I begin this essay with an apology, addressed to the Society for Ethnomusicology President Gregory Barz:
I am sorry that I interrupted your opening remarks at least year’s SEM Business meeting. In the moment that I chose to make my intervention, I underestimated the pain that it has clearly caused you. Furthermore, I have come to realize that it was unskillful of me to locate my frustration and anger with you as an individual. The affective release of my voice in that moment could have been better directed towards positive change in a time of great need for many of us. I fully intend to work towards doing better in the months to come, urging anyone who occupies the office of President of this organization to use the power and standing inherent in this position office to take direct steps to address the harms many of its members are experiencing.
Because my intervention arose so quickly and unpredictably—for readers outside of the Society for Ethnomusicology who may not know, I stood up and yelled “You’re a hypocrite!” then left the meeting—it seems worthwhile to explore my actions in a more thoughtful space of written discourse. I want to clarify that my sonic interruption was not premeditated; as I explain below, it arose out of a deep anger and longing for justice. As SEM 2019 convenes in November in Bloomington, Indiana on November 7th, I hope that my disruptive event can be better understood as a call to collective inquiry into the structural factors that constrain our Society from functioning in a healthy way.
Indeed, I am already encouraged by steps that have been taken since the meeting—by President Barz and others—to address some of these concerns. And in the aftermath of this intervention, I have been heartened by the positive and supportive responses I have received from friends and colleagues. Although I had to leave the room in that moment, something meaningful remained just outside.
Some backstory: This was the first time I had attended a business meeting; at previous conferences, they had always seemed like a formality that did not concern me. Serving on the Committee for Academic Labor, the Ethics Committee, and as Chair of the Improvisation Section, however, helped me to understand the importance of these formal structures and rituals for the health of our Society. I attended in 2018, therefore, with a sense of curiosity and a longing for positive change, particularly in regard to some of the work coming out of the committees on which I was serving. This longing also arose from a sense of frustration at the lack of receptivity to new ideas by Board leadership—as experienced through a pattern of poor communication around implementation of this work between committees and Board—as well as what I perceived to be a lack of transparency and accountability among Board leadership.
Much of this frustration stemmed from the Board’s failure to implement a minor procedural proposal put forward by the Ethics committee nearly two years prior: that the committee be restructured to be elected rather than appointed. After the first deadline to put the amendment to the full membership passed without comment from the Board, we had to expend a great deal of energy even to receive acknowledgement that our proposals had been received. By the time the committee met again, we had been through over a year of exhausting back-and-forth by email with nothing actually getting done.
Then, in the weeks leading up to the 2018 meeting, a member publicly came forward about experiences of sexual abuse by a now-deceased ethnomusicologist who had served as a senior member of SEM during his lifetime. As a member of the Ethics Committee, I witnessed the email exchange in which her requests for space to address this at the 2018 meeting were first accommodated, then revoked at the last minute; she was finally allowed space to speak in a confusing, unmoderated, ad-hoc session to which the Board assented only after the conference was already underway.
So, when President Barz chose to begin his opening remarks with a paean to civility, lamenting how conflict over social media was causing us to lose our ability to engage in healthy discourse as a unified Society, I became concerned. Many in the audience were aware that both the sexual assault allegation and another credible allegation of ethical misconduct by SEM leadership had been circulating on Facebook in previous months. I heard President Barz’s remarks as a use of his prominent position in SEM to categorize these complaints as “noise.” As Mark Brantner points out in his thoughtful critique of John Stewart’s 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity,” the idea that sanity operates through “indoor voices” is a deeply ingrained assumption for many.
But in the wake of recent upheavals in the status quo, catalyzed by movements like #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, many hear these “indoor voices” as signifiers of an oppressive status quo. Others have written about the problems inherent in invoking civility in the face of dissent: In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Vann Newkirk argues that in many cases, “the demands for civility function primarily to stifle the frustrations of those currently facing real harm” (2018). In Vox, Julia Azari points out that “Civility is not an end on its own if the practices and beliefs it upholds are unjust” (2018). In these cases, calls for civility came in response to calls by those whose voices are met with silence by the prevailing order.
And allow me to state in no uncertain terms: many of us in the field are currently facing real harm. Since earning my doctorate in Ethnomusicology just over a year ago, I spent eight months without health insurance and now qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. I’ve strongly considered leaving the Society many times over the past year.
I’m also aware that my personal experience is only the tip of the iceberg: so many peers and colleagues have left the Society altogether because of sexual harassment, abuse of power by senior members or advisors, and economic precarity, experienced alone or in horrific combination. These harms are also compounded for my peers who do not share my positionality as a heterosexual, cisgender, white-presenting man with a U.S. passport and a bourgeois class background.
As President Barz continued to speak, my concern—which had lodged itself as a feeling of discontent somewhere in my stomach area—began to rise into my chest as anger, particularly when President Barz began to invoke his authority as a champion of democratic practice within the Society to justify his call to civility. If he truly believed in consensus-building and democracy, I thought, certainly he wouldn’t have opposed an effort to increase democratic accountability on the Ethics Committee. This contradiction generated my experience of what woman of color feminist Sara Ahmed calls “feminist snap” in 2017’s Living a Feminist Life. She described “feminist snap” like this in a May 2017 blogpost:
It is only when you seem to lose it, when you shout, swear, spill, that you have their attention. And then you become a spectacle. And what you brought out means you have to get out. When we think of such moments of snap, those moments when you can’t take it anymore, when you just can’t take it anymore, we are thinking about worlds; how worlds are organised to enable some to breathe, how they leave less room for others. You have to leave because there is nothing left; when there is nothing left.
In other words, I noticed that I seemed to be losing it. In that moment, I drew on my background as an improvising musician to decide how to relate to this intense energy. After exchanging incredulous glances with two colleagues sitting nearby, I decided that I couldn’t sit quietly and let my toxic feeling fester throughout the meeting—I needed to leave, but I didn’t want to leave without registering to people in the room why I had to leave, and there was no space in the official meeting to do so. At the same time, I was aware of the risks inherent in this strategy—especially because I have witnessed how the sound of my voice—a man’s—snapping like this can itself be a trauma trigger for anyone who has been shouted down in a meeting, or otherwise. Thus, the material nature of the spectacle here was different from that described by Ahmed in that it carried with it a timbre of patriarchal violence. Oddly enough, the worlds that I felt were being organized to make it difficult to breathe still afforded me the air for this particular form of breathed expression: a fiery shout. And that sound brought unintended consequences.
I had wanted there to be no doubt that my departure was a response to President Barz’s remarks, but the power arrangement in the room meant that it would have been difficult to offer a lengthy articulation of my reasoning, given that any utterance would have been received as disruptive and that I did not have access to sound amplification in the large room. (I am reminded here of R. Murray Schafer’s point in The Soundscape : “A man with a loudspeaker is more imperialistic than one without because he can dominate more acoustic space” (1977:77). Schafer’s sexist assumption that only men speaking through loudspeakers is worth noting—as I see it, both men’s and women’s voices could transmit imperialistic sound in this way, but a “snap response” would also be gendered.)
Within a few seconds, I settled on the form my move would take: stand up, shout something concise, and leave the room. The words “You’re a hypocrite!” flowed spontaneously from there—words grounded in my direct experience of the disconnect between Dr. Barz’s present remarks and previous actions. Immediately upon leaving the room, an adrenaline rush flowed out of my body and I staggered towards a nearby bench, where I collapsed to catch my breath.
Again, I regret that these remarks focused on President Barz as an individual. Had I more time to think through what I would have stated, perhaps “This is unacceptable,” “These actions are hypocritical,” or “Please don’t ignore us” would have been what came out. And yet, by this point, the sound of this intervention had already been determined by the immediate constraints of the situation: had I chosen to sound in a way that was coded as “civil”, I literally would not have been heard by more than a few people in the room.
Even after this intense incident, my experience of the conference in Albuquerque was very positive overall. SEM is full of brilliant emerging scholars asking extremely important questions; it was especially encouraging to see more attention being brought to the imperatives of decolonization and anti-racism. At the same time, in order for these inquiries to be truly productive, we still need to turn our analysis towards the ways in which the status quo of our governance practices unintentionally reproduce systems of oppression and create harm. Tamara Levitz, in her recent article “The Musicological Elite,” sheds light on how this has been the case within an adjacent academic organization, the American Musicological Society. She writes, “My premise is that musicologists need to know which actions were undertaken, and on what material basis, in building their elite, white, exclusionary, patriarchal profession before they can undo them.” (2018:43). Despite some evident wishful thinking to the contrary, SEM reproduces harm in similar ways and would benefit from similar institutional self-reflection.
By yoking itself to the project of the North American university system, the Society for Ethnomusicology has created strong incentives for members to go along with what Abigail Boggs, Eli Meyerhoff, Nick Mitchell, and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein call the “Modes of Accumulation” of these institutions. We must urgently turn towards critical institutional self-examination to consider how we can change our practices to resist complicity with these forms of professionalized domination and control.
In order to do so, we need better mechanisms for dissent and communication, especially when we have the rare opportunity for face-to-face communication. We must address what seems like an increasing tension between preserving the institutions of tenure-track music academia and the broader needs of the Society’s full membership. Crucially, Ahmed turns to listening as a key methodological practice for locating “feminist snap”:
To hear snap, one must thus slow down; we also listen for the slower times of wearing and tearing, of making do; we listen for the sounds of the costs of becoming attuned to the requirements of an existing system. To hear snap, to give that moment a history, we might have to learn to hear the sound of not snapping. Perhaps we are learning to hear exhaustion, the gradual sapping of energy when you have to struggle to exist in a world that negates your existence. Eventually something gives.
In this case, listening for the silences—and silencing—that preceded this instance of “snap”may be useful. To my ear, they index the “sound of not snapping”: the unanswered emails, averted eye contact, unreturned phone calls—these are the sounds of a snap to come. These silences are empowered by our collective reliance on a discourse of “civility,” propped up by formal procedures like Robert’s Rules of Order, that deems certain types of sounds and communication to be out of bounds. Indeed, as Hollis Robbins has observed, “Under Robert’s Rules, silence equals consent.” Listening for feminist snap would require a commitment to naming these silences—and allowing space for them to be spoken into.
I sincerely hope that my moment of becoming a spectacle can spark more productive conversations and deeper listening. Still, the magnitude of the challenges that we face to align our governance practices with shared institutional values will require creative solutions. I am confident that our experience and training as listeners can bring us to a fuller engagement with democratic processes—and that this can lead us towards productive solutions. This work is already being done by many groups and individuals within the Society, such as the Committee for Academic Labor, the Crossroads Committee, the Disability and Deaf Studies Special Interest Group, the Diversity Action Committee, the Ethics Committee, the Gender and Sexualities Task Force, the Gertrude Robinson Networking Group, the Section on the Status of Women, and many others. I am confident that members of these groups are actively working to build spaces that allow for us to listen into the structural and cultural changes we desperately need.
In the meantime, I remain committed to seeking out collaborative solutions to the challenges we face. Please feel free to reach out to me by email with any feedback you feel compelled to share. Furthermore, if you would like to contact the Ethics Committee about any issues of ethical import to the Society, you may do so here. Anonymous submissions are also possible through this portal.
I’d like to close this essay with an apology, as well—addressed to all of my peers who have experienced harm or abuse through their involvement with SEM: I am truly sorry that I have not done more to work towards redress for the harms that you have experienced. I am also deeply sorry that I have not done more to examine how my own desire to see projects through in this community has led me to ignore signs of harm taking place. I’ve had the good fortune of being able to express this to a few of you in person, and I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity. For anyone else who would like to reach out, I will commit to listening. For us to do better, I need to do better.
Thank you for taking the time to read this statement—I look forward to continuing our work together to create a sustainable future for the practice of ethnomusicology.
Featured Image: “I Broke a String” by Flickr User Rowan Peter (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Alex W. Rodriguez is a writer, improviser, organizer, and trombonist. He holds a PhD in Ethnomusicology from UCLA, where his research was based on fieldwork conducted in Los Angeles, California from 2012-2016, Santiago, Chile from 2015-2016, and Novosibirsk, Siberia in fall 2016. Alex is currently based in Easthampton, Massachusetts, USA.
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becoming a sound artist: analytic and creative perspectives–Rajna Swaminathan
Sounding Out Tarima Temporalities: Decolonial Feminista Dance Disruption–Iris C. Viveros Avendaño
On Whiteness and Sound Studies–Gustavus Stadler
Canonization and the Color of Sound Studies –Budhaditya Chattopadhyay
In the third episode of Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), we meet Dougie Jones, a new character who is, as an otherworldly being will tell him, “manufactured.” Dougie’s sonic presence on the show is primarily marked by repetition, as the majority of his dialogue involves him parroting those around him. Though Dougie has been received as a symbol of purity or a magical conduit for others’ best selves (14:53-19:00), a close listen to his repetitions suggests that he is instead what Sarah Hagi has dubbed the “mediocre white man.”
DAILY PRAYER TO COMBAT IMPOSTOR SYNDROME: God give me the confidence of a mediocre white dude
— Sarah Hagi (@geekylonglegs) January 21, 2015
Hagi’s so-called prayer is a brilliantly concise instance of intersectional analysis that can also provide a framework for understanding Dougie Jones. In a few short words, she’s able to 1) demonstrate how white supremacist patriarchy makes her life more difficult, 2) call into question the achievements of those who hold so much power that it’s doled out to the most mediocre among them, and 3) situate the entire critique in a systemic framework. That is, though one possible reading of this tweet is that Hagi suffers from a shortcoming she is responsible to correct–a lack of confidence–the fact that she frames her critique as a prayer suggests that this confidence isn’t so much an inner belief in oneself as it is a privilege granted to some but not others. Twin Peaks: The Return offers, in the vocal interactions of Dougie, an extended meditation on the systemic mechanizations that produce the kind of mediocre white man Hagi laments.
For readers who aren’t Twin Peaks viewers, hang on: explaining the origin of Dougie Jones requires a few sentences that may read as something bordering on nonsense outside the show’s bizarre universe. Dougie is played by Kyle MacLachlan, who also plays the show’s main character, Agent Dale Cooper, as well as The Return’s Mr C, Cooper’s evil doppelganger who overcame Cooper in an extradimensional realm in the Season 2 finale and who has been living in the “real world” ever since, while Cooper is stuck in another dimension. The show implies that Mr C has only 25 years–roughly the amount of time since the show’s first run in the early 90s–before Cooper switches places with him (extradimensional bureaucracies, amiright?). As a ploy to stay in the real world, Mr C “manufactures” Dougie Jones so that when Cooper is finally released from extradimensional detention, he replaces Dougie, not Mr C. For the bulk of The Return, Mr C continues wreaking havoc across the Midwest and Western US, while Cooper, adversely affected by his transit across dimensions, is trapped in Dougie’s life, barely able to function beyond the level of a small child. Technically, then, the character called Dougie Jones is really Dale Cooper, but Cooper’s episodes-long inability to regain control of himself leads to an extended case of mistaken identity, where everyone in Dougie’s life believes Cooper to be Dougie.
Significantly, Dougie’s family and co-workers are barely phased by his ineptitude. At worst, like when he doesn’t know how to use the bathroom, people are annoyed by Dougie. But, more often than not, Dougie’s moments of silence and often erratic behavior — including befuddlement over how to feed or dress himself — are interpreted as quirky, humble, and endearing. More than that, Dougie’s boss believes him to be a courageous and principled whistle-blower whose cryptic drawings on insurance forms outs one of his co-workers for defrauding the company’s clients.
Dougie is beyond mediocre, yet over the course of the season, he falls into hundreds of thousands of dollars, a luxury car, a family life that seems to be fulfilling for his wife and son, and the respect and gratitude of his boss. Confidence isn’t something this mediocre white man possesses; rather, it’s a trait projected onto him by everyone around him. In riffing on the way people exist in systems of inequity, Sylvia Wynter notes in On Being Human As Praxis (2015) that we end up keeping “the reality of our own agency opaque by attributing that agency to extrahumanly mandating entities” (45). Put another way, the god who would grant us the confidence of a mediocre white man isn’t a deity but a system of patriarchal white supremacy that makes itself opaque behind the rationale that a person like, say, Dougie Jones couldn’t possibly be as successful in his life if he hadn’t earned it.
The primary marker of the mechanization of Dougie’s confidence is a sonic one: we can hear his ascendence in moments of repetition. Twin Peaks is a show comprised of overlapping aural and visual loops, recurring sounds, and doubled and tripled characters, so keying in on the sound of Dougie’s repetition fits into the series’ aesthetic. Early in Dougie’s presence in the series, when Cooper is fresh from the other dimension, his repetition is delayed, partial, and generally out of synch with regular patterns of conversation; people react to this repetition with concern. The following scene occurs in the moments just after Cooper has replaced Dougie Jones; his scene partner, Jade, was in the shower when the switch happened.
This clip is cut so that the phrase “Jade give two rides” happens back-to-back, but in the episode, there’s over a minute of a screen time between Jade saying (a grammatically correct version of) it and Dougie repeating it. Dougie’s imprecise and ill-timed repetition suggests to Jade that something may be wrong with him, and she rightly advises him to find some help. A similar interaction occurs in Episode 6, which opens with Dougie standing outside his work at night, unaware of what people do when work is over. When a police officer tries to shoo him away, Dougie is able to repeat back information he had heard several days earlier, and his delayed reaction again elicits concern from the person he’s with. A few scenes later, “Jade gives two rides” returns.
As the season progresses, however, Dougie begins to repeat back exact phrases or words that have just been spoken to him. The effect is one of understated agreement or even prescience, as if he’s repeating something he’s known for some time and has been waiting for others to realize, too. Note the way Dougie responds in the following two videos. In the first, he’s asked a question, which rises in pitch in the final syllables, and Dougie repeats the phrase with a falling pitch figure, which his conversants interpret to be confirmation. In the second, he’s given advice, and he responds by repeating the last word in uptalk, which his conversants interpret as a hilarious joke rather than the limitations of a person whose interdimensional travel has left his verbal skills lacking.
As Dougie’s repetition locks into a quicker, more immediate responsorial pattern, the people around him no longer worry about his well-being and, in fact, begin to project onto him a confidence he’s incapable of possessing. This repetition, the kind that immediately plays with or confirms what his boss or potential murderers say, suggests a couple different theoretical constructions of repetition. Butler, in describing the performativity of gender, notes that gender norms are “the stylized acts of repetition through time,” the rehearsed and rehashed ideas that we ascribe, in this case, to white men: well-timed humor on the one hand, and wise confirmation on the other (520). Sara Ahmed underscores a similar idea, noting that “compulsory heterosexuality” is “the accumulative effect of the repetition of the narrative of heterosexuality as an ideal coupling” (145). Here, Dougie’s white masculinity isn’t all that makes him the target of others’ projections of confidence and competence; his nuclear family also marks him as a productively repetitive person, a person capable of reproduction. To modify Hagi’s tweet a bit, the world projects onto Dougie the confidence of a mediocre, white, reproductive man.
Both Butler and Ahmed also gesture toward distinctly sonic phenomena present in Dougie’s repetitions. Repetition accumulating over time becomes not just distinct events happening in succession but a discrete, singular thing unto itself. When thinking in terms of systemic oppression like white supremacy or cisheteropatriarchy, the repetitive privileging of white masculinity congeals into a continuous power flow. In musical terms, we hear the accumulative, rapid retriggering of a sound as pitch rather than many distinct events. Timing matters here: if the repetition is delayed or metered just so, we can perceive instances of the same events as moving in concert either melodically or harmonically. The shift in Dougie’s repetitions over the course of The Return is the sound of institutional privilege tuning white masculinity, retriggering moments of repetition–which sounds like a rise in pitch as the repetitions move closer together, a literal ascent–until those around Dougie stop worrying about him and start believing that this mediocre white straight man must have earned the success he seemingly enjoys.
Though a perusal of Twin Peaks: The Return analyses and recaps demonstrates that viewers and critics have been far more interested in the archetypal Jekyll/Hyde duality of Dale Cooper and Mr C than they have been in the nature of Dougie Jones, Dougie’s relative lack of drive or desire offers the opportunity to hear how white male mediocrity is made. The Return checks in on Dougie regularly from his introduction in the third episode until he transforms back into Cooper, then is remanufactured and sent home to his family in the sixteenth and eighteenth episodes. What we’re privy to in that time is a different kind of manufacturing, where Dougie is constructed by his surroundings to be wise, caring, attentive, upright, and brave, though we know he’s none of those things. The slow burn of Twin Peaks: The Return means that we’re stripped of any easy excuses for Dougie’s upward momentum in the season beyond the obvious explanation that the gods of mediocre white men have gifted him with treasures out of reach for others. Dougie repeats what he hears, and what he hears is that his mediocrity is good enough.
Featured image: Screenshot from “‘Dougie’ Cooper – All Phrases (Twin Peaks Compilation)” by Youtube user AKA.
Justin Adams Burton is Assistant Professor of Music at Rider University. His research revolves around critical race and gender theory in hip hop and pop, and his book, Posthuman Rap, is available now. He is also co-editing the forthcoming (2018) Oxford Handbook of Hip Hop Music Studies. You can catch him at justindburton.com and on Twitter @j_adams_burton. His favorite rapper is one or two of the Fat Boys.
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DIANE… The Personal Voice Recorder in Twin Peaks-Tom McEnaney
Malcolm Gladwell’s Bad Aesthetics–Justin Burton
Listening to Sounds in Post-Feminist Pop Music-Robin James
Editor’s Note: July 18th, 2012 has been designated as World Listening Day by the World Listening Project, a nonprofit organization founded in 2008 “devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording.” World Listening Day is a time to think about the impacts we have on our auditory environments and, in turn, its affects on us. This year, Sounding Out! has decided to observe World Listening Day by planning a month-long special forum of posts exploring several different facets of listening such today’s offering by SO!‘s Multimedia Editor Aaron Trammell on listening’s relationship to the body and next week’s discussion by novelist Bridget Hoida on the impact of listening on her writing process. We will also explore questions that we need to remember when we celebrate listening as a cultural, embodied act. What happens when listening is interrupted? distorted? A post on tinnitus by Mack Hagood will help us think through what happens when we take listening (and the able body) for granted as a universal, normative experience. We’ll also publish a special bonus multi-sensory post by our newest regular writer, Maile Colbert, on World Listening Day itself and we will launch our regular quarterly spring podcast for on July 12th, which will feature Eric Leonardson, director of the World Listening Project. In addition to being interesting as all hell, the podcast will suggest some ideas for how to get involved in WLD activities–or how to embark on a listening project of your own this July. Enjoy our ear-opening extravaganza and please keep those comments coming. We’d love to hear from you! –JSA, Editor-in-Chief
What happens when the body translates sound from one medium to another? How is the body both affected by a song (when listening), and affecting it’s content (when writing)? In this post, I will relate my experience transcribing the lyrics of the song “Hexbreaker!” by The Fleshtones in an effort to answer these questions.
I love to sing. Often, I feel that it is only through singing that I feel that I can adequately relate to the emotions, ideas, and narrative of the songwriter. This relational practice is called embodiment. While psychologists such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung had at one point considered this sort of emotional relationship to be a libidinal drive – either to the phallus (in Freud’s case), or a unifying mythological symbol like the mandala (in Jung’s). These feelings, or drives, in classical psychoanalytic theory are part of our interior psyches, the unconscious mind.
Contemporary physiological research has departed from the sharp dichotomy of the conscious/unconscious mind. Instead, emotions are looked at as exterior phenomena – invisible links which form between bodies. As Lisa Blackman (2010) explains in her essay Embodying Affect: Voice-hearing, Telepathy, Suggestion and Modelling the Non-conscious: “The voices can be materialized through particular technologies of inscription such as neuro- imaging scans, and can even be located within the right temporal-parietal lobe, showing the capacity of the right brain not only for psychological attunement, but also for registering the affects of others” (166). Other theorists such as Sara Ahmed (2004) have argued that emotions float between and stick to bodies. Julian Henriques (2010) has even noted the ways that sonic vibrations work to activate reciprocal affective moods in others (75), a point very much in line with Blackman’s musings on the voice’s centrality to “psychic,”right brain, linkages. To these points, it is important to consider exactly what it means for the body to work as a medium of translation. What emotions can a song activate in my body, and how do these feelings become words, stored in the mnemonic confines of paper?
Because listening is central to the transmission and construction of emotional bonds, I will now detail my experience transcribing “Hexbreaker!”.
The Fleshtones are a band that I love. Their songs find the perfect balance of Animal House cool, Swinging Medallions style garage rock, and campy B-movie flavor. They have cred too, as they were a frequent act in the late-70s CBGB punk scene who shared a rehearsal space with The Cramps (a similar, but notably more famous band). Their song “American Beat” was key in the soundtrack of Tom Hanks’ shlocky 1984 film Bachelor Party. Peter Zaremba, the group’s singer, was a host on MTV’s interview based program, I.R.S. Records Presents the Cutting Edge. And, best of all, The Fleshtones have been largely eclipsed by bands with more visible albums, members, and histories. The band is all mine, and they serve as the perfect accent to any mixtape or conversation trivia at a mixer.
The digital footprint left by The Fleshtones is surprisingly sparse. Only a handful of key songs (from movie soundtracks) come up when a search for “fleshtones lyrics,” is queried on Google. A search for guitar notation or chord charts is completely fruitless, a rare feat in today’s search ecosystem. Even their vintage releases, 1982’s Roman Gods and 1983’s Hexbreaker!, were hard to pin down until the Australian label Raven re-released them on CD in 2011. For whatever reason, this sense of scarcity does nothing but excite me. It makes me feel an increased sense of intimacy and ownership. The Fleshtones, in this sense, are a knowledge commodity that has been underappreciated. By transcribing “Hexbreaker!”, and submitting it to the lyrics archive at lyrics.com (yet to be posted), I feel that I am laying claim to a space of knowledge and expertise neglected by many others.
Transcription is generally dull. Having transcribed many interviews in the past, I admit to regarding it as a job that requires patience more than practice: Press play. Listen for ten seconds. Jot down what was said. Forget half of what I was writing. Rewind five seconds. Listen again. Not quite enough to replace when I missed. Rewind eight seconds. Finish constructing the first sentence. Repeat. Hang in there for a few hours. Slow, repetitive, and monotonous is the work of interview transcription. In lieu of my previous experiences, I was happy to learn that the work of song transcription is notably more pleasurable. Although it came with its own share of frustrating and repetitive points, the presence of melody, cadence, and rhyme schemes made the entire process much more endearing and predictable.
One of the most engaging portions of song transcription came with the puzzling-out of unintelligible lyrics. The second verse of “Hexbreaker!” begins with a line that sounded like “With ____-____ mud and a hoodlum stack, finding fire in a mangled park” on first listen. It wasn’t until I had listened to each phrase five times in a row that I was able to revise to, “Well knee-high mud, and a moon lit shack, fightin’ flies in a mangled marsh.” Still not confident with that wording, I decided to do a dictionary search for similar words. To my elation after I had typed m-a-n-g into the dictionary the first word to appear was “mangrove,” the perfect word which I would never have guessed (it’s a weed-like tree found in coastal swamps!). Next I was spirited to discover that the following line evoked images of conquistadors sailing and exploring: “Well knee-high mud, and a moon lit shack, fightin’ flies in a mangrove marsh / Sendin’ sabres across the seven seas, or any foreign shores they may wash / I need a hexbreaker!”
After I was able to get a gist of the overall narrative through transcription, I went back through the piece and was better able to make educated guesses about what the lyrics were. Although Zaremba often takes an unintelligible pitch when singing, the context of 17th century exploration helped me to piece together many of the tougher bits of the song. For instance, I revised the beginning of the chorus from “Well toss it back / [The bottles they break],” to fit the overall theme of colonial exploration, “The cause is had. / [The bodies they break].” Although, I’m not certain that these are the words to the song, I’m very confident because they match the overall theme. The practice of song-transcription has been fulfilling in the same way that figuring out a jigsaw, or tangram is exciting. It is a creative sort of problem solving, one that combines both analytic (left brain) and spatial, metaphoric (right brain) intelligence.
Emotionally, however, I did not feel the same satisfaction that I do when singing. Perhaps this has something to do with transcription alternate mode of embodiment. Transcription, and the pleasures associated – problem solving, precision, and permanence – are all of an analytical, and somewhat strategic sort. These are the pleasures of a conduit, processes associated more with the enduring construction of emotional bonds (belonging, and community), than the lucid enjoyment of them. It is my hope that one day another Fleshtones fan plumbs the depths of Google to find the lyrics of “Hexbreaker!” and that the fruit of my efforts, a completed transcript on lyrics.com, greets them and helps them to sing along and revel. Until then, it is enough to know that the work of transcription, for myself at least, is analytic and dry–definitely worlds apart from the euphoric mode of singing where my entire body vibrates in rhapsody to the melody, rhythm, and harmony of song.
Aaron Trammell is co-founder and multimedia editor of Sounding Out! He is also a Media Studies PhD candidate at Rutgers University.