Garageland! Authenticity and Musical Taste
Today’s post is a bit of a confessional. Reflecting on Andreas Duus Pape’s post a few weeks back, Building Intimate Performance Venues on the Internet, I can not help but admire how closely Andreas relates podcasting with intimacy, and therefore; authenticity. Although it would be simple to critique this point as a case of circular reasoning (Podcasts are intimate because they are authentic. Podcasts are authentic because they are intimate.), I cannot help but wonder if there is something deeply honest and deftly earnest about this claim. Speaking as a musician, I believe that authenticity is a quality that cannot be conjured. It, like a feedback loop or proof of will, seeks only itself. But, how does the desire to be authentic shape performance? Does it affect what we listen for and who we listen to?
My adventures as a musician started in high school with a second hand guitar and a lot of free time. It only took a year before my pastime became something more like an obsession. First was my high school band: The Nosebleeds. The Nosebleeds played revved up versions of 50s and 60s rock and roll while all the other kids were covering Blink 182 and Operation Ivy. We were cool – really! Even at this early stage it was clear to me, authentic rock bands played old-school rock music. Even my punk guitar heroes from the 1970s like Mick Jones and Captain Sensible knew how to cop a Chuck Berry riff and Little Richard groove. After 3 years of humid Jersey shore dive bars and fluorescent high school talent shows we called it quits. Honestly, we just got bored. Also, our ace repertoire of fifteen songs was beginning to wear a little thin. . .
After The Nosebleeds came The Carpetbaggers. This was a sea-change in compositional direction. Instead of playing punky renditions of Twist and Shout, we affected a country twang and sang songs about travel and broken hearts. If you caught us on a good night, we would even throw a bit of Sonic Youth into the mix and evoke a wall of feedback out from silence. We played in New Brunswick basements and central Jersey bars and recorded an EP on an abandoned Tascam 1” reel to reel. Buzz words being thrown around at the time were: rootsy, alternative and raw. I had pulled the covers back from a revved up Chuck Berry only to find a wonderland of Americana – washboards, harmonicas, and acoustic guitars – waiting. This was, of course, what those rocker’s back in the day were inspired by – right? If The Carpetbaggers weren’t the real thing, who was?
When The Carpetbaggers broke up I joined one last band, The Acid Creeps. At this point, there would be no turning back from my descent into nostalgia. We aimed to resurrect the late sixties go-go bar house band. Taking care to acquire vintage Fender amplifiers, vintage reissue guitars, and even a knockoff Vox Continental organ. If that wasn’t enough, my sister sewed us matching orange paisley shirts which complimented our skinny black ties and sunglasses. We imagined ourselves as a period perfect garage band, exactly the sort we had seen in movies. We covered everything from Iggy Pop’s, I Wanna Be Your Dog, to The Sonic’s, Psycho, and the Detroit Wheels version of Little Latin Lupe Lu (which we all preferred). Only in our mid-twenties, we were experts (or snobs, depending on your perspective) at defining and defending what authentic garage music was, and what it was not. Before breaking up, we created a yellow 7” vinyl tomb to forever keep our music. It was named “The Bananna Split EP,” and at the moment it all seemed perfect. Authenticity, sold for five dollars at a show.
Reflecting, five years later, on these three epochs of music making – it is hard not to blush. Not only did I, for at least a year, consider each band the singular most authentic band ever; authenticity, as an ideal, began subtly to change the way I viewed myself. I transformed from Aaron the Weird Al Yankovic fan to Aaron, the garage rock expert in about 8 years. Wherever I looked for authenticity, I found it, and it was real. Not only that, but at the bar, we convinced ourselves and our friends of this notion. Conversations about which bands got it, and which did not, were frequent – if not mandatory. The answers became standard too: The Exploding Hearts, The Murder City Devils, The Misfits? They all got it. Bands like Metallica; for the most part, they did not. These conversations forever led us to equate the authentic with the obscure; a rabbit hole that twists and darts endlessly.
Authenticity in music is like feedback: powerful, seductive and dangerous. It is a very real, yet elusive concept that invites imitation and when left unchecked, can spread like a contagion. Although I love revisiting the music of my old bands, I cannot help but hear them now as a set of key moments in a greater life narrative. Iterations of myself left behind in an ongoing dialogue about authenticity. A dialogue, which, to this day, affects what music I choose to listen to, and what music I choose to avoid. Although none of my bands were truly “the real-deal,” it would be odd to claim that any were not authentic. Rather, this concept, authenticity animated each band – it kept us all going, and brought our music to life. My bands were authentic because I believed in them. I believed in my bands, because they were authentic.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD student at Rutgers University.
Becoming a Bad Listener: Labyrinthitis, Vertigo, and “Passing”
For the past three weeks I have been sick with labyrinthitis. It started with a bout of vertigo while picking up some essentials at a local pharmacy and has since recurred in various other locations. In the morning, when I stroll for coffee, it feels like I am walking a tightrope. Shelves after shelves of boxes at a local store have made the world spin. A determined trip to Manhattan (for a friend’s film release) quickly transformed into an incomprehensible blur of light and sound. Because of this lapse in cognition I have found myself listening to the world, and my body, in fascinating (although frustrating) new ways. The most frightening moments of vertigo I experienced have followed moments of both visual and audio overload. When I can no longer understand what I hear, panic is sure to follow. Worst of all, even though negotiating my day-to-day responsibilities has become a trial in patience, to most observers, I seem perfectly fine. I have decided to share these experiences because of how well they inform the ways that sound, specifically the practice of listening, informs the process of “passing” as normal in everyday life.
Labyrinthitis is often related to an inner ear infection. When the series of canals within the ear are damaged, a sense of balance is lost. This lack of balance completely skews all visual cues: things look blurry, there is an unsteadiness to things (as if on a boat), bright and flashing lights are extremely distracting . . .imagine being drunk, but with none of the perks. Another symptom of labyrinthitis is an occasional ringing in the ear. For me, this ringing is at its worst when I am trying to focus on a conversation in an environment with lots of ambient noise. For instance, if I try to hold a conversation while walking down the street and several cars pass by, the ringing will begin to overwhelm both the cars and the conversation. It’s like my brain is dialing back the volume of all the sounds around me. As mentioned earlier this is the most terrifying of all the symptoms that I experience – it feels, uncannily, like I am waking from a dream.
One labyrinthitis support site suggested that prolonged coping with the above symptoms in everyday life is, perhaps, the most difficult part of recovery. In an interesting twist they drew on sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1963 work Stigma to support this claim, “An individual carries a stigma if s/he is unable for any reason to fulfil society’s sterotypic criteria for normality – if this deviation is obvious (eg: physical deformity) the person is at once ‘discredited’. Failings that are less obvious or may be concealed (eg: vestibular problems) render the individual ‘discreditable’ in the sense that his/her identity is vulnerable. Whereas a discredited person must adopt a stigmatised identity – a discreditable individual may prefer the effort and risks attached to trying to ‘pass’ as normal to the frank stigma of admitting the attribute.” Has labyrinthitis rendered me discreditable? Although it is tempting to critique the armchair diagnosis above, I believe that it is a valuable basis for theoretical inquiry. What are the risks of acquiring the stigma of vestibular problems? In other words: do I choose to reveal my illness tactically?
Surely, as this blog post attests, I am not too frightened by the stigma of revealing my illness. It is likely to pass in the next few months and I assume that most of our readers are not particularly judgmental. I am scared, however; when I lose track of conversations. Sometimes even to the point that I choose, as Goffman suggests, to “pass” and keep my lapse of understanding secret. As the ringing in my ear grows: I will often keep quiet, smile, and nod my head. There have been several times in recent memory that I have even forced a chuckle, or a short, daft, answer. Often these replies are deliberately vague, peppered with just enough key words to convince my companion that I was listening. At these times, in my head, I am lost – reeling with confusion. I’m trying to figure out where I am (what street is this, how can I get home quickly?), what has triggered this confusion (is it the noises behind me, or the lights ahead?), and if there is cause to be concerned (is this business as usual, or am I about to faint?). I want, at these moments, to “pass” as normal because I am scared of becoming too much of a burden to those around me. My Achilles’ heel in these situations is contingent on my ability to listen, passing, at least, as a good listener.
The sense of stigma I imagine, as a bad listener, is infinitely worse than the sense of stigma I could accrue as a sick individual. Goffman, in 1963, had been writing in a late Fordist economy. As such, the stigma of illness related more to physical labor than one’s ability to socialize and fit in. In these context of illness could suggest an inability to produce; the diseased body set apart from all others. As immaterial and affective labor become valorized in new ways, stigma comes to relate to the inter-social processes of control that form the new societal knot. Chief among these stigmas, for myself at least, is the inability to listen. Listening cues others in to how well one is able to socialize, participate, and contribute to a tight web of everyday activities. When I cannot listen, yes, I am vulnerable. I am vulnerable, mostly, because I am suddenly and inexplicably alone.
The worst part of becoming a bad listener is recognizing how very little is required in a conversational exchange. As noted earlier, vagaries and key words are, for the most part, sufficient. Is there a final irony here, while my ability to listen to and understand others is diminished has my ability to listen to and understand myself increased? Many have argued that mimesis, or imitation, is, in fact, central to the way people communicate. “The whole of human culture,” according to Anna Gibbs, “then, is, perhaps, predicated on imitation, in which difference and innovation are as central as reproduction and similarity” (p.202). This notion sends eerie chills up my spine. Bad listening, is, from this perspective, simply an alternative mode of identity. Words come in through the ear, rattle around for a bit in the brain, and then come out of the mouth with sparse changes and a different order. Where difference and innovation can be considered the bi-products of good listening, reproduction and similarity stem from bad listening.
Perhaps bad listening is not all that bad. Gibbs also suggests that mimetic communication, “is the cement of parent-child, peer, friendship, and love relations” (p. 202). When “passing” for normal, I shift gears. I use my listening instincts to further a set of affective and emotional bonds which are equally important to my everyday life. Listening is central to “passing,” but there is a fine distinction between modes of listening. Listening analytically is the practice of listening in order to decipher, decrypt, suggest and parse new ideas from a statement or song. Listening affectively is, then, the binary. Not a mode which drives conversations, and/or innovates, but one which actively seeks to create bonds of comfort, compassion, and support. Listening for timbre, tone, and vibe instead of composition, consistency and argument.