise raises many important questions. What social processes lead us to foreground the sonic experiences in our lives? And further, how does a critical understanding of these processes help to advance the work of understanding the power and politics of sound? But, for me, Novak’s work serves best to remind me of how much value is found in fragmented, diffuse, outlier experiences, like Noise music. Because sound occupies a crucial role in our social and political lives, Novak encourages us not to resolve tensions, rather to exist amongst them and hear them as lively and productive.
For those readers who might be unfamiliar with the music Novak describes, the book’s website has a fantastic collection of supplemental media for you to enjoy: http://www.japanoise.com/media/.
Seth Mulliken is a Ph.D. candidate in the Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program at NC State. He does ethnographic research about the co-constitutive relationship between sound and race in public space. Concerned with ubiquitous forms of sonic control, he seeks to locate the variety of interactions, negotiations, and resistances through individual behavior, community, and technology that allow for a wide swath of racial identity productions. He is convinced ginger is an audible spice, but only above 15khz.
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
SO! Reads: Jonathan Sterne’s MP3: The Meaning of a Format–Aaron Trammell
The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?–Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman