Tuesday, July 21, 2015

gender, rebellion and rock 'n' roll

an interview looking back at The Sex Revolts, done a few years ago with Christina Mohr

You wrote „The Sex Revolts“ together with your wife, journalist Joy Press – what was it like to write „as one“? (Given that the book is 17 years old this seems like a very cool gender-bending project!) And why didn´t you do it again?

It was very enjoyable. We came up with the idea together during one long conversation after a dinner with a friend who brought along a musician friend, then in quite a well known underground noise band. And this musician told a sick joke, seemingly to test how cool we were. The joke was: “What’s the worse thing about raping a six year old? Having to kill her afterwards.”  We failed the cool test. 

Afterwards Joy and I got to talking about why so many bands at that time had songs about killing women, and we initially envisaged writing a book about misogyny in rock. But then it seemed more interesting and ambitious to look at all aspects of gender in rock, from more mystical and positive views of women in men’s song, to women’s own representations. 

There was never any doubt that it would be a joint project, we conceived it together. Initially we were a little worried that the stress of doing such a big work – and all the practicalities and tensions of collaboration --would affect our marriage, but apart from a few arguments about specific artists, it was a great time for us. We had a project and a focus and looking back I’m not sure how else we would have spent our time during those two years. Probably gone to a lot of movies and art museums and so forth.  It was a huge amount of work and we could easily have spent several more years working on it, but the money ran out and so we had to speed it up! We wanted to get it out quickly too because it felt timely: there was a lot of female stuff going on in rock, from PJ Harvey to the “Angry Women” (Hole, etc) to Riot Grrl and Liz Phair.  

My only regret about that book is that it was so time consuming doing the Sex Revolts that it was taking me away from my new passion, which was the rave scene.

“The Sex Revolts” was and still is very important for any feminist rock/pop critic – do you think that there were many changes during the last two decades concerning women´s appearances in the pop business?

Obviously if we were to do it now there would a whole bunch of major figures that would have to be dealt with, and would probably alter the way the book divides things into categories. Everything from the Spice Girls and the mainstreaming of the “grrrl” idea, to Lady Gaga.  The R&B divas and female hip hop artists: Missy Elliott, Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj. In underground rock you have the rise of synthesiser solo artists like Maria Minerva, Julia Holter, Laurel Halo, etc, and also figures like Grimes and LA Vampires. And many more… 

However many of these new artists fit into the archetypes and strategies that we described in the Sex Revolts. For instance Gaga is a development of the  Madonna approach to reinvention of personae and a revelling in posing and artifice.  The R&B divas are a development of the strong woman archetype. And so forth.

One thing the book doesn’t deal with is gayness in music, which is a big omission but we felt that the topic was a book in itself, and possibly not one we were qualified to write about. But perhaps if we were to do it now, we would feel like we had to deal with that in some way, because gay performers are more and more prominent.

Not a female performer, but Odd Future, the rap group, would be a rich subject, in terms of songs about killing women and the twisted negativity and sick humour of young men. At the same time one of their crew is a lesbian and their associate Frank Ocean recently came out as gay. So clearly a complex outfit.

After re-reading “The Sex Revolts” I was wondering why you do not mention Blondie and Debbie Harry – why? (a very personal question as I´m a big fan of the band´s early records – and Debbie Harry was a role model for me as a child… J)

I’m not sure how she slipped through the cracks. I really like Blondie also. At the start of her career she was considered a punk, this tough women from New York who was relatively old and experienced compared with other punks. She managed to keep some of that edge even as she became a glamour queen and Blondie’s music got more glossy and commercial.  Yes, Debbie is an omission, but equally, there are quite a few important figures left out of The Sex Revolts or passed over quickly. Unless you want to do an encyclopaedic treatment of the subject, that’s always going to happen.

What makes you a feminist (or would you call yourself one)?

Definitely I would identify as a male feminist.  It’s partly through life experience and seeing the things my mother had to deal with. It also comes from reading Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch at an early age, and then reading other feminist works like The Dialectic of Sex by Shulamith Firestone, who died recently.  

I think even without those inspirations from real life and from reading books, though, I would probably have absorbed feminism from the postpunk culture I grew up with.  It was a big current in music at the time, with groups like The Slits, The Raincoats, Delta 5, Au Pairs, and it informed a lot of the music writing I grew up with in the UK music papers, particularly the NME, which was quite “right on” as we used to say in those days. Certainly an awareness of sexism and also of the mutability of gender was very much in the air.

I was also very interested in androgyny, in part because of an interest in the Sixties and the counterculture, but also that seemed a big part of music in the early Eighties - -there was a lot of sexually ambiguous male performers around, a kind of “new glam” spirit.

I should also mention that feminism was strengthened and expanded for me by friends I made at university, especially a woman called Hilary Little - who now goes by the name Hilary Bichovsky - who becamepart of the team of people who did the magazines Margin and Monitor, which was where my first public forays into writing about pop culture took place. The Monitor crew was a tight group of friends and kindred spirits, and a lot of ideas were explored, among them radical feminist ideas.

“Retromania” (which is finally translated into German) deals with the phenomenon that pop culture / pop music constantly refers to and reproduces itself while still promising to create something totally new. Which kind of female retro-models would you define?

I don’t know if there is a particular gender angle to retromania, although it does seem to be the case that the more chronic kinds of record collector are male. A lot of the obsessive curating and archiving of the past seems to be done by men.

Looking at most of the people I critique for retromaniac tendencies in the book, they tend to be male artists. Although I do critique the Amy Winehouse/Duffy/Adelle school of soul revival – white British females of the 2000s who want to sound like black American females of the 1960s.

Another female perpetrator is La Roux, with her Eighties synthpop. I quite like “In For the Kill” and her general aura of sullen bitterness. But musically it’s a replay of the Eighties.

When it comes to female pop music role models it´s always and always again good old Madonna with her ever-new-creation of herself. Are there any female singers and/or musicians you´d wish they would get the same public and media attention?

There’s loads of interesting groundbreaking figures in music history that deserve to get more attention. Kate Bush could always do with more love. Grace Slick. Siouxsie Sioux has been a little bit forgotten, but what an amazing force she was, hugely influential. 

As a music journalist you´re working in a very male-dominated area – do you sometimes wish there were more women writing about pop music? Like Ellen Willis?

Yes. There could definitely be more in the way of gender parity. However having worked at a music magazine as the reviews editor, I can attest that part of the problem is that not enough women approach the magazines in the first place.  I think for every female writer that send in sample reviews in the hope of getting to write for the magazine, there were five or six letters from aspiring male writers.  Maybe more. Now that may be because men are more pushy. It may be a circular, self-perpetuating process where because women don’t see that many female by-lines in a magazine, they don’t think there’s a place for them there. But at Spin, where I worked for a year in 1998, we were very conscious of the need to get more female writers in and that meant actually searching for them. So I would look in small magazines or fanzines for female talent and track writers down.

When and why did you start writing about music? Do you remember? Would you describe yourself as a rather nerdy type of guy?

I wanted to be a writer first, being a music journalist came much later. My parents are both journalists and I grew up in a literate household, as a child I read a great deal. What I wanted to write at any given point was based on what I was into. When I was into science fiction, I wanted to write science fiction novels. When I was into Monty Python, I wanted to write that kind of surreal comedy. And then when I got into music, and discovered the music press, it seemed like a field of action. An arena where you could write about almost anything, in terms of politics or philosophy or whatever, using music as a prism. And you could write in a very free style.

I wouldn’t describe myself as nerdy – I’m not particularly good with technology or computers, I enjoy physical activities and outdoor things. But I was a book-worm as a youth and I did spend a lot of time indoors, reading and writing and drawing and thinking and dreaming. And listening too.  I was introspective and still am to some extent. 

You´re going on a book tour through Germany presenting “Retromania” – are you nervous or do you feel comfortable talking about your favourite subject (pop music)?

I’ve done a lot of public appearances now and so I’ve got pretty comfortable with it. I can riff out ideas pretty easily in front of a group of strangers. That is one of the more enjoyable aspects of doing public events and tours, the question time when you are asked things you’re not expecting. You have to come up with ideas on the spur of the moment and often I surprise myself with new thoughts that I would never have had otherwise.

Is pop music still relevant – or has it lost its furor / has been replaced by other things like tv series or computer games? (There may be a difference between young people and older ones, like me)

It’s still relevant – I think as long as people want to dance and as long as people fall in love, have relationship problems, feel alienated or restless or uncertain – music will fulfil that function, it will produce songs that resonate and heal.  But certainly rock and pop music do not seem to have the same privileged and central role in the wider culture that they did in the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and even still the Nineties. Other things like games, social media, Internet communities, apps, gadgets like smartphones, iPads and so forth – these seem to be what have caught the imagination of the young generation.  My son is just about to turn 13 and he is all about games and online communities and movie-maker programs and YouTube oriented stuff.  He likes music but it is a relatively small area of interest, something he hears on the radio or in the background of games. I can’t imagine him ever buying music. But who knows, when he becomes a proper adolescent and has hormone-driven emotions and starts to question things, maybe music will become more important to him.  I do think that music has undeniably become demoted in the scheme of things. It used to be the centre of youth culture and popular culture, now it is just one of a number of zones that include movies, games, TV, social media. Todays pop stars try to become transmedia stars as soon as they can, move into movies and other areas of popular culture.

Your female favourite bands/musicians/singer/songs and why:

The Slits, for their exuberance and oddness.

Poly Styrene of X Ray Spex, for the power and the great, funny lyrics

Throwing Muses, for the passion and the vivid imagery.

Kate Bush, for being a pioneer.

Siouxsie Sioux, such a searing voice, such a mesmerising presence.

The Raincoats, for their ragged splendour and charm.

Electronic music and musique concrete pioneers like Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Lily Greenham, Laurie Spiegel, Pauline Oliveros, Ruth White, Daria Semegen, and more.

There’s many more – Grace Slick, Salt N Pepa, Missy Elliott, Delta 5, Aaliyah, Liz Fraser of Cocteau Twins, PJ Harvey, Nicki Minaj, Grace Jones, Chrissie Hynde, Mica Levi of Micachu and the Shapes, Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson in the B-52s, Debbie Harry, Clair Grogan of Altered Images, Annabella Lwin in Bow Wow Wow, Tina Weymouth in Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club…

Songs and movies that make you cry and why (not necessarily by women):

Just a few songs, because otherwise I’ll be here all day:

“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out” by the Smiths

I have actually been moved to tears by “Autobahn” and “Trans-Europe Express” and other songs by Kraftwerk – not because they are particularly sad but just the sheer splendor and majesty of the music. On my last book tour of Germany, I got to play “Autobahn” on an actual autobahn, while watching all those  electricity-generating windwills  go past, and I did get teary eyed.

Movies – too many to list really. But one is Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout, which is partly because the film is poignant and beautiful but also because of John Barry’s soundtrack.  The last time I saw the film was at a special screening of the reissued and restored version at a theater in New York. Afterwards I had to hurry out of the theater and find a quiet place to pull myself together.  The combination of the movie and the music destroyed me.

Another film that has a devastating effect on me is The Dream Life of Angels. The second time I saw it was when I had come back from a club and was slightly drunk and  vulnerable, and it happened to be on TV. I had forgotten how it ends and  so when the terribly sad ending came - and it comes really quick -  I was taken by surprise and really shattered. I actually felt like bashing my brains out against the wall.  

In some ways it is pleasing to know that art can have that kind of effect on you. One of the definitions of art is that it is a bad experience - -painful or disturbing-- that you voluntarily put yourself through. A book or movie where what happens actually hurts you.   

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Dubstep, Noise, Metal - Pazz 'n ' Jop 2006 Essay

Dubstep, Noise, Metal - Pazz 'n ' Jop 2006 Essay

published as
"Reasons To Be Cheerful (Just Three)"
Village Voice, January 30th 2007

by Simon Reynolds

Mastadon, Blood Mountain, #44
Boris, Pink, #76
Burial, #89
Wolf Eyes, Human Animal, #297

This year it felt like everyone I knew—  - people of widely divergent musical persuasions— - were for once strangely united. We thought 2006 was a lousy year for music, with no new movements or developments, genres stagnant or at best just stolidly holding steady, the picture brightened (as always) only by isolated flickers of maverick genius. Running into one rock-crit friend (usually a poptimistic sort) and finding him even more bummed out than me, I blogged that here was conclusive proof that verily, all was shite. Only to find me and my buddy called out for our "pure laziness" by another journo-blogger, Phil Freeman, who contended that "barge-loads of fantastic music" were happening beneath the critical radar, most of it "METAL." As the end-of-year polls started coming through, it seemed that the only folk feeling positive about the State of Music were the über-hipsters, those nonlazy fiends who dedicate every waking hour to hunting down edition-of-200 hand-decorated cassettes and lathe-cut vinyl. Said fiends touted three reasons to be cheerful in 2006: noise, dubstep, and yes, metal.

What's striking about all these genres is that they're not just unpop, they're anti-pop. Rejecting the pop principles of accessibility and instantness, they're hard to find and hard to get into. Noise, dubstep, and extreme metal are also hard sounding, mixing varying degrees of aggression and abstraction, physical impact and structural convolution. Ideologically, they are ultra-rockist, cherishing a trinity of interlocking values—difficulty, danger, darkness—and fervently upholding the ideal of underground versus mainstream.

Pazz's electorate tilt more toward generalists than genre-rists, so this dark 'n' hard shift hasn't registered as seismically as it has elsewhere. But something is going on when "hipster metal" faves Mastodon enter the Top 50 out of nowhere, while the hugely acclaimed debut by dubstepper Burial makes it to 89 as an import. Beyond this poll, you can see the shift in everything, from the sales figures for doom-metal gods Boris (they've already sold twice as many of 2006's Pink as of 2005's Akuman No Uta, while their label, Southern Lord, enjoyed its best year yet) to the fact that Manhattan hipster temple Mondo Kim's now has a metal section, albeit cunningly rebranded as "aggressive." Noise remains some ways below the generalist critic's radar (Wolf Eyes' Human Animal just cracked the Pazz Top 300, despite being on Sub Pop), but the excitement around that scene continues to build.

One reason these underground scenes are gaining ground could be that they are all "reality-based communities." We live in cold, dark times, and these genres register that coldness and darkness—seldom in a directly politicized way, but more often through allegory or abstract sonic atmospheres. The most hipster-favored style of metal is doom, as purveyed by Boris, Electric Wizard, Om, and Sunn O))), a genre founded on the down-tuned riffs and depressive vibes of Black Sabbath, whose "War Pigs" has horribly renewed applicability today. Dubstep, crudely defined as a slowed-down descendant of drum'n'bass, is plastered all over the soundtrack to Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón's dystopian movie set in London 20 years in the future (but like all science fiction, a displaced version of contemporary anxieties). Strangely, noise—for all its harrowing din and album titles like Black Vomit—is the most cheery of the three undergrounds. Shedding its industrial past, it's no longer so much about a "truthful" depiction of reality (as unremitting horror) as pure sensory overload and Dionysian mayhem. This de-industrialized noise has started to overlap with metal, a shift captured by Wolf Eyes' self-description as "it's noise, but it's rock" and by the U.K. noise mag Rock-A-Rolla —a title surely more suited to a French fanzine for leather-pants-wearing Stooges fans.

Another anti-pop aspect to these netherworlds of hard 'n' dark is the sheer physicality of the sounds. All low-frequency drone and trudge-tempo sludge, doom metal is a sort of visceral mood music, midway between assault and ambience. Dubstep's sub-bass impacts your viscera (there's actually a subgenre nicknamed wobble-step after its tremolo basslines), and noise immerses the listener in a hideously voluptuous sound-bath. All three styles are heard at their utmost in live performance or (with dubstep) DJ'd through a mighty sound system. A good stereo cranked high in a lights-off living room (bong optional) makes for a poor second best. It's pretty pointless hearing this stuff through your computer speakers, let alone an iPod. Modern pop production is mixed to work with the thin-bodied sound of MP3s and is often seemingly composed to end up as ringtones; "placeshifting"—the portability and import-ability of music—is the dominant paradigm. But noise, dubstep, and metal all resist this notion of consumer empowerment that only serves to disempower Art.

Did I mention weed? Dubstep, with its links to reggae's sound-system culture, its ponderous "half-step" rhythms, and sheer bass-weight, is obviously a stoner scene, while doom metal signposts its pot penchant with titles like Electric Wizard's Dopethrone. Both genres use trance-inducing repetition and ascetic minimalism to create a meditational vibe often described by fans as spiritual. (It seems telling that one member of doom pioneers Sleep, the precursor group to Om, left to enter a monastery.) In true burnout style, nobody in these scenes bothers too much with appearance: The doom dudes tend to be bearded fuglies, the noiseniks often look like they crawled out of a sewer, and dubsteppers are mostly whey-faced British boys in nondescript street wear. Nobody even knows what Burial looks like (except his label, Hyperdub). These underground sound-boys and noise-girls reject modern pop's subordination to the visual, its iconographic culture oriented around photo shoots and videogenic charisma.

A few years ago hipsters of the sort now rocking Kode 9 and Corrupted enjoyed flirting with mainstream pop, putting a Justin Timberlake or Tweet album, a "Toxic" or a "Yeah," in their Top 10s. But the palpable shift back to undergroundist values has been facilitated by the fact that overground pop is not coming up with the goods at the moment. Oh, you still get lone loonies claiming merit for Paris Hilton's CD while conscientious generalists urge us to check out modern country, but overall there's been a return to a default-mode rockism that prizes substance, complexity, edge. If TV on the Radio and Joanna Newsom represent the beguiling, easy-on-the-ear version of those values, those looking for a harder hit are turning to metal, dubstep, noise.

And there's much to admire about those renegade genres: the seriousness, the earnest aspiration to innovate and overwhelm, the sheer strenuousness and commitment entailed in being a fan. Yet personally I'm ambivalent about all three. (Most of my 2006 faves have a pop tinge: Scritti, Hot Chip, Lady Sovereign.) Noise in particular seems suspect to me, its belief in absolute states of intensity often leading to a sort of aesthetic fascism. Occasionally its impulse to shock and offend leads to puerile flirtations with the political sort, too. To be fair, such dodgy provocations are rarer these days, with noise operators like Yellow Swans and Sunroof more often seeing what they do in terms of chaos worship and ecstatic abstraction. Still, even this equation of lack-of-structure with freedom seems slightly pat and old hat. Dubstep really ought to be right up my exiled-Londoner's street, being the latest product of the city's pirate radio culture. But too much of what I loved about its post-rave precursors has been subtracted: jungle's frenzy, 2step's slinky sensuality, the personality of grime.

And then there's metal. There's a tiny part of me that can't help thinking that if hipsters are looking here for nourishment, things have gotten really desperate. Then I remember I actually have liked some metal myself. As a Sabbath lover and fan of the original doom crew Saint Vitus, it's the slow-and-low end of the current spectrum that hits me: Om's mystical and incantatory Conference of the Birds (like Saint Vitus meets Black Sun Ensemble maybe) and Boris— 0 the latter especially when they don't sound like yet another Japanese homage to Blue Cheer but go into ambient mode, as with much of Altar, their 2006 collaboration with Sunn O))). Other doom exponents tend to sound a bit like Saint Vitus screwed-and-chopped. Beyond the low-frequency quagmire, Pelican seem overly fussy, while Mastodon, consummate in their way, are hardly pushing the metal genre beyond itself.

As a post-punk kid who lived through the blithering idiocy of the new wave of British heavy metal (Iron Maiden, et al), it's hard to shake one's ingrained prejudices completely. Yet it's also true that if the ideals of post-punk live anywhere today, it's in metal. Just check out the world of "real metal," which overlaps and subsumes "hipster metal," but is much vaster and much dafter. The bands featured in magazines like Terrorizer and Decibel are conceptualist and progression-oriented to nutty degrees, at times so serious they're hard to take seriously. The premium set on formal innovation has resulted in sub-generic splintering that surpasses even the hair-splitting neologists and taxonomists of electronic dance culture: goregrind, tech-grind, prog-grind, sludge, drone, crust, brutal death metal (as opposed to technical death metal and melodic death metal), and power metal, and we haven't even touched on the dozen flavors of doom (including funereal doom, stoner doom, gothic doom, and my favorite, retro doom). Extreme metal is a world where 42-minute tracks (often devolving into long stretches of ambient noise) are just standard business, where bands compose concept albums about the Black Death or embark on bizarre postmodern projects of meta-metal that entail cloning Carcass's pioneering sound by studying the group's riff structures with Talmudic intensity. All this fervent experimentalism and genre-splicing makes the overtly post-punk-aligned revivalists of the last several years look like the lightweights they truly are. Of them all, only Liars could qualify for a feature in Terrorizer.

Metal's rise to the forefront of hipster consciousness seems symbolic. If all art aspires to the condition of music, then you might say that all art-music vanguards now aspire to the condition of metal. Recruiting a fresh crop of "soldiers of darkness" each year, metal represents a model of subcultural stamina over the long haul (while also holding the possibility of erupting into the mainstream every seven years or so). If noise and dubstep don't envy metal's infrastructural stability and the fanatical loyalty it commands, they should.