In Search of Politics Itself, or What We Mean When We Say Music (and Music Writing) is “Too Political”
Music has become too political—this is what some observers said about the recent Grammy Awards. Following the broadcast last week, some argued that musicians and celebrities used the event as a platform for their own purposes, detracting from the occasion: celebration of music itself. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted:
I have always loved the Grammys but to have artists read the Fire and Fury book killed it. Don’t ruin great music with trash. Some of us love music without the politics thrown in it.— Nikki Haley (@nikkihaley) January 29, 2018
I don’t know for sure, but I imagine that the daily grind of a U.N. ambassador is filled with routine realities we refer to as “politics”: bureaucracy, budget planning, hectic meetings, and all kinds of disagreements. It makes some sense to me, then, that Haley would demand a realm of life that is untouched by politics—but why music in particular?
The fantasy of a space free from politics resembles other patterns of utopian thought, which often take the form of nostalgia. “There was a time when only a handful of people seemed to write politically about music,” said Chuck Klosterman, a novelist and critic of pop culture, in an interview in June 2017. He continued:
Now everybody does, so it’s never interesting. Now, to see someone only write about the music itself is refreshing. It’s not that I don’t think music writing should have a political aspect to it, but when it just becomes a way that everyone does something, you see a lot of people forcing ideas upon art that actually detracts [sic] from the appreciation of that art. It’s never been worse than it is now.
He closed his interview by saying: “I do wonder if in 15 years people are going to look back at the art from this specific period and almost discover it in a completely new way because they’ll actually be consuming the content as opposed to figuring out how it could be made into a political idea.” Klosterman almost said it: make criticism great again.
Reminiscing about a time when music writing was free from politics, Klosterman suggests that critics can distinguish between pure content and mere politics—which is to say, whatever is incidental to the music, rather than central to it. He offers an example, saying, “My appreciation of [Merle Haggard’s] ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ is not really any kind of extension of my life, or my experience, or even my values. […] I can’t describe why I like this song, I just like it.” If Klosterman, an accomplished critic, tried to describe the experiences that lead him to like this particular song, he probably could—but the point is that he doesn’t make explicit the relationship between personal identity and musical taste.
The heart of Klosterman’s concern is that critics project too many of their own problems and interests onto musicians. Musician and music writer Greg Tate recently made a similar suggestion: when reviewing Jay-Z’s album 4:44, Tate focuses on how celebrities become attached to public affects. In his July 2017 review, “The Politicization of Jay-Z,” he writes:
In the rudderless free fall of this post-Obama void […] all eyes being on Bey-Z, Kendrick, and Solange makes perfect agitpop sense. All four have become our default stand-ins until the next grassroots groundswell […] Bey-Z in particular have become the ready-made meme targets of everything our online punditry considers positive or abhorrent about Blackfolk in the 21st century.
He suggests that critics politicize musicians, turning them into repositories of various projections about the culture-at-large. Although writing from a very different place than Klosterman, Tate shares the sense that most music criticism is not really about music at all. But whereas Klosterman implies that criticism resembles ideological propaganda too much, Tate implies that criticism is a mere “stand-in” for actual politics, written at the expense of actual political organizing. In other words, music criticism is not political enough.
In 1926, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about this problem, the status of art as politics. In his essay “Criteria of Negro Art,” he dissects what he perceives to be the hypocrisy of any demand for pure art, abstracted from politics; he defends art that many others would dismiss as propagandistic—a dismissal revealed to be highly racialized. He writes:
Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda. But I do care when propaganda is confined to one side while the other is stripped and silent.
Du Bois’s ideas would be engaged extensively by later authors, including Amiri Baraka. In his 1963 essay “Jazz and the White Critic,” he addresses politics in terms of “attitude.” Then-contemporary white critics misunderstood black styles, he argued, because they failed to fully apprehend the attitudes that produced them. They were busy trying, and failing, to appreciate the sound of bebop “itself,” but without considering why bebop was made in the first place.
As Baraka presents it, white critics were only able to ignore black musicians’ politics and focus on the music because the white critics’ own attitudes had already been assumed to be superior, and therefore rendered irrelevant. Only because their middle-brow identities had been so thoroughly elevated in history could these middle-brow critics get away with defining the object of their appreciation as “pure” music. Interestingly, as Baraka concludes, it was their ignorance of context that ultimately served to “obfuscate what has been happening with the music itself.” It’s not that the music itself doesn’t matter; it’s that music’s context makes it matter.
In response to morerecent concerns about the politicization of popular music, Robin James has analyzed the case of Beyoncé’s Lemonade. She performs a close reading of two reviews, by Carl Wilson and by Kevin Fallon, both of whom expressly seek the album’s “music itself,” writing against the many critical approaches that politicize it. James suggests that these critics can appeal to “music itself” only because their own identities have been falsely universalized and made invisible. They try to divorce music from politics precisely because this approach, in her words, “lets white men pop critics have authority over black feminist music,” a quest for authority that James considers a form of epistemic violence.
That said, James goes on to conclude that the question these critics ask—“what about the music?”—can also be a helpful starting point, from which we can start to make explicit some types of knowledge that have previously remained latent. The mere presence of the desire for a space free from politics and identity, however problematic, tells us something important.
Our contemporary curiosity about identity—identity being our metonym for “politics” more broadly—extends back at least to the 1990s, when music’s political status was widely debated in terms of it. For example, in a 1991 issue of the queercore zine Outpunk, editor Matt Wobensmith describes what he perceived to be limitations of thinking about music within his scene. He laments what he calls “musical purism,” a simplistic mindset by which “you are what you listen to.” Here, he capitalizes his points of tension:
Suddenly, your taste in music equates you with working class politics and a movement of the disenfranchised. Your IDENTITY is based on how music SOUNDS. How odd that people equate musical chops with how tough or revolutionary you may be! Music is a powerful language of its own. But the music-as-identity idea is a complete fiction. It makes no sense and it defies logic. Will someone please debunk this myth?
Wobensmith suggests that a person’s “musical chops,” their technical skills, have little to do with their personal identity. Working from the intersection of Klosterman and Tate, Wobensmith imagines a scenario in which the abstract language of music transcends the identities of the people who make it. Like them, Wobensmith seems worried that musical judgments too often unfold as critiques of a musician’s personality or character, rather than their work. Critics project themselves onto music, and listeners also get defined by the music they like, which he finds unsettling.
That same year, in an interview published in the 1991 issue of the zine Bikini Kill, musicians Kathleen Hanna and Jean Smith addressed a similar binary as Wobensmith, that of content and technique. But they take a different view: in fact, they emphasize the fallacy of this dualism in the first place. “You just can’t separate it out,” said Hanna, questioning the possibility of distinguishing between content—the “music itself”—and technique on audio recordings.
Female-fronted bands of this era were sometimes criticized for their lack of technique, even as terrible male punk bands were widely admired for their cavalier disregard of musical rules. Further still, disparagement of women’s poor technique often overlooked the reasons why it suffered: many women had been systematically discouraged from musical participation in these scenes. Either way, as Tamra Lucid has argued, it is the enforcement of “specific canons of theory and technique,” inevitably along the lines of identity, that cause harm if left unexamined.
All of these thinkers show that various binaries in circulation—sound and identity, personality and technique, music and politics—are gendered in insidious ways, an observation arrived at by the same logic that led Du Bois to reveal the moniker of “propaganda” to be racialized. As Hanna puts it, too many people assumed that “male artists are gonna place more importance on technique and female artists’ll place more on content.” She insists that these two concepts can’t be separated in order to elevate aspects of experience that had been implicitly degraded as feminine: the expression of righteous anger, or recollection of awkward intimacy.
Punk had never pretended not to be political, making it a powerful site for internal critique. Since the 1970s, punk had been a form in which grievances about systemic problems and social inequality could be openly, overtly aired. The riot grrrls, by politicizing confessional, femme, and deeply private forms of expression within punk, demonstrated that even the purest musical politics resemble art more than is sometimes thought: “politics itself” is necessarily performative, personal, and highly expressive, involving artifice.
Even the act of playing music can be considered a form of political action, regardless of how critics interpret it. In another punk zine from c. 1990, for example, an anonymous author asks:
What impact can music have? You could say that it’s always political, because a really good pop song, even when it hasn’t got political words, is always about how much human beings can do with the little bag of resources, the limited set of playing pieces and moves and words, available […] Greil Marcus calls it ‘the vanity of believing that cheap music is potent enough to take on nothingness,’ and it may be cool in some places to mock him but here he’s dead-on right.
But music is never only political—that is, not in the elections-and-petitions sense of the word. And music is always an action, always something done to listeners, by musicians (singers, songwriters, producers, hissy stereo systems)—but it’s never only that, when it’s any good: no more than you, reader, are the social roles you play.
The author persuades us that music is political, even as they insist that it’s something more. Music as “pure sound,” as a “universal language” seems to have the most potential to be political, but also to transcend politics’ limitations—the trash, the propaganda. Given this potential, some listeners find themselves frustrated with music’s consistent failure to rise to their occasion, to give them what they desire: to be apolitical.
In an interview during the recent Grammys broadcast, pop singer Kelly Clarkson said, “I’m political when I feel like I need to be.” It’s refreshing to imagine politics this way, like a light we turn on and off–and it’s a sign of political privilege to be able to do so. But politics are, unfortunately, inextricable from our lives and therefore inescapable: the places we go, the exchanges we pursue, the relationships we develop, the ways we can be in the world. Thinking with Robin James, it seems that our collective desire for a world free from all this reveals a deeper knowledge, which music helps make explicit: we wish things were different.
I wonder if those who lament the “contamination” of the Grammys with politics might be concerned that their own politics are unfounded or irrelevant, requiring revision, just as many white people who are allergic to identity politics are, in fact, aware that our own identity has been, and continues to be, unduly elevated. When Chuck Klosterman refuses to describe the reason why he likes “Workin’ Man Blues,” claiming that he “just does,” does he fear, as I sometimes do, not that there is no reason, but that this reason isn’t good enough?
Fortunately, there are many critics today who do the difficult work of examining music’s politics. Take Liz Pelly, for example, whose research about the backend of streaming playlists reminds us of music’s material basis. Or what about the astute criticism of Tim Barker, Judy Berman, Shuja Haider, Max Nelson, and others for whom musical thought and action are so thoroughly intertwined? Finally, I think of many music writers at Tiny Mix Tapes, such as Frank Falisi, Hydroyoga, C Monster, or Cookcook, for whom creation is a way of life—and whose creative practices themselves are potent enough to “take on nothingness.”
“Music is never only political,” as the anonymous ‘zine article author argues above, but it is always political, at least a little bit. As musicians and critics, our endeavor should not be to transcend this fact, but to affirm it with increasing nuance and care. During a recent lecture, Alexander Weheliye challenged us in a lecture given in January 2018 at New York University, when listening, “To really think: what does this art reflect?” Call it music or call it politics: the best of both will change somebody’s mind for real, and for the better.
Featured Image: Screen Capture from Kendrick Lamar’s video for “HUMBLE,” winner of the 2018 Grammy for “Best Music Video.”
Elizabeth Newton is a doctoral candidate in musicology. She has written for The New Inquiry, Tiny Mix Tapes, Real Life Magazine, the Quietus, and Leonardo Music Journal. Her research interests include musico-poetics, fidelity and reproduction, and affective histories of musical media. Her dissertation, in progress, is about “affective fidelity” in audio and print culture of the 1990s.
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“Genres, styles form around places of cohesion, of transport, of passage. Not an instrumental mathematics (though it can be that too), but a speculative one that seeks out locations of collective affect, of resonance between micro and macro spheres.” –Marcus Boon, “One Nation Under a Groove”
Yes. Punk, is a way of living, being, thinking, and relating to the world. Yes, it is bigger than borders. . .greater than the sum of than any number of bands or even the label of “musical genre” altogether. Its dynamic style visually signifies; its DIY mode-of-operations can empower, even as its more capitalist-oriented versions can frustrate and exploit.
YES YES YES.
But also, NO!
Even if punk’s sound intentionally evades classification and clichéd high-fidelity top-ten lists like Keanu Reeves dodges bullets in the Matrix, it nonetheless exists. and means. and incites. and motivates. and creates powerful structures of feeling that resonate through entire lifetimes, reverberations of that one all-ages basement show.
How do we know? Because, at the absolute very least, both of us have heard it with–and through–our bodies. It has moved us, and not just symbolically, intellectually, politically, and metaphorically. It has quite literally vibrationally, kinesthetically, heart-throbbingly, finger bleedingly, head-bangingly, body-smashing-up-against-others-bodily, in the pit of our stomachs-y, angry tear cryingly, skin tinglingly moved us.
Without universalizing our respective experiences in the Jersey and Inland Empire/SoCal punk scenes of the 1990s/early 2000s–and our wide listenings and local involvements since then–we want to say simply that punk sound is not an abstract and negative entity. Punk sounds–and punk’d sounds–form distinct sonic calls to some of us out there in the world that our bodies yearn to answer.
And its listeners’ understanding of and relationship to punk’s sound(s) matters. In her essay “On Not Playing Dead,” Bikini Kill, Le Tigre, and (the) Julie Ruin lead singer Kathleen Hanna described one of the key powers of punk’s live sound as creating a threshold of physical exchange, a vibration drawing folks into “one of the only spaces where we give and receive pleasure publicly” to friends and strangers alike, which she argues “seems radical for a myriad of reasons, especially because it challenges the idea that sexuality/pleasure is only for people in straight/monogamous relationships and not something we as a community can have through music.” Punk sound constructs, enables, and sometimes downright demands a variety of participatory responses, both individual and social.
In short, just ask a punk about what punk sounds like! They know! And they will tell you about it! It’s up to us to figure out how to listen. And what better space to try in the audiovisual ‘zine that is Sounding Out!, started by folks whose scenes taught them how to forge and sustain community with and through sound.
This series (and its follow up in Spring 2017) calls bullshit on the related notions that punk sound is either simple presence–ye olde “three chords,” a misnomer that is always already more geographically and historically specific than popular discourse allows–or overdetermined absence, a too-open, too-inclusive sound that, to riff on Green Day, is simultaneously “nothing and everything all at once.” And we very deliberately use “sound” rather than “music” as our guiding framework to think through punk’s sonic pull, not because punk “isn’t music” (a stale but ever present dis on the genre), but because punk itself sounds out the limitations of musical study ( in addition to Alice Bag’s musical manifesto below, see Leandro Donozo’s “MANIFIESTO POR UNA MUSICOLOGÍA PUNK” suggested to us by Alejandro Madrid).
Our Punk Sound series implicitly argues that sound studies methodologies are better suited to understanding how punk works sonically than existing journalistic and academic conversations about musical genre, chord progressions, and/or genealogies of bands. Alexandra Vasquez’s sound-oriented work on Cuban music, for example, in Listening in Detail (2014) opens up necessary conversations about the “flashes, moments, sounds” in music that bear its meanings and its colonial, raced, classed, and gendered histories in material ways people can hear and feel. While retaining the specificity of Vasquez’s argument and the specific sonic archive bringing it forth, we too insist on “an ethical and intellectual obligation to the question: what do the musicians sound like” (12) and how do folks identifying with and through these musical sounds hear them?
In this series, we invite you to amplify varied historicized “details” of punk sound–its chunk-chunk-chunk skapunk riffs, screams, growls, group chants, driving rhythms, honking saxophones–hearing/feeling/touching these sounds in richly varied locations, times, places, and perspectives: as a pulsing bead of condensation dripping down the wall of The Smell in Downtown LA (#savethesmell), a drummer making her own time on tour, a drunk sitting too near the amp at a backyard party, a queer teenager in their bedroom being yelled at to “turn it down” and “act like a lady[or a man]”. . .and on and on. Today’s essay is by Gretchen Jude. Listen along as she reflects on growing up through listening to Team Dresch’s Personal Best. And keep coming back every Monday in November for more!
–Aaron Sounding Out! + Jenny Sounding Out!
In the spirit of Critical Karaoke, first introduced by Joshua Clover at the Experience Music Project annual Pop Conference, this piece was written to be read with the album playing alongside. In anchoring my text/your reading so directly/literally in the sound, I hope those who have not had first-hand experience of growing up queer can understand on a more visceral level how I have heard/felt/lived through this music. Sounds work on bodies in non-verbal ways, so the sharing of these queer(ing) vibrations may allow fans to sense an underlying queerness in all punk sound.
Released in January 1995, Personal Best, the first album from Pacific Northwest quartet Team Dresch, rode the crest of the Queercore wave, itself propelled by decades of feminist, gay rights, and AIDS activism. The lesbian-identified band—Donna Dresch (guitar and bass), Jody Bleyle (guitar, bass, and vocals), Kaia Wilson (guitar and vocals) and Marci Martinez (drums)—was also fueled by the punk energy and DIY ethos that flared back to life with the Seattle grunge scene and Riot Grrrl movement.
The quartet’s technical skill showed their commitment to music; Dresch (who also produced the album) and Bleyle co-released the band’s debut on their respective labels, Chainsaw and Candy Ass Records. At the same time, the group’s cohesiveness and cooperation was evidenced in the complexity of their compositional strategies: self-produced albums, multiple time changes, shifts between guitar effects. Personal Best managed to rage without outward aggression. The band seemed to feel, like me, an anger that was full of anguish, a pointed fury at the causes of their anguish—yet leavened with humor (‘I spent the last ten days of my life ripping off the Smiths’).
The following is a critical listening of Personal Best.
Something still remains in my body from the very first time I heard this album. The audaciously-titled “Fagetarian and Dyke” goes off like an alarm, with insistent guitar string strikes that ring in my ears and run down my spine with a shock. Once the drums come in, I am already swaying in time as the vocalist demands a breathless ‘how’ before rapidly morphing into a long-held growl—‘searching for you’. It was the music I had long needed without knowing.
The second song starts spare to the point of hesitance, a thin bassline with ominous guitar jangles and a backbeat promising a break in the intensity—until the band coalesces around Wilson’s rhythmic chant bristling with articulate screams. But contrary to the title—“Hate the Christian Right—I hear less hate than angry frustration. Bleyle’s vocals take the fore with melancholic power, making explicit the fundamental feeling, ‘the fear, fear I’m sick with it.’. The sound is dense and close, mixed with no reverb so I feel like I’m deep inside the music, sweating with the band. My hand moves with a will of its own toward the volume control, I crank it to feel the kick beating inside my chest like another heart, I can’t stop moving my feet, my legs, I am impelled to motion.
Looking back twenty-one years at this musical moment, it’s hard to fathom how much society has changed—in terms of both the structures of musical production/distribution and our understandings of gender/sexual identity. Yet when I encounter these songs once again, my listening remains fully present. How is it that this album still works to electrify me even today? Pressing play now, I hear this album through the patina of nostalgia. Even calling it an ‘album’ evokes another time, conjuring the act of flipping through stiff pages of family photos. There are tactile similarities—I slide the vinyl disc from its paper sleeve, grasp the edges of the cardboard dust jacket, leisurely run my eyes over the hand-scrawled track listing. I regard the cover image and recall my pleasurable smirk at the in-joke. But even back in 1995, when I listened on cassette and CD Walkman, I wanted to take this album with me everywhere.
Jangly guitar riffs, popping tom hits and Wilson’s clear soprano in multi-tracked harmony give “She’s Crushing My Mind” a jaunty opening. But the tension amps up with feedback on ‘she was born this way,’ and Wilson punches the verse: ‘she wants to (forget it)’. The song ends abruptly, no resolution, reflecting the unrequited queer love the lyrics express.
Even the words I use to describe the world have changed since 1995. I came out in 1986, before the word ‘queer’ was wrested from the verbal fists of homophobes. In retrospect, it was a brief moment, after feminism came out as lesbian, but before the ‘lesbian body’ was deprived of its ‘radical’ prefix—a time when it made sense to call lesbians ‘avengers’ or even ‘amazons’ (always in the plural). By 2016, having come out so many times in so many ways, I am no longer sure what others hear when they regard me pronouncing myself ‘queer’. And yet then as now, the energy I feel in this music goes beyond representation. The sound moves me with what Julian Henriques terms an “energetic patterning of vibrations” (76), setting in motion a sort of sympathetic resonance that shakes off labels and identity categories.
Just as I wonder when the darkness will end, “Freewheel” gallops in, cavalier, and drags me into the afternoon grass for some silliness. Wilson and Bleyle’s sweetly ironic harmony on ‘you can go back to your boyfriend’ sidelines ‘that girl,’ instead placing camaraderie front and center.
Nowadays, like most, I listen digitally, soft noise-reduction earbuds squished into my ears. Through my headphones, the violence of the 21st century bleeding light-speed across my mediated vision makes the sheer vulnerability underlying Team Dresch’s mad sounds even more striking. As a teen, I avoided mosh pits. Bony boy-elbows shot out at exactly the height of my eye sockets, and even combat boots weren’t enough protection from the public risk of my female body. At home or with friends, I sometimes reveled in the nihilism voiced by male punk bands. But the performance of an all-inclusive anger blindly striking out at society-at-large (which often seemed to involve getting drunk and fighting) mostly felt intimidating to me. Team Dresch retuned the timbre of punk rage—from frustration with authority-as-abstraction to lamentation over first-hand experience of oppression—then directed that incisive anger toward fundamentally feminist self-protection and catharsis.
The sincerity and solemnity of the riff that opens “She’s Amazing” bloom into a punk ballad that resonates with my best experiences of friendship. Wilson and Bleyle alternate and harmonize in tribute to female wisdom and strength. Even as the vocalists acknowledge their deep self-doubt and insecurity, the decisive instrumentals bolster them up.
It’s not that I didn’t feel angry. It’s that angry men sounded scary.
In a moment of stillness, I hear echoes of Patti Smith’s amazing(ly bent) cover of Van Morrison’s “Gloria” (1976). Smith’s fearless androgyny, her working-class snarl, her performance of desire for a woman exhilarate even today. Another old favorite rings in my ears: The Slits, playing as outlaws-on-the-lam. Underclass anthem “Shoplifting” (1979) double-dared me to flaunt needless authority, as Ari Up’s breathy vocals accelerate to an almost feline scream—‘run!’—and jangling guitars veer chromatic. I adored The Slits for their fearless extroversion—audacious yet always girly. I am ready, hungry for more.
(RECORD FLIP INTERLUDE)
“Fake Fight” opens punchy, with space in the bass and insistent hi-hat. Bleyle’s reedy tomboy alto alternately croons low and close into the mic (as if directly into my ear), then shouts along with synched noise pedal interludes: ‘I can see a brave tomorrow, don’t let this spaceship bring me down’.
Yvon Bonenfant describes the practice of queer listening—of listening as deeply feeling—as an attempt to recuperate queerness as community: “Queer listening listens out for, reaches toward, the disoriented or differently oriented other. So far, there are no majority queer cultures. Queer is always listening out through the static produced by not-queer emanations of vocalic bodies. Queer can like, love and enjoy those bodies in every way, but still needs to twist around and negotiate through them to find other queer” (78). For years I did this by instinct, paying attention to any hint of coded lesbian tendencies. In the pre-Ellen world, this was a survival technique.
Quirky “#1 Chance Pirate TV” shifts into high gear with 4/4 drumsticks and a vigorous punch on the toms. The song (a tribute to Sinead O’Connor) then suddenly slows into restful repetitions; ‘Sometimes it feels all right,’ Bleyle intones again and again—in a kind of mantra for getting through all the times when it doesn’t.
By the time I heard Personal Best, I had all but given up listening for my own bodily experiences—in the specifics of its love, anger, desire, suffering—offered back to me in music. Sure there were decades of lesbian folk music (yawn). But with Team Dresch, I didn’t need to engage in recuperative queer listening—this was unapologetically queer sounding. I was bowled over with this feeling—when you can give yourself over to the music because the people making the sounds know exactly what you’ve gone through, what you are living through. The reality you know by heart but have never heard affirmed in the voices around you.
“D.A. Don’t Care” rocks like a regal lullaby, but on a theme so heavy it presses my heart to diamond. Wilson’s caustic deployment of the cliché ‘and how was he supposed to know’ subverts the always-overdone ‘her word against his.’ From here the band rushes the album to its apotheosis, as Bleyle proclaims her own physical autonomy in the wake of abuse: ‘I know what to do with this body.’ The following verse leaves behind the dry vocal mix of the rest of the album, as the haunting image of a ‘polyester basketball uniform’ is buried deep in heavy bass, chilling with reverb.
In the hard-earned, bittersweet privilege of reaching my middle-age, I still shiver at Beyle’s chorus—not for myself now, but on behalf of those now young: the trans and genderqueer kids, an upcoming generation of dykes and fags—the ones mistreated, raised to have their own bodies and hearts turned against themselves. I want them to find music that catalyzes the scream: ‘I KNOW WHAT TO DO WITH THIS BODY.’
Barely time to breathe and then the grinding lead-in to “Growing Up in Springfield,” a confessional of rejection and isolation in small-town America. Unlike Wilson’s, my mother didn’t ‘cry when I shaved my head.’ Nevertheless, the biting affirmation, ‘Those were the worst years of my life,’ rings satisfyingly through a burst of white noise.
With Personal Best, Team Dresch generates a synergy of sound and affect that engages me beyond nostalgia. The band weaves together multiple elements—voices with instruments, tempo and pedal shifts, the trajectory of song order, and lyrics that express the fallout of a queer girlhood in the rural Northwest isolation—to transform fear and self-hatred into courageous resistance. This synergy reflects (to paraphrase Adrienne Rich) a visionary, cleansing anger that dares me to feel new possibilities, both personal and political. Guitars chorus, drums pop sharp and clear, and vocals lie low but clear in the mix, embedded in a basement mix of mourning and menace. The keening rage in this album lances like a healing needle.
The lo-fi opening lines of “Screwing Yer Courage” break into Bleyle’s full-on howl. The heavy cacophony of the band feels like body-surfing like a 10-foot wave of sound. Even as she voices the desire to ‘move to the woods,’ the band’s sound performs a sense of community. The album ends with a tornado of noise, a storm that spins at exactly the right speed for me to join in. Softly, then more insistently Bleyle murmurs then cries: ‘I love you, baby, I love you.’ With one final delicious guitar arpeggio, slowly drawn out, the album is…
The music itself, the specificity of its vibrations, is of the essence. Attending to the experiential conditions of our listening is equally fundamental, and through articulating both sounds and contexts we may move past merely gesturing towards taste and invoking genre as shorthand for what we already value. As Nina Eidsheim describes, “in encounters through and with music, we are physically touched and we tangibly touch others” (183). In the case of punk and its queer progeny, we vibrate together in and with a visceral noise that harmonizes through its very dissonance.
Cover image is of crowd surfing at a 2006 Team Dresch reunion show by Flickr User Frances, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Gretchen Jude is a PhD candidate in Performance Studies at the University of California Davis and a performing artist/composer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her doctoral research explores the intersections of voice and electronics in transcultural performance contexts, delving into such topics as presence and embodiment in computer music, language and cultural difference in vocal genres, and collaborative electroacoustic improvisation. Interaction with her immediate environment forms the core of Gretchen’s musical practice. Gretchen has been studying Japanese music since 2001 and holds multiple certifications in kotoperformance from the Sawai Koto Institute in Tokyo, as well as an MFA in Electronic Music and Recording Media from Mills College in Oakland, California. In the spring of 2015, a generous grant from the Pacific Rim Research Program supported Gretchen’s intensive study of hauta and jiuta singing styles in Tokyo. This podcast (as well as a chapter of her dissertation) are direct results of that support. Infinite thanks also to the gracious and generous assistance of Shibahime-sensei, Mako-chan and my many other friends and teachers in Japan.
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Garageland! Authenticity and Musical Taste–Aaron Trammell
Marginalized bodies produce marginalized sounds to communicate things that escape language. The queer body is the site of sounds that engage pleasure, repression, rage, isolation, always somehow outside of dominant language. Sound Studies tells us that we should trust our ears as much as our eyes, justifying our trust in sound, and of the resonating body. Affect Theory goes further, saying that all senses play into a body that processes input through levels of response, experience, and anticipation. Affect is the vibrational space that is both bodily memory and anticipation. So where do sound and affect meet in queer bodies? How do marginalized peoples use sound and the body to express liberation, objectification, joy, and struggle?
Our writers in Sound and Affect tackle these questions across a spectrum of the marginalized experience. Next week, Kemi Adeyemi, sloooooooows thingggggggggs doooooooooownnnnn so that we can hear the capitalist connections between the work expected of black bodies and the struggle for escape from this reality through the sonic affects, temporal shifts, and corporeal elsewhere of purple drank. Then, Maria Chaves explores the connection between voice, listening, and queer Chicana community formation: through space, across time, and with laughter. The series finishes with Justyna Stasiowska bringing the noise in a discussion of the trans body and the performance work of Tara Transitory. Today, I open by offering the concept of the tremble, a sonic form of affect that is necessarily queer in its affective reach. Live through this. Get life from this. —Guest Editor Airek Beauchamp
I first became interested in the intersections of sound studies and affect theory when, in graduate school, I began to research alternative rhetorics of the AIDS Crisis. ACT UP!, the noisiest and most politically effective of the AIDS advocacy groups from 1987 through 1995, posited noise as presence and silence as loss throughout their campaigns. ACT UP! was notorious for their actions in which they invaded public spaces, from the FDA to the White House and used militaristic chants to create a disruptive cacophony that ran counter to the official silence of government policy. The organization harnessed noise as powerful weapon to shake the status quo.
The ACT UP! equation led me to a critique of AIDS-era politics in which sound and affect became the predominant modes of inquiry, allowing me to investigate how the situated body and the senses experience and invoke rhetorics of marginialization. This maneuver proved to be intellectually difficult, particularly because my post-structuralist training stubbornly insisted on a discursively constructed universe in which only language constructed reality. Instead, what sound and affective rhetoric allow for is exactly that which is beyond the text, that which communicates without strictly-defined language. Theorizing the AIDS crisis as a social event might be necessary in terms of understanding how our culture processes or catalogues such an event, but as I engaged with its archive, I felt bereft when facing the limits of such an approach. It offered nothing to soothe the pain or express the terror of those whose bodies disintegrated in the cruel grasp of the disease.
Rather than relying on abstracted theory to force the affect of the plague into a logical form, I needed something like Antonin Artaud’s work on the plague to explore the cultural but embodied affect of the disease. When Artaud was invited to speak about his essay “The Theater and the Plague” at the Sorbonne, he decided to actually incorporate his ideas about ‘liquefying boundaries” into his speech. Artaud began with a standard oratory but slowly devolved into a theatrical performance of the plague, eventually ending in shrieks of physical pain. By the end of his speech, the only people left in the lecture hall were a minor contingent of his close friends, including Anais Nin, who recounted the tale (Eshleman, 12). Artaud’s shrieks and howls engaged the whole body in the process of making sound, while also erasing semantic and syntactical codes. Here is a video compilation of Artaud performances, to provide the smallest hint of his vocal performances:
To continue my research, I realized, I needed to understand bodies as instruments for processing, producing, and receiving sonic stimuli, while, at the same time, rethink how feeling, quite literally, moves bodies. Artaud led me to connect the sound and affect of AIDS in the 1980s through the unspeakable and the pre-semantic language of the body, deeply embedding these sound/feelings in a network of past experience, present and anticipatory states of being. His work gave me a different way to theorize, to grasp, to listen, to scream—to tremble and tremble in return.
I continued to connect the sinews between sound and affect in my February 2013 post for Sounding Out!, “Queer Timbres, Queered Elegy: Diamanda Galás’s The Plague Mass and the First Wave of the AIDS Crisis.” Through Galás’s visceral interactions with the unendurable pain embedded in history, I keenly felt the presence of the material body so lacking from post-structuralist critique of lived experience, alongside an urgent sense of agency. Galás’s performances made fascinating use of the “tactile effect of layered sound that is felt with the skin, in the bones, as well as with the ears, communicating a palpable experience that lies beyond the barely-nuanced music it is seductively easy to grow accustomed to.” The experience of listening to Galás helps us to realize that the body is a series of machines of input and output—processor and producer—systems that often forego semantic language and instead listen and speak in tremblings.
In what follows, I flesh out the notion of sonic tremblings: how it links what we call sound studies and affect studies, of course, but more importantly, how it speaks past the post-structuralist insistence on a world confined to text, and how we might build upon this notion in future theory and research. Our bodies’ materiality, a site of constant unfolding, engages with the world via a series of shimmers and impulses—such as the synesthetic vibration I am calling sonic tremblings—rather than with concrete events or objects in and of themselves. These tremblings, always intersectional, encompass past lived experiences, social and cultural constructions that restrict interpretation, and interpretations falling outside social or cultural codes. I understand the trembling body as both processor and producer of sound, a connection of trembling nodes eschewing the patriarchal structures of language. And, though I write through and about the particular tremblings of my own white, queer, cis male body, that experience is by no means universal or at the center of my theorizations. Instead, I hope that the way I experience and understand sound studies and affect theory will open up new ways of hearing the world, especially for people whose experiences are not mine and who can add depth, nuance, and texture to the conversation. It is in fact through their variety and unique resonances that tremblings speak simultaneously to and against the limitations placed on queer bodies.
My articulation of affect with sound studies is necessarily queer, as it rejects binaries and speaks without definitive vocabulary, syntax, or grammar. Marta Figlerowicz, in “Affect Theory Dossier: An Introduction,” offers a good primer on the widely divergent ways in which scholars use the idea of affect. In Figlerowitz’s explanation, affect is always a self in motion, be it “the self running ahead of itself,” “the self catching up with itself,” “the self as self-discursive and always constantly mutating and adapting to ambient stimuli,” and/or “celebrations of Proustian moments when the self and the sensory world, or the conscious and the unconscious self, or the self and another person, fall in step with each other… to make a sliver of experience more vivid and more richly patterned than willful analysis could ever have” (4). In all of these cases, the body’s perception and the discourse of the self remain in motion, trembling with identifications that are at best fleeting, though richly communicative and expressive. Sound, as an always-present stimulus, works affectively in such a form of communication.
Queer bodies are inherently intertwined in theorizing sound and affect. The actual concept of affect itself is queer, implicating the unknowable, but concretely felt phenomena of the body. But rather than forming a linear narrative, affect is produced, and received, in a web of physical and neural processes that rejects the linear concept of time and instead are never static but self-referential and constantly evolving in response to our environment. To navigate this space I adopt the term “affective field,” used by Marie Thompson and Ian Biddle in their introductory essay to Sound, Music, Affect. An affective field describes a textural field of play between stimulus, meaning, and response; it relies on reproduction and broadcast, a field of listening/emitting/processing machines all working in a sort of continuous flow, always already present. The affective field model encourages the removal of emphasis on subject/object but instead focuses on interfacial relationships as a point of contact. Eradicating =the subject/object dualism is vital to exchange, as Yvon Bonenfant says in “Queer Listening to Queer Vocal Timbres“: “We cannot exchange with an object, only other subjects” (76).
Finding a theory that worked with the body and with subject/subject communication allowed me to make more sense of the ways in which ACT UP! used noise and silence as a way to build community, and allowed me to dig deeper into the idea of queer communication. The silent scream of the slogan Silence = Death succinctly articulated ACT UP!’s most definitive tactic: manipulation of the affective field. Their chants initially filled the streets, of New York, but by 1990 their actions had united them with Europe, creating world-wide noise in protest of the now-global epidemic, creating a distinct disjuncture to the silent death falling over gay communities. Noise offered the queer community both a form of protest and community, becoming an affective mechanism of agency. ACT UP!’s use of noise not only speaks to the dire need of queer bodies to exercise agency and demonstrate social worth, but it also helps break down the essential binary between encoded language and un-encoded sound. Rather than syntactical sound, noise communicates in trembles, resonating in both the psyche and in the actual body. Noise worked to unify disparate parts of identity–and disparate identities–a coalescing rather than normalizing process, a trembling vital to queer identity.
However, while ACT UP! worked to create noise—and to develop community through the trembling of their rage—they also communicated affectively with silence. Staging their now infamous die-ins, ACT UP! manipulated the affective field through the deafening buzz that accompanies silence, a somber quiet that refused to go ignored. These actions were not done to—but instead with—people, a disruption of the subject/object, or perhaps the subject/abject. But, it is the unexpected noise of the die-ins that I find most interesting. Not just the ambient noise of occupying bodies in space—people moving, coughing, breathing—but the loud silence created by the protest itself: a hushed roar that trembles through the room, the microphones, and the bodies of the listeners, a disruptive noise crafted from intentional silence. This silence itself resonates in the body, enabling them to erupt in tremblings of loss, of mourning, and of rage, the painfully loud silence of marginalized bodies at war with an epidemic about which no one in power seemed to care.
ACT-UP’s die-ins reclaimed agency within silence’s palpable materiality, using its noise to disrupt the affective field and reclaim space within it. Using the material body as both receptor and transmitter of the affective field, their noise created tremblings and spoke in associations both somatic and psychic. In the case of the die-ins, the silence mediated the noise of the voices of the dead, all talking at once through the trembling bodies of the living.
Adapting silence and the noise it brings, one of ACT UP!’s historical legacies, offers contemporary listeners agency over our marginalized bodies. We must make some noise, and then “listen out” for particular affects of noise and silence in turn, as Bonenfant suggests, seeking the tremblings that touch our skins and resonate in our brains, bone, and flesh. The affective field permeates queer communication and offers to the marginalized an opportunity, through sound, to make noise, establish self, and establish communities.
At once subversive and coalescent, noise resists the codification of what our culture might traditionally consider to be “music” or other codified sounds, making it a necessarily affective communication. The discordant, unruly strains of Throbbing Gristle’s “Discipline,” for example, jarred, shaken, and trembled me into a powerful feeling of community amid dissonance and difference, of community through difference at key moments in my life.
At other moments, the shriek, fuzz, and wail of riot grrrrl punk act Bikini Kill, in particular, Kathleen Hanna’s growl in “Suck My Left One,” has awakened in me a strain of tremblings that move freely associative in their rage against the marginalization of women and the ways in which socially constructed gender roles also marginalize and demonize queer folks. While post-structuralism maintains that the self is necessarily disunified and can only be defined by its difference to others, I have to disagree. While academic methodologies make it difficult to form an argument based on my lived experience, when I feel the tremblings connecting me to Genesis Breyer P-Orridge or Kathleen Hanna and to their audiences, I am hard pressed to feel them as anything but real.
In fact, it might just be in endurance that I can best articulate tremblings as a sonic, somatic, affective phenomenon. Born of present stimuli, always connected to past experiences and anticipatory of the future, tremblings are unruly, unable to be pinpointed. They do not just express the order or pleasure that we find in traditional music, though they can encompass this as well. Instead, tremblings are communicative, they move through the I, the subject, while unifying other subjects through their rich and unnamable identifications. It speaks simultaneously to and against the limitations placed on queer bodies, expressing joy, pain, pleasure.
Featured Image: Genesis P-Orridge by Flicker User Jessica Chappell
Airek Beauchamp is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Arkansas State University and a Ph.D. candidate at SUNY Binghamton, where he specializes in Writing Studies. Airek is currently working on his dissertation, which details ways that universities can offer social and academic writing support to graduate students to better help them professionalize in their fields. His other areas of research include queer theory, affect theory, and trauma in the LGBTQ community.
REWIND!…If you liked this post, check out:
“Music to Grieve and Music to Celebrate: A Dirge for Muñoz”-Johannes Brandis
“Music Meant to Make You Move: Considering the Aural Kinesthetic”-Imani Kai Johnson
“Hearing Queerly: NBC’s ‘The Voice’”-Karen Tongson