An Evening with Three Legendary Rebel Women at Le Poisson Rouge, January 27, 2017: Margot Olavarria, Bibbe Hansen, and Alice Bag
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 we feature Elizabeth Keenan, documenting an evening with three of punk’s legendary Rebel Women at a time of political crisis.
–Aaron SO! (Sounding Out!) + Jenny SO! (Sounding Out!)
This is not normal/let’s not pretend.
–Alice Bag, “Reign of Fear”
Since November 8, nothing has felt normal in the United States. Instead, every day brings new concerns about what the Trump administration might dismantle, destroy, or defund. The first two months have brought two attempts at an executive order barring immigrants to the US from predominantly Muslim countries and re-introduced the nation to the following cast of characters: a billionaire with no public education experience placed in charge of the Department of Education seeking to push a religious agenda; a man who once vowed to abolish the Department of Energy nominated to helm it; a white supremacist, Breitbart-editor consigliere; and a conspiracy-theorist National Security Advisor with suspicious ties to Russia.
This is not normal.
Let’s not pretend.
But in her song, “Reign of Fear,” Bag counters with defiance: “We’ll resist you/We won’t stand by.”
“Reign of Fear,” which Bag performed last at “Rebel Woman,” an event at (le) Poisson Rouge in New York City, encapsulated the evening’s message of resistance. Hosted by Three Rooms Press, “Rebel Women” featured readings from Margot Olavarria, Bibbe Hansen, and Alice Bag, all of whom have crafted careers that blend music and literary performance. Olavarria is the founding bass player for the Go-Go’s; she later played bass for post-punk experimental band Brian Brain, and holds a PhD in political science. Hansen, an actress, artist and musician, grew up in New York City’s art world. As a teen, she worked with Andy Warhol and played music with Jan Kerouac. Later, she co-founded the ironic Black Flag tribute band, Black Fag, with “terrorist drag artist” Vaginal Creme Davis (who also played with Alice Bag in Cholita). As lead singer and co-founder of the Bags, Alice Bag emerged as one of the most influential Chicana voices in the punk rock scene in Los Angeles in the 1970s (She later documented the women of this scene on her website). Since then, her musical career has included groundbreaking bands Castration Squad, Cholita, and Las Tres, as well as her self-titled solo debut in 2016. Her memoirs Violence Girl (2011) and Pipe Bomb for the Soul (2015) document her music and activism, from L.A. to Nicaragua.
“Rebel Women,” held just two days after the Women’s March on Washington, D.C.—and the satellite marches across the country and internationally—offered an opportunity to reflect on approaches to resistance, whether through music, words, or direct action. Although the Women’s March came under criticism for an initial lack of diversity, it became a protest led by activist women of color, with speakers and performers pushing back against the normalizing of misogyny from a pussy-grabbing president. Both Bag and Olavarria had attended the march in Washington, D.C.; many in the audience had marched there or in the crowd of 500,000 in New York City, which gave “Rebel Woman” a particularly urgent charge.
And our present moment calls for such urgency; among many other necessary actions, we need popular music scholars to rethink how resistance continues to be a productive idea for musicians and protesters, especially those with marginalized identities. In the past few months, “resistance” has experienced a resurgence in political circles. Many of the most popular posters at the Women’s march picked up on the idea of resistance, including one featuring Star Wars’ Princess Leia and the slogan, “A Woman’s Place Is in the Resistance.” #Resist has become a buzzword for organizing against the Trump administration, whether for women’s rights or against the administration’s racism, for health care or against various cabinet nominations. As a hashtag, #resist is remarkably open, allowing social media users to make connections between causes. This is what the performances of “Rebel Women” did so well for the audience at Le Poisson Rouge.
Calling an event “rebel women” positions Bag, Hansen, and Olavarria as “resistance” fighters. The title “Rebel Women” conjures Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” and the punk-rock feminism of Riot Grrrl, a generation of feminism after Bag and Olivarria participated in the L.A. punk scene and nearly two decades after Hansen starred in a Warhol film based on her own life. Bag and Olavarria, first active as musicians during the 1980s, connected the present moment to the time when punk rock positioned itself against the policies of the Reagan administration. Situating their resistance in their Latina identities (Bag is Chicana, Olavarria is Chilean, both are Angelenos), they conveyed to the mostly white, mostly middle-class New York audience an urgent, intersectional politics. Hansen, who said she wasn’t “given the memo” to connect her reading to politics, read what she called a “time capsule.”
The stark contrast between these performances brought up questions of power and privilege around what types of memoir are available to different types of women. Bag and Olivarria performed the intersectional oppressions that shaped their lives and connected them to politics, while Bibbe got to be “herself” (that is, unmarked, apolitical, and white). Was this a sign of a tacit understanding white women aren’t going to be as affected by Trump’s policies? (after all, white women elected Trump). Are women of color always expected to perform the emotional labor of connecting their oppressions to political policy, while white women can merely tell stories? Because it is exhausting for women of color to perform this emotional labor–and it can often be exploitative–its all the more important to recognize that Bag and Olivarria chose to do so at Le Poisson Rouge, as I am certain they constructed their performances to speak to this audience (to think otherwise would deny some incredibly smart women their agency).
With those differences in mind, “Rebel Women” underscored for me that intersectional feminism has much to offer in terms of reframing studies of resistance within popular music and is key to ensuring the field’s continued viability in the face of multiple, destructive Trump policies. The concept of intersectionality, developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the ways that multiple axes of identity—for example, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, or class—affect people in multi-dimensional ways. Crenshaw’s work stresses the importance of seeing intersectionality as an expression of structural power, not just an individual’s conception of their personal identity. Drawing on these intersections can help add complexity to how we understand “resistance” (or even #resistance).
While the study of resistance used to be common in popular music studies—especially in the 1990s—the framework rightly came under criticism as too binary, a position of counterculture vs. mainstream that worked well for glossing 1960s antiwar protests and punk rock, but too simplistic for exploring the nuances of the late-capitalist marketplace. As a theory that emerged from Marxist scholars and examined mostly close-knit, male-dominated subcultures (with formative texts such as Resistance Through Rituals and Subculture: the Meaning of Style), “resistance” was never ideal for grappling with networks organized from a diverse population. An intersectional view, however, understands that the “resistance” group is not evenly or equally affected by the policies of the dominant group; that multiple oppressions shape the forms of resistance available to individual actors; that people facing multiple oppressions also face heightened stakes when they engage in political protest; and that responding to the dominant group requires a commitment to others whose oppressions you may not share.
Olavarria’s performance, which opened the evening, illustrated intersectional resistance by interweaving work from the past and present. Instead of feeling piecemeal, each fragment signaled how structural power and resistance intersected in her life. In the first vignette, she described how, shortly after Trump received the Republican nomination, she ducked into a bar in Florida to escape the rain. A man next to her began to praise Trump. So did another. Finally, one turned to her, to ask what she thought of Trump’s policies. She responded: “’No habla Inglés. Yo soy Mexicana.’ I’m not really Mexican. I’m from Chile, known for poetry and protest. But today we are all Mexican, all Muslims, all immigrants.” Of course, we aren’t all Mexican, Muslims, or immigrants—but we can show thoughtful solidarity. Olavarria’s act of resistance worked because she effectively deployed her Latina identity to make a powerful intersectional point.
Intersectionality offers an important understanding, that not all moments are prime for resistance from every body in the same way. Women of color, for example, face different stakes and consequences than white women at the airport and at border crossings. In an excerpt from her entry in the musician’s guide Tour Smart, Olavarria recalled her band Brian Brain being pulled over by the US border patrol in the late 1980s. Dressed head-to-toe in thrift-store plaid in honor of their record label, Plaid Records, Olavarria didn’t look the part of a stowaway. But that didn’t stop the border guards from questioning her although she had a valid driver’s license, and her English bandmate’s visa had expired: “I was quizzed on civics. Then it was where did you go to high school? Who was your kindergarten teacher?” As the questioning grew more in depth, Olavarria “started to imagine working in Juarez in plaid attire.”
Olavarria’s story cannot be separated from Latinx identity, nor can they be separated from the politics of race, borders, and national identity in the United States. Instead, she illustrates that proposals such as Trump’s proposed “wall” have deep roots in anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant policies, and they show dark possibilities about the eagerness with which ICE embraced Trump’s “Muslim Ban.” Her story also emphasizes that, although our current moment is certainly an intensification of such harassment, deportation, and incarceration, women of color have faced these dangers in the U.S. for a very long time. What’s new, beyond Trump’s policies, is increased white feminist attention to these issues, an opportunity for both increased resistance and wary skepticism. Olavarria ended her segment with six suggestions for resistance reminding the audience that in these dark times, “walking around thinking we’re totally fucked will not change anything.” She certainly spoke to my struggle in that moment; the response in the room suggested I wasn’t alone.
Margot Olivarria’s Tips for Resistance:
- Wear your safety pin. It is appropriate that a punk fashion accessory has become the symbol of political dissidents. It may also come in handy when militarized police tear your clothes.
- Enjoy yourself. Walking around thinking we’re totally fucked will not change anything.
- If you have numb yourself, go ahead, as long as you don’t become addicted.
- Spread love. The only thing that will counter Trump’s hate is love.
- It may be that the only way we can say, “You’re fired!” to Trump is through the vote. Register as many progressive minded people as you can. Midterms will be crucial.
- If you see something, do something. Protest against all injustices we witness. Art mightier than the sword. Surround yourself with like-minded people and express outrage. As love Trumps hate, expression beats depression.
Hansen’s “time capsule” from 1964 described events leading to her starring in Andy Warhol’s film, Prison, based on her experiences in reform school. Hansen’s performance, told from behind her dark “reading sunglasses,” took on the tenor of a world-weary teenager.
She had run away from her parents—her father was Fluxus painter Al Hansen and her mother was poet and New York bon vivant Audrey Ostlin Hansen (who died at age 37 in 1968)—and was feeling stir-crazy at her friend Jeff’s apartment, because he only had “the same 40 books every hipster has.” So when her pal Janet Kerouac called with an invite of learning to cook spaghetti and taking acid for the first time, she jumped at the chance, even though she wasn’t sure about the acid part, because it was “too earnest.”
By ten that night, we’re rolling around, and spaghetti is everywhere. We’re dipping it in sauce, hurling it everywhere. We slither and roll across the floor like the first reptiles emerging from the primordial ooze. All the guys have hard-ons. I’m not really into orgies. They’re more like work, you know?
Hansen’s skill as an actor was on full display in her reading, as she vanished into her narration, capturing a unique combination of jadedness and enthusiasm. But every once in a while, a line like, “I may be a kid, but I’m also a freak,” would jump out. It was only toward the end of her reading, when Bibbe describes herself, still high, playing hopscotch with kids in the neighborhood that she reminds us: this is a child of twelve. The kids’ mom takes Bibbe in and gives her some cake, and she is astonished that this what normal parents do for kids.
The moment reveals the vulnerability of Bibbe, the runaway. She might have some agency in choosing to spend time with hipster boys and Jan Kerouac, but those come along with expectations of orgies and acid. It doesn’t leave much room for childhood, hopscotch, and cake. After this realization, Bibbe decides to call her father, who tells her, “I ain’t going to jail, so I guess you are.” In this powerlessness, Hansen found an upside: the day her father got her out of juvenile detention, he took her to lunch with Andy Warhol. Finding that upside does not mean that Hansen lacks self-awareness; instead, the moment read as one of acceptance. She cannot create a new girlhood for herself, just as she couldn’t escape her family by hiding with hipsters. “In the end,” she said, “you get what you get.”
Although Hansen’s reading felt disconnected from current politics, I heard her contribution to the evening as a moment of personal resistance. Hansen has often been defined by the men surrounding her: daughter Al Hansen, youngest of Andy Warhol’s Factory stars, mother of musician Beck. Instead of giving us Bibbe through her connections to her father, or to Warhol, she reframed her adolescent experiences so that they became side characters, opening up space for her unique, clear, adolescent voice, recast through a woman’s perspective.
Alice Bag, singer of The Bags, finished out the night with combined spoken word and live musical performance. After playing in many bands since, Bag released her first solo album in 2016 on the independent punk label Don Giovanni Records. In the intervening years, she worked as an activist and teacher, both in the United States and in Central America. Her combination of readings from her memoirs and musical performance with Tanya Pearson evoked a lifetime of resistance. As the only performer to combine spoken word and live musical performance, Bag situated her songs in the readings she selected from her memoirs. Although the songs are relatively new, they drew on her rich experience with Latinx activism and education.
Her first excerpt, from Violence Girl, described the march for the National Chicano Moratorium on March 29, 1970, the largest anti-Vietnam protest by a minority group. Bag went to the march with her father. Until that moment, she said, “I had never realized I was part of a minority. Our enemies were not afraid to throw bottles at us, or shoot us.” The moment inspired a song that Bag performed, “White Justice.” Framed from a child’s perspective, “White Justice” explores the dawning realization that a march is not a parade, and that it may have dangerous consequences, even violence. At first filled with vivid colors of “blue skies/brown berets,” “green lawns,” and “yellow corn,” the mood turns when the police arrive, with “black gloves/blue collars/blood red/silver dollars,” a moment she connected to the present day: “Our struggle then was here at home/And it’s still going on.”
Bag encouraged the audience to sing along at the chorus of “White Justice”—and many members of the mostly white audience did. This eager participation stood in stark contrast to an incident I witnessed at the Women’s March in New York City, when a man tried to get a “Black Lives Matter” chant going during the New York City march and it was slow going.
Bag’s next story, from Pipe Bomb for the Soul, illustrated that, while she was a member of an oppressed minority in the United States, she brought privilege with her as a teacher in Nicaragua. In her words, “I discovered a lot of things, mostly my own ignorance.” She returned to the United States and taught for over 20 years. Her next song, “Programmed,” expressed her frustration at the post-Leave No Child Behind state of education. At a certain point, she said, “The kids were asked to bubble in Scantrons. We need to teach kids to think for themselves, to value their heritage and experience.”
Finally, Bag ended with the song that began this blog post: “Reign of
Fear.” Inspired by the election, the song acknowledges both fear and
resistance. It is fear that elected Trump; it’s fear that now
motivates some of thethe resistance against him is a stance against
that fear. The fears that elected Trump are fears that treat rights as
a zero-sum game—that if women, or people of color, or queer people, or
Muslims, or Mexicans, or anyone else should gain rights or power, then
white men will lose theirs. In rejecting this view, Bag offers an
intersectional resistance in a punk song, noting “the future comes in
all colors and creeds.” Women of color have been leaders of the
resistance since Trump was elected, but they have also laid a
groundwork for intersectional feminist activism over decades of work.
This is not normal. Let’s not pretend.
But, in resistance lies hope.
In the small space below Le Poisson Rouge, Bag’s voice and Pearson’s guitar swelled to fill the room with that hope:
We reject your/Reign of fear. The future is female/the future is queer. Look out, man/’Cause the future is here.
Featured Image of Margot Olavarria, Bibbe Hansen, and Alice Bag by Christine Tottenham, Used here with permission of the Women of Rock Oral History Project.
Elizabeth K. Keenan completed her doctorate in ethnomusicology at Columbia University in 2008.She is currently reworking her academic work on popular music and feminism since 1990 into a book for normal humans. She has published in Women and Music, Journal of Popular Music Studies, Archivaria, and Current Musicology, as well as two chapters in Women Make Noise: Girl Bands from Motown to the Modern (2012). Her proudest moment is finally getting to interview Carrie Brownstein, for NYLON, more than ten years after she tried to interview Brownstein for her dissertation. She sometimes writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae website, and her occasional blogging can be found at badcoverversion.wordpress.com.
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Riot-Grrrl, Punk and the Tyranny of Technique – Tamra Lucid
Sounding Race in Rap Songs explores the production of musical identity in hip hop’s first two decades as a commercial genre. Although I don’t ignore lyrics or visual imagery, my main purpose is to analyze rap music as music, to understand how specific artistic decisions contribute to racial meaning in particular songs. My methods revolve around the study of how producers manipulate breakbeats, also commonly known as “breaks.” Initially understood as short, percussion-heavy passages that appear in many songs recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, breaks have been central to hip hop from the music’s earliest days in the South Bronx when DJs began isolating and looping them on their turntables to the delight of dancers. Since then, producers have tried out new approaches to working with breakbeats: hiring studio musicians to re-record them; programming drum machines to imitate them; and using sampling-sequencing technology to capture and rearrange them.
Throughout the book, I describe how producers use breaks and give rise to musical-racial codes that can be manipulated to project a variety of identities and attitudes. The following excerpt from the third chapter of Sounding Race, explains how the style of beat making popularized by the New York-based Bomb Squad (Public Enemy’s production team) provided a blueprint for pioneering west coast gangsta rap group N.W.A’s depiction of Compton, California. By layering multiple loops into a dense, cacophonous mix, N.W.A transposed Public Enemy’s “too black, too strong” sound onto the world of Los Angeles’s postindustrial streets.
N.W.A and its former members have been in the news recently thanks to the biopic Straight Outta Compton. Yet one aspect of the group’s development downplayed in the film is the way that its members formulated their identities in relation to east coast rap. In the mid-1980s, New York was the undisputed center of the industry, and its influence on L.A.-based acts is easy to see and hear. Ice Cube’s first group C.I.A. ( Cru’ In Action) used a nasal, hocket style approach to rapping cribbed directly from the Beastie Boys 1986 album License to Ill. And the cover of N.W.A’s first album N.W.A and the Posse, features numerous group members posing with the giant clock necklaces made famous by Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav. In similar fashion, the beat Dr. Dre produced for “Straight Outta Compton” (the title track to their breakout 1988 album) followed the Bomb Squad’s potent formula for signifying militant blackness. —Loren Kajikawa
The following is an excerpt from Chapter Three “‘Let Me Ride’: Gangsta Rap’s Drive Into The Popular Mainstream,” of Loren’s Kajikawa’s Sounding Race in Rap Songs, with thanks to The University of California Press. Any notes have been included in the text to conform to Sounding Out!‘s style sheet.
We [Public Enemy] were in Vegas and they [N.W.A.] were on tour with us, and I had just got the vinyl in. That’s what this is all about. Because Run-DMC and LL Cool J gave me energy. And if our energy happened to be transferred to N.W.A., then that’s what this whole thing is for.” Chuck D as quoted in Brian Coleman, Check The Technique: Liner Notes For Hip-Hop Junkies (New York: Villard Books, 2007), 354.
According to Chuck D, Public Enemy’s musical style directly influenced Dre, and he recalls giving the first two copies of It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back to Dr. Dre and Eazy-E prior to the album’s official release. The recorded evidence supports Chuck D’s recollection. For many of the tracks on Straight Outta Compton, Dr. Dre seems to have borrowed from the “loops on top of loops” style of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad.
In fact, when Ice Cube left N.W.A. in 1989, he hoped that Dre would continue to make beats for his solo project. When this proved impossible due to Dre’s contractual obligations to N.W.A., Ice Cube began collaborating with the Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad, which served as the production unit for his album Amerikkka’s Most Wanted (1990). N.W.A.’s breakthrough was finding a way to put a distinctive spin on these influences, and the artistic strategy that they arrived at for their first Ruthless Records release was designed to put themselves on the map—both literally and figuratively.
Rather than shout out the multiplicity of neighborhoods where their members were actually from (as they had done in “Panic Zone”), N.W.A. chose to center their identity around Dr. Dre and Eazy-E’s hometown of Compton, California. The sound of Compton as Dr. Dre imagined it, however, drew on musical practices and artistic decisions similar to those found in Public Enemy’s “Rebel Without a Pause.” To construct the rhythmic foundation of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dre looped the breakbeat from The Winstons’ “Amen Brother” (1969), one of the most sampled beats in hip hop, that also served as the foundation for dozens of songs in the UK’s “jungle” (aka “drum and bass”) genre.
Like other heavily sampled breaks from this era, the one-measure loop features a syncopated interlocking of snare and bass hits that is reminiscent of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer (featuring Clyde Stubblefield’s famous beat). As if he were following the Bomb Squad’s exact formula, Dr. Dre layered a drum machine (Roland TR-808) over this break.
The 808 was programmed to add its characteristic bass boom to the first two drum kicks of the “Amen” loop, and to tick off a 16-count hi-hat pulse with a closing hi-hat clasp on the downbeat of every other measure. The “Amen” break and the two hi-hat parts, provide the rhythmic foundation around which Dr. Dre places numerous other repeating sounds. Two other ingredients stand out in this beat: a guitar ostinato and a low drone on what sounds like a baritone sax or trombone (or perhaps a downwardly pitched sample of another instrument). The guitar ostinato, which plays straight eighth-notes on E-flat except for a one step descent to D-flat on the “and” of every fourth beat, churns out tight 1-measure units of sound.
The horn drone (also on E-flat) has a raw, muddled quality, and casts an ominous cloud over the track.
By combining these layers with the dense percussion track, Dre created a tightly packed funk groove with many sonic similarities to Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad. Like “Rebel Without a Pause,” the track to “Straight Outta Compton” features tight 1-measure loops stacked on top of one another to create a thick and intense groove.
Except for the drone, most of the elements in the track have a punchy feel, full of rhythmic stabs and staccato attacks, including the automatic gunfire that Dre samples to follow Ice Cube’s reference to an AK-47 assault rifle. Due to the “noisiness” of the beat, the way sonic space seems filled to maximum capacity, the members of N.W.A.—similar to Public Enemy’s Chuck D and Flavor Flav—practically yell their verses, as if they must raise their voices in order to be heard over the cacophony. Even before the actual words to “Straight Outta Compton” are digested, the sound of the track and the group’s vocals evoke the palpable tension of imminent conflict, which reinforces the theme of violent confrontation in the song’s lyrics. For the chorus of “Straight Outta Compton,” Dr. Dre strings together a series of samples with rapid-fire precision. The sound of screeching car tires from Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble” is followed by turntable scratching; the scratching leads directly to a choppy sample of the words “City of Compton” from Ronnie Hudson’s “Westcoast Poplock,” which is then followed by more scratching. The whole chain of musical events is deployed over the breakbeat from Funkadelic’s “You’ll Like It Too,” which Dr. Dre splices into the beat just for the chorus. The rapid cutting from one sample to the next exemplifies the “rupture” Tricia Rose identifies as fundamental to hip hop’s post-industrial aesthetic in Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (39).
Thus, the music and lyrics for “Straight Outta Compton” depict the city as a place of extremes, where things happen fast and change is sudden and complete. It is a place where one is either equipped to deal or left behind. In this way, Dr. Dre exploited the spatial characteristics encoded in Public Enemy’s music to depict Compton as place. The sonic characteristics that animated Public Enemy’s militant blackness were rerouted and effectively transposed onto N.W.A.’s depiction of Los Angeles gangstas.
Loren Kajikawa has served on the faculty at the University of Oregon’s School of Music and Dance since 2009. His main area of research and teaching is American music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and he offers a variety of courses in music history, ethnomusicology, and musicology. Kajikawa’s writings have appeared in American Music, Black Music Research Journal, ECHO: a music-centered journal, Journal of the Society for American Music,and Popular Music and Society, among others. His recent book Sounding Race in Rap Songs (University of California, 2015) explores the relationship between rap music’s backing tracks and racial representation.
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“I compare New York to Bangkok all the time,” a young activist told me, just moments before he joined a small, media-ready protest at the Thai consulate in midtown Manhattan. On a pleasant day this past July, along a quiet side street lined with the gold plaques of consulates general, his comparison felt strained—Thailand is currently governed by a free speech-averse military junta that seized power last year, and mourning a deadly terror attack. In Thailand, the tension and fear are acute; in New York, the local delivery driver was whistling.
The young activist, an ocean removed from Bangkok, sought ways of speaking politically, knowing well that he could and would be heard across that ocean When he returns, if he returns, he may be imprisoned, intimidated, or injured. In front of the consulate in New York, those problems were imperceptible to the uninitiated. But they weighed heavily on all of us. Whenever the group chanted or sang, their voices rose through the low ambience like heavy weights, and stopping they fell away without receiving a response. There was a perverse aural disjuncture between the easy rhythms of the day and the harrowing risk that we knew was present in every utterance.
I had come to participate in the event, to speak against the military junta’s recent arrest of fourteen university students for protesting peacefully. I had also come to make a sound recording, and as usual to consider the odd phenomenon of protests staged to create media artifacts rather than to influence people in the flesh. The purpose of the protest was not to negotiate risk but to invite it. It barely mattered that New York City didn’t hear the protest as it occurred. Where it needed to sound potent, it would. Recorded sound surely renders all protest multi-sited; protest sound is a speech-act spatially and temporally deferred.
However, for protests staged at great physical distance from what’s being protested, the specter of comparison and difference between sites and movements can be profound. New York is in certain ways friendly to protest; the city is liberal with permits, and even unpopular opinions are expressible. Relative to most of Thailand, this is a welcome distinction. Of course, such freedom can blunt the acuity of dissenting speech — protests limited to a specific place and time, accompanied by two polite cops indifferent to the issue at hand, are easy to tune out. The United States has its own instruments of containing dissenting speech.
Furthermore, as responses to both Occupy Wall Street and the Black Lives Matter movement have shown, organizational structure and subjectivity make some actions more vulnerable to state violence than others. There are moments when a single word can provoke repression here in no less crude a fashion than the Thai junta prefers. But the game has wholly different rules, and these rules engender different strategic responses. Protesting at a distance is both a way of threading multiple sites together and of reflecting on how protesters in different places and movements choose to speak. In the mind of a young activist accustomed to Thailand’s particular labyrinth of political expression, the contrast with his own country can become a source of ideas.
“When I first came here,” the activist continued with a note of awe in his voice, “Occupy Wall Street just started, so it’s like, there is this obvious difference that really intrigued me in how people organize or react to causes. In Thailand we still kind of are using older ways to organize, kind of like really centralized, some figures pretty much
To develop a political movement in the United States is a different challenge than doing the same in Thailand, to put it mildly. In the United States the left risks triviality; in Thailand, it literally risks death. Thai communists were hunted by soldiers in the jungle in the twentieth century, and left-wing political parties are still forbidden today. Republicanism is treason. And with the ascent of the military junta, many trials are now held in secret, and intimidation of political critics is routine. A movement cannot attempt to run headlong toward whatever it wants to topple; circuitous end-runs are necessary. This explains the increased appeal of decentralized protest tactics to Thai activists. The young man I met was far from the first in his country who has espoused such an approach.
The protest began with one woman playing an acoustic guitar, leading the twenty of us assembled in a folk-style singalong. The sincere, uneven rendition of “Song of the Common Man,” currently popular among anti-junta protesters in Thailand, was followed by nervous laughter, and the honk of a nearby taxi. The lyrics are mild and the structure formulaic, but the song has caught on among the junta’s most outspoken critics – notably, one recording available online was made by a band whose songs are strident enough that they were pursued by the military, and forced to flee to Laos. The song lasted less than two minutes, and an American, who worked for a freedom-of-speech NGO in Southeast Asia, ensured that the group moved on to the next part of the tight half-hour schedule. Every moment was brief but assiduously documented.
We took selfies wearing masks shaped like the faces of the fourteen students who were set to appear before a military court that day. The Thai consulate employees watched with bemusement, and briefly chatted with us in the low, serious hush filled with polite participles that characterizes formal conversation in Thailand. The event ended, and the quiet side street remained undisturbed.
One moment was particularly chilling. The American was leading the group in a series of “what-do-we-want-when-do-we-want-it” chants, which though adapted to concerns of the anti-junta movement felt pro forma and out of place. That cadence and call-and-response pattern is almost never heard at protests in Thailand, and the protesters were not accustomed to it. When someone suggested chanting in Thai rather than English, the group naturally fell into a different rhythm. The repetition of Prayuth aawk bpai, an insulting demand that coup leader General Prayuth Chan-Ocha go away, was much sharper. The chant hearkened to protests of recent years against illegitimate Thai governments. A recording of it would, without doubt, be very risky once heard by the wrong ears in Thailand. Its potency was not only in its direct semantics, but in the connection it formed between the current protest and protests of the recent past. Protest in an age of ubiquitous media tends to form such links across boundaries of time and space.
But a curious thing happens when protest movements can readily observe one another. Comparisons are made all the time, but so are convergences. Rhetoric and strategy become cosmopolitan, not native to any place, and protests increasingly echo other protests. Contemporary Thai dissidents have been influenced by Argentinian horizontalism, and they swap documentaries about the Arab Spring online, for example. The watertight conditions of a geopolitical place have more leaks than was thought. And as ideas travel, the places themselves can become fertile grounds for the growth of those ideas in practice.
Sound is vital to this process. Perhaps because it is often regarded as the most visceral expression of the body, sound has a special relationship to protest. Sound and self need not be romanticized as coterminous in order to appreciate that speech acts feel very close to the body. But listen again. Sound can both feel immediate and be radically disembodied. It can be a material for experimentation, for feeling out how to speak in the immediate present, and be by the same stroke a final product to be audited by the twitchy ears of the junta. The July protest was and will be both.
Benjamin Tausig is assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Stony Brook University, where he works on sound studies, music, and protest in Bangkok and other urban spaces. He is on Twitter @datageneral
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Hot on the heels of the American Musicological Society and Society for Music Theory’s joint annual meeting in Milwaukee, the Society for Ethnomusicology will hold its 59th Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, November 13-16, 2014, hosted by the University of Pittsburgh. SEM is arguably one of the conferences most hospitable to sound studies, and several panels feature strong papers.
On Wednesday, Nov. 12, the “Music and Labor” pre-conference symposium features some fascinating papers of interest to sound scholars and includes a keynote address by Dr. Marcus Rediker, Distinguished Professor of Atlantic History at the University of Pittsburgh. With panels titled “(Re) Conceptualizing Music and Labor,” “The Labor of Music in Transitioning Economies,” “Art as Work: Defying Capitalist Hegemony and National Narrative through Musical Activism and Creative Adaptation,” and “Transformation of Music Labor Regimes in Socialist and Post-Socialist Southeastern Europe,” even the papers that aren’t especially sound studies-related have the potential to demonstrate deft interdisciplinary approaches that would be applicable (and fruitful) in sound studies research.
One of the first sound studies events of the conference program is the annual meeting of the Sound Studies Special Interest Group. Dr. Allen Roda, Jane and Morgan Whitney Research Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and I are currently co-chairs of the SIG; anyone interested in sound studies will not want to miss our meeting on Thursday, November 13 at 12:30-1:30 PM in the Duquesne Room. This year’s meeting will mark the SIG’s 6th anniversary since it was formed in 2009. The group now has over 100 members and is represented on several panels at the 2014 conference in Pittsburgh. One co-chair seat will become vacant this year, and the group will hold elections to fill this position at the meeting; we also plan to discuss plans for more visibility online and among the academic community.
Before the meeting, come early to the 8:00-10:30 AM session in that same room to catch Molly McBride’s paper, “The Sounds of Humor: Listening to Gender in Early Barn Dance Radio,” or see a whole sound studies panel titled “Auditory Histories of the Indian Ocean: Hearing the Soundworlds of the Past” in the Alleghany Room.
If you can’t make those early panels on the first day, the convention boasts numerous, high-quality sound studies sessions, many of which convene simultaneously. There have been several sound studies-related panels and individual papers at past meetings, but the number of high-quality papers is certainly trending in favor of more sound studies.
Also, the last several annual meetings have featured a soundwalk hosted by the Sound Studies SIG. This year is no different; however, rather than having a guided walk around the host city, this year’s soundwalk will be self-guided. Using the Twitter hashtag #semsoundwalk, participants will listen to Pittsburgh, the acoustic environment of the conference itself, the coffee shop where they stop for refreshment, or wherever they happen to find themselves between 1:15 – 6:00PM on Friday, Nov. 14. Be sure to follow the hashtag – even if you’re not in Pittsburgh – to “listen” along with conference participants.
I am delighted to see that this year’s conference unites the SEM’s commitment to the study of world musics and cultures and sound studies, particularly in panels such as “Auditory Histories of the Indian Ocean: Hearing the Soundworlds of the Past,” “Contemplating Voice in Cross-Cultural Perspective,” and “Regulating Space, Regulating Sound: Musical Practice and Institutional Mediation in São Paulo, Brazil.” This year also highlights the SEM’s strong interdisciplinary bent and makes even more room at the epistemological table for the examination of technoculture and its implications for sound studies and the larger ethnomusicological community.
Because of the sheer volume of sound studies activities, rather than listing my “picks” for the conference, I’ve listed most of the relevant papers and sessions, leaving the hard decision up to you. In fact, there are so many genuine sound studies panels and papers (or papers on closely related topics) its easy to see why the blurry line that demarcates “sound studies” from “music studies” seems blurriest at SEM. For those who cannot attend the conference, some of this year’s panels will be live-streamed. The Special Interest Groups for Sound Studies and Ecomusicology are also co-hosting a roundtable on Saturday morning. For more information about the conference and to catch the live-streamed sessions, visit the conference website at http://www.indiana.edu/~semhome/2014/.
Michael Austin is Assistant Professor of Media, Journalism, and Film and coordinator of the Interdisciplinary Studies Program in the School of Communications at Howard University where he teaches courses in music production, sound design for film and audio production. He holds a Ph.D. in Humanities – Aesthetic Studies (with a specialization in Arts and Technology) from the University of Texas at Dallas and music degrees from UT-San Antonio and UT-Austin. He is also affiliated with the Laboratoire Musique et Informatique de Marseille, an audio/music technology and informatics lab in Marseille, France, and is co-chair of the Society for Ethnomusiciology’s Special Interest Group for Sound Studies.
Featured image: “Musician” by Flickr user Joanna, CC BY-NC 2.0
WEDNESDAY, November 12
8:00 am – 8:00 pm
Ballroom 3, Wyndham Grand Pittsburgh Downtown Hotel
Pre-Conference Symposium: “Music and Labor”
THURSDAY, November 13
8:30 – 10:30 am
“The Sounds of Humor: Listening to Gender on Early Barn Dance Radio,” Molly McBride, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Session: Auditory Histories of the Indian Ocean: Hearing the Soundworlds of the Past
“Wonders and Strange Things: Practices of Auditory History before Recorded Sound,” Katherine Butler Schofield, King’s College London
“Notes in the Margins: Sumatran Religious Hybridity and the Efficacy of Sound, “ Julia Byl, King’s College London
“Contact, Contestation and Compromise: Sound and Space in 19th-Century Singapore,” Jenny McCallum, King’s College London
“A ‘Wayang of the Orang Puteh’?: Theatres, Music Halls and Audiences in High-Imperial, Calcutta, Madras, Penang and Singapore,” David Lunn, King’s College London
10:45am -12:15 pm
Sterling 3 Room
“Sounding Neoliberalism in the Richmond City Jail,” Andrew C. McGraw, University of Richmond
“The Color of Sound: Timbre in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” Sydney A. Boyd, Rice University
12:30 – 1:30 pm
Special Interest Group for Sound Studies
1:45 – 3:45 pm
Sterlings 1 Room
“Radio Archives and the Art of Persuasion: Preserving Social Hierarchies in the Airwaves of Lima” Carlos Odria, Florida State University
Ft. Pitt Room
Session: Mediated Musics, Mediated Lives
“Uploading Matepe: The Role of Online Learning Communities and the Desire to Connect to Northeastern Zimbabwe,” Jocelyn A. Moon, University of Washington; Zachary Moon, Independent Scholar
“Staging Overcoming: Disability, Meritocracy, and the Envoicing of Dreams,” William Cheng, Dartmouth University
“As Time Goes By: Car Radio and Spatiotemporal Manipulations of the Travel Experience in 20th-Century America,” Sarah Messbauer, University of California, Davis
“’How Can We Live in a Country Like This?’ Music, Talk Radio, and Moral Anxiety,” Karl Haas, Boston University
Sterling 3 Room
Session: Oxide and Memory: Tape Culture and the Communal Archive
Oxide and Memory: Tape Culture and the Communal Archive
“Magnetic Tape, Materiality, and the Interpretation of Non-Commercial Cassette and Reel-to-Reel Recordings from Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula,” Laura Risk, McGill University
“Family Sense and Family Sound: Home Recordings and Greek-American Identity,” Panayotis League, Harvard University
“The Memory of Media: Autoarchivization and Empowerment in 1970s Jazz,” Michael C. Heller, University of Massachusetts, Boston
“Reimagining the Community Sound Archive: Cultural Memory and the Case for ‘Slow’ Archiving in a Gaspesian Village,” Glenn Patterson, Memorial University of Newfoundland
4:00 – 5:30 pm
Sterlings 1 Room
Panel: Contemplating Voice in Cross-Cultural Perspective
“The Gravest of Female Voices: Women and the Alto in Sacred Harp,” Sarah E. Kahre, Florida State University
“Re-sounding Waljinah: Aging and the Voice in Indonesia,” Russ P. Skelchy, University of California, Riverside
“Katajjaq: Between Vocal Games, Place and Identity,” Raj S. Singh, York University
Sterlings 3 Room
Session: Rumors, Sound Leakages and Individual Tales: Disruptive Listening in Zones of Conflict
“From the Struggle for Citizenship to the Fragmentation of Justice: Reflections on the Place of Dinka Songs in South Sudan’s Transitional Justice Process,” Angela Impey, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
“Internet Rumors and the Changing Sounds of Uyghur Religiosity: The Case of the Snake Monkey Woman,” Rachel Harris, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London
“The Cantor and the Muezzin’s Duet at the Western Wall: Contesting Sound Spaces on the Frayed Seams of the Israel-Palestine Conflict,” Abigail Wood, University of Haifa
Session: Historiography, Historicity, and Biography
“A Sonic Historiography of Early Sample-Based Hip-Hop Recordings,” Patrick Rivers, University of New Haven
“Biography as Methodology in the Study of Okinawan Folk Song,” Kirk A. King, University of British Columbia
“Sounding the Silent Image: Uilleann Piper as Ethnographic Object in Early Hollywood Film,” Ivan Goff, New York University
FRIDAY, November 14
7:00 – 8:00 am
Special Interest Group for Voice Studies
8:30 – 10:30 am
Commonwealth 1-2 Room, live streaming
Session: Sound Networks: Socio-Political Identity, Engagement, and Mobilization through Music in Cyberspace and Independent Media
*Sponsored by the Popular Music Section and Special Interest Group for Sound Studies
“Technological Factors Conditioning the Socio-Political Power of Music in Cyberspace,” Michael Frishkopf, University of Alberta
“Cyber-Mobilization, Informational Intimacy, and Musical Frames in Ukraine’s EuroMaidan Protests,” Adriana Helbig, University of Pittsburgh
“Countering Spirals of Silence: Protest Music and the Anonymity of Cyberspace in the Japanese Antinuclear Movement,” Noriko Manabe, Princeton University
“Living (and Dying) the Rock and Roll Dream: Alternative Media and the Politics of ‘Making It’ as an Iranian Underground Musician,” Farzaneh Hemmasi, University of Toronto
Sterling 1 Room
Session: Affective Environments and the Bioregional Soundscape
*Sponsored by the Special Interest Group for Ecomusicology
“’Landscape is Not Just What Your Eyes See’: Battery Radio, the Technological Soundscape, and Sonically Knowing the Battery, Kate Galloway, Memorial University of Newfoundland
“Re-sounding Caribou: Musical Posthumanism in Being Caribou,” Erin Scheffer, University of Toronto
“Cold, Crisp, and Dry: Inuit and Southern Concepts of the Northern Soundscape,” Jeffrey van den Scott, Northwestern University
Discussant, Nancy Guy, University of California, San Diego
“The Sound of Affective Fact,” Matthew Sumera, University of Minnesota
1:15 – 6:30 pm
Soundwalk: A Sonic Environmental Survey of the SEM Annual Meeting
*Sponsored by the Special Interest Groups for Sound Studies and Ecomusicology. Follow the walk on Twitter: #semsoundwalk
(Meet in Wyndham Grand main lobby at 1:15pm. Reconvene in lobby at 6:00)
1:45 – 3:45 pm
Session: Strident Voices: Material and Political Alignments
*Sponsored by the Special Interest Group for Voice Studies
“Registering Protest: Voice, Precarity, and Assertion in Crisis Portugal,”Lila Ellen Gray, University of Amsterdam
“Quiet, Racialized Vocality at Fisk University,” Marti Newland, Columbia University
“’The Rough Voice of Tenderness’: Chavela Vargas and Mexican Song,” Kelley Tatro, North Central College
Discussant: Amanda Weidman, Bryn Mawr College
4:00 – 5:30 pm
Session: Celebratory Sounds and the Politics of Engagement
“Creating Zakopower in Postsocialist Poland,” Louise J. Wrazen, York University
“Merry-Making and Loyalty to the Movement: Conviviality as a Core Parameter of Traditionalism in Aysén, Chile,” Gregory J. Robinson, George Mason University
“Sounding the Carnivalesque: Changing Identities for a Sonic Icon of the Popular,” Michael S. O’Brien, College of Charleston
SATURDAY, November 15
8:30 – 10:30 am
Sterlings 1 Room
Roundtable: Sound Studies, Ecomusicology, and Post-Humanism In/For/With Ethnomusicology
*Sponsored by the Special Interests Groups for Ecomusicology and for Sound Studies
P. Allen Roda, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Jennifer Post, University of Arizona
Mark Pedelty, University of Minnesota
Michael Silvers, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Ben Tausig, Stony Brook University
Zeynep Bulut, King’s College London
10:45 am – 12:15 pm
Benedum Room, live streaming
Musical Instruments, Material Cultures, and Sound Ecologies
“Bulgarian Acoustemological Tales: Narrativity, Agrarian Ecology, and the Kaval’s Voice,” Donna A. Buchanan, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Sterling 1 Room
Session: Theorizing Sound
“Water Sounds: Distance Swimmers and Ecomusicology,” Niko Higgins, Columbia University
“Telephone, Vacuum Cleaner, Couch: Senses and Sounds of the Everyday in Postwar Japan,” Miki Kaneda, Boston University
Discussant: Benjamin Tausig, Stony Brook University
SUNDAY, November 16
8:30 – 10:30 am
Session: Regulating Space, Regulating Sound: Musical Practice and Institutional Mediation in São Paulo, Brazil
*Sponsored by the Latin American and Caribbean Section
“Music under Control? São Paulo’s Anti-Noise Agency in Action,” Leonardo Cardoso, University of Texas at Austin
“Music Producers in São Paulo’s Cultural Policy Worlds,” Daniel Gough, University of Chicago
“’Small Universes’: The Creation of Social Intimacy through Aesthetic Infrastructures in São Paulo’s Underground,” Shannon Garland, Columbia University
Discussant, Morgan Lurker, Reed College
“Hear What You Want: Sonic Politics, Blackness, and Racism-Canceling Headphones,” Alex Blue, University of California, Santa Barbara
“Sound and Silence in Festivals of the French Revolution: Sonic Analysis in History,” Rebecca D. Geoffroy-Schwinden, Duke University
10:45 am – 12:15 pm
Session: Sounding Nations
“Building the Future through the Past: The Revival Movement in Iranian Classical Music and the Reconstruction of National Identity in the 1960s and the 1970s,” Hadi Milanloo, Memorial University of Newfoundland
“Sounding Citizenship in Southern Africa: Malawian Musicians and the Social Worlds of Recording Studios and Music Education Centers,” Richard M. Deja, University of Illinois
“Unity in (Spite of) Diversity: Tensions and Contradictions in Performing Surinamese National Identity,” Corinna S. Campbell, Williams College