“I Am Thinking Of Your Voice”: Gender, Audio Compression, and a Sonic Cyberfeminist Theory of Oppression
I developed the text I recite in this post as the theoretical framework for an article I’m working on about audio compression. As I was working on the article, I wondered about the role of gender and race in the research on audio compression. Specifically, I was reminded of the central role Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” played into research that led to the mp3. Karl-Heinz Brandenburg used the song to test the compression method he was developing for mp3s because it sounded “warm.” Sure, the track is very intimate and Vega’s voice is soft and vulnerable. But to what extent is its “warmth” the effect of a man’s perception of Vega addressing him as either/both an intimate partner or caregiver? Is its so-called warmth dependent upon the extent to which Vega’s voice performs idealized white hetero femininity, a role from which patriarchy definitely expects warmth (intimacy, care work) but can’t be bothered to hear anything beyond or other than that from (white) women?
In other words, I’m wondering about what ways our compression practices are shaped by white supremacist, patriarchal listening ears. Before anyone even runs an audio signal through a compressor, how do patriarchal gender systems already themselves act as a kind of epistemological and sensory compression that separates out essential from inessential signal, such that we let women’s warm, caring voices through while also demanding they discipline themselves into compressing their anger and rage away?
The literature does address the role of sexism and ableism in the shaping of audio technologies, but this critique is most commonly framed in conventionally liberal terms that understand oppression as a matter of researcher bias that excludes and censors minority voices. For example, the literature addresses the way “cultural differences like gender, age, race, class, nationality, and language” are overlooked by researchers (Jonathan Sterne), offers cursory nods to the biases and preferences of white cis men scientists (Ryan Maguire), or claims that “the principles of efficiency and universality central to the history of signal processing also worked to censure atypical voices and minor modes of communication” (Mara Mills). Though such analyses are absolutely necessary components of sonic cyberfeminist practice, they are not sufficient.
We also need to consider the ways frequencies get parsed into the structural positions that masculinity and femininity occupy in Western patriarchal gender systems. Patriarchy doesn’t just influence researchers, their preferences, their choices, and their judgments. How is the break between essential and inessential signal mapped onto the gendered break between what Beauvoir calls “Absolute” and “Other,” masculine and feminine? Patriarchy is not just a relation among people; it is also a relation among sounds. I don’t think this is inconsistent with the positions I cited earlier in this paragraph; rather, I am pursuing the concerns that motivate those positions a bit more emphatically. And this is perhaps because our objects of analysis are slightly different: I’m a political philosopher interested in political structures that shape epistemologies and ontologies—such as the patriarchal gender system organized by masculine absolute/feminine other—whereas most of the scholars I cited earlier have a more STS- and media-studies-approach that is interested in material culture.
As a way to address these questions, I made a short critical karaoke-style sound piece where I read a shortened version of the text below over the original version of “Tom’s Diner” from Vega’s album Solitude Standing (which, for what it’s worth, I first owned on cassette, not digitally). I recorded my voice reciting a condensed version of the framework I develop for a sonic cyberfeminist theory of oppression over a copy of the original, a cappella version of “Tom’s Diner.” If I were in philosopher mode, I would theorize the full implications of this aesthetic choice, but I’m offering this as a sound art piece, the material and sensory dimensions of which provide y’all the opportunity to think through those implications yourselves.
[Text from audio]
Perceptual coding and perceptual technics create breaks in the audio spectrum in the same way that neoliberalism and biopolitics create breaks in the spectrum of humanity. Perceptual coding refers to “those forms of audio coding that use a mathematical model of human hearing to actively remove sound in the audible part of the spectrum under the assumption that it will not be heard” (loc 547). Neoliberalism and biopolitics use a mathematical model of human life to actively remove people from eligibility for moral and political personhood on the assumption that they will not be missed. They each use the same basic set of techniques: a normalized model of hearing, the market, or life defines the parameters of what should be included and what should be disposed of, in order to maximize the accumulation of private property/personhood.
These parameters are not objective but grounded in what Jennifer Lynne Stoever calls a “listening ear”: “a socially constructed ideological system producing but also regulating cultural ideas about sound” (13). Perceptual coding uses white supremacist, capitalist presumptions about the limits of humanity to mark a break in what counts as sound and what counts as noise…such as presumptions about feminine voices like Suzanne Vega’s.
Perceptual coding subjects audio frequencies to the same techniques of government and management that neoliberalism and biopolitics subject people to. For this reason, it can serve as a specifically sonic cyberfeminist theory of oppression.
It shows us not just how oppression works under neoliberalism and biopolitics, but also its motivations and effects. The point is to increase the efficient accumulation of personhood as property by white supremacist capitalist patriarchal institutions. Privilege is the receipt of social investment and the ability to build on it by access to circulation. Oppression is the denial of this investment and access to circulation. For example, mass incarceration takes people of color out of circulation and subjects them to carceral logics…because this is the way such populations are most profitable for neoliberal and biopolitical white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Featured image: “Solo show: Order and Progress at Fabio Paris Art Gallery (Brescia, 15 January 2011)” by Flickr user Roͬͬ͠͠͡͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠sͬͬ͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠͠aͬͬ͠͠͠͠͠͠͠ Menkman, CC BY-NC 2.0
Robin James is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UNC Charlotte. She is author of two books: Resilience & Melancholy: pop music, feminism, and neoliberalism, published by Zer0 books last year, and The Conjectural Body: gender, race and the philosophy of music was published by Lexington Books in 2010. Her work on feminism, race, contemporary continental philosophy, pop music, and sound studies has appeared in The New Inquiry, Hypatia, differences, Contemporary Aesthetics, and the Journal of Popular Music Studies. She is also a digital sound artist and musician. She blogs at its-her-factory.com and is a regular contributor to Cyborgology.
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Tape Hiss, Compression, and the Stubborn Materiality of Sonic Diaspora–Christopher Chien
On Whiteness and Sound Studies–Gustavus Stadler
Here at Sounding Out! we like to celebrate World Listening Day (July 18) with a blog series that focuses on the importance of listening. This year, we bring your attention to the role of listening when it comes to the sounds of the K-12 classroom, and by extension, the school.
Any day in a K-12 school involves movement and sounds day in and day out: the shuffling of desks, the conversations among classmates, the fire drill alarm, the pencils on paper, the picking up of trays of food. However, in many conversations about schools, teaching, and learning, sound is absent.
This month’s series will have readers thinking about the sounds in classrooms in different ways. They will consider race, class, and gender, and how those aspects intersect how we listen to the classrooms of our past and our present. More importantly, the posts will all inspire assignments that educators at all stages can use in their classrooms. Our first post came from Shakira Holt, a playlist of her black girl students’ songs as philogynoir. Our second post was penned by Caroline Pinkston, and in it she questions common classroom management strategies for quieting a classroom instead of listening to students. Today’s post comes from the point of view of a student, teacher, and now researcher, who reflects upon how we listen to the sounds (and students!) in our classrooms.
Time’s up, pencils down, let’s take our notebooks outside to the playground and listen along with Cassie J. Brownell. –Liana Silva, Managing Editor
I have spent much of my life listening in schools. I essentially grew up in the public elementary school in Montana where my mother taught for over 40 years. The sounds of my childhood are those of feet squeaking on the tile floor of the hallways, the bounce of a kickball in the gym, and the slam of desks opening and closing throughout the day.
Across my elementary school years, I spent many early mornings attempting to write my name in cursive with a squeaky dry erase marker on the whiteboard in her classroom. Other mornings, I rapidly clicked the keyboard as I played Oregon Trail alongside two friends whose guardians also worked at the school. After school, I chased these same friends across the schoolyard, shot hoops with them in the gym, or discovered new worlds in the stacks of the library. The whipping Montana winds on the open playground later gave way to new sonic experiences, as I transitioned from elementary student to classroom teacher and, eventually, educational researcher.
When I later became a teacher at an elementary school in post-Katrina New Orleans, Louisiana, the chorus of sounds from my childhood reverberated around me. The delightful shrieks of children on the playground and the sounds of trays being stacked after lunch were familiar. So, too, was the daily stacking of chairs. The frequencies of childhood, both my own and that of my students, informed my entrée into teaching. The familiar rhythms of pencil sharpeners and stapled butcher paper were welcoming waves as I settled into not only my new role, but my new school community in the neighborhood of Algiers Point. Yet, with the opening bells of the school year at this New Orleans elementary school, I began to hear schooling in new registers.
On my first day of teaching, I was acutely attuned to the “noise” the second-grade children in my classroom made—sounds I had not been aware of as a student. I quickly tried to “correct” their behavior with promises of external rewards if they could only make better “choices,” including quieting themselves to listen to me. Yet, few of the classroom management “tricks” I had learned in my educational training seemed to work. After the last child walked away from the schoolyard, I crumbled in the classroom of my mentor teacher. Crying, I told her I was not cut out for such work. She laughed as she told me that to be a teacher I must (re)learn to listen to the sounds of my classroom.
In time, I learned to listen. The day-to-day sounds of teacher-directed schooling, or what I now know as the banking model of education, quickly gave way to my listening to children. I slowly learned the value of listening to the whispers of children as they read, the scuffle of their feet as they sought a different color crayon from a child at another table, and the wise words they shared with one another about how they used an alternative route to solve a given math problem. I listened to them too when they found my hand to hold during recess and the high-fives before they departed each day. Rather than hearing their sounds as unruly chatter, I opened my ears to the excitement and learning children were sharing with one another.
That semester Hurricane Gustav appeared in the Gulf Coast. The impending arrival of the storm coincided with the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As the whole city of New Orleans was encouraged to evacuate, I felt the resonances from Katrina’s devastating impact in the stories and questions of my second-grade students. As Gustav approached, many of the children shared In the final days before we evacuated, we commemorated Katrina and shared hopes for protection during Gustav.
While I listened to their words, I also learned to listen to their bodies. I could hear their worries about the storm in their hugs, the intonation of their voices, and in their reactions to thunderstorms shaking our classroom windows. As a bodily experience, multimodal listening quite literally moves beyond just what our ears can hear to how sound moves across/through/with bodies, materials, and contexts. Through multimodal listening, listeners can develop their skills as both critical consumers and producers of sound. Listeners are thus better positioned to reflect on and identify how sound informs other sensations and feelings. Although I have only recently put words to what it means to engage in multimodal listening, my body was already experienced with it.
I returned to the city almost two weeks later, after the Gulf Coast suffered the one-two-punch of Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. Whispers of wind rustled art supplies by sneaking through fresh cracks in the windows. As my colleagues and I hurriedly re-vamped our classrooms, the traditional staccato sounds of schooling slowly echoed in my ears. In the quiet clean-up of the storm, new frequencies of the school soundscape could be heard. This soundscape was not new in and of itself, but rather it was the absence of the consistent beat that harmonized the everyday sounds to which I had become attuned. Without the slap of a jump rope on the ground or the cheers of children playing kickball to punctuate the silence, waves of emotion—despair, hope, and uncertainty—underlying the soundscape of schooling I thought I knew became apparent to me for the first time.
As an educational researcher in an urban, elementary classroom in the Midwest, I now find myself hearing other frequencies of schooling that remained unheard even in my early teaching. In my new role, my job is to engage in multimodal listening at all times as I participate in elementary classrooms. As a teacher in New Orleans, I was only just beginning to engage in the task of multimodal listening that Ceraso describes. Still today, I am often still attempting to hear and feel all the vibrations happening around me. Yet, as a researcher, I can attend more fully to the task of listening.
Unlike when I was teaching, I do not need to adhere to strict policies regarding the learning of a group of students, but I can instead take an exploratory approach to learning alongside children. Specifically, in collaboration with a culturally and linguistically diverse group of 3rd-grade children in Mr. Holiday’s classroom this past year, I started to earwitness the ambient soundscapes of children’s life spaces. Although I first began listening with the children at Community School J three years earlier, I entered in to Mr. Holiday’s class this year interested in considering the ways children were engaging with and drawing upon various cultural, linguistic, and modal experiences to communicate. I did so aware that, for many historically marginalized children, such communicative practices are often overlooked or unheard in standardized curricular materials.
Mr. Holiday challenged his students to think—and hear—beyond the standardized curriculum by considering how sound can be a tool to write with and through.
“You’re writing, but you can use words, pictures, you can sketch…anything you want to,” Mr. Holiday shared with his class of diverse 3rd graders one day. “Just remember to listen. When we come back inside, we will all share what we heard and then we will talk about how we could use this in our stories about our school.”
Outdoors, a low-flying plane could be heard. With little bodies quietly kicking them back-and-forth, swings creaked. On the playground, we listened to the whipping wind and felt the cool fall weather on our skin. From the slide, one child sounded out for his peers the word chilly, stretching the ls as long as he could. The mulch of the dry ground was kicked by one child as another, with her stomach on the seat of a swing, pushed the ground under her feet to glide back-and-forth.
Some children imagined the empty playground to be filled with the familiar sounds of their daily recesses. Others began to set strict boundaries for how they and their peers might begin to listen. In an attempt to control the bodies of her peers, one girl sent away her friend, suggesting that they could not hear together. Almost simultaneously, another child silently waved from the highest playground tower to the three boys from her class seated closely next to each other on a bench.
As Mr. Holiday called for all children to make a line outside his classroom door, a cacophony of cheers and groans lurched from the children as they sprinted from their observation sites.
“Look at how much I noticed!” one little boy shouted as he handed his notebook to me with a list of sounds. He included sounds heard in the moments we were outdoors like the airplane, but he also included imagined shrieks of children at play.
The sounds of elementary schooling have shown me that much of classroom teaching and learning needs to be grounded in listening. From the structured directions—like those presented by Mr. Holiday—to the daily screams of children racing across the school grounds. In other words, we must listen to children, to their experiences, and to their emotions in order to critically consider how schooling, as a space, informs and is informed by children’s bodies and sounds.
I sometimes wonder what frequencies and rhythms are unheard. With each passing observation in a school, I question whether Western schooled notions of listening contaminate the uniquely trained ears of children. As I observed in the listening exercise with Mr. Holiday’s class, children were capable of engaging in multimodal listening: they not only heard, but felt the wind; they created and felt the vibrations of the swings. They imagined the movement of bodies across the playground and cacophony of sounds and emotions that accompanied them. All of these were embodied sounds I missed as an adult and classroom teacher.
At the same time, I remain hopeful. I am hopeful because the children I came to know in Mr. Holiday’s classroom took the task of listening seriously. They understood hearing as more than simply about the cars passing by or the birds in the nearby trees, but instead engaged in listening with their bodies. Throughout the year, I noticed they were acutely aware of the sniffles or the slow shuffle of feet of a peer who was having a rough day. Their eyes grew large as they danced along with their friends on brain breaks and they often cheered with the whir of a fidget spinner balanced on their teacher’s thumb.
This hope is also based in my various sonic experiences, across spaces and places that visually appear quite different. Teachers interested in learning to listen with their students might consider how they, like Mr. Holiday, might foreground sound as a mode of primacy within the perceived constraints of the mandated curriculum. Engaging in a multi-sensory experience may be as simple as Mr. Holiday’s listening task on the familiar grounds of the schoolyard. Or, perhaps, it is starting your curriculum with the children’s stories of their lived experiences as I did in New Orleans. As others have discussed, when it comes to listening, there is not a clearly defined beginning or end as there does not exist a “blink of an ear.” I am slowly becoming more attuned to the sonic possibilities of how children’s stories and experiences of schooling may be amplified if we, as Mr. Holiday shared, “Just remember to listen.”
Featured image: “listen” by Flickr user Ren:), CC BY-ND 2.0
Cassie J. Brownell is a doctoral candidate and Marianne Amarel Teaching and Teacher Education Fellow in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. A corecipient of a 2015 NCTE-CEE Research Initiative Grant, Cassie’s most recent collaborative project—#hearmyhome—explores how writing with and through sound might help students and teachers attune toward literacies and communities of difference.
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SO! Amplifies: #hearmyhome and the Soundscapes of the Everyday–Cassie J. Brownell and Jon M. Wargo
(Sound)Walking Through Smithfield Square in Dublin— Linda O’Keeffe
A Listening Mind: Sound Learning in a Literature Classroom–Nicole Furlonge
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WOMEN, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!
As reported by the statistics gurus at fivethirtyeight.com, almost half a million people marched in Washington and Los Angeles each on Saturday, January 21st 2017. New York City reported 400,000 folks in attendance at their own march and Boston, Chicago and Seattle each tallied over 100,000 people in their streets. Just south of Los Angeles, I attended the Women’s March in Santa Ana where 12,000 folks took to the streets with signs and pussy hats in support of civil rights. As friends to my side chanted along with the crowd, I documented the aural contours of the event with my recorder. Here it is, for posterity’s sake, a soundwalk of the women’s march in Santa Ana, CA.
WOMEN, UNITED, WILL NEVER BE DEFEATED!
Co-Founder and Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell is an Assistant Professor of Informatics at UC Irvine. He earned his doctorate from the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information in 2015 and was a a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar for Faculty Diversity in Informatics and Digital Knowledge at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California from 2015-2016. Aaron’s research is focused on revealing historical connections between games, play, and the United States military-industrial complex. He is interested in how military ideologies become integrated into game design and how these perspectives are negotiated within the imaginations of players. He is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of the journal Analog Game Studies and the Multimedia Editor of Sounding Out!
Featured image taken before the Yost Theater in Santa Ana, image used with permission by the author.
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Sounding Out! Podcast #57: The Reykjavik Sound Walk – Andrew J. Salvati
Park Sounds: A Kansas City Soundwalk for Fall – Liana M. Silva
“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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