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 Marlen Rios-Hernandez discusses how all the politics of punk sound, queer chicana identity, and feminism can be found in the scream.
–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)
Mexican cultural theorist Carlos Monsiváis looked at various aspects of Mexican youth subcultures in the early 80s and revealed how youth relied on “caos” or chaos as a way to attain pleasure within disruption, spontaneity, and noise (68-79). How does the scream emerge through caos as a instrument of resistance? Alongside scholars like Fred Moten, I argue that the scream ruptures caos and allows us to glimpse the pleasure of resistance. In Alice Bag’s scream we find this medley of pleasure, interruption, and spontaneity. Bag explains, “once the Bags hit the stage and the music started, ego checked out and id took over, channeling my libido, my inner rage, whatever… I was free to be myself with no holds barred. It was the ultimate freedom” (221). These elements epitomize what I consider a queer Chicana feminist exorcism of tonality.
As explained in Bag’s memoir, particular to punk, there is a general reliance on informal/community-based ear training where musicians teach each other (183). European traditions of musical analysis both negate the horizontal learning central to punk while also normalizing the historical colonial presence within the Borderlands. In order to reveal how Bag’s scream exorcises these Eurocentric traditions, I consider her performance of “Violence Girl” at the Whiskey (1978), footage of “Gluttony” from The Decline of Western Civilization Part 1 (1981), and a brief clip of The Bags’ “Survive” in What We Do is Secret (2007). Because of how the scream disrupts formal analysis, there is an urgency to understand how it works against the grain.
In the face of Chicana women being politically silenced by the Chicano Movement and Women’s Movements during the late 70s and 80s, it was important for Chicanas to speak up for increased autonomy and access to space. Thus, Alice Bag’s caos is informed by an intersectional ethic of Chicana feminism. At the time queer Chicanas were largely absent from Chicano nationalist organizing. Between the Chicano Movement and unruly Chicana punks, the screaming voice became a multi-layered instrument of protest and empowerment necessary to invert normative gender and sexual politics within punk, the Chicano movement, and second wave feminism. The ability of the Chicana scream to contest oppression is not new. Such a linage can be drawn from La Llorona–– the villanized folkloric mother that drowns her children and haunts Mexico’s shores by wailing in the night.
Drawing on Latinx scholarship and a sonic reimagining of La Llorona’s wailing (as a feminist cry and public display against patriarchy), this post reimagines Alice’s scream as simultaneously resistance and pleasure. This aligns with Gloria Anzaldúa’s notion of deslengualidad. Suturing Anzaldúa’s concept of deslengualidad (detonguing)–which I define as Chicanas speaking with an orphan tongue–with caos shows how Chicanas can claim visibility through the scream. Deslengualidad and caos account for colonial interventions within the Chican@ identity, they demand the preservation and celebration of the mestiza language and help to provide visibility to Chican@ art.
Though the voice has been rendered repeatedly as a gendered instrument, usually legible via lyrics, and always harmonic, some examples tell us otherwise. For example, Alice’s scream is interrupted by her microphone malfunctioning in her performance of “Violence Girl” at the Whiskey (1978). This multi-layered recording with it’s already grainy inaudible features, helps us to understand the scream as a stand alone act of caos. Although the scream is interrupted by multiple forms of dissonance, it also persists as a public gesture of empowerment. The quality of the recording is poor and in it Alice experiences technical issues on stage. These distortions lead Alice to artfully perform a sonic delengualidad by making use of silence, inaudible screaming, and the body. She continues to move, interrupt, and most importantly still is accompanied by stable beat of the Bags despite singing without a microphone. Yet, in the absence of aurally decipherable lyrics (like the absence of a singular Chicana language) a lyrical analysis here wouldn’t serve any other purpose than to organize that which is on its own refuses order––her voice.
The seminal footage of “Gluttony” in The Decline of Western Civilization Part 1 (1981), features an aural scream. It helps us think about how the Chicana scream goes beyond mere aurality. Michelle Habell-Pallán’s notion of “el grito,”–the shout–relates to Alice’s shriek in “Gluttony.” Both punctuate emotional drama and harken back to Ranchera music. I suggest, however, that Bag’s shriek in “Gluttony” also signifies a growing concern with the homogeneity of white suburban beach punks who had infiltrated the scene. In her memoir Bag shares, “as I looked out into the audience, I could see that the once quirky men and women artists who prized originality above all else were being replaced by a belligerent, male dominated mob…playing for a belligerent group of individuals can be quite satisfying. What I didn’t like was the sameness” (308). Pushing back against the scene’s homogeneity, Bag does not end “Gluttony with a full closed cadence. Rather, she ends abruptly, leaving the listener with a sense of incompleteness.
The combination of repeated interruptions throughout “Gluttony” and the inability to conclude pushes the listener to a place of discomfort, where they are left yearning for some kind of ending. The musicologist Susan McClary argues that the absent cadences in Carmen signify how the cadence represents a return to normality and a satisfying feeling of closure. By withholding a full cadence in “Gluttony” and using her “grito” to celebrate difference, Bag enacts caos by rejecting the emerging uniformity of the scene. Much like Bag’s performance of “Violence Girl” at The Whiskey, the scream is less about being musical and ordered but instead a gesture to making do with what one has, a similar manifestation of deslengualidad.
The brief sound clip of the Bags’ “Survive” in What We Do is Secret (2007) illustrates how Alice’s scream offers a genealogy of caos via her disruption of the story of L.A. punk. The Bag’s “Survive” for the duration of a few seconds plays in the background during a scene in which fans are getting ready to watch The Germs perform at The Masque. In this clip, Alice’s voice isn’t immediate because of how it resonates within the background music. Hence, her voice refuses containment by emanating from the periphery. Alice’s voice emerges as delengualidad within the film precisely because women are written out of the story of L.A. punk. They are depicted as secondary players in the film. Fred Moten’s In The Break reminds us that the site “where shriek turns speech turns song–– remote from the impossible comfort of origin–– lies the trace of our descent.” Within the shriek also lies our resistance tactics as Chicanas. The map of our survival through loudness–though heavily stereotyped–is a testament to the unwavering and inherited conocimiento that silence has never protected us. It is the task of women of color to interrupt, archive, and preserve their roles in the L.A. scene.
Within Bag’s screaming from the Whiskey performance, Decline, to What We Do is Secret are snapshots or sonic/visual testimonios of queer Chicana women during the early 80s. These sonic snapshots/testimonios speak to the severely gendered and racialized repression of queer Chicana youth while still reconfiguring what empowerment looked like in the aftermath of the major socio-political movements of the 60s and 70s. In a casual conversation with Alice in a panel I guest moderated, she mentioned that watching “Gluttony” today was irksome to her because she was off-key. Perhaps, being off-key is one way that Chicana feminisms audibly reject neoliberal (and gendered) state repression. When we are surrounded by noise, we must remain enveloped in its infinite shape and simply listen. In noise we can resist, interrupt, and move away from orthodoxy and order. In today’s political climate, we need this framework now more than ever.
The return to Alice’s voice in this current moment is no coincidence. In preparation for this piece, I reflected on my brother’s deployment to Iraq during George W. Bush’s term. I was in community college taking a music appreciation course and I was searching for a paper topic that would be palatable to me as both a newly politicized queer Chicana and a former regular in the South Gate punk scene. It was through an interview with Teresa Covarrubias of The Brat and Alice Bag in an issue of Los Angeles Magazine that I heard Alice’s scream for the first time. It was the description of these women’s careers that led me to look up Chicana punk and come across the Whiskey performance of “Violence Girl.” To this day, Alice’s voice reminds us that if “Alice Bag was born from chaos” (310) then the Chicana punk voice remains a testament to punk’s resilience in the face of political uncertainty.
Featured image “Alice Bag Performing at Club Lingerie with the Cambridge Apostles” (CC BY 2.0)
Marlen Ríos-Hernández is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Riverside. Her current research revolves around queer Chicana/Mexicana punks in Mexico and Los Angeles from 1977-early 2000s respectively. Her dissertation aims to theorize and argue how Alice Bag, an innovator of the 1970s Los Angeles punk scene alongside other Mexicana punks, utilized noise to correlate the systemic disenfranchisement of womxn of color with the desire for transformational change integral to the survival of Mexicanas and first generation Chicana womxn especially during the Reagan and Bush Administrations. Via Ethnic Studies as her area of study along with her humanities and arts training as a Musicologist, Marlen investigates the relationship between unruly Chicana/Mexicana performing bodies and bisexuality, swapmeets, police brutality, photography, and film as instruments of noise-making.
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In teaching the many interrelated and complicated aspects of the Civil Rights movement, Black Power, and the Black Arts Movement, the challenge for me is to help students understand the “facts” of this period, and to simultaneously destabilize the teleological historical narrative these “facts” seem to suggest. In a pedagogical context, sound helps fill in the gaps that fall outside of the knowledge produced–and contained within–certain archival accounts of black cultural and political history. While crucial, having students listen to the gaps, can be daunting, especially in our current historical moment, as the decades-long push against identity politics has been solidified by the recent (re)election of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. This point demands more elaboration than I can provide here, but the critical pedagogical issue it raises within the province of black studies, is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to consider black political culture outside of the sedimented lines of American pluralism and black radical thought.
I use sound as a pedagogical tool to help outline a middle ground–what Frantz Fanon refers to in The Wretched of the Earth as “zone of hidden fluctuation” (166)–based upon articulations of resistance and identity that refuse to be frozen in time. Building on Paul Gilroy’s conceptualization of anti-anti-essentialism in The Black Atlantic, an idea of black consciousness that is flexible and moves between the insufficient terms of “essentialist” and “anti-essentialist,” I use specific pedagogical examples to suggest that teaching about race and sound is a rich, evolving, and productively interactive continuum. The auditory sense opens up new terrains of knowledge and dynamically expands the possibilities for students to think through the intricate and multifaceted formations of black consciousness during the volatile years of the 1960s and the resonance of those years in our present.
The recorded presence of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, represents an important aural site for engaging in reflexive pedagogy, because King’s tonality–the resonance of his voice–creates a certain familiarity and is pivotal to the construction of the American myth of the radical transformation of the civil rights movement and the idea of post-civil rights racial equality. For many students, King’s sound signals the dream of, and the pathway towards, a unified America. Conscious of how this idea of King reflects a linear understanding of civil rights as simply a desire for inclusion, I direct students’ attention to the sound of King’s last recorded speech in Memphis on April 3, 1968. Given the evening before his assassination, this speech resounds with King’s deepening critical perspective on black struggle through its haunting concluding notes. I point out to my classes that King’s final years (1965-1968) were marked by his increasing focus on ideas of black resistance outside of the Civil Rights mainstream, including his critique of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, and his radical rethinking of the possibilities for black economic and political self-determination.
Centered on the economic injustice and dehumanization of Memphis’s striking black sanitation workers, King’s speech details the need for the Memphis black community do more than simply boycott municipal entities, but rather articulate their resistance by boycotting prominent national brands such as Wonder Bread and Coca-Cola. Against this background, I play segments (particularly the final minutes) of King’s speech, entitled, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”
The acoustic dimensions of King’s final speech resonate with a social and political complexity that troubles the sonic memories many students have of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. The much more intimate and less overtly majestic soundscape of Memphis’ Mason Temple underlines King’s shift from national icon back to local, community activist. The frequent audience shifts–applause, extemporaneous interjections, and silence–create a reverberating sonic energy that accumulates throughout the speech. Rather than relying strictly on a call-and-response interpretation of the interactive exchanges between King’s voice and the audience’s response, I have students consider the non-linear ebbs and flows in King’s sound in this latest of moments (as Fred Moten would say, the totality of King’s tonality). For example, as King’s audience considers the weight of his analyses and what it means to articulate black resistance as “a dangerous unselfishness” that “puts pressure where it really hurts,” I identify moments of uncertainty, hesitation, and contemplative reflection that mark a non-linear interactive sonority between King and his audience.
Listening to King’s final thoughts offers a disturbing and disruptive emphasis on the stakes of breaking with entrenched modes of activist thinking. He concludes the speech with a series of prophetic thoughts on mortality as a cost of making a stand against “our sick white brothers.” Set within the historical and ideological context I have sketched above, the delivery distinguishes the sound of King’s words. As we listen I draw attention to King’s expression of a lack of fear in anything, any man, as King seems to convey an eerie foreknowledge of his murder and his irreverence in its face.
“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” –Listen to the concluding two minutes
The apocalyptic sound of King’s concluding notes to this political sermon leaves much to contemplate. From the mention of the potential threat posed to his life by “our sick white brothers,” through the speech’s last line, there is a tonal, timbral shift in his voice and demeanor. Through sound and posture, and the reaction of the audience to those factors, King’s affect seems to convey something more momentous occurring beneath the event’s surface dynamics. King projects a confrontational edge through the sound of fearlessness in the face of mortality. Did he know he was going to be killed shortly after giving this speech? It’s a question that the peculiar tonality of his concluding lines raises for students. If so, what does it mean to use the sermon as a site of prophetic, aural documentation of the fact that a force of transformation exists beyond the flesh and blood of leadership, a force that assassination can’t kill? In the speech’s final synesthetic moment, I have the students listen and watch the shift that occurs in King’s demeanor as he closes, and the way that this shift culminates in an almost ecstatic moment as he delivers the final line: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” His defiant turning away from the microphone is crucial as it amplifies the meaning of the voice, letting those watching know that, much like an emcee, King has just “served” white power with a delivery that will outlast the sniper’s bullet the following evening.
I want to briefly point to two other examples that show additional ways in which sound complicates ideas of racial identity and expression during the 1960s. When I teach Nina Simone’s composition, “Mississippi Goddamn,” (recorded live at Carnegie Hall in 1964), I ask students to consider the relationship between the distinctive sound of her voice and the ironic and critical elements of her lyrical meaning as this interaction creates a complex idea of radical black consciousness. Composed in the aftermath of the murder of Medgar Evers and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Simone offers a musical, and more broadly sonic meditation on white supremacy.
Most students find the timbre of Simone’s voice, its grain (as Roland Barthes would say) and depth, immediately striking. Her unique sonority and its context, greatly influence attempts by students to understand her reference to the song as simply a tune: “The name of this tune is Mississippi Goddamn” she says, and “This is a show tune, but the show for it hasn’t been written yet.” Clearly it isn’t simply a tune, and the caustic quality of lines such as, “Oh but this country is full of lies/ You’re all gonna die and die like flies,” creates a critical depth through the sound of Simone’s commitment to a black radical perspective. What does it mean, for instance, that Simone projects such sarcasm and biting critique to a predominately white audience at Carnegie Hall? How might we hear the specific grain of her voice in this setting? How does Simone’s projection of critical black sonic resistance, emerge at the conjuncture of anti-black racism and the beginning of legislative efforts under the Johnson administration to rectify racial inequality through civil rights bills? What can be taken from the simultaneity and contrast that Simone projects her sound within? I pose such questions to my students as a way of considering what it means to be committed to critical thought and social transformation that falls outside of the dominant lines of American national consciousness, and how the sound of such commitment, heard in the pitch and tenor of Simone’s voice, matters as a different kind of historical documentation.
In considering how the sound of music can offer an intervention within the formation of black political consciousness in the Black Arts Movement, I often use the 1966 recording of Amiri Baraka’s signal poem, “Black Art,” as it set to the experimental musical sounds of Sonny Murray’s ensemble (Murray-drums, Albert Ayler-tenor saxophone, Don Cherry-trumpet, Henry Grimes, Lewis Worrell-bass). Having first read the poem, students then are able to hear it set to– and against–the unconventional instrumentation of Murray’s ensemble.
The musicians create an unconventional sonic context for Baraka’s reading that de-emphasizes and re-situates the apparent dimensions of black rage that seem to arise from verse that can “shoot guns,” through an almost carnivalesque, comedic, and off-kilter sound that troubles the linear expectations one might have of instrumentation amplifying the words on the page. The dissonance between page and sound allows for useful pedagogical opening, in that it underlines the non-conformist, avant-garde aspects of the movement, and the fine line that artists such as Baraka were imagining between the intensity of black radical consciousness and the ability to articulate that standpoint outside of the expected forms of black cultural nationalism.
As these examples have shown, I incorporate sound into my pedagogical framings of black cultural and political identity as an opening through which students may expand their understandings of black consciousness and black political culture well beyond stagnant ideas of racial authenticity, while still preserving an understanding of the transformative and often radical possibilities that have been projected through black expression during the period. It is the open space of sound that invests the project of black radical thought with the uncanny spontaneity of experimentation. Having students understand ideas of expansiveness, asymmetry, and non-linearity as central to black cultural expression and critique–even as artists refuse to sacrifice an expressed political commitment to black resistance–begins to suggest ways for students to contemplate the intersection of identity politics with the unexpected, fantastic elements of expression that lie outside of more recent flattened diagnoses of black nationalism. Teaching at the intersections of race and sound opens up new terrains of knowledge, dynamically expanding students’ abilities to think through the intricate and multifaceted formations of black consciousness during the volatile years of the 1960s and the resonance of those years in our present.
Carter Mathes is an assistant professor of English at Rutgers University. He has completed a book manuscript entitled, Imagine the Sound: Experimental Form in Post-Civil Rights African American Literature, that focuses on the relationship between sound and literary innovation during the 1960s and 1970s. He is co-editing a volume of essays on Black Arts Movement writer and critic Larry Neal; and also has essays in print or forthcoming on Toni Cade Bambara, Peter Tosh, and James Baldwin. At Rutgers, he regularly teaches classes focusing on African American literature, Twentieth-century literature, music and literature, and experimental writing.
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