Grunge, Kurt Cobain, & Sonic Youth

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a shot of Sonic Youth playing at CBGB in New York, c. 2006

  1. What is grunge?
    • grunge seems to me like it is punk, in the sense that it does not care for the ideology of technical, authentic rock and roll. Those kids just started playing music however they felt like it, and it became a movement. Only I guess with grunge, you have more distortion, more dirt, a different key. Dr. Zeiner talks about the “grotesque” as being a defining feature of grunge. Artists, male and female alike, put a lot of personal emotion in their music, which was not exactly characteristic of punk.
  2. Select a video and reflect on what is being performed. Compare it to the work of Kurt Cobain. Why was this kind of performance popular?
    • The video 100% by Sonic Youth shows everyday kids, in a house party during the day, skateboarders on the streets, and they all look very young, like teenagers. Towards the end of the song it gets harder, more rough and disorganized, with screeching guitar sounds. The song Dirty Boots has a similar feel, getting louder and rougher as it goes on. The video is similar as well, except the people are in a dark club with the band playing on a stage, and there is more of a narrative. It is a staged and produced (though with very little production value, in my opinion, part of its charm) portrayal of this youth culture, going out to listen to live music, push some people around, maybe meet a cute girl or guy. I think this kind of art is popular because it is so regular, it is relatable, and it makes you want to get out and do some headbanging, or just hang out with your friends and enjoy the liveness of it.
    • This is definitely similar to Kurt Cobain’s videos. In Smells Like Teen Spirit, he performs in a dirty sweaty school gym. Kids are standing up in the bleachers, pushing each other around, headbanging. This is that literal grunge feel.
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NIN: Defining Post-Industrial Youth in America

The focus of this discussion is on the band Nine Inch Nails, led by singer-songwriter Trent Reznor. Reznor had an ability to combine the elements of industrial music (experimentation with electronic sounds) with the structure of popular music to create a unique sound that was successful in the public sphere, while maintaining a dark, heavy aesthetic that was oftentimes horrifying and difficult to listen to. His artistry defined a period of economic instability in the United States during the late 1980s and 1990s, when middle-class American youth were aware of this turmoil and therefore angry at the world.

The foundations of Industrial music started in the 1970s with the band Throbbing Gristle, whose lead vocalist was a woman named Genesis P-Orridge. The members of TG lived in a time when the physical world around them was changing: human-run factories were closing, and anarchy was springing up against the political scene in England. P-Orridge and her bandmates, living in post-industrial Europe, had this philosophy: any object that makes noise is an instrument, any person who can create the sounds is a musician, and there are no rules about how to make music.  They had no formal musical training, no frame of reference for how to create sounds, they just did what came to them organically, from their environment. Their sound was weird, to say the least: it did not have any of the patterns or chord progressions that were used in music up to that point; it was more ambiance, noises that they layered together to convey their feelings.

Throbbing Gristle – Maggot Death (youtube):

The movie “Nine Inch Nails and the Industrial Uprising,” posted on YouTube in a seven-part series, goes into a lot of background and influencers of the industrial sound, of which there is no one specific style. Brent D. Woods, in his thesis Industrial Music for Industrial People: The History and Development of an Underground Genre, also discusses  bands and sounds that contributed to this genre, among them Depeche Mode, Cabaret Voltaire, Kraftwerk, and styles like electronic body music (EBM) and the avant-garde. He defines industrial music as having four key components: synthesizers, anti-music, extra-musical elements, and shock tactics (Woods 41). These components developed through experimentation and the use of electronics to turn sounds into music, which is industrial music at its core.

When industrial music reached North America, the artists combined its electronic sound with elements of rock and roll, metal, and thrash. Examples of these bands are Skinny Puppy, from Canada and Ministry, from Chicago, Illinois. They took synthesizers, which had already been around in music, but used for structured pop music, and created deep, scary sounds to add to their metal elements of guitars, bass, and drums.

Skinny Puppy – The Choke (youtube):

These early industrial acts influenced Trent Reznor directly, when he moved from Philadelphia, where he was receiving formal education and apprenticeship in music, to Ohio, along America’s so-called “rust belt.” The environment there during the 1980s was similar to that of England in the 1970s: industry changing, steel mills closing, people losing jobs. All of this, combined with miserable weather, contributed to a general feeling of pessimism and meaninglessness, especially among the youth, as described by NIN member Chris Vrenna and scholars in the documentary (part 2, 2:40-4:30).

What ended up happening is that artists began to create music that was more and more abrasive, never being satisfied with the sound that they were producing, and always seeking more thrill and shock value. This phenomenon was described by Luigi Russolo in his “Futurist Manifesto” (1983), as cited by Woods:

“The ear of the Eighteenth Century man would not have been able to withstand the inharmonious intensity of certain chords produced by our orchestra (with three times as many performers as that of the orchestra of his time). But our ear takes pleasure in it, since it is already educated to modern life, so prodigal in different noises. Nevertheless, our ear is not satisfied and calls for even greater acoustical emotions” (Industrial Music, 38).

So you have bands taking typically pop-oriented instruments, synthesizers, and using them in their thrash metal, reflecting the angst that they felt toward the political and economic system.

Reznor was able to market the industrial sound by being relatable to a large audience, having a hook, telling a story. When NIN’s first single “Down In It” came out, people were a little confused because the production was polished, making it sound like pop, unlike the stereotypical, rampaging, chaotic industrial music of the time, but it was also experimental, as industrial should be. He brought production value to industrial music. Other pop bands, like depeche mode, were not afraid of a hook, could make industrial “noises” into structured “songs,” but Reznor kept that unsettling element of industrial as a key component of his music while making it just pop enough to be well-received.

NIN – Down In It (youtube):

Compare that with the following work by NIN, the EP Broken, and the song “Happiness in Slavery.” The video for this song was grotesque and gut-wrenching (literally). Reznor had some fascination with morbidity, and though it is extremely disturbing, he definitely had fans who supported his art, otherwise he would not have achieved the level of fame that he did. A very important aspect of his popularity is the fast beats at low frequencies and catchy bass-lines that have a heart-pumping quality about them, making people want to move and dance, even if that dancing was rather violent. This theme persisted throughout the band’s career.

Violence is another aspect of the industrial music scene that Rich Patrick of NIN describes in the film. The youth at the time had all this pent-up anger, and it came out as violence at live shows, which is a typically masculine behavior. Not only were fans in the audience moshing and slam-dancing, the performers themselves incorporated violence into their shows, and that was a very masculine depiction of them. The physical violence went hand-in-hand with the destructive noise.

Finally, I wanted to mention the song “Closer,” which is by far their most popular song, off the album The Downward Spiral. I remember hearing this song on LA radio station 106.7 KROQ in middle school, and having the uncensored version on my iPod. There is no way my parents would have let me listen to it if they heard the actual lyrics, yet it achieved such fame. This is the perfect example of how Reznor was able to penetrate the music industry with his perfectly-imperfect formulated sound, brutal as it may be. He borrowed from many styles of music that existed in different times and spaces and was successful in bringing industrial music to the masses during a time of economic disparity in the United States.

NIN – Closer (youtube):

Queering of the Dance Floor

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a still of Venus Xtravaganza, my favorite character who was interviewed for the film. Source: google

  1. After watching Paris is Burning (1990) does his observation resonate with you?

It is interesting that Hughes used the word “vogue” to describe the spectacle he witnessed at the balls in the 1920s, because of the style of dance called voguing that came out of the balls much later, in the 1970s. Of course, this name came from the magazine, from which dancers would model their poses on the dance floor. But the name of the magazine came from the word, meaning “the prevailing fashion or style at a particular time.” From watching Paris is Burning (1990), and reading both articles by Lawrence, it seems to me that this concept of what is in vogue is created and perpetuated by the people who take part in these balls, and therefore perceived as so by those who are observing from an outsider perspective.

2. What particular part of the spectacle was fascinating/shocking/exciting to you?

Before having watched the movie or read either of the two articles, I was under the impression that the “ball” would be a scene with lots of people on the dance floor at once, all dancing together in a big crowd, either with partners or solo, the way that Lawrence describes in Queering of the Dance Floor. The movie, however, portrayed these events as more of a runway show, with one or a few people in the spotlight at one time, and everyone else as spectators. During the very first scene inside the ball, the MC is announcing for everyone to “get off the floor!” because the show is about to begin. So I was fascinated that these events were not at all what I thought they were.

3. Do you see this as “popular culture” from a 21st-century context?

These gatherings are a part of popular culture, specifically the gay liberation movement. According to Lawrence, in his article “A History of Drag Balls, Houses, and the Culture of Voguing,” “the gay liberation movement enjoyed its symbolic breakthrough when drag queens occupied the frontline during the Stonewall rebellion of June 1969.” (4) Unfortunately, the LGBTQ+ community is still not widely accepted in this country, but their showcasing of themselves in events such as the drag balls and the Stonewall rebellion are part of what began their fight to be accepted in society for who they are.

Police Brutality in Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Pick a quote or a scene from the movie that you think encapsulates the social commentary of this movie. Explain your selection.

The scene I chose to analyze occurs around 46 minutes into the movie, and is a portrayal of harassment of African Americans in Los Angeles by police officers during the late 1980s. In the scene, the members of N.W.A. are standing outside a recording studio in Torrance, CA, consoling Dr. Dre, whose girlfriend has just left him, when four police officers show up. The officers immediately start questioning the rappers’ presence on the street, assuming they are “gangbangers” and refusing to believe that they are actually there working. Even after their white manager, Jerry Heller, steps outside to try and tell the officers that they are artists working for him, the cops continue to harass the men, holding and patting them down.

The social commentary of this movie is about the extremely unfair treatment of blacks in the ghettos of LA by police, who have been known to arrest and beat African Americans on the streets for not committing any crimes or disturbing any peace. Throughout the movie, there are scenes showing this police brutality from the perspective of civilians in the streets. While this scene portrays a milder and quickly resolved altercation, some of the spoken lines, such as “you heard what your master said, get inside, boy,” spoken by the one black cop in the scene, showcase the unnecessarily racist attitude of police, even within their own race.

Public Enemy – Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man)

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“Mind over matter, mouth in motion
Can’t defy it cause I’ll never be quiet
Let’s start this right”

This is the refrain of Public Enemy’s song Rightstarter (Message to a Black Man), from their first album Yo! Bum Rush the Show, released in 1987. The general message of the song is that African Americans need to learn about their history, and use their minds and words to protect and better each other. Although the song never mentions race specifically, it is implied by the parenthetical phrase of the song title; Public Enemy is speaking to the community of African Americans who grow up without knowledge or concern about the slavery which brought Africans to the United States. The following lyrics speak to this point:

“Many have forgotten what we came here for
Never knew or had a clue, so you’re on the floor
Just growin not knowin about your past
Now you’re lookin’ pretty stupid while you’re shakin’ your ass”

Here, Chuck D is referencing the people who choose to party and be ignorant to the fact that African people were kidnapped from their home countries and forced into slavery, and because of this history, Blacks in America are oppressed. Public Enemy was a group that falls under the category of what Gwendolyn Pough calls “message rap,” a 1980s movement that focused on “political themes of unity, racial uplift, self-definition, self-determination, and Black diasporas connections…Each of these efforts used rap music as a vehicle to stop Black youth from killing one another and brought together a variety of rappers to get that point across” (285-286). This kind of message is reflected in the lyrics:

“Another brother with the same woes that you face
But you shot with the same hands, you fall from grace
Every brother should be every brother’s keeper
But you shot with your left while your right was on your beeper”

These lyrics also reference drug use and sale, pointing to the violence that comes out of these practices. Drug dealers were known to carry pagers before cell phones were available, and gun violence is also a huge part of drug and gang life. Public Enemy wants Blacks in America to wake up, realize that they are destroying their own race by contributing to the negativity, and educate themselves on their history so that they can understand and want to support each other rather than breaking each other down.

Source: Pough, G.D. Seeds and Legacies: Tapping the Potential in Hip-Hop. In M. Forman, & M.A. Neal (Eds.), That’s the Joint! The Hip-Hop Studies Reader (pp. 283-289). New York: Routledge.

Character Portrayals on The Real World: New York

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I watched the debut episode of The Real World. The first season, aired in 1992, takes place in New York City. Right away, the Southerner Julia is portrayed as an ignorant, racist white girl from the south. The first comment that she makes which portrays her in that way is “Do you sell drugs? why do you have a beeper?” to the African American girl Heather. This starts a chain of discussion about racism. Kevin, in his confessional, says he is worried that he will start hearing comments like “do you play basketball?” and others alluding to stereotypes surrounding African Americans.

Later on in the episode, Julia, Heather, and Kevin go out for dinner in the city and talk about their perceptions of the race topic. Julia confesses that “they’re all really smart,” twice, and also says that they have strong opinions on everything you could think of. This is the first episode of the season. I do not believe that Julia can really make those assumptions about them so early on, and it is likely that she is attempting to come off as not-racist by saying these things.

Ya Can’t Define It, Ya Punk.

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In the spirit of the punk movement, it is contradictory to try to define “punk,” as it grew out of an anti-establishment kind of mindset, an alternative to the niceness and flower power of the hippie culture that said “we reject your system and your rules.” Punk magazine, the way that Kvaran describes it in her thesis Gendered Underground, was a strong example of a specific and truly punk fashion at its beginning, because of their strong “don’t give a fuck” attitude, which was outwardly obnoxious and offensive. For them, that was punk: its “authencity was tied to taking chances, rock and roll rebellion, and maleness” (Kvaran 69-70).

Kvaran describes how the scene was definitely changing and growing in the formative years when CBGB starting showcasing the bands who played with this avant-garde-rock crossover. A whole establishment of reporting on the scene developed and “While it centered on music the scene included so much more. Music was just the focal point for the subculture and its dissatisfaction with 1970s American culture” (Kvaran 80-81). Spaces opened up for new bands to try and make it on the scene and this expansion undoubtedly differentiated what it meant to be “punk.” Many bands would pop up and be gone just as quickly, and there was so much art circulating, constantly being birthed and killed off as people tried to find their styles.

I thought this was a cool photo since the awning has names of so many of the musical acts that were discussed in Kvaran’s chapter. source: google.